Friday, May 27, 2011

Teacher Modeling

I assigned the endangered species research project.  When I started editing students' final projects, I was amazed with the breadth and depth of their presentations.  Where did they come up with all these presentation ideas? I wondered.  I imagined that some of the ideas came from their experiences viewing current nature-related animal shows on television.  I also knew that we employed many, varied technologies in class this year, and children demonstrated a variety of ways to teach and illustrate concepts, information and ideas with those venues.  Thus, I credited their wonderful endangered species presentation work to innovative nature shows and our classroom tech experiences.

Then I attended the last session of our IWB (interactive white board) professional development course, and watched my colleagues present their final projects.  One of my fourth grade colleagues presented her IWB Midwest Regions introduction.  I noticed that the creativity she employed in her presentation had been replicated by my students in their endangered species' presentations.  She used ActiveInspire, and they figured out how to create similar show-stopping details using Google docs.  Since my students attended her four-session Midwest Regions Tour, I realized that her modeling of a terrific presentation resulted in the wonderful creativity I noticed in their endangered species projects.

Hence, we can't underestimate the value of teacher modeling.  When we make the time to research, create and present high level lessons, our students will then do the same.  We also can't forget the value of shared teaching.  We all bring different lenses and voices to our students, and when students have the opportunity to interact with more teachers, they have a greater breadth of models to follow.  Finally, the fact that my team does break up the responsibility to teach regions amongst all four members of the team allows us to have more time to create deeper, more meaningful, multi-modal rotations, thus resulting in high level modeling for students.

This is a topic I want to investigate more.  I look forward to your feedback and suggestions.

Summer iPad Exploration

Our school's tech staff and administration decided to buy iPads for many teachers this spring.  The iPads will be distributed prior to summer vacation so that teachers can explore this mobile learning device (MLD) during the summer months.  Yesterday I discussed this exploration process with one of our tech integration specialists.  We wondered about the best exploration process.  Here's what we've come up with so far.

  1. The tech integration specialist will give a quick intro to iPad before teachers leave for the summer.
  2. We'll share a list of exploration ideas:  photograph/video special places/events for multimedia composition or projects/class share, quick check of email/news, explore free aps, think about the learning needs of your students,  explore related aps.
  3. Creation of an iPad Exploration Chart - one for our staff, and a public one for our Twitter PLNs to collect ideas related to specific subjects/grades. 
  4. Our tech specialist(s) will attend ISTE to collect more ideas.
  5. Great links share (more to be added):  
If you have further ideas for our summer iPad exploration, please let me know.  Thanks for sharing in this endeavor.  I look forward to your comments.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tweet Sheet: Active Listening for Deeper Learning

Twitter optimizes my learning. During conferences and lectures, I'm able to tweet my connections, questions and suggestions/reflections to my PLN.  This rapid synthesis helps me to make meaning from the presenters' words and research.  My interactions with other listeners via Twitter helps me to understand the speakers' viewpoints from many different angles.  The learning becomes active, broad and deep, rather than passive listening.  Also the learning continues as others tweet back during the lecture or conference and afterwards.  Finally, a solid blog post helps me to solidify my learning and questions for future inquiry.  It's a dynamic process.

When I teach, students are always raising their hands and calling out.  They want to be part of the action.  They don't want the learning to be a passive event.  I understand that.  I'm not ready to let them tweet throughout lessons because at their age they simply would become too distracted.  Instead, I created the Tweet Sheet.  The tweet sheet allows students to take "question, connection, suggestion/reflection" notes while a presenter is giving a talk or a student/teacher is explaining a concept.  Then when the presenter has a "stopping point" for comments, the students can refer back to their notes to offer a connecting comment, question, suggestion or reflection.  The "tweet sheet" prompts students to become active listeners and learners during presentations.

Today, I'll employ the Tweet Sheet during our researchers' meeting.  During the meeting, students will share their questions, comments and suggestions regarding our current endangered species research and multimedia composition project.  As I answer questions, others will want to call out their connections, questions and suggestions, but instead I'll ask them to write down thoughts and wait for their turn instead.  Then, as quickly and thoughtfully as I can, I'll get around to the questions, suggestions and connections of my 24 researchers.

