Thursday, December 31, 2015

PBL: Many Paths, One Destination

I have a responsibility to educate my students beyond the “now.” But in a world where we are often mandated to prepare students for looming high-stakes tests, how can we provide our students with the opportunity to learn crucial life skills like communication, problem solving, creativity, decision-making, time management, and organization? Is it possible to both guide students into mastering their grade level standards as well as empowering them with the life skills that they will need in the future?
For me the answer came in the form of project-based learning (PBL) more than four years ago where students use life skills to create a project that demonstrates mastery of content areas standards.  Along the way, my students and I have learned a few tips to make PBL manageable within the classroom environment while empowering students to have a voice and choice in how they learn, what they learn within a standard, and how they demonstrate mastery of their standards. Here are the things that we have found yield the greatest degree of success:
Exposure. My students come to me from two different elementary schools. Although they have had experience in doing projects, most of those projects are very teacher-directed with heavy assistance by parents. When I began PBL, my students were not accustomed to having to make choices, solve problems, or direct their own learning. I always hesitate to show an example of how a student could create a project to show mastery of standards because ultimately you get 85 almost identical projects. On the other hand, students also need to “see” their target.
As I contemplated that conflict, I realized I already had a large database of projects from previous students published on our class website, blog, and wiki. All I needed to do was expose my students to all of the possibilities. Instead of pointing them out to the class, I created an online scavenger hunt for my learners to explore digital resources and they spent a lot of time exploring and engaging in the projects of their predecessors. They have seen how one standard can be met in many different ways. They understand creativity and individuality are key components in making the learning theirs.
Gradual release. In our class, PBL means students are working toward demonstrating mastery of the same standard. Same goal. Different paths. When I speak with other educators, I can feel overwhelmed facing the idea of a large variety of projects going simultaneously.
Students can feel overwhelmed because they can no longer compare their learning against a peer’s as they are working on different projects. They can no longer depend upon parents to assist (or complete) their projects for them. In our classroom, as in many other PBL classrooms, a bulk of the work is completed at school. You can’t measure a student’s mastery if they had assistance from parents. You would have no idea where the student’s learning ended and the parent’s began.
To alleviate that pressure, we begin with small projects within one or two class periods. When we practiced using adverbs to paint more powerful images for our audience within our writing, students were tasked to demonstrate a mastery of adverbs. Some students opted to write a paragraph with and without adverbs demonstrating the difference descriptive language makes to a reader. Other students create Instagram videos where they acted out adverbs and asked their global peers to identify the adverbs. The digital dialogue gave those students the opportunity to defend their learning and add to the learning of peers.
These types of projects were not a list of suggestions I gave my students, but ideas they came up with on their own. This gave them the opportunity to look at what a content standard really meant beyond the classroom walls. It gave them insight into how to manage their own work with a clear deadline. They learned how to problem solve, apply knowledge, and articulate their own learning.
Confer, confer, confer. This has been the most important shift I have made when moving to PBL. When students are working on projects for longer durations of time, they need feedback often. No one wants to get derailed for three weeks only to discover his or her mistake. With my students, I aim to meet with each student at least twice a week. They bring their work, ideas, questions, obstacles, and goals for the next couple of days. These sessions keep students focused on the purpose of their project: to prove mastery of content standards. As the teacher, I know where they are and if I need to plan a small group lesson or a reteaching session to provide the support—or challenge—each student needs. With regular conferring, I can do that in a timely manner. If students are struggling with how to demonstrate mastery, I can ask them a series of probing questions to lead them in the right direction.
To manage all of the feedback and discussion, my students now handle all of their brainstorming, research, note taking, planning, and writing drafts in Google Drive. This enables us to have conversations about their writing, making the feedback visible where they can easily refer to it during their project. With Drive, students can also invite peers to provide insights and feedback adding another perspective to the publishing of their final project.
When it is time for a student to be assessed on their project, the grade is never a surprise because they have been discussing it with me and with their peers for days (or weeks).
Stay focused. Just like each one of our students are unique, so are their projects. It is easy to get wowed by a project with a lot of bells and whistles. Often these projects overshadow projects that appear simple. However, the appearance of the final project is not what this is about. Recently, a teacher asked how to compare a project where a student has created an intricate and professional-looking movie with a student who had drawn a comic strip. The answer is simple. You don’t. That’s not the point. The point is to compare each student to the standard. That’s the target for each student.
For one of our quarter assessments, my students took the six standards that we had been working on and each created a project to prove mastery of those standards. Some students created video games that required an audience to apply their learning to solve the problems. They built this gaming world with challenges, obstacles, and rewards. It took countless hours. And another student created a simple Power Point that had hand drawn illustrations. Although these projects were very different, they each had proven mastery of the six standards. Truth be told, the learner with the simple Power Point actually showed a much higher level of mastery with her project—something that is easy to overlook if we don’t stay focused on what matters most—students owning their learning.
Although PBL seems to be a trend right now, it isn’t anything new. Teachers have been doing this for decades because it empowers students to take ownership and apply their learning in authentic ways. It’s the best of what education can offer our students—the opportunity to master content standards, apply life skills, and learn how to take that content and apply it in authentic ways. It strengthens them as not just as learners, but as individuals who will shape the world of the future.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Setting the Stage for Successful Student Collaboration

