Thursday, October 31, 2019

Measures for holistic learning?

Years ago at a conference at Google in Palo Alto, California, I found a man at my side during several episodes of the conference. Eventually, I had the the chance to talk to the man who said he was exploring holistic measures related to learning. That quest struck me as meaningful and intriguing.

As an educator, my aim is to teach the whole child, yet when it comes to assessing work related to that, like the man I met so many years ago, I am a bit challenged. How do we assess programs with a holistic lens--how do we know when a program serves a whole child well?

Tomorrow, I'll investigate this question with a greater lens as I meet with a diverse of Massachusetts educators who are looking to improve and develop their efforts related to assessing curriculum programs.  Our team will grapple with how to best assess students' learning and programming related to an interdisciplinary environmental science unit. What's working well and what can be better? How will we best assess that?

I'll certainly be a good listener with my dedicated team and the dedicated educators from throughout the state who are grappling with a similar question. This is a good start to growing our programs in meaningful and memorable ways.

When children lead their parent/family member-teacher conference

Fifth grade students are leading their parent/family member-teacher(s) conferences. At the table, the child is seated between their family members while the teacher(s) sits nearby. Using a showcase portfolio that includes signature examples of the child's study plus reflections about that study and related social-emotional learning, special events, learning preferences, and interests, the child leads the conversation which begins with the child introducing their family members to teachers with first and last names.

Essentially the result is a good conversation amongst all of the main members of a child's learning team about a child's strengths, challenges, interests, and goals. The teachers also share stat sheets which include assessments scores and comments from the child's main academic teachers. If needed, teachers and parents will speak alone for a few minutes during the conference too. The overall goal of these student-led discussions is to put the child in the driver's seat of their education.

Our collegial team has been developing this approach for a number of years now. At first, including the child was an option, and now we expect all children to lead their conferences. We've also developed the reflection pieces over time too to make those surveys more holistic and representative of the work we're doing and the ways children can use reflection to develop their effort, investment, self-advocacy, and success.

To further develop this approach, we can do the following:
  • Bring most learning full circle including reflection and completion of projects, assessments, and other learning efforts.
  • Include photos more often--pictures of students actively learning truly enrich the portfolio. When a child describes what's happening in a learning photo, they truly bring their learning alive during the conference.
  • Update portfolios regularly--perhaps adding a reflection time each week where students look over and update their learning portfolio.
When students present, the developmental curve related to metacognition is evident. Some students easily lead the entire conference demonstrating keen awareness of their learning, and others are more reluctant and uncomfortable with this leadership. Also, students' reflections vary from sparse and elementary to deep and more sophisticated responses. This developmental curve makes me want to investigate these questions:
  • How does nature/nurture affect metacognition? Are some students better at self-reflection because they have had more opportunity for this, or is this related more to the natural development of children?
  • How can we help families to help children develop stronger metacognitive awareness? How can we grow this skill more at school?
  • We notice some gender differences with regard to metacognition--is this a nature or nurture difference? I want to understand this more.
These child-led conferences help educators to really know their students better while also providing a good glimpse of the class as a whole. For example, there was a trend with this year's students with regard to active learning--they love moving which leads me to think about how I'll integrate more movement into the learning. 

Do you employ student-led conferences in your learning environment? If so, what are the highlights of this process? How do you develop and grow this work? I'll be thinking more about this in the days ahead. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Science Teamwork

Today students created water filters as part of our STEAM Survival series. Most teams collaborated well and successfully created filters to clean water. A few teams and students struggled with teamwork.

An explicit discussion about teamwork and watching Ideo's classic shopping cart video set the stage for working together, failing often, and getting the project done. As far as teams and individuals that struggled with collaboration, we'll make some changes and add some coaching to help those teams and individuals. Some possible changes may include:

  • changing team members around
  • letting some work in a separate space with their teams
  • providing a simpler project menu with more bonus to give students an easier way to be successful with the activity while still providing those who want more, enrichment. 
We've got a lot of science lessons to come and lots more collaboration throughout the curriculum, so this is an important focus.

