Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Can You Assess in Six Words...No Less?

As I mentioned in Let Them Assess, my students and I have really been evaluating assessment practices within our classroom. As I reflect upon my practice, it occurred to me that so many of my practices inherently have an aspect of assessment, for me as well as my learners. One of these practices is the six word memoirs that my students create throughout the school year.

After providing them with multiple examples to study and analyze, we had a compelling discussion about methods for creating an entire story in only six words. My learners remarked on the use of inference, imagery, and figurative language. Then, I gave them the challenge of writing about how they had changed as learners since the beginning of the school year. My goal was for them to take time and reflect on their own growth, beyond the mastery of standards. I wanted them to become introspective in evaluating the impact that our time together had upon them as more than just learners, but individuals.

Because this writing activity is only six words, even my students who are struggling readers and writer found this a non-intimidating writing activity and eagerly attacked their writing seeking to express their learning stories. Conversely, my honors students struggled to limit their ideas to only six words. They had so much they wanted to express, yet the six words limit seemed to become an obstacle. However, they learned how to evaluate not just the denotation of a word, but also the connotation, the emotion it evoked in a reader. Although the students initially began the writing individually, they ultimately leaned upon one another for advice, feedback, and inspiration.

Photo: rosmary on Flickr
The results were much more than expected. It gave me a peek into their own self-perceptions. I saw their honesty, humor, hopes, and dreams. Students that I was not sure I had quite reached, composed intriguing pieces giving me glimpses into the recesses of their hearts and minds. For all of us, it was a time of celebration of their individual growth and a plan for their future. We were all able to evaluate what was worthwhile and what needed to be altered for the future. For many of my learners, it became the banner of their success and expressed their hopes for the future. What was the most thrilling to me were their explanation behind their memoirs. They took complete ownership over their stories and willingly related their growth, struggles, triumphs, defeats, and how all of that culminated into their "final" product. (One student pointed out that a memoir is never finished because they keep changing each day.)

So, can six words have any impact on student learning? Without a doubt! Can six words help students reflect, evaluate, and strategize their learning journey? Absolutely! Can a prompt which limits the number of words inspire creativity and give the reader a peek into the author's hearts and minds? Unquestionably! What can you do with six little words? Take a look at a few of their six word memoirs and just imagine the learning potential it can bring to each student.

Was blind now I can see.~C.B 
I was an ant ; Now a skyscraper.~L.B 
First came rain then came rainbows. ~ P.S 
I was smart, now I'm wise. ~N.E  
Some talent, now overflowing with abilities. ~ A.G 
Always dark. Light ahead for learning. ~C.B.  
Was a dreamer, now a believer. L.A. 
Was a canvas, now painted gold. ~D.C. 

Enter the room, opened my eyes. ~A.P.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Igniting the Learning Fire

I love teaching this time of year. Okay, in the spirit of full disclosure, I love teaching throughout the school year for different reasons. However, at this particular time of the year, my learners know classroom procedures, they have found their voices, and they are really taking ownership of the learning choices that they are making. By this time of year, I feel like I really know my students well, both as individuals and as learners. We have developed a strong mutual respect for one another which paves the path to open and honest dialogue.

We work with our students and sometimes we may feel that we know each individual. We have seen individuals grow academically and personally. We've witnessed their confidence increase when sharing their voice. Still there may seem to be something holding them back that we can't quite pinpoint. I have a student, we'll call him Liam, who presented that challenge for me. Liam is well liked by his peers and he has shown growth this school year, but I had a feeling there was something that I was missing in lighting that fire for learning.

Then, when we returned from winter break, I introduced our Genius Hour projects to my learners. Genius Hour comes from the concept of providing individuals with time each week to explore their passions. It's the 20% time employed by companies such a Google and written about in Dan Pink's book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Genius Hour fosters creativity and an intrinsic motivation to learn and explore.

To make Genius Hour work in our classroom, it became a part of our Lit Center rotation. Students select a type of project and the topic and then begin researching, synthesizing, and planning their final product. My learners are creating proposals and sharing their research through Google Drive where we can have an ongoing conversation about their progress. It was in one of these documents where I saw Liam's fire ignite. He has chosen to become a game designer because he has a vision of creating a multiplayer game. As he was doing research on the principles of game design, I could hear his passion through his writing. He not only shared what he was learning and the links to his resources, but wrote an ongoing commentary of his "a-ha" moments including a plan of how he will include these in his design.

When we had our face-to-face conferring session, the passion and fire lit up his entire body. He was so excited to share his discovery that he radiated excitement and a clear understanding that game design is an involved project which will demand much attention. This did not bother him at all; on the contrary, it excited him. For the first time I felt like I was truly seeing Liam. He had been a happy student who did whatever he was asked, but that passion had been absent.

