My wish for my students over the summer

As the year draws to a close, I start to think about my hopes for my students over the summer and into next year. So, dear students, here are some of my thoughts:

We spent a whole year together getting to know each other better. We definitely pushed each other to be better in the classroom. I think we all learned to ask better questions and to seek answers. We learned something about creating multiple iterations of our work. We read, we wrote, we laughed, we made beautiful messes while we learned. Here are some of my hopes for you over the summer and know that I will be doing the same.

Read a book

Jump in a lake

Stay up past sunset

Roast a marshmallow

Write something (a story, a book of awesome, a diary)

Ride a bike

Run

Use sunscreen

Wake up early and listen to the birds wake up

Eat your veggies

Spit watermelon seeds

Play your favourite sport

Visit with someone you love

Meet someone new

Notice the way a campfire smells and sounds

Dig in the dirt

Climb a tree

Ask a question and find the answer

Recommend a book to a friend

Listen to a story

Wake up early, wrap in a blanket and watch the sun come up

Eat outside

Build something

Draw something

Hatch a plan

Sing

Dance

Walk through grass without your shoes

Find and name the constellations

Enjoy an ice cream cone

Discover a new favourite ice cream

Sit in a quiet spot outside and notice with all of your senses

Visit a museum

Take a swimming lesson 

Use your French!

Blog

Split a Popsicle with a friend

Take a long walk down a shady path

Daydream

Plant something 

Go back in time

Watch a movie on a rainy day

Spend time upside down

Walk in the sand

Laugh

Memorize a good joke

What about me, dear students? What would you wish for me over the summer?

You know that you become “my kids” when I get to know you and some of you I have had the good fortune for more than one year. I hope you will look me up again someday and we can look back on this time together!

A More Beautiful Question

(A follow up post to The Wonder Wall 2.0)

Inquiry is a way of approaching classroom learning not a box to check off in a long list of classroom “to do’s”. I think the quote is mine but I have done so much reading lately that I may well have appropriated it without realizing it. This post is a reflection on my year as we draw to a close, in which we imperfectly inquired and I learned as much as my students, although we learned decidedly different things.

(A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger, P214)

There is a false impression that when teachers engage students in inquiry all we are doing is a free for all, unplanned, lesson. This is not the truth; what I may have written in the day book is short hand for the deep planning we’ve already done. Planning for worthwhile tasks leads to a day book entry that just says “ask questions” but that doesn’t mean that there was not deep, careful planning before undertaking inquiry with students or careful scaffolding of the skills both the teacher and the students need. In inquiry-driven instruction the teacher must “be willing to give up control to allow for more questioning” (Berger, p6)

What if we brainstormed in questions instead of answers?

Berger quotes John Seeley Brown in that “‘what if…’ questions tend to free up the imagination because they allow you to see things other than as they currently are.” The following questioning process by Rothstein and Santana for K-12 classrooms (p65) proposes an interesting process for guiding questions towards those most worthy of spending real time investigating:

I have attempted to use the process with my students together with a guide for asking more interesting questions, which I originally learned of from @frank_ferrante:

Google “question chart” and you’ll find lots of tips on this, where the green questions are level 1, the red level 2, the blue level 3 and the purple level 4 (careful not to equate these with the 1, 2, 3, 4 on CBE’s current report card), but I’m still attempting to track down the original source. (For the record, can we state Pinterest makes it really hard to track down original sources?!)

We have been using the chart to help create questions but I have been finding that questions become a little forced that way as every student aims to ask a million dollar question. A better way to use it might be to ask authentic questions as they occur to students and then to sort them out into where they fall. Berger suggests having students work with their questions to boil them down to what it really being asked. Open the closed questions. Close the open questions. Sort them and group them until students determine what it is that is really worth the effort to pursue.

It has been interesting to watch my students become questioners and to watch them interact with one another’s questions. It has become common for students to state that they “think they know the answer to that question” and to back up how it is that they know it. The metacognitive piece has been an interesting bit to grow with students – and yes, they sure do know the word “metacognitive” and “distributed cognition” – will they remember it in a year’s time? I doubt it. But I hope the habit of questioning and of thinking about thinking sticks with them.

Berger suggests that questioning “why” without “what if” and “how” is just complaining and that to move toward actionable questions and research that questions move to “why, what if, how”. This has been a habit we have tried to develop especially in our science work lately to make for rich “maker challenges” in which students are really thinking about the why of their work.

The Wonder Wall 2.0: Ask Better Questions

“I’ll ask the question, a few of you will answer and we’ll pretend this is the same thing as learning.”