Today's Science Adventure: Water Filters

Today, students will spend the morning learning science. While expected teaching schedules far outnumber the minutes in a day or energy in the room, we find we have to set aside big blocks of time now and then to teach science in a meaningful, productive, and positive way.

This morning students will learn science in the following way:
  1. Before school, I'll complete the final prep steps of distributing sand, charcoal, filters, water testing charts, plastic containers, cloth, and dirty water from a local water area to students' investigation buckets.
  2. When students arrive, they'll get their computers and headphones then go to the web page that includes videos and information related to today's water filter exploration. Students will have about 20 minutes to preview the videos and information.
  3. I'll spend some time upfront reviewing the STEAM steps and the attributes of what makes an optimal STEAM team. Students will watch Ideo's shopping cart video to see an example of a strong STEAM team, and then we'll discuss what we saw and how we can replicate those positive attributes with today's investigation. 
  4. They'll be a break to attend specialist subjects, a short recess, and then we'll start the specific exploration with a review of the investigation via words and videos.
  5. After that students, using paper guide books and video guides on their computers, will begin the investigation. I'll help as needed as students choose team roles, test the dirty water, design their filters, record their results on paper, collect their supplies, create and test a first iteration of their water filters, then, if time allows, create and test a second iteration, answer the conclusion and reflection questions about their investigation in the student packets, and pass in their lab packets for teacher review. 
I'm glad we made good time for this investigation, and I'll be watching to see how students apply the learning that came before this, learning about optimal teamwork, step-by-step lab work, and thoughtful, detailed lab book responses and diagrams. 

While teaching like this requires extra time, when done well, there is a lot of satisfaction because children are generally happily engaged and they learn a lot! 

Science Teaching Prep and Planning

It takes a lot of time and space to set up a science lab for young children. Setting up the lab requires hours of gathering and organizing materials, hours in a day when most educators are lucky if they have a one-hour prep for all the work they have to do to plan and prepare each lesson, respond to emails, meet with family members and other educators, and keep up on the latest research. The space to store all the equipment is also rarely available in busy, small classrooms that house many children all day as well as supplies for all the other subjects. These are reasons why educators have shied away from lots of science teaching at the elementary level in the past.

That's also why educators' work day typically spills over to their personal lives with multiple hours in early in the morning, after school, and/or into the evening. Also, many educators are funding the supplies needed for science programs in school in order to make those programs more interesting, timely, and hands-on for students. Often, purchasing in school systems are somewhat punitive, inefficient, and unhelpful systems that make getting the materials you need in a timely manner an arduous, painstaking process so teachers, instead, simply use their own money to buy the materials on Amazon or at local shops--this can cost teachers up to $1,000 or more dollars a year. Teachers do this because it makes the lessons more successful, time-efficient, timely, and fun.

Massachusetts launched new science standards just a few years ago. The standards are good, and systems like the one I work in, have put together programs, supports, and materials to help teach these standards. This along with teachers' own purchases and significant time outside of the school day has put our science program on a good trajectory, but there's still more work to do.

As I learn to teach science more effectively, I'm coming up with processes that work well including the following:

  • Tying the science teaching to timely events, good videos, and engaging hands-on activities. Some of the standards and lessons are rather dull on their own, but when you make the time to build those standards and lessons into more meaningful and memorable events, everyone learns more and enjoys the lessons too. Our team has worked at this which has resulted in good results with regard to engagement and learning. 
  • Connecting science lessons under engaging themes helps to enliven the learning too. For example, we put many of the standards under the theme of survival which students are curious about. To make the theme more interdisciplinary we included a survival read aloud, Hatchet, and added a survival theme to students' narrative writing unit. At recent conferences, it was exciting to see students' enthusiasm, pride, and interest as they shared their thoughts about the read aloud, survival stories, and related science explorations. 
  • Making the science come alive with expert visitors and field studies. Demonstrating that good learning happens with wonderful experts and in wonderful places outside of school brings life to a school program and makes the science teaching and learning more memorable and engaging too. 
  • Making space for all those supplies and taking the time to order and take care of good quality supplies makes the planning and prep easier. For example, last year we spent a lot of time ordering and preparing supplies for our watershed model making activity, then this year the supplies were ready which made the prep easier. I am in the process of remaking my classroom yet again to make good space for all those supplies too.
  • Creating lab books that go along with each investigation provides a good guide for students, colleagues, and family members. Guiding packets act as recipes to the science learning by including the materials, steps, and room for thoughtful answers, questions, and reflection. These little booklets are good go-to guides as students and teachers prepare and engage with the explorations, and they are also good guides for children as they use the information to relay what they learned in discussion with family members, answering questions on tests, and project work. 
  • Creating and updating a guiding website. Having a website that includes all of the good resources and keeping that website up-to-date helps all members of the learning team access the information whenever they need or want it. This eventually saves time and supports program development in positive ways. 
Store bought programs can be helpful, but sometimes lack the timeliness and personalization that make learning more engaging, deep, and rich. In many ways, preprepared programs can serve as a launching point for a more engaging, deep, and meaningful program. 

And, as with every curriculum area, the world of science and science teaching is ever changing so it's imperative to make time to update programs regularly to reflect those changes.

Further, as much as any subject, science requires optimal social-emotional learning to learn well. Scientists need to know how to work as contributing team members who can assign and carry out important roles, debate, discuss, and work together to effect a meaningful result. Scientists have to be patient, good communicators, orderly, organized, and creative too. When teaching science, we are always focusing on apt SEL skills and attitudes at the elementary level too. 

There's lots to do to teach science well. Children's enthusiasm for the subject fuels the needed time and energy that's required to do this job well. 

Beware of too many consultants, coaches, and guides from the side?

I worry about systems hiring too many consultants, coaches, and guides from the side when, in fact, what we really need in school is more hands-on help--people who can sit next to a child and help that child learn.

Yes, a little coaching, consulting, and guidance can help, but in general, when a group of teachers work together with time, ample support, and some professional learning opportunities now and then, we can do very good work by students.

However, when we're navigating countless coaches, consultants, and guides from the side, our time with and for students is often impeded by the time it takes to navigate all these helpers.

Money is well spent when it is spent on supporting educators, teaching assistants, reasonable class sizes, and time for prep, planning, and learning too.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Curriculum squish

While the goal of multiple standards is to create a strong knowledge, skill, and concept foundation for all learners in a manageable way, curriculum squish continues--why?

If we were to teach the standards alone in bland ways, we probably wouldn't face the challenge of fitting it all in that we face, but the fact that we want to teach these standards in deep and meaningful ways creates squish. When we promote collaborative study, project based learning, field studies, expert visitors, STEAM, and more, we lengthen the time it takes to study the standards with depth and breadth, and this added time creates the challenges we face with fitting it all in.

This time-depth tension is not all bad, but can be stressful as you face pressure from some areas of school life. So how do you deal with this?

It's a matter of give and take. If you give science a bit more time one week, you might give math a little more time the week after that. Yet if your team needs some conflict resolution talk, community building, and other social-emotional focus, you may need to make time for that. Teaching is a dance--there's no one way to do it well and every year is different because your students are different and the world around you is a bit different too.

In general, I like to keep a schedule of events a few months ahead in order to make sure we fit in all the teaching goals. While we may behind with some concepts, the schedule shows how we'll catch up in time so that by the end-of-year tests we'll have taught all the standards with the best depth and breadth we can provide. Onward.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Secrets have a long and harmful life

Many years ago I was accused of behavior that was troubling. Thanks to the wise counsel of a lawyer and others, the severe accusation was dismissed after a very troubling, harsh episode of pointed accusation that included a harsh tone, words, and secrets.

While the accusation was dismissed, the secrets of who and how the accusation was made was never revealed to me though there are those in my midst that I work with daily that know the truth that lies behind the secret. As you can imagine, PTSD arises in me now and then related to the harsh treatment I encountered as the secret behind the who, what, where, and why of the accusation remains. I have asked at least one person in the know to reveal the true story, but that person refuses to share the information.

