Thursday, March 29, 2012

Serious Fun at ASCD

Yes, I used the "F" word in my Fun is a word that has been banned from many individual's vocabulary when speaking about education. People tend to feel that the word "fun" means that there is a free-for-all playground going on in the classroom with little to no learning occurring. That is unfortunate because fun, humor, cartoons, synectics, word play, analogies and true passion are all fun and foster creativity. This is one of my big take-aways from ASCD12 (more blogs to follow). There needs to be more fun in the learning process.

Now, let me be clear, if you asked one if my students if they had fun learning or being a member of our class, they would say "yes" without hesitation. However, there are aspects of this fun, creative thinking that I have overlooked in my classroom. By starting the day by putting up a cartoon or analogy for the students to reflect upon and respond to, they get another mode in which to become familiar. It reaches a different type of learner, sparks a different part of the brain. It helps them to really analyze (and perhaps get a good laugh) about a topic that they may not have taken the time to analyze.

With Rick Wormeli
By giving my students the opportunity to use synectics, where students compare two things that would not seem to have a relationship promotes creative thinking skills. If learners use these relationships, building metaphors, it takes learning that they are doing and puts it into their long term memory. It fosters learners who think outside the box and critical thinking skills that prepares them for their future. As Rick Wormeli said, "Novices think in pieces. Experts make connections." And don't we want our students to become those experts?

Reed Timmer
A true expert is someone who has a passion for their expertise and is so excited about their topic that they can't wait to share it with others. Anyone who was in the general session with Storm Chaser Reed Timmer knows what I'm talking about. He is so excited about storm chasing and the practical use of STEM in a real world application that it makes anyone listening tune in closely and care about what he's discussing. Passion is contagious. If we are passionate about learning and teaching, our students will be too. They will listen closely, become actively engaged, and strive harder to become those experts. We need to keep this in mind every day when we stand in front of our learners.

So I'd like to thank Rick Wormeli, Reed Timmer, Carolyn Hirst-Loucks and Kim P. Loucks for reminding me of the importance of fun in the classroom. Because (as I'm often reminded by my husband) if you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What does good teaching look like?

This is a question that I have been pondering a lot lately. What does good teaching really look like? Does it look like what we see on television, movies and commercials? Is it a teacher standing at the front of the room in front of a board lecturing students who are sitting in rows passively listening? Is it assigning students to watch lectures at home and then have them come to school to complete digital worksheets?

These are questions that all teachers need to ask themselves. One thing that I learned by going through the National Boards process and becoming a Candidate Support Provider is that there isn't just one right answer. However, there are some constants that you can find in the classrooms of each amazing teacher.

In these classrooms, students always come first. We cannot continue teaching in the same way that we've always taught because our students have changed. Just because it's easy for us, doesn't mean that it's what is best for our learners. Whatever their individual needs are, it is our responsibility to identify them and help them grow. Every decision we make, must focus on them and what they need to accomplish. We must get to know our students and have conversations with them. We need to let them design their learning environment, set their classroom norms, design their own assessment, and set their own goals for learning. Amazing teachers listen to their students and let them create solutions to academic and personal challenges.

Learning has to be meaningful and engaging. With technology, students are the masters of their own universe. They have a 24/7 constant flow of information and connection to those around the world. Everything in which they engage themselves is meaningful and purposeful to them. Students, no matter the age, need to find the relevance to what they are learning and how it improves them and the world around them.No longer are students enthusiastic about digging into a subject matter because it's going to be on a  test.  "About" presentations aren't engaging or meaningful as students are just spitting out facts that don't relate to their lives.They want to know how they will use the content standards now. They must have a reason to connect with their learning.

In these classrooms, the teacher is the facilitator learning, not the sole disseminator of information.We are the content specialists and the strategists. We need to guide our students in making important discoveries and reaching their academic and personal goals. Can this be done if the teacher is in the front of the room lecturing for the entire class without active student participation? No. It doesn't matter if we give the best lecture of our lives if we don't know what each student is thinking, processing, and applying  from the content into meaningful context for them. Our students need an opportunity to share their voices and their thoughts. They need to communicate with one another and with those around the world to share their learning and ideas.  With our guidance, they need to make choices about what they will learn, how they will learn it, and how they will share their learning with others.

Because none of us has the exact group of learners, the appearance of  good teaching will differ from classroom to classroom. However, outstanding teachers know that their students must come first and that they must be engaged in active, meaningful learning. It is important for us to reflect and make sure that we are doing everything we can to positively impact student learning. Without it, we've lost our lost our kids and ultimately...our future.

Monday, March 19, 2012

ASCD Annual Conference

Come join me on March 25th at ASCD's Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss "Empowering Students with Web 2.0 and Social Media to Foster Student-Directed Learning." Can't wait to meet you!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Making Math "Yummy"

This year I have continued my quest to find challenging mathematical problems that related to real life. This has been a real challenge. Most of what I've discovered has been too difficult or too easy for my fifth graders.I know that learners need to discover the relevance of what they are learning to their lives; it gives those standards a personal meaning to them. They realize that these aren't just a bunch of random procedures/processes/problems they are being forced to learn. They are relevant and useful. It totally changes their perception of learning.

