Saturday, February 27, 2016

Feedback: Taking it to Heart

Feedback. It's a topic about which I have written quite a bit, especially in the realm of its integral role with student learning. However earlier this week, I got to experience the role that feedback should have upon the instruction provided to the learners. I know that all of us have dutifully completed surveys at the end of a day of professional learning only to see that no changes are made to subsequent events. As a participant, it implies that your voice isn't important; others know better than you. You become a victim to what others want for you rather than having that control over the learning process.

I can honestly say that my experience with the Network to Transform Teaching Hub team was the complete opposite. Never in my experience, have I observed a group of organizers take the feedback left at the end of one day, to immediately turn around and spend hours making alterations and adjustments to the following day's agenda based on what the learners needed or wanted from the experience. I want to point out that all the participants received an agenda (a plan) that I can only imagine took days to create in advance of the learning session. Yet, the Hub team valued what everyone said and were willing to make adaptations to meet our needs.

For me, this served as a perfect model for how accomplished teachers would approach their classrooms. We all collect information and data from our students, but the real question is what do we actually do with it? Do we listen to what our students are actually saying and make changes to our plans based on what we hear? Are we valuing what our students need, what they want out of their learning experiences?

For several years, I have asked my students to provide me feedback on our classroom throughout the school year: What went well? What didn't go well? What goals do you have? What changes can we make to better support your learning? As the recipient of that feedback, you have to be willing to hear some things that may be very hard to hear. I've had some learners provide feedback that has brought me to tears, but when I honestly looked at the choices that I made, I could see the disparity between what I thought I was doing to support learning and what the student perceived.  Even though we may spend hours planning to meet the needs of our diverse learners, the truth is we don't know how our intentions translate to each one of them unless we take the time to ask, truly listen, and put their ideas into action. Because the reality is that this learning is about them, not us. They deserve the best learning opportunities possible. We just have to provide the tools, guidance and pathways to get them where they want to go.

Want to read more about feedback in our classroom?

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Learning is Hard

This week, I have been immersed in a four day learning session. While the work is extremely valuable and exciting for student learning, it is completely out of my day-to-day realm. I possess very little foundation in this type of work (in spite of completing my homework in advance). As I reflected at the end of the day yesterday, I realized that much of what I was experiencing can be very similar to what some of our students may experience within our classrooms everyday. As someone who strives to learn and grow every single day, it was an eye-opening experience to sit in this role.

This lead me to question the choices I make with and for my students. Am I providing them the supports that they need to make sense of the content with which we are working? Do I give them some context upon which to hang new ideas and then the time to process and discuss these ideas? Am I stopping throughout the learning process to check for understanding or am I trudging forward full speed ahead oblivious to the fact that a student is sitting there completely lost and frustrated?

Furthermore, what are my students experiencing? Are they so overwhelmed that they complete shut down? Do they feel like they are the only one in the room who doesn't get it? Are we giving them an opportunity to vent their frustration? (Thank you, Emma) Are they getting the encouragement and one-on-one support that they need to keep moving forward instead of completely giving up? (Again, thank you, Emma)

Learning is hard. Sometimes it's scary. As the lead learner in our classroom it our obligation to look out for every single student put into our charge. Sometimes it's important to put ourselves into their shoes and feel how overwhelming, messy, and ultimately, exhilarating learning can be.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What do you value?

This past weekend was the University of Montevallo's annual homecoming, College Night.  For College Night, students break into two teams, gold and purple. Each side spends three to four weeks writing and producing an original musical. Everything is done by students: costuming, musical compositions, choreography, set design/building, lighting. The two sides perform, amidst each side's chanting and cheering and it's scored by a panel of judges. A tradition like none other in the United States, it began in 1919 and is a considered a local legacy by the Library of Congress.

As we were ensconced with all the different College Night celebrations, it occurred to me that many of the attributes that we value in our classroom are also valued at Montevallo: creativity, collaboration, community, voice, hard work and acceptance.

It's obvious, to even a casual observer, that the University of Montevallo values those traits. As a teacher I couldn't help but wonder how we demonstrate what we value within our classrooms? What does a casual observer see when he/she walks into our learning space? Are students sitting in quiet rows working on test-prep? Are learners sitting all over the space, collaborating in face-to-face and digital formats? Are they building and making things? Are they applying their learning in meaningful ways? Is everything focused towards a score on a standardized test, or are students pushed to demonstrate mastery on authentic problems? Where we invest our time and energy shows what we value.