In today’s digital world, our roles as educators have shifted. We are no longer the sole proprietor and expert in the classroom. Truth is that if Google can replace us, we are no longer doing our job. Our role in the classroom is to teach our students how to apply content knowledge to solve problems. We promote skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. However, those are not skills that come naturally to our students. 

We live in a time where boundaries of learning are being pushed. With the myriad of digital tools at their fingertips, our students have the ability to connect and collaborate with peers both locally and globally. Students have access to experts in any field. Because of the lives they lead, they crave feedback. Yet, their efforts at collaboration often lead anywhere from shutdowns to meltdowns.

We hear our colleagues extolling the virtues of connecting students for collaborative learning and it may cause us to wonder what is going wrong in our classroom. The truth is that everyone, no matter how well intentioned, enters with certain expectations and perceptions. Many of our students expect to walk into a group situation where everyone is working on the same goal doing the exact same thing as their fellow group members. That is simply cooperation or compliance. Often cooperation does not push students into authentic tasks that require higher level thinking and reasoning. True collaboration comes when each member in a collaborative group brings his/her strengths, ideas, experiences, and knowledge to share with the group. Everyone contributes towards the common goal using their unique talents for the good of the entire group.

As teachers, I’m confident that a great majority of us have probably experienced the same frustration as our students when trying to collaborate with our colleagues. I thought I would take an opportunity to share with you some of the practices that my students have learned through our years collaborating with peers both locally and globally.  By preparing them of these mindsets in advance, their likelihood of success is greatly improved.

Communicate expectations up front. The first step that my students do when forming a new collaboration partnership is to outline a list of the norms and expectations that they have for their upcoming project. They discuss timeline, deadlines, behaviors, work ethic, and accountability to the group. Through these conversations, they have the opportunity to share their goals and their concerns about their impending work together. This dialogue lets every member know before they begin the first step exactly where they are headed. It not only helps them create a relationship with one another where they feel safe to be transparent in their thinking, but also connect with one another as individuals on a deeper level. Although this may seem time consuming in an already jammed packed learning day, the group will make up the time in the long run as their project will not suffer from constant derailing due to miscommunications.

Remain flexible.  Things happen. People get sick. Schedules get rearranged. Parents set appointments.  As adults, we understand this is part of life, but sometimes students get frustrated when a deadline isn’t met by a teammate, one member seems to fail in following through with their part of a project, or they miss a time for real time communication. By guiding our students into becoming adept at adjusting plans, they are learning valuable life skills. Often when a student comes to me aggravated because something has disrupted their project, we can lean on the strong foundation that they set in the beginning. Once they open that dialogue, the learners discover a solution together that stronger than their initial plan. They learn to listen to one another, have patience, and pull their resources to reach towards their common goal.

Keep an open-mind. As adults we understand that not everyone is like us. However, many of our students in spite of being globally connected, often live under the false premise that everyone is like them. I’ve discovered over the last several years that this is often the most challenging part of collaboration for students. Students may feel that they are the expert, the smartest, the most organized, the most creative, or the most talented individual in the group. Those beliefs are why I believe that collaboration is an integral part of the learning process. Students need to have experience with students who in many ways may not be like them. No single person is who they are with the talents they have without the guidance and input of others. We become the best version of ourselves by working and learning with others.

By preparing our students in advance for the shifts they will need to make in order to successfully collaborate with the peers, both in the classroom and through digital means, we give them the tools to open a world of learning possibilities. Through collaboration, students find commonalities with a diverse community of learners and apply content knowledge and higher order thinking skills for an authentic audience while becoming the strongest version of themselves. Collaboration, although challenging at times, is well worth the investment for us, our students, and the future.

photo credit: Empty Stage via photopin (license)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Superheroes Don't Exist, But You Do

"Not every one is like you."

