Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Welcome to the Land of If...Reflections on Innovation Day

What if students had the power to choose what they wanted to learn?

What if learners had the ability to choose how they learned?

What if our students could choose how to share their learning?

What if we lived in a world where a student's ability to think, imagine, 
and create carried more weight than standardized test scores?

What if....

As teachers, I think we often live in this Land of If. If only...fill in the blank. We know that our students' learning should be meaningful with connections to authentic, real world purposes, but it seems like in so many of our schools, we have so many mandates, practices and procedures our ability to teach (and our students' ability to learn) is shackled.

What can we do to help our students reach their maximum potential? My answer to this question came three years ago from Josh Stumpenhorst and Pernille Ripp as I saw their tweets and blogs about Innovation Day. Using their inspiration, the first two years, I facilitated an Innovation Day with my single group of students. With me changing schools this year, I knew there would be a greater challenge. I now teach three different groups of students in a middle school setting. When I presented the idea of Innovation Day, the wonderful, willing-to-try-anything team of 6th grade teachers embraced the idea of us planning an Innovation Day for the entire grade...200 students.

This day puts the students' completely in charge of their learning for one full school day. With the use of a planning sheet and one-on-one conferring with their ELA teachers, each student selected a wondering question or topic about which they have no knowledge, but they had a high interest in exploring. They devised a plan for creating a product to share with their peers to teach about what they learned. As teachers, we know that there is power in being able to not only learn something, but to turn around and teach others about it. Their topic, process for learning, and product were all in their own hands.

Welcome to the Land of If. On Innovation Day, students were grouped by similar topic with a teacher who could lend their expertise, if needed. Our learners engaged in a full day of learning, imagining, and creating only taking breaks to attend their elective class, PE, and lunch. By the end of the day, we had 200 phenomenal projects as diverse as our students.

The following day, students each took two minutes to share their learning with their peers. After about an hour of presentations, one of my learners said, "I can't believe how much I've learned in just one hour." All of the learners were excited by the passion exhibited by their peers. Although the students remained respectful of one another, they struggled to maintain focus for all of the presentations. After speaking with my teammate, Shelly Huver, who recommended that we turn their presentations into a gallery walk next year giving the learners the opportunity to learn and share at their own pace.

There were moments these two days where I felt that what I was witnessing was surreal. Had I fallen into an alternate universe where students were highly motivated while employing higher level thinking linked hand-in-hand with creativity? No, we had given students the opportunity to pursue their own interests. We gave them the opportunity to put into practice all the skills we had instilled in them this year. We had simply gotten out of their way and let them soar.

One of my colleagues, Lindsay Kilgore, came into our classroom and asked me the question that prompted the thoughts in this blog, "What if we could do this every day?" What if, indeed. Imagine the possibilities if we let our students drive.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Power of Choice

Those of you who are familiar with my teaching and writing know that I am a huge proponent of student voice. However, there are still skeptics out there that argue that if given a choice, students will choose to do nothing, or at least nothing relevant to learning. In the interest of being totally transparent, I admit that I too was fearful of letting go of that "control" over what my students were learning. I erroneously believed that every student needs to complete the same exact learning activities with a strictly prescribed rubric that I created. After all, aren't I the teacher?

However, as I began truly evaluating my teaching practice, I realized that was missing the boat. Yes, my students were having fun and they were having academic success, but I realized that this is their learning journey, not mine. They needed the opportunity to make choice about what they would learn, how they would learn, and how they would demonstrate that learning. As the educator in the room, my role would be one of facilitator. I know where each student is on the learning continuum. My role becomes one of guiding them in the correct direction.

This year, I have a student intern. This has given me the opportunity to see my practice through fresh, new eyes. Yes, giving students choice does cause there to be "more spinning plates." However, each one of these plates is excited to learn. They are highly motivated. They dig deeper and reach farther than would ever had been possible because they had a choice.