– Fischer and Frey, 2007

https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/25206641-a-more-beautiful-question-the-power-of-inquiry-to-spark-breakthrough-id

I have long been a fan of inquiry in the classroom but getting students to ask questions is not easy. The best part of learning occurs when we identify the gap between what is known and what we want to know. This is not territory that should be owned by the teacher.

I used to start with: what do you wonder? Then I moved to using a provocation like a short video, a story, or an article and then asking: what do you already know and what do you want to know.

Then the child has to be able to, somehow or other, realize that language is a tool for shifting stuff from that person to them
– Paul Harris

This lead to “the wonder wall” where students started with headings: what I think I know, what I want to know, what I have learned or verified, where I found my information, and ideas that turned out to be wrong. I still struggled with getting students to ask good questions. Moving beyond questions that can be answered yes or no or can be settled with a quick google search like a late night bar bet is a challenge.

Recently, I started using this template shared by @frank_ferrante with my students:


I struggled a little with translating the format into French but we made it work (look ‘ma… we learned the grammar of forming a question at the same time as provoking good questions! This was a rich place to start conversations about what a verb is, why it changes spelling, what is a subject, and how a question is formed. This is how we use language for authentic purpose.)

We used see, think, wonder to guide our inquiry (observer, réfléchir, se poser des questions). We started with a short provocation of looking for any information we could find about topics related to Tunisia (food, buildings, celebrations) and connected to what we knew about Calgary and the two countries we have already studied: Peru and India. Then we started asking questions. The book On the Way To School and the film by the same name provided powerful inspiration for asking questions.


The ground rules were:

1. Every question is a valid question

2. Listen to the question that comes before you speak and try to build it out so that it opens up

3. Aim for purple questions

The conversation was interesting to watch unfold as they pushed questions open by including more of what they already knew. An example of a question that grew(I have translated here but the conversation took place entirely in French):

“What do houses look like in Tunisia?”

“Why do houses in Tunisia look different than the houses in Calgary?”

“Why do they use the building materials they use?”

“How might the building materials they use depend on the environment in Tunisia?”

Of course the formula doesn’t work in every situation. Consider the question: What is truth? It falls into the yellow category, which might be considered a less interesting question but it is a deep question. The formula is just a starting place to get students moving beyond “googleable knowledge”.

Coming to deep questions is a long process but I really think the resulting learning is so much deeper and as students use questions to collaborate on a shared work product they will have the opportunity to learn from one another.

I’m currently working my way through this book and looking forward to asking better questions myself and to helping students ask better questions.

My take away so far: Warren Berger suggests designers use three questions that spark innovation: Why? What if…? How?

 

Learning Commons as Classroom

“Chance favours the connected mind.”

-Steven Johnson

I have been obsessed lately with the deskless classroom and environment as the Third Teacher, so much so that I will be co-moderating a discussion on using design thinking to help students remake their learning space at EdCampYYC 2016.

In this TED talk, Steven Johnson talks about where do good ideas come from and asks: What is the architecture of the space? What are the environments that lead to creativity? Adults, when given the chance to choose a work environment, often gravitate towards the coffee shop or social media. Ideas are cobbled together from what we hear and and we stitch them together. (Johnson, 2010)

Spaces lead to new ideas

We need to build spaces that look more like learning commons as classroom. “Ideas don’t happen alone at the lab bench, they happen at the conference table. The liquid network where ideas jostle together.” A good idea comes from a complex network of interactions. (Johnson) If ideas have long incubation periods, how do teachers create an environment that allows for that long incubation time? Allow hunches to connect with other hunches? Allow students to turn ideas into something greater than the sum of their parts?

Schedule vs Playlist

Every morning, my routine is to enter my classroom, drop off my bags and review my expectations for the day. Before students come in, I post the daily schedule. Some things I look forward to more than others but I always know which parts of the day I’m most excited about. When students come into the classroom they are in the habit of looking at the board. Usually there is a “yes!” and a little happy dance when something good like Genius Hour is on the schedule. I have been thinking lately, though, about motivation and why as the classroom teacher I get to be “the decider”.

Before leaving home in the morning, I what parts of the day I am most excited about. Why should that be different for children? What if our classrooms looked more like a conference and less like a prescribed schedule? What if students had more choice in their day? Some things need to be fixed on the schedule – when there are 600 students and only 1 gym or 20 classrooms and only 50 laptops there has to be some scheduling, but how can we build a more personalized experience? What if a classroom worked more like an education conference? I have been playing lately with the idea of the learning commons as a classroom or classroom as learning commons and using a playlist instead of a schedule.