Today is the first official day of ILA15 and the statement above seems to be the underlying theme that I am hearing, experiencing, and discussing formally and informally. The stories told by Shiza Shahid from her childhood in Pakistan to cofounding the Malala Fund in order to advocate for education for every student spun me into introspection. 

Many of us work with high needs students by choice. Where I am teaching, we have both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Our students go home to lives that are not our own reality...and we, as their teachers, need to be aware of that. Even students labeled "high needs" lead sheltered lives compared to their global peers; in spite of being involved in social media, they still often remain disconnected from global events. They live under the assumption (as do many of us) that the 11 and 12 year olds on the other side of the world have the same privileges and civil rights.

I couldn't help but wonder, as educators, isn't it our responsibility to make them not just globally aware, but provide opportunities for them to put their compassion, empathy, and talents to use? The books that we read, projects they create, and conversations we have should include a global view of our world. Not every child will respond to every book, article, or video we share, but they still need to have those experiences to gain a sense of themselves in the perspective of the world in which we live.

I often hear that students are apathetic when it comes to learning. However, when students are asked what they want to get out of their education, thei
r answer usually is "to make a difference in the world." How can we meet that need if we shy away from the cotton candy world that so many of our students live in? Students need to know what is going on in the world. They need time to read about others who may not look like them, talk like them, or have the same beliefs. If they don't have that empathy or understanding for others, how can they ever turn their dream of using an education to make the world a better place into a reality? 

I must admit that is an area where I have learned much from my students this school year. This year our entire student body embraced a global project. They learned of a school in the Ikota village of Nigeria. In spite of receiving an excellent education, and privately funded scholarships (because school is not free in Nigeria) they didn't have a permanent structure. Their learning was done in bamboo structures and metal shipping containers on the village's dump. Our middle school students ran a campaign, educated others, shared learning with their Nigerian peers, and raised funds to put towards building them a structure which would allow for twice as many students to receive an education. These middle school students saw an opportunity and jumped in to make a difference. 

Sometimes the best thing that we can do for our students is to step out of the way and let them lead. It was exciting to watch them grow and change with the choices they were making. At no time did our students refer to themselves as "saving" their peers on another continent. They looked at it as a privilege and an honor to connect with these students and put their talents to use to impact the lives of those students and their community. 

When I reflect on what I've heard today and experienced with my students, I know that this year I need to be diligent in not only exposing them to the lives of others through the stories we read,and the classes with whom we collaborate, but also staying open when a student shows an interest in making a change in the world. As Shiza said, "we can't wait for superheroes to come and change the world. They don't exist, but YOU do."

Monday, June 29, 2015

What Social Media (and Professional Learning) Should Be About

I'm currently at my 15th ISTE. Many things have changed in education and technology over the last fifteen years. In 2000, social media did not have a presence in our lives. People walked around, attended sessions, looked each other in the eye, and spoke to one another....because that was the primary way to make connections. Quite a few years ago, I was standing in line at a convention center Starbucks with my students when the teacher behind us, Linda Cooper, struck up a conversation about why my students were at ISTE. That conversation grew into what was my first collaborative effort with my students and students in another geographic location. She and I built a relationship that greatly benefited all of our students. Our dialogue, sharing, and connecting opened up my mind to new directions to grow in my teaching practice.

Several years later, Web 2.0 and social media came onto the scene.  I joined in and began tweeting and posting. Like many others, I became excited by the number of followers I had or who chose to follow me. It took two years before I realized that wasn't where the true value of social media was found; it was in making connections, building true relationships, and giving back to others in our digital/social media community...the very same thing that Linda and I had done years before. That was when my professional growth escalated exponentially.

I was able to find answers to questions that I had about how to meet the needs of one of my students. I could find different ways to turn the learning and our classroom over to my students. I could form partnerships to connect my students with their global peers. Because of the relationships that I built, my students were able to find their voices, build connections with global peers, and make a difference in the world. 

Because we are connected regularly through social media, building these relationships, we get to know one another. Friendships built on mutual respect develop. On my flight to ISTE, I had a young woman sit beside me who noticed my ISTE app. She asked me if I was headed to the conference. She (a second year teacher) and her two colleagues (first year teachers) were heading to their first ISTE. Her passion and enthusiasm were contagious. She asked so many questions about ISTE and teaching. As she began taking notes, I realized that this is one reason why we go to conferences (and engage in social media) make these connections. 

There are people who are all along the professional learning continuum. Some are ahead of us in their journey. Others may be just beginning. However we connect, whether face-to-face or digitally, we need to strive to share our learning with others. 

