Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Looking to Connect Your Students? First Steps in Social Media

There is much debate about the use of social media in the classroom. Those of you who follow my Twitter/Facebook/blogging/speaking know that I am pro social media. Our job is to prepare our students for today's world. Our classroom is the opportunity to teach students the importance of making safe choices while they are engaged in social media...and let's face it, even our youngest students are already there. We can guide them in how to safely harness the power of social media in order to support their learning.

As I mentioned in my post, Our First Day(s) of School, we begin these discussions from the start of school. I want for them to develop these skills before we begin connecting with other students. Many may wonder how to take their first steps. When I started, I really had to search to find other classes with whom we could communicate, create, and collaborate. But the good news is there is a prefect project where you can make connections and have much support as you venture into this avenue. This project is the Global Read Aloud.

The Global Read Aloud is the brainchild of fifth grade Wisconsin teacher, Pernille Ripp, who had a vision of connecting students from all over the world through the reading of one book. Teachers are invited to participate, add their ideas and then a mutual, collaborative project is formed. This year the books selected are The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate and Charlotte's Web by E. B. White.  You can select which book best meets the needs of your learners.

So what does social media in the classroom have to do with reading a book?  Simple, teachers register to connect with other teachers. You can connect through Skype, Twitter, Edmodo, Google Hangout, or KidBlog. If there is another way you would like to connect, simply put it on the form and see if anyone is interested in connecting in that way. The great thing about this project is that it is participant driven. The teachers who are here are here because they are passionate about connecting students through the reading of literature. If you have been wanting to try a new tool in your classroom, this is the perfect opportunity to do that because you have a very supportive network of teachers willing to help you. If you are unable or uncomfortable in participating using social media, there is also the Global Read Aloud wiki complete with the reading schedule, a map of participants, and a place for students to publish their writing and projects for other students to enjoy. This is a project that you can  mold into whatever the needs are for your students.

We know the power of reading; it takes the readers on new adventures, challenges their thinking, and inspires them to action. Thanks to Pernille and all of the teachers who’ve connected through the Global Read Aloud, we can bring the world into our classrooms, giving our students an authentic and exciting way to discuss literature and have their voices heard globally. 

If you haven't connected with the Global Read Aloud, you still have time. It begins October 1st. Won't you join us? Your students will become so passionate about reading, connecting, and collaborating, they will be begging to continue the learning long after the project ends.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Whose Voice is Heard?

At this time of year, we see many people sharing their beginning of the year activities and strategies. You see tweets, blogs, Pinterest pins, Facebook posts, articles, and Back to School Conferences. Many people asked me how we started our year, so I shared some of our activities in the post Our First Day(s) of School. In that post I also explained that I felt like it's not so much about what you do as it is about how you do the activities. Are you nurturing a learning community that communicates, collaborates, thinks deeply, and puts the learning into the hands of your students?

As I mentioned in that previous post, one of the activities that we begin the first week of school is blogging. My students set the criteria for themselves. They know what is expected of them when they blog because they set those standards.  Blogging is one of the most powerful ways for me to get to know my students, academically and personally. Through their writing, I get to know about their thoughts and expectations, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and dreams. They reflect on their own learning, discuss the things they wonder about, and generate meaningful conversations on a wide variety of topics. 

I have written several posts about the drastic decline in my students' interest to read. When conducting a survey in math about favorite school subjects, reading has fallen at the bottom of the list every year for the last three years. So when a student posted the following comment in a blog last week, I saw an opportunity to facilitate a blog conversation with the class. He wrote,

I asked him to clarify what he meant and share his thoughts on those statements. He obviously understood the relevance that reading has in everyone's life when he replied with...

This was like throwing a match on extremely dry tinder. It ignited a heated discussion among my students who expressed their frustration in our prescriptive reading program and all of the different aspects of it. No one had ever asked them how they felt about it. They shared how much they wanted to be able to just read books, articles, blogs, comic books, and graphic novels for fun. I found it interesting that they began to formulate ideas of how to work around all of the required practices to include what they found meaningful. They weren't complaining, they were problem-solving. All of this dialogue was generated by one student who stuggles in reading because English is his second language and not spoken in the home.

This just reaffirmed what I already knew. Students need a voice....every student. This is their education. Let them discuss it, try new things, and find their own solutions. The learn to communicate effectively and critically analyze. It empowers them and sets them on a path of being a highly-motivated lifelong learner in spite of obstacles they may face.

When people ask me which tech tool I find most valuable, I find it difficult to come up with one tool because we use so many to support the diverse needs of my diverse students. However, with blogging, my students have an avenue to share, discuss, reflect, dream, plan, and debate. It has greatly enhanced the way I teach my students and the way that they learn. If I could only use one tool, blogging would be my choice. Because with blogging, my students each have a voice.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

When the Shift Happens

As school is beginning, we hear many educators talking about their preparations.

"In my classroom..."
"My discipline plans is...."
"The classroom procedures I designed..."
"The lesson plans I created..."

I had the opportunity to speak to a conference of new teachers and those who were new to our system. One point that I made that elicited many confused looks was when I said that our classroom is not about us at all. 

