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!