So as we continue the next two days at ISTE, I want to challenge myself and challenge you to look for someone who you can share with, connect with, and grow with. This will not only benefit our practice, but also the learning of our students. And our students' learning is what it is all ultimately about. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Are We Truly Listening?

Since March, my voice has been very quiet. Almost, crickets quiet. One morning, I woke up with an irritating pain in my back that quickly escalated into me being unable to walk, sit, or drive. Excruciating pain so intense I couldn't think. I tried everything in my arsenal (rest, heat, ice); nothing worked. I sought medical assistance. I kept saying the same thing. I need answers. What is causing this? How can we repair it? I didn't want to slap a bandaid on it, but work towards regaining my healthy, active life. Over and over again I said this as doctors, medical professionals, and my insurance company failed to listen to me. It took me 13 weeks to jump through countless (worthless) hoops until I finally was able to find a doctor who listened. Truly listened. He ran tests, formal and informal. He asked me for feedback. He communicated with me regularly...even out of office hours. He (and the fantastic physical therapist that he recommended) made themselves available to answer my questions, soothe my anxiety, and help me work toward my goal of a healthy back. Having them gave me a positive frame of mind that I could reach that goal even if it still may take several more months.

One day, as I was reclined on an extra-large ice pack, it occurred to me that many of our students may be on parallel journeys to this in their learning lives. They may feel completely overwhelmed by the expectations in our classrooms. They may have obstacles that seem insurmountable. They many feel that their voices are hitting an abyss and that no one cares enough to hear them, see them.

I couldn't help but ask, are we being the kind of teacher that truly listens? Are we talking to them? Asking questions? Listening not only to what they are saying, but what they are not saying? Are we building a foundation of trust with our students so that they know we care about them, not as just a student in our classrooms, but as individuals? Do we run formal and informal diagnostics and formative assessments to determine exactly what they need while giving them an opportunity to set their own personal goals? Do we soothe their anxiety, cheer them on, and provide guidance that they can build upon? Are we willing to go above and beyond what is "expected" as a classroom teacher to give our students what they need? Again, I ask, are we truly listening? Because if we are, it can make a world of difference in the life of that student even long after they have left. That's what they need. That's what they deserve.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

It's OUR Table

How many of us have heard (or said) some variation of the phrase, "We want a seat at the table." Often as educators, we feel excluded from the decisions being made that have a direct impact upon our ability to teach our students in the way that each learner needs. Policy and decisions are made almost daily about students learning by those who often have never been in a classroom or whose experience is a far distant memory. For educators, it's disempowering and frustrating, leaving us wondering about the direction that education is headed when often student learning is not the central focus of these policies. I think I'm like so many of you. I'm passionate about educating students; every student, regardless of the challenges they may face or the support they may need. That's why I became a teacher, not a politician. I wanted to empower students. So, I began asking for a seat at the decision making table in order to speak up for my students.

Then, my thinking shifted. A lightbulb turned on. I was at a professional learning event in panel discussion on Teacher Leadership. Laren Hammonds (@_clayr_) made the statement that as teacher leaders,  we need to have our own table and invite policy makers to join us. As I reflected up this idea, I realized that somewhere in the past, as teachers, we have been giving up our seats to policy makers. As a profession, we bought into the false idea that we are "just teachers" and that elected officials, and those appointed by them, had more importance than us. We gave up our seats (because we'd rather be in our classrooms), decisions were made without us, we grumbled among ourselves and moved on back to teaching our students. The process just continued to escalate, which drove many teachers away from classroom or education altogether. After all, what could we do? They were elected or appointed and we are "only teachers."

As teachers, there are several things that we need to do in order to claim our table and directly impact the policy that can dictate how we reach our students. We need to realize that we are the one in the trenches with students every day. Our voices, and our students' voices, are the ones that are the most relevant. The elected officials and their appointees are there because we put them there. Let's take the time to educate them about what student learning looks like in 2015. We can send them emails and letters [even in 2015 handwritten makes the most impact] with stories of student learning. Invite them to our classrooms and large learning events. Connect with them through social media by posting photos of the phenomenal learning taking place in our classrooms every day.  If they are not willing to listen to us, then we need to elect officials who will support student learning. The mentality that we are "just a teacher" or "only a teacher" must die within all of us.

We also must realize that while a one-time email, letter, or conversation may lay a foundation, we  need to develop a relationship with policy makers. The repeat contact and follow-up solidifies you as an expert in the education field. Inviting them to join in education conversations held in OUR classrooms and schools at OUR table reshapes their thinking and puts student learning at the forefront of their thinking. In the fours years that I have been advocating for student learning, I have never had a policy maker, committee, or council ever ask me to leave. They may not have joined OUR table, but that doesn't mean that we stop extending the invitation. After all, this is OUR dinner party. We want for them to join the conversation because all of OUR futures are at stake. Leaners are our future's most precious commodity. And without these conversations, we are doing a great disservice to ourselves and future generations.

