Friday, May 15, 2015

More Student-Led Learning: a.k.a. Thanks Paul Solarz

The past two Wednesdays, I have had a one hour meeting in which I have to leave my room. When the coverage person comes in, I hand her an outline that shows times for transitions and general subjects. She is familiar with the students since she also works in the cafeteria during my students' lunch time. I hand her the very minimal plans and at the top it says the students know what to do and will lead the transitions and work. The two times, last week and this week, were a big success. The class takes great pride in this and the person providing the coverage says that it is a joy. She was impressed that students worked hard to control their volume, which can be an issue with my class. The volume is not because they are unfocused most of the time. It is usually due to the fact that they are enthusiastic about what they are learning.

Similar to what Paul Solarz has shared in his book Learn Like a Pirate, those students who do have attention/impulsivity difficulties are mostly rising to the occasion and they want to be positive members of the classroom. I wish I had started this at the beginning of the year.

These Wednesday meetings will be a regular time out of my classroom every week next year. Great built in weekly practice for the class. Luckily, the coverage person this year will be the same one coming every week next year, so she will be in the loop as to how the classroom is run. With the help of Solarz' book, I am looking forward to starting next year with this student led classroom philosophy!

Student Led Classroom: Organization

Students are enjoying analyzing what is working and not working with our classroom space. They have been brainstorming and implementing changes to make the day run more smoothly. For instance, this summer I decided that the students would not have their own desks anymore. I saw multiple teachers on Twitter singing the praises of no student or teacher desks. So where do the students put their "stuff?" For a cheap price, I bought sturdy cardboard magazine holders for each student. They have actually held up very well. I lined them all up together on the windowsill. They have three binders for 4 subjects that have to go somewhere. I did some major cleaning out of my classroom last summer and cleared shelf space for the binders in three different places in the room. As the school year started, all the students had to go to the same spot at the same time to get their materials/binders. It was not efficient. The students brainstormed and found a few areas in the room where their boxes could go so that they were spread out. Now, with students leading the classroom more than ever, they are again identifying spots in the room that are slowing their transitions and solving the problems, sometimes without even asking me...which I love.

I have an old rusting file cabinet that I covered with a cheap cloth shower curtain from Ocean State Job Lot. It holds most of my files, since I don't have the file drawer in my desk anymore. At the beginning of the year I placed organizers on the file cabinet to hold piles of work for the week, etc. This week some students were trying to find counter space for the pile of Wordly Wise books and some other materials. They came to me to ask if they could move my piles of  work for the week to the organizers hanging from the blackboard tray or in an empty desk that is along the perimeter of the room. I said, "Go for it." One of the students asked if I would like the piles organized into file folders first before being moved. I cried. Well, not really, but the students could see that I was thrilled with their initiative.

In our class meeting the other day, students reflected that there just isn't enough time to clean everything and do some of those bigger organizing jobs. They decided that they needed to do little bits daily, but also figured out that one afternoon a week, we could stop ten minutes early and organize. This is time for them to clean out their boxes and organize the materials in their binders. The students who already have their materials organized can work on some of the cleaning and organizing projects. Some students mentioned maybe having an organizing party after school one day. Seriously, these kids are so creative and enthusiastic. They are putting into place an organizational system that will help next year's class tremendously.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Baby Steps to a More Student-led Classroom

Thanks to Paul Solarz and his fantastic book Learn Like a Pirate, my classroom is becoming even more student-led than ever before. 

Baby Step 1: Every time we come back from vacation, the desks and chairs are in a corner due to our room being cleaned and the floor being waxed. I always have my students collaborate and figure out how they want the room set up. This time, I said nothing. I greeted the  kids at the door, asked them about their vacations and waited to see what they would do. They got straight to work moving the furniture, but some were unsure whether they were just putting it back where it was before vacation or choosing a new set up. One student said, "We get to decide, remember?"

Off they went, moving furniture and planning the set up. It was a hoot to watch.

The finished set up is super cool. They always have better ideas than I do! It was really great watching them during the day. They set up the carpet remnants in the middle of the circle to work and were still able to enjoy the classroom library area because their set-up design purposely allowed for it. 

Baby Step 2: Our morning meetings are always student led. No one has to raise their hand, and they have to listen and respect each other. I usually pose a question and then sit back and listen. This time I asked the class how they could lead more in the classroom. They mentioned that they can use the "give me five" hand signal that our school has adopted to quiet down the class when they get loud. I challenged them to think of other reasons to use the "give me five" signal. clearly were not used to teachers asking them a question like that.

I shared with them the ideas in Paul Solarz' book. They were clearly excited by this new lens on the classroom and their role within it. I went to the classroom jobs chart and one by one took many of the jobs off. I kept only a few. The class was shocked, but they got the point. Everyone is responsible for the day-to-day running of the classroom! Here are some ways that students led today:

1. The class was working hard on their writing work and one student realized it was time to get ready for switching classes. She raised her hand to give the "give me five" sign and everyone stopped and looked. She got embarrassed that everyone was looking at her and then said that it was time to get ready for switching. One student praised her saying, "Good job!" It was adorable. It amazes me how much they support each other.

2. We already had student-led book clubs and our reading workshop routine is very predictable. Without a cue from me, students transitioned into reading workshop and were focused and collaborative. 

3. One student used the hand signal to get the class' attention to start our daily homework check. He called on students to tell the assignment for each subject.

4. Many students refocused their peers during math groups after we had a fun interruption from the Rotary Club (trees for Arbor Day).

5. I am sure there are more examples that I can't think of right now and many more that I didn't see, ex. hallway and transitions to other classrooms.

Oh wait...

6. A student wrote the class schedule on the board for tomorrow. This was a job before that rarely got done. Now that students are in charge of transitions, they understand the importance of having a schedule posted.