Yes, we make preparations for our students; we learn stronger strategies for reaching all of our students; we design a learning environment that is conducive to learning and meets the needs of all the different learning modalities. We plan, read, reflect, and change our plans as necessary, but that classroom is not about us and what is best (or easiest) for us as educators.

We must be flexible enough to adapt our plans, find new resources, and allow our students to explore areas that interest them. We all have pacing guides and standards that the students need to explore and master, however our job is to facilitate that learning, putting the responsibility of learning and succeeding into our students hands.

One of the easiest shifts that we can make is to change I, me, my, and mine to we, us, and our. It lets our students know that although you are there and you are the professional in the classroom, we are all on this journey together. We are all learners and all teachers. That shift drastically changes our learners' perception of their role in the learning environment. Their motivation and drive to learn sky-rockets. They begin to crave learning and when it's time to leave our classrooms to go home, they beg to stay. (They may even be like mine and ask "Can we skip lunch and keep writing?")

So as we enter our classrooms, let's keep these simple ideas in mind. Let's become partners with our students in the learning because when this shift happens, amazing things happen in our classrooms.

Photo: Krissy.Venosdale's photostream

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Our First Day(s) of School

Several people have asked me what I do with my students for the first few days of school. So, I thought I would take some time and share what we did to get this year off to a great start.

  • We read The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds. This book always sets a great tone for the beginning of the school year. It has great life lessons about never giving up, always trying your best, overcoming misconceptions, and inspiring the uniqueness in others. After we read the book and had some amazing discussion, the students always ask if they can design their own unique dots to display. I love the creativity in each of these and how something so simple can have such a strong meaning for each learner.
  • On the first day, I always take time to introduce myself. They notice that I have several photos in my classroom and I tell them that we need to put pieces of them in our classroom too. You'd be amazed at how excited they are about being included in our learning environment in such a  simple way. Each student creates his/her own self-portraits which we display on the wall that you see when you first enter the classroom. The stay up the entire school year reminding them that this is their classroom.
  • So often I hear from parents something along the lines of..."He just hates math. I always hated math so we struggle through it each year." As a child who hated reading, I understand the dread and apprehension, but I don't want them to write off an entire subject because of previous experiences. To get a true feeling for where each student is in math and their perceptions of it, good or bad, I have my students write a Mathography...the story of their life with math. They write about how they feel about it, their experiences and how they see math in their lives. It is always an eye-opening experience for all of use. Usually, through their own reflections, they draw the conclusion of how important math is in our daily lives. It opens up the channel for some great class discussions.
  • Spaghetti and Marshmallows...that's right. Since our class is so student-directed and they need to learn the crucial skills of communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking, I give each team of four students 20 pieces of raw spaghetti, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string, and 1 marshmallow. Their goal is to build the highest tower that can hold the jumbo marshmallow at the top. Some teams need encouragement as they start to struggle and many want to give up, but by asking guiding questions, they get inspiration and set off on another idea. (Check out the photo album of this year's challenge.)

  • Since we use many web tools, digital resources, and social media, it is imperative that my students develop good online habits. We use a resource called NetCetera to spark much conversation about cybersafety, netiquette, and cyberbullying. (I discuss this in further detail in my book.) On the first day, my students are introduced to Twitter and our class Twitter feed, @RamsaysClass. We talk about all of these good habits within the context of tweeting and the students set the guidelines. At the end of each day, each group writes one tweet on a sentence strip that we hang up in the hallway. This is a way that I can guide them into creating meaningful, powerful tweets for our class. Within three days, my students were ready to start conversing with the Twitterverse and all of the other students with whom we are connected.
  • Beginning to tweet led into our lessons on beginning to blog. Karen McMillan has created series of lessons that teach students how to blog by starting them off on paper. Before we begin blogging (on paper first then digitally), I lead a discussion with my students about what expectations they have for their blogs. These lessons are a huge hit with my students. It gives them experience in writing high quality posts and comments before actually setting off to write their digital blogs on KidBlog. (Check out the post that I wrote about their first blogging experience.)

  • Another activity in which my students engage is that they "build their wildselves." We want all of students to be safe when using digital tools, but we also want them to have some identity. BuiLD YouR WiLD SeLF is a site hosted by the New York Zoos and Aquarium. Students (and their teachers...because we all want one of these) visit the site and they create avatars that begin with kids and then you can add different animals parts like peacock feathers and octopus tentacles to the character. This is a great way for students to create an identity that's safe. My students use their wildselves in all of the different tools where an avatar can be used.
So that answers the question that so many people have been asking. To be honest, I don't think it's so  much about what you do as it's how you do the activities and lessons that you plan. For me, it's important that they start learning how to think, dig deeper, stretch their wings, be kind to one another, communicate well with others, and take responsibility for their own learning. The biggest shift for them is that they are put in charge of their learning...which is totally foreign to them when they enter my class. I hope that all of you have had as wonderful of a beginning of the school year as we have. I look forward to all of us learning together this school year...and beyond.