Witnessing this transformation reminded me of how important it is for us as educators to provide our students with an abundance of opportunities to tap into their interests, previously existing or newly discovered. Last April, I heard Rick Riordan say that it is the teacher's responsibility to find and put the right book in the hands of each child. The same holds true for learning opportunities. As teachers it is easy to fall into routines, but in order for us to ignite that spark of learning, we need to constantly be seeking out new ways to ignite learning for each student. Then all we need to do is fan the flame and watch that fire take on an exciting life if its own.

photo credit: paul bica via photopin cc

Monday, January 20, 2014

When Walls Talk

This year, I was fortunate to get to turn one entire wall in my classroom into an idea wall using Idea Paint. Floor to ceiling, corner to corner became an empty canvas for my students to brainstorm, share, collaborate, problem-solve and create ideas using dry erase markers on this wall. This wall has become an integral part of our learning environment that the students are always eager to share with visitors to our classroom.

Since painting the wall in August, I have been eager to facilitate a Chalk Talk activity with my students. This is an activity where students are given a prompt in the form of a quote, piece of text, or open-ended question; they respond using only the comments that they write on the wall. There is complete verbal communication. Those of you who know me know that it is rare that our classroom is completely silent. My students are accustomed to commenting, discussing, and debating everything. It is a room filled with words. But for this activity, I wanted them to focus on the text and ideas written by their peers, free from the distraction of noise.

For our prompt, I wrote the poem "Night Comes..." by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers. We are in the midst of a grade-wide collaborative unit on space. I selected this poem because it is full of imagery, figurative language, and it lends itself to many different interpretations. I explained the procedure for a Chalk Talk to my students, and then we each took a dry erase marker. They understood that this was an activity that involved thinking critically, not superficially.

Initially, I predicted that this activity would have a duration of ten to fifteen minutes. In actuality, we passed the thirty minute mark and the students were still going strong. Their comments reflected how deeply they were contemplating the text. They connected this poem to a wide variety of other literature and pop culture. They internalized the lines of poetry then transposed them through the filter of their personal experiences. My learners not only identified the elements of imagery and figurative language, but also analyzed how her careful selection of words could translate into their own writing. My students not only commented upon one another's thoughts, but also asked questions to push one another's thinking. Through this silent conversation, they demonstrated a sense of respect and empathy for one another that had not been evident before this activity.

This learning activity was met with an overwhelming sense of pride and enthusiasm by my learners. They realized that sometimes we need time away from the distraction of the spoken words to truly reflect and deeply understand written text. In our go-go-go world, students have often never had the experience of stopping, being still, and just thinking. This activity taught them the value of quiet contemplation. Once we completed the Chalk Talk, they all sat back and pondered the ideas that had manifested themselves in a new way. Before leaving, they took out their devices to document their learning. As one looks at the finished product, you can see how the students created a map of the intersection of their lives and Beatrice Schenk de Regniers' words. It was a truly moving experience.

I encourage you to consider facilitating a Chalk Talk with your students whether you have a wall to write on or you need to cover it with paper. What you will realize is that your students have mind-boggling ideas trapped in their heads; ideas that may never be shared in a class discussion. As their teacher, we always need to find ways to unleash their voices. I'm confident that you will discover like I did, that learners are overflowing with ideas we never imagined. All we have to do is put the pen in their hand.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saying Yes: Making Their Ideas a Reality

In my last post, Student Motivation: It's No Mystery, I shared the five-week mystery unit that my students designed and implemented. The depth of their learning and the ownership that they took was astounding. In their impromptu planning session, one idea kept re-occurring: the students wanted a real mystery to actually solve. I pondered over how to make this idea become a reality that would also promote collaboration, communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking.  I turned to my PLN, both in school and online, and although they shared some great ideas, nothing felt right...until one of my learners, we'll call her Annabeth, approached me with an idea.

Annabeth had the idea to write a mystery for the class (that's right folks; a middle school student ASKED to write). She wanted to call it "The Case of the Missing Teacher." I would be the missing teacher. She wrote down some initial ideas which included reaching out to a fellow 6th grade teacher, both of our administrators, our school counselor, and our school librarian. With little prompting, she applied everything she had learned about the structure of a well-written, highly interesting mystery. She spoke with each of the individuals to plan their role in our mystery, making sure that supervision of students would not be an issue (I was hidden in a storage room which backs up to our classroom, giving me the ability to hear their conversation).

The first clue was in the form of a warm-up with grammatical errors; using each error, the students could put together the name of the first individual who held the key to their journey to find their missing teacher. With a smile, Annabeth told me that the dead giveaway that the warm up was not from me was the fact that it told them to do a packet of worksheets. For each of the subsequent clues, Annabeth composed a poem with a riddle for the class to solve. It was so interesting to listen to the students working together to find me. It took them an hour and twenty minutes. Once found, and rescued, they students stumbled over one another trying to tell me about their adventure. They bragged on their ability to apply their knowledge and rescue me from "my kidnapper." They explained how what we had been learning about analyzing text, listening, problem-solving, and sharing ideas was the key to solving the mystery. Then it was revealed that this experience was not orchestrated by me at was their peer, Annabeth. Needless to say, they were impressed and begged to do this again.