The point in this story is that secrets take on a life of their own, and typically that life leads to anguish, distrust, loss of potential and broken relationships in many ways.

I have mostly put this episode behind me, but it reveals its ugly head now and then as little clues about the secret are revealed.

I may never know what truly happened beyond my role in the situation, and I will never fully trust the many people involved since none were willing to share the true story with me. I will, however, continue my commitment to be transparent and not be secretive in my dealings with people. You sleep well at night when you don't have secrets and you are transparent with the best intentions with regard to what is right and good for people in mind and action. None of us know it all, can be all things, or have a monopoly on truth, yet we do well when we avoid secretive, negative behavior that detrimentally affects others. Onward.

Teaching better

The most difficult teaching years, students, and situations are the best opportunities to learn how to teach better. This year for all kinds of reasons is presenting me with a formidable challenge, a challenge that will work to improve my teaching and learning in positive ways.

I am surrounded by energized students with amazing potential and dedicated, wonderful colleagues and family members. There is substantial opportunity to do what is right and good for those children in meaningful ways. The challenge is to join this potential with action to result in a most positive teaching/learning year.

What does this require?

First, slow it down. When complexity hits, it's best to slow it down so you understand well what creates that complexity. The schedule is well-organized. Work actions mostly clearly defined. There's time for collegial meetings, and good supports for children. So how doe we best organize these great attributes for the best possible service to children and their families?
  • Make good use of collegial planning times.
  • Make sure that each of us is doing our part.
  • Communicate clearly, regularly.
  • Revisit schedules to "divide and conquer" which means to make sure that each of us has the time and place to do the good teaching and learning possible. 
Next, look deeply at each child's needs, interests, and potential. Where are children thriving, and where do children need something different for greater engagement, happiness, and learning success? A recent math assessment demonstrated that some need greater support in math--how can we best provide that support? Science packets demonstrated a need for all students to learn how to show what they know with better questioning, greater attention to detail, and more time on task for such activities. Team activities demonstrate a need for more explicit preview of expectations and events to come and just right grouping. And teaching goal setting led to a request for more staffing for specific times of the teaching/learning day to better support all students. 

And, continue to assess the program as we move along--what's working and what can be better? We've got some good work ahead of us to best organize the teaching/learning program this year to optimize student engagement, investment, and teaching/learning success. Challenges like these when met with a positive attitude generally result in better programming, skill, and knowledge. I know that we're directed in a positive way in this regard. Onward. 

Learning sweet spots

A learning sweet spot is a place where children are happy, engaged, inquisitive, leading, and extending that learning on their own. This is what I strive for as a teacher. The opposite of this sweet spot is when children are agitated, turned off, dull, passive, and uninterested in what's going on.

Examples of sweet spots include groups of children working together to complete a task, solve a problem, and/or create. Other sweet spots may find children laughing out loud, weeping, or curled up silently as they read a book they love. Sweet spots are children reading to their kindergarten buddies with care, leading the whole class with a new idea or good advocacy, and questioning that hits at the heart of a matter of interest or focus.

I strive for learning sweet spots as I teach. These sweet spots are not examples of good management, but instead times when all children are invested, interested, and involved in positive ways. This week as I teach and lead the class, I'll be taking note of when sweet spots occur and when they don't. As I notice this, I'll think about this year's students and what engages them and helps them to learn with the greatest investment and care.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The week ahead; Halloween week 2019

After a very positive collegial conversation and time to reflect, I'm ready to teach in the week ahead. What will happen?

Math Tests
I'll review areas of common error on a recent math test, pass back the tests, and give students a chance to reflect on their effort and performance. The first test of the year is as much a test of my teaching as students' learning. As I reviewed each child's work I was reminded of the importance of repetition when it comes to learning as well as the need to check-in on particular skills, concepts, and knowledge points throughout the unit. Fortunately we're a standards-based school so there are no grades, instead it's all about moving every child forward. There are a few children who still need to complete the tests.

Later in the week, students will learn about the invention of digits including zero. It's an exciting story that sets the stage for the place value unit.