I think whether we make conscious decisions or not, what we value as an educator can be seen with our students in our learning spaces. Sometimes, we need to take a look in as an outsider to see if what we value is truly what is being manifested in our classrooms. If someone who didn't know you came into your classroom, what would they see?

Let's take these ideas and build the best learning experiences possible for our students.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Igniting the Love of Reading

Not too long ago, I got to participate in some fantastic conversations at ILA15. One of these conversations was how we can ignite the love of reading in even our most resistant students. As Lester Laminak said, " We want students to fall into a story and wallow in it because that is how one discovers a love of reading."

At an Edcamp later, I joined a conversation about sparking a love a reading in middle school readers. At the end of this dialogue, someone asked me if I had these ideas in one place. So here are a few of the ways that my learners and I have found to break down even the last resister to ignite that love of reading...

1- Each Friday, we dedicate time for silent, independent reading. Students can read ANY literature that interests them. We have a large library of comic books, picture books, novels, and nonfiction books. Also, my students can choose to read their classmates' blog posts or articles online. They can read about ANYthing that interests them.

We approach this day as an exciting event. It's true that if you are enthusiastic about something, the students will mirror that excitement. Many students have had that flame stomped out by reading logs, scripted programs, and mandatory AR points. So, we gradually build up their endurance. No pressure. We are reading because it is FUN. It's perfectly acceptable for students to read part of a book and decide not to finish it. Then we have informal book chats. Students take 90 seconds to sell their book to their audience. A peer's endorsement of a book results in a long waiting list for that book in our classroom library and the school library (To be totally transparent, a majority my favorite reads this year have been a direct result of these informal book chats.).

Consequently, our classroom became a place where book chats spontaneously sprouted and dialogues blossomed. When students finished a book, they would go to one another for recommendations. My students reaped so much from this simple practice and eagerly anticipated our time each week.

2- The weekly independent reading and book chats opened students up to conversations about reading and writing. Several of my students even formed their own book clubs during lunch. It quickly became a popular thing to join these student led book discussions. It wasn't long before these groups included students who didn't see themselves as readers.  Therefore, it was no surprise that these lunch time book clubs organically developed into student-run book clubs within our classroom. Students chose books, set group norms, timelines and facilitated their own discussions. (You can read more about that here: Once Upon a Time Student Run-Book Groups.) The students had an authenticity to their reading and their writing.  The results were amazing as students had the opportunity to connect with peers who were in different classes, gaining different perspectives, strengthening their literacy skills, and having...dare I say

3- Since today's students crave immediate feedback from their audience (usually judged by how many likes they've received on Insta posts), each year, we usually engage in several synchronous book chats using a variety of digital tools. What we've discovered is that it really doesn't matter the tool; what matters is that they have the opportunity to talk, in real time, to others about the books that they are reading. They love forming connections with their global peers over their favorite books. Gaining that perspective often pushes them to think beyond themselves to see and gain a respect for others' opinions and ideas. It stretches them to see beyond themselves and their community, discovering their place within a global community of readers and learners. My students have used tools like Twitter, TodaysMeet, Skype, and Google Hangout.

The question that I often get is "How do you find these classes to connect with your learners?" Over the years, I've been able to find connections through various social media outlets. Many of these connections have been through our participation in the Global Read Aloud (You can read more about this program here: One Book to Connect the World.) As a teacher, there is an entire community of fellow educators who are interested in connecting their students through literature. Many of the connections that we've built through the Global Read Aloud become long term connections. My students love the opportunity to build relationships with their global peers in order to share their reading, writing, and ideas.

4- Another way my students connect with one another to share books is through a Book Tasting. Often students will find a book series or an author that they love and they will read every book in that series or by that author and they are stumped for what to read next. Even though we do the informal book chats every week, there are so many book recommendations that go unshared due to time. A book tasting is an activity where students bring in their favorite "unsung hero" book in any genre. They write a recipe teasing that book for their peers. During a book tasting, learners have a blank menu where they can select books that appeal them. Appetizers, for a little taste of something different. Entrees, for something meaty to dig into. Desserts, for a frivolous light-hearted read. 

Our classroom was decorated like a diner. Set on each table was a platter of books. Students would read the recipe, pieces of each book and discuss them with the "dining companions." As the diners were wrapping up their tasting, a new platter of books was delivered to their table. Learners filled their menus with books recommended from their peers. Even my most reticent readers enjoy themselves, finding great reads recommended by their classmates. (You can read about the details of this day here: It's Time for a Book Tasting and Build a Book Buffet.)

I hope that one of these ideas may spark some ideas for you and your readers. I'd love to know what you have found that works for your students. Please share any of the ideas you have found to be successful with your readers.