Take a look at the  Tweet Sheet.  If you use it, let me know how it goes Please comment if you have any suggestions for improvement.  It's a bit of "back channeling" for an elementary school classroom.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Twenty Days Left

There are approximately twenty days left in the school year.  There's still a lot I want to accomplish with my students, but I have to be more flexible than ever because the end of the school year brings multiple schedule changes, emotions and special events.

With that in mind, I'm going to take a few minutes to prioritize.
  1. Keep a smile on your face:  It's been a wonderful year.  The children have accomplished so much.  There has been substantial learning and a terrific community.  There's reason to smile.
  2. Focus on optimal completion of our two main final projects: endangered species research/presentation and fiction story books.
  3. Edit, edit, edit, read, read, read, compose, compose, compose.
  4. Keep the peace:  More than ever this is the time to keep the classroom peaceful and productive.  That's a great complement to all the excitement that goes along with end-of-the-year special events, move-up day and upcoming summer plans.
  5. Save the curriculum challenges and big ideas for summer study and reflection:  Make a list, and after an end-of-the-year reprieve, take a fresh look at it as you start to study and reflect.
Like the writer or playwright, much attention should be given to a well-developed, thoughtful, leave-the-audience-with-something-to-think about end of the year.  Onward.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What is the message strangers get when they come into your room?

A classroom observation is a "tip of the iceberg" snapshot of teaching/learning.
Lisa Parisi, an elementary school teacher from Long Island, New York, posed this question on Twitter.  The question filled me with emotion.  Why?

Every person that enters a classroom comes in with their lens -- their point of view, so what each one sees and perceives is different.  Usually when visiting parents come into my classroom, they smile.  They're happy to see so many wonderful learning materials available, engaged students and multi-modal lessons/learning events happening.  My administrators usually react the same -- they know me, they understand what I'm doing and we share similar goals.  The most difficult visitors I've hosted have been coaches who don't take the time to sit down and talk with me.  It seems like they already have a preconceived notion of what exactly should be happening in a classroom and they want to see it in action.  Rather than open minded, these coaches appear to be narrow minded with a set agenda.  They have been educators with little classroom experience and less experience with the wide range of learners a classroom hosts.

So, when the question is posed, what is the message strangers get when they come into your room, my answer is that depends on who the stranger is and what his/her agenda/educational experience is.

The question, what message do I want strangers to get when they come into my classroom, is a good one.  It's a great question to think about.  Here's my answer.

1.  I want visitors to see me as a warm, caring teacher who takes the time to listen to, and respond to each student.  Now all teachers know this is easier said than done, but similar to my goals as a parent, this is a #1 goal for me.

2.  I want visitors to see students who are excited and engaged with their learning.  I want them to witness that spark.  Again, every classroom teacher knows that not everyday for every child is an engaging day.  Sometimes due to a myriad of personal/environmental issues, a child may feel less than engaged and empowered - that's when a teacher's warmth and care come in.

3.  I want visitors to see wonderful, rich student projects on display.  You will see these in my room unless it is MCAS time when most work has to be taken off the walls because it relates to the test content.

4.  I want visitors to see an active teacher who is working with individuals, small groups and the entire class in high-level, multi-modal ways.  Again, you will see that in my room, but sometimes you'll see me in the corner on the computer, and what you won't realize is that I'm quickly typing up an email to a parent about a child's mix-up with a play date, behavior question or need for clarification -- information that will impact a child's day.

5.  I would like visitors to see a really organized, clean room, but you won't always see that because teachers know that we are on-task with children the large majority of the day so when it comes down to  after-hours work, sometimes planning for the next day's lessons or student work review takes precedence over organizing materials.