I can't wait for tomorrow!

Blue Ribbon Ten Terrific Tips Sessions

Two sessions at the Blue Ribbon Conference in Reading, MA that taught me about tools that I will immediately implement in my classroom were Ten Terrific Tips and Tools to Reach Struggling Readers and Ten Terrific Tips and Tools to Reach Struggling Writers. Both were presented by Karen Janowski, an assistive technology consultant and former Reading educator. Karen’s wiki is chock full of great resources

One site Karen presented that I found easy and applicable to many subjects was It allows the teacher to pose a question to students, and they can answer anonymously or sign their name. For struggling writers, this anonymity is a great feature. They could answer in school by using the laptops or ipads, or it could be done at home as a fun homework assignment. My students have been blogging all year, so they are used to writing online and will love this. Padlet is a good way to get my next year’s fifth graders comfortable writing online in a quick, unintimidating way.

The other tool from these sessions that I got excited about is google docs. It sounds simple, but I had an “aha” moment when I saw the amazing spell check it offers, as well as text to speech options. The spell check is so much better than Microsoft Word. It attends to the context of the sentence and finds those homophone errors that Word does not. The text-to-speech option reads the students’ writing out loud, so that they can hear any mistakes that they didn’t realize were there. If students already have a google account, they can use these tools at home or at school and won’t have to worry about a flash drive anymore. For struggling students, I will recommend it to parents. Google docs also have a great archive system that will show multiple drafts of students’ work.
Google Chrome also has a feature for reading any article from any site out loud. This is a tremendous accommodation for students who are researching, but are unable to read at higher reading levels. Many research articles are written at middle or high school level. With this tool, they can access the information and take notes successfully. The good news is that all these great tools are free to teachers and families.

Blue Ribbon Writing Session

          I attended the Blue Ribbon Conference in our district last week. One session I especially enjoyed was the first session of the conference on Thursday afternoon. The title was Procedures and Protocols that Fast Track Argument Writing. It was led by Tricia Stodden, an elementary school teacher, and Laura Warren, a middle school teacher, both from Reading Public Schools. It was helpful to hear what this approach looks like with fifth graders compared to middle school students.

The Argument Talk Protocol was created by educators at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project/ Lucy Calkins. The first step is to name the argument. In this case, for simulation purposes, it was “Should there be competitive sports for children?” Laura Warren started by reading a piece of one of the articles to us and she modeled how to take notes with a t-chart with pros and cons. There was a third column for “other information.” I am not sure that would be necessary for my fifth graders. I want them to focus on the pros and cons and not misunderstand and fill in random facts in the third column. The students finish up reading the articles and writing their notes showing the pros and cons. We were given two New York Times articles to read. One was about how great competitive sports are in promoting healthy weight in teenagers. The other was about young children getting head injuries when playing competitive sports like football. They seemed appropriate to use with fifth graders, and I plan on using them after starting with easier articles first to get them used to the protocol.

Once the students have read the articles and taken their notes, they get with other students and discuss their notes, adding things they missed, finding good quotes and statistics for both sides. They should be able to argue either side after meeting with this group. Then the students find a partner, and one partner will be A and the other is B. The teacher then announces which side is A and which side is B. This forces students to sometimes argue the opposite side of what they believe.

Then all the As get together and form smaller groups to analyze their best evidence that supports their side. Same with the Bs. They also rehearse their argument out loud. After about ten minutes, it is time for the face off! The students stand in line across from their partner and present their argument. Then they listen as their partner presents. They each have a minute to state their side. A repeats back to B what the best part of their argument was and visa versa.

After this part of the protocol, students get back into their caucus groups to plan their rebuttal to what their partner said. The students need to analyze what was the opposition’s strongest argument/s and how can our side rebut? It is important for students to learn that a rebuttal is not just a restatement of your initial argument. Once ready, they line up again across from their partner and share their rebuttal for a minute each.

Finally, each student chooses a side and sits and writes a flash draft using all the notes and information gained from the protocol. Tricia Stodden said she was able to do one of these each day for a few days as a type of argument writing boot camp. That is my plan as well. Immersing them in the process and having them flash draft afterwards is extremely valuable. Built into this protocol is collaboration with peers which is vital to any workshop lesson. The presenters provided us with packets that they give the students with language for arguments: When you want to state a position…When you want to give reasons…When you want to offer evidence… etc. In addition, they gave us a “Boxes and Bullets Argument Essay Structure.” I will tweak this document to include some writing stems from the Empowering Writers persuasive unit for more guidance through the drafting process. When I am done with my informational writing unit in a few weeks, we will jump right into argument writing boot camp!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

More SDL Fun

We have had some great presentations the past two weeks:

- an eight minute magic show
- a demonstration of how to strengthen your wrist for hockey and other sports
- a presentation on baking including yummy cookies for me (our school doesn't allow treats for the kids) :-(
- a collection of creative student
drawings including emojis and snowflakes.
- a presentation of how to improve your basketball shooting accuracy and how this one student reached her goal of 10/10 shots.
- a video of a student tumbling including editing and music 




Basketball Shooting Accuracy

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Report Cards

I have finished report cards for this term after working on them a little bit all week. It is Sunday night and I haven't blogged. Although report cards take a lot of time to do, they always end up being an opportunity for more reflection on the progress of my students. I am proud of all the work my class is doing this year, especially with their self-directed learning. Their blogs are like a portfolio of their growth. 

This week I am also starting a new informational writing unit with my three writing classes. I will definitely be sharing more about this project in weeks to come. It involves a lot of choice and a lot of preparation on my part.

Sorry this is such a short post, but it's 11:15 at night, and I should be sleeping!