So as a classroom teacher, what can we take away from this experience? The answer to this question could easily become a series of blog posts. Personally, it showed the importance of listening to our students. If I had not been open to Annabeth's ideas and willing to help guide her through the logistical aspect of this project, my students would have missed out on the opportunity to put their knowledge and abilities to the test in an authentic manner. They learned firsthand the important of working together, problem solving, investigating options, following a process, communicating clearly, and analyzing text. Annabeth had the joy of seeing the impact that her writing, planning, and implementing had upon the learning of all of us.

Sometimes as teachers we get in the mindset of "no." We see the obstacles, not the possibilities. We worry about "covering the standards" or marking everything off of a checklist.  I know I always feel like there isn't enough time to provide my students with all of the learning experiences that I want for them. However, look at the learning that would not have transpired if I had said "no." Annabeth and her creative ideas reminded me that I need to live in a Yes-World. I need to make sure that I am not so busy that I don't stop to listen to my students' ideas. After all, it is not about me at all. It is really all about them.

Thank you, Annabeth, for the reminder.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Student Motivation: It's No Mystery

This semester has been a whirlwind of excitement for me and my 6th grade students. So much has transpired that I am bursting to reflect upon and share with others. Moving to a middle school this year, I wondered about student motivation. Traditionally, middle level students are notorious for their apathy and pursuit of identity. Yes, I have spent more of my career in a middle school than an elementary school, but I couldn't help but wonder if what I had been practicing (and preaching loudly) regarding student motivation would translate to my new sixth graders.

Of course, my learners provided me with plenty of food for thought. This year as we were ensconced in the Global Read Aloud, one of my students asked me if we were going to be studying any mysteries this year. Since I am in a new school and I let my students lead my instructional plans, I responded to her that I wasn't sure. I asked, "What do you have in mind?" As she began speaking, slowly other students joined the conversation. What I found interesting was that in their excitement they not only made suggestions about learning activities but also tied in learning standards. Within ten minutes, eighteen of my students had joined the conversation and collaboratively planned a five week mystery unit. I had the pleasure of watching it take shape as they took notes, referred to resources on their devices, and discussed whether something promoted "real learning" or not.

Let's see what happens when students are given the ability to design their learning and how that impacts their motivation to learn. Fasten your seatbelt, here is a (brief) synopsis of their mystery unit.

With the guidance of our school librarian, we selected the book The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd, as our main text, and used The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, as a parallel text through their independent reading. Using both books opened many opportunities for students to deeply compare and contrast plot, character, setting, theme, audience, purpose, and the craft of writing.  Since many of my students had little background knowledge of British culture or history, that opened up opportunities to explore nonfiction texts to enhance their understanding of the novel, the framework where the story played out. This led to them exploring London through virtual field trips and publishing Travel Guides using Skitch.

Many British terms, phrases, and colloquialisms were included in the The London Eye Mystery; so, my students had the opportunity to put their skills at using context clues to work to determine the meaning of the text. They documented this learning on one of our Idea Walls to form a working vocabulary bank they called "Flibbertigibbets and Whatnots." This made them think about perspective, point of view, word choice, and an audience's background knowledge when composing a piece of writing.

As they analyzed the structure of a mystery, my learners also stretched their problem solving and critical analysis through image prompts and whodunit mystery puzzles. Students honed their debating/communication skills as they had to justify and support their claims in the solutions to these mysteries. They used the ability to dig deeply into the text of The London Eye Mystery to make inferences to create their "mystery motherboard" on our large Idea Wall. This wall grew and changed as we moved through the novel and students began to follow the clues in solving the mystery.

 In addition to participating in several Mystery Skypes, my students put to test their ability to analyze text in their pursuit of truth in investigating urban legends using a wide variety of digital and graphic sources. They took a topic of choice, became experts on that topic, synthesized that information, and drew conclusions on whether they were fact or fiction. Then, they took their learning and published "tabloids" on Smore providing resources to support their conclusions.

My students designed their exam and rubric, a complex, interactive Internet mystery, which put the reader to the task of using problem-solving and deductive skills in order to solve the puzzling question. And as a final culminating activity, the student each designed a complex Clue character. Their character had to have a background story, a sense of what motivates them to take action, family/friends/colleagues, and events that shaped who they are. Then the students came in character and we played Clue Queue (a Clue tournament).

Motivation? Is there any doubt that the students were excited each day to learn? My learners would come into class with additional ideas to enhance their learning and the learning of their peers. They took the learning beyond the classroom walls, often writing, blogging, researching, and creating something new to share with their fellow detectives the next day. In fact, as the unit came to an end, the students all commented that the time was too short. They wanted more time. More time? Were the students just "playing at school?" Absolutely not! These students dug deeply into their text. They found a meaningful way to connect the standards to their interests and needs. Did they have fun? There is no doubt about that. But that fun was enveloped in deep and meaningful learning that they not only shared with one another, but also with our digital tools to their global peers.

Is student motivation a mystery? No. Students know exactly what they enjoy and what will make learning in the classroom relevant for them inside and outside the classroom walls. All we have to do is ask and listen.