Like teachers everywhere, I want everyone to see my room as a vital, engaging, multi-modal, student-centered, standards-based, tech-savvy environment.  However, I recognize that classrooms differ day to day dependent on the student needs at hand.  That's why I don't like the idea of "walk throughs" similar to the medical model.  "Walk throughs" in a hospital are usually one doctor-one patient, in a classroom there's a complex number of events happening at all times.  Hence, I feel that the best way for a stranger or visitor to understand a teacher's classroom is a series of events beginning with a discussion with the teacher.

When it comes to coaches, I believe the best coaches are teachers with vast classroom experience.  The best coaches have the attitude that teachers are caring, invested professionals, not robots who can be programmed.  The best coaches see classrooms as complex arenas, not one-size-fits-all environments.  The best coaches care more about teachers and students than their own ambition or agenda.  The best coaches are invested in the growth of students, teachers and schools -- they understand that no one teacher can be all things, and that there are many ways to do the job well.  And finally, the best coaches are experts in their subject matter and how to teach that subject.

So in summary, I hope that strangers see what I value: a caring, creative, child-centered learning environment.  I also hope that visitors, particularly those assigned to help teachers, will take the time to know the teachers they work with, and to listen to their values, goals and needs.

I'm really curious what other teachers have to say about this question.  Unfortunately I'm unable to follow Parisi's* discussion on this topic today.  I'm open to your thoughts about this subject as I continue to think about it.  Thanks for listening.

*Lisa Parisi :  Conversations in 3 hours (5/22 - 12 pm EST).Topic:What is the message/story your classroom tells? What kind of branding have you created?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Weight Challenged in the Classroom

     Yesterday I edited a terrific fiction story by a fourth grade student.  The story included the word "fat" to describe a character in the story.  Right away, I was struck by that word.  As a big kid, I was called "fat" more often than I cared for.  It really left me feeling bad and sad.  So I debated the girl's use of the word as a descriptor.  She used it in an authentic way in dialogue.  It made the story realistic.  Also, she was portraying an issue we deal with in our culture.  I decided to let it stay -- it was her voice and it added to the story.  I also decided to have a "weight challenge" discussion prior to the story presentation.

     I started the discussion with the fact that all people face challenges, and that some challenges are hidden and others are obvious.  I mentioned that our school community helps children with their challenges in many ways with many teachers and activities.  I also stated that "when one student works on his or her challenge it makes that person stronger, but when we help each other with our challenges, it makes the whole community stronger."  Then we specifically talked about weight challenge.  I noted many reasons why people might be bigger including genetics (if your family members are big, you're likely to be big), cost and access to healthy food, and education.  I talked about my own experiences as a weight challenged individual.  I also mentioned that while the word "fat" makes me feel powerless and stigmatized, the words "weight challenge" help me to recognize that this is one of the challenges I face as an individual, and like climbing any personal mountain, I can climb this one too.

    I encourage all educators to think about their weight challenged students.  First, it's important that your schools are places where only healthy food is served and shared, not junk food.  Usually, it's the weight challenged students that gravitate towards the junk food and it's unfair to them to have it around.  Secondly, please don't accept put-down comments towards your weight challenged students.  The prejudice towards overweight individuals should not be tolerated in schools.  Instead, schools should work to institute healthy activities and health education.  Thanks for listening.  I'll continue to think on this topic.  I welcome your feedback.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Summer Study - A Short List

As an elementary school teacher who teaches many subjects, I'm struck by the fact that there are mountains of information available to me at every moment.  That leaves me with the important task of prioritizing what information I choose to share and how I share it in order to teach the many standards and processes outlined in local, state and national standards.

I recently reflected back on this year.  I thought about our teaching methods, content and events that worked best, and those that we might think about revising or refining.  I analyzed the technological tools and other resources we use to make school an engaging, positive and productive experience for our students.  Now, I'm getting ready for summer study.  What will be the focus of my reading and work over the summer to implement the best possible program for my students?