“Hey, students, at 10:30 am there will be a session on place value’s role in subtraction of numbers to 1000. Attend if you like! These students must attend: x, y, z”

“The bloggers café: always open”

“Pop in to the collaboration corner if you want to consolidate your understanding!”

It would require students having a handle on what they know and what they need to develop. Teachers, too. The very idea of letting students just “go” and fall through the cracks is scary. Students who don’t already know how to advocate for their needs would need to learn that skill and teachers need to use professional judgement. It’s not a free-for-all when it’s carefully planned.

Personalized learning takes student autonomy, careful documentation and reflection on learning, co-planning, and careful goal setting. In my opinion, personalized learning is not adaptive learning environments. While I see the good in including some adaptive technologies like Lexia or Mathletics, this drill-and-practice learning is not understanding. When a child needs to learn multiplication tables adaptive learning can be a huge help but real learning is messy and I worry when we teach students that learning is just progression up a ladder.

I recently saw a picture of a school where there was a cubicle for each of 300 students, touted as being “innovative” because every student was participating in adaptive learning at the same time. “Look ‘ma! No teachers…!” Yikes! Is the “cubicalization” of education what we really want for students? We can be alone anywhere… We cannot be together everywhere. I think more than learning to be apart, students need to learn to come together and technology is one of the many intermediaries for collaboration. I have seen even very young learners collaborating to produce one coherent product that demonstrates learning and providing one another with feedback on content and mechanics of learning both face-to-face and online.

Accountability remains a concern for me. When it is poorly managed, I think it’s easy for students to slip through the cracks in a personalized approach. Students need to be accountable to themselves, to teachers, to parents and need to really reflect on what they know, how they can show it, and what they need to know. I do think this is possible even for very young learners.

When we weigh risks in education, I’m not convinced that a traditional approach in which every student is doing the same thing at the same time is less of a risk than a personalized approach. Is it easier to manage as a teacher? Yes… Is it worth turning kids off learning by telling them what to learn and how to show it? Goal setting and demonstration of understanding is important. In my experience, when students are given the power to choose what and how the engagement goes way up.

Alfie Khon wrote here about the overselling of ed tech and said “show me something that helps kids create, design, produce, construct — and I’m on board. Show me something that helps them make things collaboratively (rather than just on their own), and I’m even more interested.” Collaboration is key!

Where do ideas for teacher and for students come from? They come from the lightning that is what’s in your head meeting what’s in my head and transforming the sand in both into the glass of something greater than what existed before. Ideas come more from collaboration than they do from working alone. I think we need to provide students with the opportunities and spaces to interact, to learn from one another, and to demonstrate that learning in a way that makes sense to them.

 

Teaching as narrative art; teacher as storyteller

Once upon a time there was a writer, turned teacher, turned writer… Turned teacher/writer. Good teachers at our hearts are essentially story tellers. We know story hooks children into the learning whether the topic be children in South Sudan or the quadratic equation, minds wander to why.

Failed teacher? Failed writer? Which came first: the chicken or the egg…

For me, I started as a teacher but in my head I was really a writer. I taught for six years, liked it well enough, worked hard, had success. Then there was a confluence of events as there often is: I had a hard year of teaching at the same time as my husband was offered an exciting position working in Montreal. “Be a writer?” He said to me. “Are you kidding?!” I said,”of course I will.” I told my friends the plan:

“I’m going to be a writer!”

“So how are you gonna make money?…” They would ask.

“I’m going to be a writer…” I’d repeat.

“So…” (long pause here…) “Your husband will take care of you?”

Okay then… I left the classroom and took up another life…

I got a degree in translation, I worked as a translator, a copy editor, a writer. I wrote scripts, pitch documents (so many pitch documents…), I wrote a novel (or two) and participated in a mentorship through Humber college with Joan Barfoot. Yann Martel read me. I met Robert McKee and loved his workshop. I was published in Scholastic instructor. Once upon a time I made it to top 20 in the CBC Canada writes blogging contest. I translated a science textbook…

Where does my work appear now? Mostly nowhere but here…

Finally, I found that the freelance life wasn’t working for our family. I couldn’t be up all day with kids and work at 10 o’clock at night to deliver a document at 6 o’clock in the morning. So I quit.

Maybe.

I’m back in the classroom where I seriously love to be. I am doing a masters degree and have a love for reading and writing about teaching and learning that allows me to marry my loves together into pretty much my dream job.

