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!

Sunday, March 1, 2015


am delinquent in my posting for two weeks now. Had February vacation, been ridiculously busy getting ready for report cards, and working hard to make up snow days with as many engaging and thorough lessons as I can muster. These are not excuses! Amazing things are happening in my classroom and I should be posting once a week! Shame on me! :-)

This post is about a little inspiration from my mom. She loves puzzles and offered one to me that she had finished. She used to teach and figured my students could maybe do the puzzle during all the indoor recess times we have been having due to snow and extreme temps. 

I placed the pieces out on my small trapezoid table this past Monday and it was an instant hit. The students worked as a team on it, and I had to create a schedule because so many wanted to work on it. I will post a pic of the puzzle when it is finished.

Thanks for the inspiration and puzzle, Mom! You rock!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Text Walk This Way

Between multiple snow days, we are managing to get in some reading workshop time. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I found a fantastic resource for investigating informational text: Just the Facts! Close Reading and Comprehension of Informational Text by Lori Oczkus (Shell Education).

Students brought in informational texts related to their self directed learning projects. We used the Text Walk This Way bookmark for this activity. Students worked together to complete the book mark using one of their texts. Then they did the same with another text. Now that they are familiar with the bookmark, they will get a laminated version to use over and over again. 

The activity is set up with four "text walkers" but it works well with groups of three or pairs. I would not do more than four in a group for this particular activity. Students needed to clarify what some of the sections were asking for, but were then able to take on the task successfully. They figured out that it is really about discussing prior knowledge and text features with their peers and not about writing a lot on the bookmark. The bookmark serves as a guide and record of their discussion. 

As we continue this work, I will post more about our progress. Here's hoping for less snow days in our near future.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"To Be"

This is a post dedicated to the concept of "To Be," from Angela Maiers' amazing book The Passion-Driven Classroom. "To Be" is a way of life, a lens to frame all learning. No matter what the "To Do" you can control the "To Be!"
I handed my students the "To Be" words suggested in the book and they composed these pictures and took them enthusiasitically. As we work on projects and skills for the rest of the year, we will refer to the "To Be" words and add to them. The class can't stop looking at their pictures. They love it!
Thanks, Angela!


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reading Workshop: Informational Text Analysis Begins

This week we start more intense work with informational texts in Reading Workshop. Since October, my students have researched topics that interest them for their self-directed learning projects. This has included two column notes to record main ideas and details, as well as writing blog posts about what they are learning and the process of their research. Some have synthesized their research and presented to the class as well.

Now, in Reading Workshop, we will focus on all elements of nonfiction reading including text features, reader's purpose and author's purpose. This work will include work together hovering over informational texts that they bring in and evaluating them. There are great forms and activities for this work in a book I picked up at Barnes and Noble. Just the Facts! Close Reading and Comprehension of Informational Text by Lori Oczkus (Shell Education) is an amazing resource for this kind of analysis of text.

On our class blog, I wrote a post introducing this work to my class:

Students are gathering their texts to bring in this week, so that the investigating we do will help them directly with their self-directed projects. I will share more as we go through the process.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reading Strategies: Chunking

In Writing Workshop, we are waiting for the Social Studies curriculum to get to Westward Expansion to utilize the Lucy Calkins informational writing unit. While we wait, we are working on current events which is allowing us to focus on Common Core standards for reading and writing. Using and Time for Kids articles, we are practicing chunking to find main ideas and summarize an article. Eventually, in addition to a summary paragraph, students will also write an opinion paragraph to respond to articles.

I found a fantastic short video that demonstrates chunking by MrDunbar67. This video models chunking so well and is the reason my students are off and running with their current event work.

With a big focus on revision, students are having fun coming up with the best topic sentence and the best closing sentence. They are getting very creative with it and challenging others to "hook" them. It is great to see them discussing words and writing style with each other.

I will probably post more about this in the coming weeks and will hopefully share some of the students' work as well.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Animal Related Posts

Here are some recent posts about animals from our class blog:

Down, but Not Out!

Well, thanks to a pretty nasty bout with bronchitis with severe asthma, I have missed three days of school and have been unable to reach my weekly blog goal. Of course, I will make up for it by blogging twice, just as I ask my students to do when they miss a week of posting.