So let's send out invitations, pull out a chair, and have a seat. It's time we start facilitating these conversation and decisions based on what's best for our learners. The students of today and tomorrow are depending up on us.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Alabama NBCT Week: Alabama Statistics

This week has officially been declared Alabama NBCT Week by Governor Bentley. This week has been filled activities and events that recognize the teachers in Alabama who have earned their board certification. I found the following statistic very interesting.

  • ·       There are 47,723 public school teachers in AL including 2,313 NBCTs – 4.8% of AL teachers are NBCTs.
  • ·       In Alabama, 744,621 public school students are served by 47,723 teachers including 2,313 NBCTs.
  • ·       Alabama ranks 15th in the nation with its # of NBCTs. The states with the most NBCTs are NC (20,611) FL (13,637) SC (8,820) WA (8,196) and CA (6,249). MS has 3,740 NBCTs.
  • Alabama has 133 school districts –
    • o   School districts with highest # of NBCTs: Jefferson County - 236; Hoover City - 185; Birmingham City – 152
    • o   12 Alabama school districts have 0 NBCTs – I have the school district names if we want to include that info
    • o   86 Alabama school districts have 5 or less NBCTs
    • o   102 Alabama school districts have 10 or less NBCTs
  • ·       Research shows that students taught by NBCTs gain an extra 1 – 2 months of learning each school year. That adds up to an incredible amount of learning time for our students!
  • ·       The positive impact of having an NBCT is even greater for minority and low-income students.
  • ·       There are 110,428 NBCTs in the US.
  • ·       Alabama NBCTs receive an annual $5000 stipend for 10 yrs and can recertify; if you are an NBCT for 20 yrs, you can earn an extra $100,000 during your career.
  • ·       Over 4,100 educators nationwide achieved NB cert in 2014; in Alabama 62 educators earned their NB cert in 2014. MS had over 200 new NBCTs in 2014 and over 500 of their educators have achieved in the last 5 yrs.
  • ·       The Alabama NBCT Network currently has 280 members. We would like to double that number by the end of 2015.
  • Compiled by Valerie Johnson (@JohnsonValAL)
Personally, I can say that earning my certification in 2007 proved to be the most challenging and rewarding professional development that I have ever done. It helped me to sharpen my practice and become highly reflective on the choices that I make and how they positively impact student learning. NBPTS has now revamped the process, lowering the cost and extending the time frame that one has to complete the process. If you are considering board certification and you have any questions, please feel free to ask. I will be completely transparent and honest with you.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Fairy Wings, Time Portals, and Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

Like many classroom teachers, I will do whatever is in my power to provide my students with the level of support and challenge that they need to meet their goals. I strive to put the fun into every day. There is plenty of research that supports that fun is a legitimate, pedagogical choice in teaching a person something new. It removes fear from trying something new, produces dopamine and endorphins in the brain causing conenctions, and opens the gateways of moving new ideas into cognition. Recently, I have been in a search for new ways to bring fun into my classroom. I say new, but what I discovered in my search was something that I did as a new teacher; somewhere along the way, it dropped out of my practice. What was that? you may ask. That was the joy of bringing "guests" into my classroom...guest as in me dressed up in a costume and interacting with my students from a different perspective.

This idea occurred to me as I faced the grand task of teaching A Christmas Carol to my sixth grade students. I have been very fortunate to collaboratively plan with my ELA colleagues this year. They had done a unit centered around A Christmas Carol in past that had been extremely successful in helping students master multiple standards. I immediately began to question my ability to not only effectively use the text to provide modeling of literacy standards but also and adeptly scaffold their learning within this complicated text. Furthermore, I was keenly aware that this would be their first experience with classic literature. I want my students to LOVE literature as much as I do and I didn't want build up negative opinions about these texts years before they would tackle them in the future.

While I was racking my brain, an idea crystallized. Wouldn't it be cool if kids could travel through time to see how different life was during the 1840s and 1850s in England and how that directly impacts the writing of that time? Since I found myself lacking a working TARDIS of my own, I decided to bring history to them. I decorated our classroom like Victorian Christmas time and came to school as "Clara Bennett" from 1852 England. I dressed like her, spoke like her, and created a deep history that wove together Victorian life in England and the United States (which included their 6th grade history content; fortunately, Dickens did a tour in the US which lent itself perfectly to my story).