I think every teacher brings something amazing and different to the table. Part of what I love about teaching are the many varied talents of my colleagues. Not every teacher is a writer; I know plenty of teachers were or are something different in their lives outside of school (sales people, secretaries, personal trainers… the list is endless). But I do think blogging is accessible to every teacher. It’s cheap. It’s accessible. It opens our practice to discussion.

Blogging is a reflective practice; it is important because it makes visible that reflection that often occurs in our heads, on the way home after work, while cooking, while running, while waiting to fall asleep at night.

Does the “publish” button sometimes make me take a long pause? You bet. My admin reads my blog. Potential employers may see what I write. Potential PhD panels may see it in the future and decide I’m not the candidate they are looking for. At the least (or maybe at the most), though, I hope that I can demonstrate blogging is a place for reflection and interaction. It is a place to celebrate success but it is also a place to share what doesn’t work for me and to seek opinions.

Not every teacher brings “writer” baggage to the table, but every teacher can and should blog. It’s the opportunity to make visible the reflective practice that so often happens as teachers. It’s not only what happens in our classrooms that makes us professional educators but also the reflection on best practices, on assessment and evaluation, on feedback, on knowing our students that makes us true professionals.

Anybody can stick a shiny sticker on a spelling test with 100% written on the top. Not everyone knows how or why that might not be best classroom practice.

The truth is that teachers are one part craftsman, honing a skill that can be passed from one practitioner to the next, one part artist, storyteller, dramatic artist, engaging students in the magic of learning, for when it’s done well, any story is narrative art.

What being a student taught me about being a teacher

Recently, I found myself in a “Yoga for Runners” class and had an “aha” moment about my teaching. How often as an adult do we find ourselves in the position of learning something new? Not nearly often enough is my answer, especially if we are teachers.

I have been a runner since I was a teenager. I don’t claim to be very fast or to be able to go very far, but I do LOVE it. I decided to add yoga to the routine because all I was doing was pounding my body with the same old same old four times a week. I have done yoga before but it never really “took”. I do love the dim lights and the quiet, the incense and the chanting, but I am the kind of girl who needs a runners’ high. I want to feel like I have worked hard. I never really felt like I was amongst my tribe.

Yoga for runners blew my mind:

I showed up in my running tights and thought, “meh… They’ll do the trick.” Little did I expect every other yogi and yogini to look like me! The room was full of Nike and Sugoi and not the hemp and bamboo I had expected. They all had feet like me: rough, and bent. Every other yoga class I had been to was full of people who seemed to respect their feet more than I did, but this class seemed to be full of people more interested in where their feet could take them. I found power in knowing every one of those runners had a tight front body and a weak back body. Camel pose that goes straight up and down at best? Yup, that’s me. There is power in finding people with like interests.

I found myself wanting feedback rather than wanting to disappear into the background. The teacher demonstrated, described, and provided feedback. She used words, a demonstration, and sometimes a hands-on realignment of our position. I was not afraid to get it wrong! Rather, I was more concerned with getting it right. There is power in being allowed to make mistakes.

Several times she said, “There is no judgement only practice.” That right there? That blew my mind! I was not right or wrong but on a continuum towards my best me. How freeing to not be afraid to get it wrong! She provided us with feedback and then let us try each position again. The feedback came in the middle of the practice, not at the end where I would have forgotten before the next session. There is power in just-in-time feedback.

She guided us to the ropes and wall hooks where I was incredibly intimidated: what torture device is this? But she made it fun! My first inversion! Did I look like a fool on the outside? Probably. Did I feel like a five-year-old on the playground on the inside? Absolutely! Let’s not forget the value of play in the classroom! There is power in fun!

The class was Robin Hilton’s Hips and Hams at the Bodhi Tree and I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend putting yourself in the student role occasionally and experiencing the slight discomfort of learning something new.

Pinterest, FTW!

Today my students scored a pretty fun afternoon, and I’m pretty pleased with the results of their work. After spending some time on Pinterest, I was inspired to adapt this art project for my students’ work with the Grade 4 curriculum’s unit on rocks and minerals and the Grade 5 curriculum’s unit on weather.

This lesson covered so much: science, language arts, art perspective.

One of my students even remarked: Mme! We’re having fun, but we’re learning, too!

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The students traced their hands and feet, then they drew their faces and bodies. Students were required to include three rock samples and one cloud sample, all of which could be identified by a viewer. After drawing, students outlined their work with a sharpie and painted with water colour. Finally, students blogged their rock and cloud samples and a QR code posted next to their work takes viewers to their site.

I loved this project and I think students were pretty pleased too!