Students will discuss the need for clean water and how to filter water to make it clean. Then they'll create and test water filters. There's a good amount of prep to do to prepare for this investigation, but it should be an investigation where students will learn and have fun too.

Social Studies
Students will travel to a historic site and immerse themselves in life as it was in the 1830's. I think they'll enjoy this day long exploration and learn a lot too.

Professional Learning
Colleagues and I will take part in a state-wide evaluation pilot with a focus on our environmental studies unit. We're looking forward to work with other teams from throughout the state as we learn about ways to evaluate this program and others with a focus on betterment.

Plant Packets, Life Cycles, and Measurement
Students will focus on a review of plants, life cycles, and measurement when teachers attend a professional learning day. This will be good review for upcoming field studies and math units.

Indoor Recess
It's possible that there will be some indoor recesses this week which will give students a chance to use lots of the building and creativity tools available as well as read and play games.

Schedule Refinement
I'll work with colleagues to further refine the schedule to meet the needs of students.

Student-Family Member-Teacher Conferences
Students will lead their conferences using their showcase portfolios as a guide. I'll listen carefully to the conversations, share student data with family members, and cull any grade-level trends or individual student needs and interests that arise for further reflection and program revision and enrichment.

It will be a busy week, and hopefully a week well-focused on the needs, interests, and potential the children demonstrate. Onward.

Moving the science curriculum ahead

Students took part in their first hands-on science explorations related to the water cycle and watersheds. Overall they were engaged, but in some ways teamwork and following directions were difficult. That was to be expected in the initial grade-level explorations.

They also had the opportunity to learn about rivers in general as a group and work with a naturalist coach to study the interdependence of organisms in the ecosystem. Listening presented a challenge for some, but in general, the main points of the lesson were relayed.

And, they had a chance to show what they know via writing and creating diagrams--that required some hard work for some who were reluctant to explain what they learned. With coaching and review of their work, we helped every child move ahead with this learning.

In the next few weeks, we'll provide many opportunities for children to learn science in hands-on, collaborative ways and to show what they know via lab reports and writing and drawing about deeper thinking questions and creative opportunities.

As I think about growing this learning in meaningful ways, I am thinking about the following points:
  • Continued emphasis on teamwork--what makes a good team and how does a successful team work and act? Ideo's shopping cart video is a good example of positive teamwork. I will find time to show that. 
  • Prior to the video, I'll focus on the STEAM steps, and I'll ask students to notice not only how the team works together, but how they employ those STEAM steps in their design as well.
  • The next day we'll engage in the water filter design project. The activity has a number of check-in points that ensure that students pay attention to each task. Students will begin the task on their own by watching a number of short videos and reading information on the project website. Then we'll review the project together and teams will get started. We have plenty of time to do the task. I'll watch carefully to see what's working and what can be better.
  • The following week we'll work on the solar oven and plant packet explorations--using a similar format as the water filters. Again, I'll observe carefully about what's working and what could be better. Not only will I learn about the effectiveness of this curriculum, but I'll also learn more about what helps this particular group of students persevere, work together, and learn in effective ways. 
  • I'll apply what I learn as I work with colleagues to prepare for the projects after that including a field study in a local conservation area, physical science explorations of matter and phase changes, climate change introduction, and climate change projects. 
The goal here is to energize and engage students while also developing their ability to explore, investigate, work together, and learn science in meaningful and memorable ways. 

Dissecting challenge

There's a challenge before me that's interrupting the flow of teaching and learning, yet I can't quite put my finger on where that challenge lies. Thus the need for dissection.

Planning and prep
I like to stay about a week ahead with planning and prep, yet I find that some lessons planned don't go as well as expected. Why? For starters a Triple E threat in the area threw the science curriculum off course--we had many outdoor explorations planned for the start of the school that laid the foundation for science to follow, but due to the threat we haven't been able to explore the woods. We made adjustments, but that did throw a wrench into that curriculum. Also because I'm trying to deepen the math curriculum with more performance tasks, that has created some new learning curves that take time and lead to some unexpected results--results that move the curriculum in varying ways for many reasons. Further, I'm still reaching for those just-right learning experiences that motivate and energize this active group of learners--what really inspires them to keep going, persevere, ask good questions, and learn with strength and vigor? What has motivated students in the past, doesn't work as well with this group so I have to keep thinking about that--what leads to engagement and flow with these learners?