A perfect example of this happened this week. My students are currently engaged in Genius Hour Projects (see Igniting the Learning Fire). One of my students, we'll call him Joel, had created a strong beginning idea for his project. He is a strong reader and writer; he truly loves fantasy and science fiction. His first idea was to discover the process that it takes to create and publish a fantasy chapter book. As he began to dig into the project, I left some feedback in his Google Drive document, and he left this response:

What I love about his response is that he took the time to reflect upon his initial idea and evaluate whether it would not only strengthen him as a writer, but also provide something of value to his readers. From speaking with his peers, he discovered that many of them wanted to write and publish a book, but they were struggling to formalize an idea. Joel realized that although he would be doing tremendously more writing be creating a multitude of open-ended, prologues in many different genres, he would also be laying the groundwork for his peers as well as the audience who will purchase his digital book. 

Without giving Joel time to think and create, the freedom to change his ideas, he would never have reached this level of thinking, not only for himself but for the others he will impact through his project.

As we enter out classrooms, it is important for us to provide these qualities to our students. We want them to become independent thinkers. We want for them to connect their content knowledge in meaningful, problem-solving, life-applicable experiences. The only way that can happen is we give them the power of choice.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

From Hashtag to Home: Where Everyone Matters

This week Central Alabama was hit by a debilitating winter storm. Over 11,000 students with their teachers, administrators, and support staff were trapped at schools. Some who do not live in close proximity to school (like myself) were in safe, warm places but home felt a million miles away.... then the community outreach began. When I realized that I wasn't going to make it home, I had countless offers for me to come stay in different homes from colleagues and my students' parents. Throughout the two and a half days that I couldn't get home, I had so many people reach out to me to make sure that I was taken care of. How did this happen? Through digital mediums. The kindness of others reached me through Twitter, Facebook, and email. I felt such an overwhelming sense of gratitude as this community reached out to me, a newcomer.

As I began to reflect upon the strong sense of community, it brought to mind all that I'd read about how this digital age has deteriorated the sense of community. While contemplating this contradiction, I received an alert that I was being mentioned in a Twitter conversation. I hopped onto my HootSuite to discover that three of my stellar colleagues, Jamie Thomas, Laren Hammonds, and Liz Hancock, were discussing ways we could connect our entire community through a digital, community-wide project. Within a matter of a few minutes, we finalized an idea where students would compose six word stories (memoirs) about their snowy adventures away from school. They would take a photo and post them on Instagram and/or Twitter using the hashtag #RQMSJags. Our ever-supportive administrator, Andrew Maxey, joined the conversation. Between the five us, we began reaching out to our other colleagues asking each one to pass the word through any of the outlets they had to contact their students. They used class Twitter accounts, Edmodo, class websites, Remind 101, blogs, and Facebook (just to name a few) to reach out to the community.

While staying put due to the weather, it was riveting to watch photos* coming through the feed and see what the students were engaged in while we were all physically apart from one another. Without the digital medium, none of us would have known that everyone was safe and having fun adventures in the snow.

Laren then pulled the tweets and posts all together in a Storify making one collaborative community story that everyone could enjoy. It validated experiences, hopes, fears, excitement, and victories by telling the story of our entire community by uniting the voices of individuals.

Snow in Alabama is one of those moments that sticks in the minds of kids. By providing them (and teachers, parents) this outlet, they had the opportunity to share a piece of their story, connect with one another, and further strengthen that community bond. It brought all of us closer together...something that would not have happened had we not provided this outlet.

Could this have been done ten years ago? No. It was only because of the digital age that we had the ability to ensure the safety of all of its members while also bringing everyone together in a meaningful way. So while people may argue the detriment that digital tools have upon our communities, I whole-heartedly disagree. Not because I'm hearing about it on Twitter or at a conference, but because I lived it. Personally, I am closer to my colleagues, my students, and their parents because of this experience. Upon returning to school, my learners shared that our snow stories made them feel like they belonged, they mattered, and they each were valued. Isn't that what we want for our students? Isn't that what we want for their parents? Isn't that the kind of community we want for each of us as educators? I don't know how you will answer those questions, but for me, because of this experience, I no longer feel like an outsider looking in. I'm thrilled to be part of such a wonderful community; one that is focused on collaboration with a singular vision towards doing what is best for students.

Thanks to all of you who opened your hearts (and homes) to me this week.

*For students who had Instagram or Twitter private accounts, they emailed their photos, videos, and stories to me to post through our class account.