This year, I was fortunate to stumble across a site called Yummy Math. I must admit that the title is what caught my eye from the beginning. At first glance the two words may seem at odds...unless you're talking about using some food items as manipulatives. Their tagline is "We provide teachers and students with mathematics relevant to our world today …"   As I investigated further, I realized these were a collection of "math stories" that set up a real-world scenario; then they pose questions for the students to ponder and problem-solve. They are timely with current events. Currently, there are math stories on March Madness, Pi Day, Green green Chicago River, and Shamrock Shakes. You can search by month or by math standard. Each math story involves multiple math standards and new stories are regularly added.

To be honest, these standards are a bit over my students' heads, but I loved the whole concept of real world scenarios that focus on multiple math skills while adding some interesting trivia or information; I decided to try it with my young mathematicians anyway. My students were immediately engrossed in these problems. We begin each of the stories by discussing the  beginning "set-up" together. Then they set to work in small groups as I travel from group to group to listen to their conversations and ask questions to discover their thought process. We periodically have a whole group conversations to share their discoveries. They get so excited about "figuring" something out, they don't stop to question whether or not this is a 5th grade standard. I never hear my students say, "This is too hard."  They see how the different math standards overlap and relate to one another.

They are not just solving problems with numbers either, they are having to write explanations for how they got to their conclusion. We all know that it is one thing for a students to just go through a  process...that doesn't denote a true understanding of a concept. It is a totally different thing if a student can explain not just what they've done to find a solution,but also why they've done it.

It's highly engaging and interesting for them to see how math supports life. It's relevant. Whenever we do a Yummy Math story, our math class goes on for over an hour and a half. When it's time to move to another subject, a chorus of "Awwwww, can't we have 5 more minutes?" ensues. One student told me that he loves yummy math because it's math for life. He is so right. Kids begging to keep solving problems? Absolutely!

~To the Yummy Math teachers, I hope I did justice describing your site. Please feel free to make comments adding any important information that I might have omitted. Thanks for such a great site!

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Few of our Favorite Things

As I've been tweeting and Pinterest-ing (is that a word?), I got an iPad for our classroom.The reason I didn't jump on the bandwagon earlier was that I wasn't convinced that an iPad could offer my students learning opportunities that they couldn't find elsewhere. A vast majority of the apps I had seen, turn students solely into consumers. Just because you make a worksheet (or textbook) digital doesn't change that fact that it's still just a worksheet. I want my students to be more than consumers...I want them to be producers of  new content. After some research I found enough of  reason to make this purchase for my learners.

They are having a blast embedding the iPad into their learning routine in the different content areas. What I'd like to share today are some of the tools that we have been using to increase our productivity and efficiency of regular classroom routines. With these apps the students take (further) ownership of their learning environment.

Our Favorite Things... Productivity Edition:
  • Confer As we all strive to meet the needs of our individual students, one of the most daunting tasks can be documenting the progress of each learner. Over the years, I have tired all kinds of methods...folders, binders, tables in Word (many of our school computers don't have Excel), but I knew there had to be a more convenient way for me and my students to track their progress in each subject. Not only do we chart their successes, big and small, but my students create personal goals in each content area. Confer does all of this and more. Through confer, you can easily form flexible small groups and you can export your data as a Google spreadsheet or a an email attachment.  You can tell this app was created by a classroom teacher who knows what teachers and their students need to make their conferring productive. Here is a video demonstrating how Confer works.
  • Notability We all have to address what we do for students who are absent from class. How do we keep them informed? How do they know what they've missed and get caught up with their peers? We started using Notability. Each student takes a turn creating a note of the day's activities. The notes can include text (class activities, homework, classwork, deadlines, announcements, etc.), photos (my students take photos of the flipcharts they use, review games, vocabulary lists, science experiments, etc.) and audio (of me or one of them explaining something that needs more than text or photos). When a student is out for a day or two, he/she comes in when he/she returns to school, pulls up the note for the dates he/she was out and discovers exactly what went on in the classroom that day. The notes are also easily emailed, so they can also be sent to parents.
  • Teacher's Assistant Pro Another task that can easily take up precious instruction time is documenting behavior within your classroom. We know how important it is to document everything: good, bad or ugly.One thing that I do with my students when we privately discuss their behavior is that I have them design the consequences and future plan of action for their behavior. It puts the responsibility on them to make any necessary changes. This app is easily customizable to meet your needs. So if you like to send home positive behavior reports like I do, this can be easily done as well. This app comes with a feature where with the click of a couple of buttons, the behavior report can be emailed to parents. You can tell that this app was also designed by a classroom teacher. Here is a video demonstrating the basics of how this app works: 

So although these apps may not seem as flashy as other apps, in the hands of my learners, they have increased our productivity and given us more of that valuable learning time. It's given my students tools to track their progress and take further ownership of their personal learning journey. And that is what all tools we bring into our classroom should do.