These learners come with many wonderful supports by way of educators, programs, and materials, and while this is terrific, this also requires time to best coordinate these supports for the best possible programming and teaching. What is the best way to work together to support these energetic learners? How can we use our time best? What ways can we tweak the schedule for best effect?

With an energetic group, the classroom seems small--there's not a lot of space to move about, work quietly, and engage in learning the ways I like to teach and learn. Further there's little extra space in the school to spread out as well. Soon some of the big projects that demand a lot of materials will be done, and that will make more space. How can we find/make more space?

As I get to know this multi-dimensional group of learners and the many support personnel that come with them, I have learned some aspects of teaching and learning that do and do not excite them including the following:
  • They are good listeners overall when it comes to read aloud. They especially love when the teaching assistant in my room reads aloud since she's so good at it. That's a keeper.
  • They truly enjoy personalized attention in quiet spaces--whenever we can find those spaces and make that time, that works.
  • They enjoy a good movie that focuses on the themes they are curious about--that brings the group together.
  • They love recess and could play all day.
  • They're often hungry, but forget to eat during snack times, so they need reminders about this.
  • In general they're not too keen about detail work--the kind of work that makes them think hard, write, and persevere--there's work to do to grow those learning muscles. This is not true for all.
  • Some haven't found their curiosity spots yet--when it comes to our curriculum, they're not as curious about the topics as students in years back--I have to keep thinking about how to introduce these standards in ways that inspire them, excite them, and make them want to continue the learning outside of school.
  • In general, several have expressed a disinterest in school. In fact we talked about that on Friday and the ways that Native American cultures of old taught by apprenticeship, a much more active, interest/skill-based way of teaching. They liked that. It would be fun to take these learners on an adventure where they were learning in active, hands-on, ways that meet their central areas of curiosity. 
During the past few years, our team has worked hard to create a curriculum program that matches the standards and inspires children too. This year's class is challenging that program in some ways--they want a somewhat different learning program, a program with greater personal attention, choice, and lots and lots of time for play. In some ways, some of the learners seem overwhelmed and that's what translates into their great desire for play and free time. Is it the busy world we live in that overwhelms them? Is it their own personalities that drive them to desire something more or different greatly? Is it their synergy? I'm not exactly sure, but just dissecting the challenge to see what's at the root of this challenge helps me to begin to address it. Onward. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Friday Musings: October 25, 2019

A good day overall including a math test, read aloud, an indoor recess practice, buddies, and PLC. Next week is filled with special events--an interesting week, but a bit choppy. Now for a weekend of chores, curriculum review/planning, and family. Onward.

Stuck with sameness

Yesterday on my way home from school, I thought about my daily pattern and wondered if I was stuck with sameness.

The notion struck me recently when I thought about people I know who follow the same routine again and again when there's a world of opportunity out there and so many new and wonderful events they could take part in to enrich their lives.

There's a right balance between sameness and new for all people. It's worth taking some time to think about the same routines you follow as well as the new opportunities that exist all around you. How can you optimize sameness while also trying out new experiences and opportunities?

I guess it starts with assessing your daily routine--what's working and what's not working with regard to joy, happiness, and positivity? What could you do differently to shake-up your routines to build in better experiences and a fuller experience of life?

Each time my husband and I visit our son at college, we explore his college environment in a new way. Last weekend we rented bikes and rode to the arboretum--it was a wonderful bike ride and terrific visit to a new destination for us. That brought joy and happiness. Yet there is comfort in routine, and often a good routine makes life affordable, healthy, and positive too. So it's finding that balance between sameness and novelty--what we know and what we are learning.

I like finding a new tension to think about and explore in an effort to live a rich and wonderful life. I wonder what you think about the sameness vs new tension and how your consideration and actions related to this enrich your life. Let me know what you think.