1.  I will revisit Ruth Charney's Teaching Children to Care.  That book is an essential element for elementary school classrooms.  It's imperative that we spend the first six weeks of every school year creating community and establishing positive classroom routines.  I really enjoy the curriculum, learning, and knowledge, but if I jump ahead too fast, I won't establish an optimal classroom climate for learning.

2.  I'll take a close look at our grade-level curriculum outline. I'll see where I can integrate skills into project/content blocks more effectively to make learning meaningful, relevant and differentiated as well as to provide the necessary practice.

3.  I will continue to focus on reading. It's essential that fourth graders have the one-hour reading block five days a week.  It's difficult to sustain that on top of all the other curriculum mandates at fourth grade including the ambitious narrative writing, reading response writing, and math standards.  I would like to make independent reading a large part of homework next year, and a large part of our social network "conversation."  I plan to try this out over the summer months using our NING network.  Then in the fall, it will take time to foster positive routines both in school and at home with respect to reading.

4. Finally, I will read over and organize all the tweets I favored this year.  I'll organize my professional research questions and related content.  Currently, my questions include:
  1. What are the best developmentally-appropriate learning strategies and tools for fourth graders?
  2. What tech tools should every fourth grader use and understand?
  3. What are the best questions to motivate student engagement, discussion and learning?
  4. What are the best field study experiences for fourth graders?
  5. How can I facilitate a vigorous, positive, supportive learning community including parents, colleagues, community members, and students?
  6. What are the best relevant and meaningful projects for fourth graders related to content standards and expectations?
  7. What is the optimal literature for teaching and practicing reading comprehension strategies?
  8. What media best supports the educational goals for fourth grade?
I'm sure that I'll refine the objectives on this blog as summer draws near.  I am even more certain that I'll refine and revise all the work I do this summer when I meet next year's class.  Every class brings a unique set of interests, learning styles and challenges, and I will personalize the year's projects and learning to meet next year's students' profile.

Do you have a process for establishing summer study objectives and activities?  What questions are you most interested in at this time? And yes, I will add time for fun as it's important to step back, relax and enjoy the summer break so you're ready for the challenges the year ahead poses.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Climbing the Teaching Mountain

As a child I climbed many mountains.  I was a chubby, awkward kid, and climbing mountains was tough.  My agile little sister raced to the peaks while I huffed and puffed up and over every rock and tree stump.  My large family waited for me at forks in the trail.  I could hear them laughing and playing in the distance as I trudged up the steep paths.  When I came into view they'd yell, "There she is," and when I reached the waiting party, they'd all jump up and start the climb again leaving me barely a second to rest.  But as soon as we passed the trees and spied the view, my energy multiplied.  The magnificent view of the landscape below and the sky above filled me with the vigor I needed to reach the summit.

Climbing mountains and teaching have some similarities.  The classroom feels like the forest sometimes.  Teachers work tirelessly with large numbers of students trying their best to meet each and every need.  And like my quick-climbing siblings, leaders sometimes make quick decisions, leaving teachers behind huffing and puffing to do the work of reaching the goals.  Sometimes, no one waits to give the teacher pause, and time to communicate what he or she is thinking or doing, they just move on, making decision after decision.

That's why, as a teacher, I need to focus on the "view" of what's important and where I'm headed.  Teachers are in the front line when it comes to education.  They are the ones that have to navigate the vision of many leaders within and outside of their school systems while still making sure that they meet the everyday needs of students.  The "view" is the vision, the landscape and sky of where one is going and what's important.

Today, as I think about my vision and view, the place on the mountain that energizes and invigorates me, the following thoughts come to mind.

1. Children are center stage in education.
2. A teacher's job is to develop students' skills, knowledge, social competency, self concept and passions.
3. Communication is essential.
4. Welcome critique
5. Continue to research, read, observe and learn.
6. Continue best practices; refine and revise as needed.