Being sick when you are a teacher is a real bummer. You don't just call in sick and go back to sleep. In one document, a sub plan, you must try to communicate all that you do in a day working with children. It is close to impossible. I have learned, after 23 years of teaching, to let go and not drive myself crazy trying to control what I can't.

My job is to set up a classroom environment from day one that will support the inevitable sick days without everything falling apart. The goal is for the class to feel that they are a team that works to help each other. Students report to me that they remind other students to stop talking, etc. to help out the substitute. I do not expect perfection, but having the community built helps immensely. Some years, it has still been a challenge with individual students, but my classes, overall, have received positives reports for years. This is due to having regular classroom meetings using Open Circle and Responsive Classroom strategies/concepts, as well as focusing students on working together so everyone can learn. Students are reminded daily that this is their job, but it can still be social and fun.

So, I am hoping to return, healthy to school on Tuesday to get back to my job. I miss my students.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Fall 2014 Reflections Part Four: Math

Here are two posts from this school year regarding changes in my math teaching. I will continue to reflect on what is working and not working with math this school year.

Math Facts Mastery
Excerpt from post 10/23/14

Thanks to Laura Candler's Math Facts Program, all my students know their multiplication facts. The goal was for all to know them by our Halloween celebration on the 31st, but they just finished today, October 23rd! What have they done? They have all successfully completed 30 second quizzes for facts 0-12. 

This was accomplished by using the materials that Laura Candler provides in her math facts unit and setting aside 15 minutes every day for kids to study. They also took the 30 second quiz for the fact they were on, every day. Students helped each other and worked together towards this class goal. On the way back from lunch students would ask, "Are we doing facts practice?" It became a real bonding experience for them; a great way to show that Together Everyone Achieves More.

Differentiation and Flipping
Entire post from 12/10/14

This year, for the first time, my team decided to reframe homework to make it more purposeful. Many aspects have been going well. Due to circumstances beyond our control, however, we are having to give math homework every night, Monday-Thursday. To make it the most purposeful learning experience for our students, we will differentiate the homework and also some nights it will be a flipped lesson, watching a video at home to prepare for the next day's lesson.

I am researching the best screencast options and put out a question about it on Twitter to see which one people like the most. One of my teammates likes Screencast- o -matic. 

We use the Singapore Math/ Math in Focus program. It includes reteach, practice and enrich resources, so I will use that to differentiate when I do send something home. I will not send the same page home for everyone. 

Also, our team discussed that 20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time considering we do not want to cut into their reading time and time to work on their self-directed learning projects. Not to mention, studying for any check-ins/quizzes/and tests that may be coming up. We will make it clear to the students that they should not work beyond twenty minutes, especially if they are struggling with the work. Sometimes, homework will be to look over the day's class work to become more familiar with the steps, etc.Differentiating will hopefully avoid some of the homework with tears. I hope to share and reflect more on this topic in this blog.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Fall 2014 Reflections Part Three: Progress with Self-directed Learning

This is the second reflection post about self-directed learning. The first post is Fall Reflections 2014 Part Two: Getting Started with Self-directed Learning. In this post, I am sharing excerpts from my blog that show the progress of self-directed learning so far.

Improving Students' Blogposts           11/8/14

Please follow the link below to my post focused on what students could possibly blog about:

Please follow the link below to see a fantastic post that was written by a student after my Friday blogging discussion about the quality of their posts.

Passions Ignited                           11/15/14

The self directed learning projects seem to be making a difference in how my class views their world. It is fun to watch them get inspired from everything around them. 

We had a class get together after school at a place that has an amazing waterworks show. As the kids watched it in amazement, one student said to me, "Mrs. Milner, this would be a cool topic for an SDL project." 

Earlier in October, we went to an overnight at Camp Bourndale and there were many topics there that students came back inspired to pursue. Click the link to Kevin's blog about magic. He was psyched to start this new topic after seeing an incredible magic show at Camp Bournedale. 

In this post, Will shares what has inspired him and what he plans to do about it.


Many students have stayed with their same topic so far, but it has inspired them to find creative ways to present their topic. One student studied different kinds of codes and his research about the Codetalkers sparked his imagination, so he is writing a fantasy story that will incorporate what he has learned about codes. Click to see his post about his characters.