When student arrived, they travelled through our "time portal" and then we began our conversation. Now I knew this would be fun for them, and I expected it to last for about 20 minutes of class. What I didn't expect was how engrossed in it my 6th graders would become. They asked endless questions. They had to learn to accurately describe and explain things during their time (microwaves, cell phones, televisions, video games, etc.) to someone with no background knowledge. This honed their communication skills better than any activity that I could have designed and they were totally hooked on Victorian England. 

The next day, when class began they told me about my ancestor (their conclusion), Clara Bennett, and in detail about the life of Charles Dickens and Victorian life in England and America. When I asked if they wanted to read some of Charles Dickens' work, the answer was a resounding yes.

I had forgotten the impact that a costume could have upon students. Since then I have dressed up as "Faire E. Wiing" a travel consultant who connects students with a personalized travel adventure in the Fairy Tale realm. I've taken on the persona of the Mad Hatter when students shared their narrative writing projects. Each time, the students treat our learning as something special, out of the ordinary. For them it's a time to sit up, take notice because something special is going on that they don't want to miss. And true to that brain research, my students gain a deeper understanding of whatever content we are discussing and adroitly apply it to future learning.

Last week, we had several guests come to our classroom and I overheard one student tell one of our visitors, "You better keep your eyes open and be ready in Ramsayland because you never know who is going to show up to take us on an adventure." With that endorsement, I know I need to continue to look for other ways to purposefully bring the fun to their learning. I realized that as educators, we need to be willing to fall down that rabbit hole and embrace whatever method we find in meeting the needs of our learners. 

photo credit: Time & Money via photopin (license)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Once Upon a Time: Student-Run Book Groups

Upon returning to middle school last year, after some time in a self-contained fifth grade classroom, there was one challenge that I observed. In middle school, students are placed in honors (pre-AP) classes or in on-grade level classes. What I truly missed was the ability for students on different places in their learning journey to learn from one another. My on-level group was not being afforded the opportunity to participate in literary discussions where there was deep analysis coupled with life applications. They didn't have student models in the classroom who were extremely adept in writing, editing, and communicating ideas using a broad vocabulary. Conversely, the students in my honors classes were being denied the opportunity to break down and articulate their learning so that another person could learn from their expertise...this "why" is a vital part of the learning process. Yes, my students were connected via digital means such as their blog, but that one-on-one, synchronous conversation was lacking. Then a light bulb went off. The other full time 6th grade ELA teacher, Lindsay Kilgore, had a reverse schedule. When I had an honors class, she had an on-level class and vice versa. After a little celebration that scheduling worked in our favor, we began looking at our students' interest and needs.

We noticed that our students this year were really interested in fantasy books and narrative writing. Also our students really enjoyed our A Christmas Carol unit, their first foray into classic literature. Couple that with a local production company doing a performance of Alice in Wonderland, our fairy tale unit was born. Now, to be truthfully honest, I never thought I would be doing a fairy tale unit with my middle schoolers. This time last year, we were doing a huge mystery unit designed by my students. [Student Motivation: It's No Mystery and Saying Yes: Making Their Ideas Reality]. However, I've come to expect that no two years will be the same because no two groups of students are the same.

For this fairy tale unit, we decided that we wanted to provide students with plenty of voice and choice. Since we had a much more diverse population by joining our two classes, we knew we would need to provide some chapter books for them to select from with an option to make another choice on their own. I reached out to my PLN for suggestions on middle level reader fairy tale books (or books write fairy tale elements). After a lot of marathon reading, the books that we settled upon were Cinder by Marissa Meyers, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone/Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, A Tale Dark and Grimm/Through a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz, Far Far Away by Tom McNeal, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. When reading, we looked for challenging and exciting text that would interest a wide range of students. We wanted to break the Disney stereotype of fairy tales and really provide our students with texts that brought in strong themes, multiple cultures, history, and strong protagonists. 

When we presented these to students, we themed this entire unit as travel packages, complete with their travel consultant "Faire E. Wiing." Students made choices and then Lindsay and I set about creating diverse, heterogeneous groups a.k.a. travel companions for their adventure. Before students met in their groups, each one of us took a reading survey to gain insight about our specific reading strengths, challenges, likes, and dislikes. Lindsay and I modeled with one another how to be transparent in a conversation with others. Then our students met together and shared with their groups their reading identity with their new book group. As Lindsay and I travelled around listening to their conversations, we realize how transparent they were being with one another. We realized that this was a crucial part of laying the foundation for the success of the next five weeks.