Like that little girl on the mountain, I have to find the vision from within to stay strong and agile as I climb the teaching mountain.  It's not always an easy trail or path.  There's often many obstacles in the way, but having a wonderful "view" of what's possible and what's important gives one the energy to continue the climb.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Theater, Community and Confidence

Last night I had the privilege of attending the high school play.  The students performed Les Miserables with talent, confidence and passion.  I was amazed to see those I knew as young fourth graders stand on the stage with pride and skill.  I was also reminded that much of the complexity a fourth grader might face turns into competence with the chance to refine skills and build passion in safe, nurturing environments led by talented, passionate mentors.

I feel the same way when I attend a high school sports event, musical performance, community service gathering or scholastic presentation.  I am always amazed at my former students' accomplishments.  I attribute their success to the fact that families and our school community purposefully work together to provide and direct children towards activities and opportunities that develop their personal interests and skills.  These opportunities also serve to develop students' social networks.

At each level in our school system, energy and planning are focused on developing students' interests, skills, knowledge and talents in developmentally appropriate ways.  Like building blocks, one school level builds upon another to help students meet potential and attain knowledge and skill in a variety of arenas including sports, theater, music, dance, community service and more.

Next time a student in my class presents a complex situation, I will remind myself of the students on the stage last night.  Steady, kind, thoughtful support in a developmentally appropriate ways fosters students' positive growth -- it's a step-by-step, student-centered approach.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Collegial Conferences During Lessons?

When I'm involved in a lesson, even if I'm sitting apart from learners, I am actively watching, listening, and acting on what the students are doing.  If a colleague comes in to discuss another matter, I will usually request that we talk at another time because once my attention is taken from the learners,  my steady attention to the lesson/learning objectives drifts.

While the learning is taking place, and when I'm not interacting with students, I'm usually watching and assessing the following points:
  • Is the lesson structure working?
  • Were children able to transition successfully to independent/group work?
  • Are the small groups working well together?
  • What else do students need to successfully gain the concept, skill and/or knowledge?
  • Who needs remediation, enrichment, more practice and review?
Many teachers flexibly confer and teach during the day.  Specialist teachers drop in to confer, pull students, and spontaneously alter the days' efforts.  While I recognize that there's a degree of flexibility that's necessary due to unexpected student events/needs, student/teacher absences, and needed redirection during a lesson, in general, I believe it's best if teachers have a solid schedule to follow, and most of the service delivery and learning facilitation happens without impromptu meetings and discussions during lesson delivery.  

What do you think?  Should elementary teachers be more flexible and willing to stop lessons to have short meetings/conferences with specialist teachers, parents and others who might drop by, or should we mainly redirect those meetings/mini-conferences to more thoughtful times and scheduled planning meetings?  This may sound like a minor matter, but when classroom teachers are working with many children at one time, and many colleagues throughout the week, it's important to preserve the time and space for optimal learning and meaningful, focused dialogue.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

iPad Immersion and ELL Learners

Wow!  My head is spinning as I use my Macbook Pro, and immerse myself in the iPad to best meet the needs of two new non-English speaking students in my class.  These tech tools provide limitless avenues to help our new students feel comfortable and learn English.  The challenge is choosing the best, developmentally-appropriate, engaging tools for learning, and deciding which tools are best at which times.    I am continually reminded of the National Educational Technology Plan 2010's  attention to ELL learners with regards to technological innovation.

I will continue to blog as I travel this new, educational path of discovery and learning.  It's amazing how our work to meet every new challenge in education ends up profiting all students.  For example, when we first began to employ inclusion techniques, we realized that the strategies for optimal inclusion were strategies that benefitted all learners.  Now, as I employ strategies to meet the needs of our new ELL students, I am realizing that the strategies we are employing meet the needs of all the students in the class with respect to our ever-changing global community. 

Students are learning to use tools that help them learn new languages and cultures.  Students are learning how to communicate kindly and successfully with students from other countries.  The children are also learning how to contribute to, and gain from, a broad, diverse learning community while everyone pitches in to teach the new girls.

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions as our class navigates this new learning challenge.  I know that teachers throughout the world are facing similar teaching challenges, and that innovators are rising to meet those challenges mainly through the use of optimal tech tools.  Stay tuned.