Another student worked on taking apart an older computer and learning the parts. He then had new questions about how it was different from a newer computer or an IPhone. In wanting to present his findings, he also is learning quite a bit about editing with IMovie. Click to see his posts and the course his project has taken, wholly directed by him.


Some students have enjoyed their topic, but have had trouble getting going with their blogs. A few did not fully grasp the purpose of the blog. After I shared other students' blogs, created a blogging rubric, and wrote a second post about all the different topics they could write about, these students came to understand the purpose of blogging. Click to see my post:

Students are more motivated to do this important piece of self directed learning: reflection. Here are a few examples of students showing growth in their blogs. By growth, I mean not just length of post, but level of reflection and sharing their process.



More SDL Success                        11/21/14

Some cool SDL developments this week:

One student shared this awesome video that is an example of the stop motion animation he is working on.

Another student visited our local t.v. station to try out the green screen and work on his project.

A student studying sharks found something that breaks his heart, the killing of sharks for their fins. Here is his website that he recently created about this problem.

My Latest Self-directed Learning Post 12/2/14

I told my students at the beginning of the year that I would not assign anything that I haven't done myself. With blogging, I am going through what the students are going through. At times, not knowing what to write about, or working all week to make a post the best it can be.

Along with my personal blog, I am also posting on our class blog about my SDL project. Like some of the students, I changed my topic when it wasn't as interesting or motivating as I thought it would be. Now I have a topic that I could write about for the rest of my life! Relieved really. I have empathy for students struggling with this. 

Another great benefit to blogging myself is that I can model how to cite sources, use my own words to share research, write in depth about a topic, use appropriate media, etc.

Here is the link to my Kidblog SDL page:

SDL Magic: Penn is Such a Nice Guy! 12/3/14

One of my students was inspired to study magic for his self-directed learning project after seeing an amazing magician during an overnight school trip. When I met with this student a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I had a friend that knew Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame. I contacted this friend who contacted Penn. His directions were for Kevin to come up with five questions to be answered. Below are the questions and Penn's answers. What a guy!!

1. When did you start doing magic and what or who inspired you? 

I started doing magic when I was 18.  That's when I met Teller.  He changed my mind about magic and magicians. He showed me that it was a true art form that could be done in a way that respected the audience and was truthful.  That was a major change in my attitude towards magic.

2. How did you learn to do all the tricks you do? Did you have a mentor? 

I learned the tricks I know by reading, studying other magicians and tons of practice. My biggest mentors are James "The Amazing" Randi, Johnny Thompson and Teller.

3. What is some advice you would give a young magician?  

Practice, practice, practice.  Be completely original and different than anyone else.  Find one skill that you are good at and hone it until you are better than anyone else. 

4. What are the best resources to learn more about tricks and illusions?  

There are hundreds and hundreds of books and now with the web, your access to information on magic is limitless. 

5. What is a simple trick or illusion that I can perform for my classmates?  

Our National Magic Trick, known as the "thumb tip and hanky" is a great trick to do for classmates.  Send us your address and we'll send you one along with our special Penn & Teller trick cards.

Collaborations and Presentations     12/6/14


One of my students is working on stop motion animation and taught interested students how to use the Lego Animator app.

Here is the link to his blog page that includes some short videos.

Another interesting collaboration is with two students who want to start an online baking business. They want fifty percent of their profits to go to charity. They hatched their idea this week during SDL time.


More students have presented projects the past couple of weeks.


This student's presentation was very well planned and lasted 20 minutes.

Gerry Cheevers:


Evolution of Our Blog                           12/19/14

The blogging we are doing for self-directed learning is fantastic. A few days ago, I reflected on the progress the students have made and how much stronger their writing is getting. I know I want to continue the post a week assignment. However, there are a lot of things that the kids want to blog about and this week I changed the focus a bit. 

Students need to write a self directed learning post two times a month and the other two posts a month can be any other school/learning related topic they want to write about that week. Many will do more than one a week now that they can write about anything. From their comments, you can see they are psyched!

Students are already venturing out to new topics. This week, every day, I have heard students saying, "Hey, you should blog about that!" In math, three boys were working on an enrichment word problem and asked if they could blog about their process and eventual success in solving it. I was thrilled! It will be fun to see how this blog evolves even more now that they have more freedom of topics!