Once our students got to know one another, they were given the task of setting their group norms. They outlined exactly what they expected of one another on their adventure. What will our discussions look like? How will we treat one another? How will be address any challenges? This opened students up to transparently sharing their apprehensions about working with students with whom they were unfamiliar. They had crucial conversations and addressed all of these while putting it in writing as a reminder throughout the five week journey.

Then students received a calendar. Using their books, they set goals and identified when they would hold a weekly synchronous conversation. It was up to each group how much they read each time they met. The only requirements that we gave them were the date of completion for their reading and that they had to discuss their book at least once a week. With these foundations in place, the student groups set off with their plan and an exciting adventure in hand.

Students were given a little over three hours a week to work together. Lindsay and I would rotate through the groups to observe and listen to their discussion. However, what we quickly learned was that they had taken ownership over their reading groups. They wouldn't stop and expect us to take over the discussion. Our readers would ask us questions to draw us into their discussions. It was thrilling to see them work through challenges, grow as readers and communicators, and totally drive their learning. Students who struggled to get through a couple of pages in a book, tore through three-hundred page books and wanted to keep going. (We intentionally chose books that were a part of a series or from a author who had a lot of other books.)

In total, these book groups impacted about one-hundred sixty students. In five weeks, we only had to step in with two students. After an honest conversation with each of these individuals, we guided them into finding a way to address their concerns and rejoining the group as a productive member.

As a classroom teacher, it's exciting to see the success that students reach when they are empowered to make choices about their learning. The ultimate compliment that we received was when students asked when we could do this again. They built new friendships, grew as learners, and they were hungry for more. For me and Lindsay, that endorsement was our "happily ever after" and like the kids...we can't wait for our next adventure. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dear Conference Organizer

My name is Julie. I am a classroom teacher who teaches ELA to amazing sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. In case you're wondering, yes, that's a pubic school with a very diverse population. I believe that growing professionally is a key component in sharpening my teaching practice and providing my students with the best possible learning opportunities. One of the strongest ways I have found to improve is by attending conferences both big and small. However, over the last couple of years, I have noticed a growing trend in major conferences which I (as a practicing classroom teacher) find disturbing.

The most powerful learning, and subsequent growth, I have had has come from two sources, my students and other classroom teachers. For years I have believed that there was a voice missing from these conferences...the voice of students. We are growing, learning, and connecting with one another at these professional learning events in order to become better for our students. Has anyone ever stopped and wondered why we aren't including students in the conversations at these events? I'm not talking about having a student group perform or do introductions of major speakers (which I do enjoy), but actually share their ideas, ask questions, and answer our questions. At these conferences, all of our professional learning should focused on them as we reshape our thinking and evolve our practice. Yet I believe that when we exclude them from the actual conversation, we are unintentionally forcing our beliefs on them instead of using their feedback, coupled with our knowledge of sound education practice as the perfect marriage to facilitate the best learning opportunities for them.

Over the years, I have heard many claim that students aren't savvy or educated enough to join these conversations. I strongly disagree with this premise. For over twelve years, my students have presented at conferences and (recently) at Edcamps. They have conducted webinars, Skyped, and created resources for faculties all over the world. They WANT to have a voice. They NEED to have a voice. Education isn't something that should be done to them. I hear many educators talking about how we as educators want a seat at the table. What I believe so many of us are missing is that the table actually belongs to our students....and we are relegating them to "kids table" away from the "adult' conversation. If we truly want to stay relevant in today's fast -paced world, we must learn along side our students and to acknowledge that their voice has value to our learning.

Another crucial component of my professional growth is learning from my colleagues. As a classroom teacher, I want to learn from other classroom teachers. I want to gain the benefit of their experience, both formally in sessions and informally through conversations. I know there is something to be said for providing conference participants inspiration from celebrities. Henry Winkler's story of his struggle with learning disabilities helped me to re-evaluate how I was providing support and encouragement to my struggling readers and writers. However, as a veteran teacher who is a lifelong learner, I find it a bit insulting to have a celebrity (who is not an educator) tell classroom teachers how we should be teaching our students. Conference Organizers, I don't know if you believe that those big names bring status to your organization or there is a reason that I am missing, but as an avid conference participant, I rarely leave those sessions (no matter how entertaining) with anything of value that I can take back to my students. [An example done right: AMLE did a fantastic job of having keynotes who were practicing educators who not only inspired and entertained but delivered fantastic practical applications we could take back to our schools.]

Also, in these conference communities you usually see session spotlights on consultants, non-profit groups, and one-time educational events that are not replicable in other places. There is a place for these at conferences, but not to the detriment of teachers. When it's hard to find sessions on your schedule led by classroom practitioners, your opinion of classroom teachers is broadcast load and clear. I can't help but wonder if this is part of the reason why teachers tend to put the word "just" in front of teacher when describing themselves. When classroom teachers aren't spotlighted, showcased, or promoted, it may inadvertently be sending the message that classroom teachers who (often on their own dime) travel far distances to share their students' stories. They have direct contact with students every single day. They know what works, what doesn't, and how to overcome obstacles. For those of us in the trenches with them, that is the true reason why we are taking precious time away from our own students and spending our own money to travel to your event.

I have to lead my students by example. I know that someone needs to speak up or nothing will ever change...and today is my day to speak up. I realize that I am opening myself up for debate and criticism, but I hope that it prompts some introspection and thought for the future. If anyone would like to discuss this further, I am open to new ideas, dialogues, and perspectives.

Yours truly,
A classroom teacher

P.S. I am not writing about one specific conference, but trends that I have seen emerging. As someone who has organized many professional learning events, I truly value the hard work it takes to plan and implement these huge events that provide teachers a place to meet, connect, and build relationships. Thanks for all that you do.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Who Makes the Grade?

What do you want for your students? I'd like to share an email with you. This appeared in my inbox.

Hello Mrs. Ramsay, I am very concerned about my grade on the argumentative essay. I am confused on how I got some things wrong. I have worked very hard on trying to make my essay as best as possible. Looking at my essay, I noticed you had changed my font. I had capitalized everything in my essay, but I think the computer had changed it. I am wondering if you could look back and reconsider with that in mind. One other thing I noticed was the fact you had commented about having a lot of evidence, but I did not share with the reader on how the tree was strong. I really don't understand that and I worked very hard and I put a lot of evidence like connections from OFTM and how it could connect with my life. I was looking at all my comments from previous times and Mrs. Cabb had said that she really liked how I gave examples and really explained how the tree was strong. Leesil had given the same comment. I had followed the suggestions you wanted me to add to make my piece better. Another thing is about the transition words. I did not think that an argument would need transition words because we are proving a point and giving examples and evidence, usually in an argument you are not saying FIRST, SECOND, THIRD, AND LAST. I thought that we needed to prove a point instead of making it like a book report using transition words. Last, I was worried about not having a concluding sentence because I was sick that week and had no time to add that last bit. Sorry to bother you about this, I really am confused and I am worried because I worked so hard and I really want a good grade in your class and to understand what I was missing.
Thank you for your help,
(Names were changed; the prompt was whether the Giving Tree was strong or weak which came about because of our participation in the Global Read Aloud and reading One for the Murphys.) 

The email above was sent from one of my sixth grade students. Yes, that's eleven year old sent that email to me...without any prompting.

We had just sent home progress reports. It felt like a mad dash to complete assessments and provide meaningful feedback to my students.  For all of their projects, we confer at least twice a week either face-to-face or through Google Drive. We have multiple conversations about their progress. I ask many questions and I listen...a lot.  Many of our conversations relate to what grades mean (a communication of their level of mastery). My learners understand that grades aren't final. There is always room to grow, but often they are hesitant in asking for an opportunity to show further growth.

As teachers, we want for our students to take on ownership of their learning. We want them to drive the decision about their learning. However, there were some teachers who found this email very disrespectful. "How dare a student question her grade?" My response, "Well, it is HER grade." I was elated. Nicole took the initiative to question her grade. She cited evidence from the feedback on her argumentative piece. She relied on past learning to justify the choices that she had made...not to mention that she made a pretty strong argument in this email.

Instead of responding to the email, she and I set up a time to have a conversation looking at her argumentative piece. Nicole drove this conversation. As she spoke, I had her show me in her writing where she felt like she would have scored higher on the measurable, student-created rubric. What she discovered was that there was in fact room for growth. She hadn't taken the specifics in the rubric into consideration before submitting her final draft. She knew she could improve. Through our conversation, she outlined her plan for showing further mastery....which she did....far exceeding mastery of those standards.

Fast forward three weeks. My learners were putting their final touches on their semester benchmark projects. Nicole requested time to address her peers in class.  In those few minutes, she shared her experiences with her argumentative piece and how important it was to look back at their rubric to ensure success. Through this exchange, Nicole not only became an advocate for herself, but also a leader for her peers.

Should students question their grades? Should they request an opportunity to grow and retake assessments? Absolutely! Nicole explained to her peers (and anyone else who asks) that she learned so much more from her "failure" than she would have if she had just accepted her score the first time. And, that is a recipe for lifelong success.