School year review

I stop often to think about the school year in general--what's working and what could be better? Like every school year, some of the challenges were unexpected, and some of the changes to the curriculum program unplanned. This is what happens with any kind of people-work as people are not completely predictable or similar thus creating new challenges.

As the year stands now, this is where our ever changing efforts and goals currently exist:

Science/STEAM Teaching and Learning
Our first exploration is behind us. We brought the learning full circle with a final review where students showed what they know with words and models. That review demonstrated some misconceptions that led to some re-teaching. Next year, I'll change the introduction to the investigation a bit in an effort to avoid the misconceptions that many students left the learning with this year. Last year we didn't add that final review so we didn't have a chance to assess the learning that happened as well. I think this review was a good addition. Next week, we'll embark on our next investigation, a standards-based solar oven investigation. Students look forward to creating these ovens and cooking s'mores. I'm looking forward to the greater full-circle approach we're utilizing with these projects to see if we can teach with greater depth and impact. The greatest challenge with this deeper approach to STEAM/science teaching is time. While new standards have streamlined our curriculum, there is still a lot to teach given the time and students' readiness for the learning.

Math Education
Similar to science/STEAM, the challenge here is the time it takes to go deeper with learning via project work and other investigations. Working collaboratively to learn math via investigation, inquiry, and project work takes time. Yet research and observation shows us that this kind of learning is student-centered, brain-friendly, and successful. Students will take a test to show what they know related to our introductory unit. I'll be interested to see what students can do independently with regard to the many concepts introduced and reviewed. The test results along with more informal assessments throughout the unit including observation, performance task assessments, and other learning activities will inform next steps in the curriculum program as we begin the base-ten place value system unit.

Reading, writing, and social studies
My colleagues lead this work with lots of engaging study. Students are reading Front Desk and participating in the global read aloud. They're also reading a wide range of high-interest books regularly at home and in school. They wrote high-interest survival stories modeled by the read aloud, Hatchet and many are getting involved in the grade-level story contest, a contest where they can write stories on their own or with friends. ELA Response to Intervention has started which finds students who are working towards stronger fluency and comprehension working with teacher intervention and those who have achieved grade-level standards with those skills, reading books of choice on their own. Social studies includes trips to local historic sites and films about local historic events as children focus on colonial times.

Learning community
Recess is mostly a joyful time as students engage in a large number of playful games and activities. Watching the movies, Hatchet and Jump In, together creates good conversation and a sense of team as students grapple with the social/emotional learning (SEL) challenges as well as good examples exhibited in those films--challenges they face and examples they might follow in their own lives. Movies, shown in small bits here and there, have a positive impact on classroom community and SEL. Our upcoming field studies will also help to strengthen the learning community as many family members join us to learn in wonderful real-world learning locations.

Expert visitors
Yesterday, Gregory Mone, a terrific author and wonderful presenter joined us to talk about his life and process as a writer. He captivated students' attention for more than an hour and particularly related to many boys who are sometimes reluctant writers. Kim Russel, our naturalist coach, also opened students' eyes to our interdependence as an ecosystem in an engaging way. Expert visitors like this help us to teach the curriculum with new lenses and perspectives.

We have a large team of dedicated educators who all want to do the best by students. I think that the fact that the grade-level, in some ways, has presented itself a bit like a puzzle has been challenging for a dedicated team that doesn't have that much time for good communication or planning with regard to specific challenges. Yet, we're not giving up, and we have many efforts and time in place to work towards serving all students well. In many ways, the broader teaching team is a relatively new team too and it takes time to find the sweet spots of working together too.

Professional learning
We're engaged in a large number of professional learning initiatives including focus on deeper and better reading conferences, evaluating the interdisciplinary environmental education project, sharing our environmental science unit with others, and deepening our efforts in science and math education. We're excited about these efforts, but as in all areas of school life, time is often a challenge.

All in all, we're on a good path towards a successful year. It's time to settle in, stick mostly with what we have planned, and work on bettering and deepening those efforts to meet students need and uplift the learning for all. I'm not exactly sure why this year feels a bit like chasing a ball down a rolling hill, but I'll continue to wonder about that and see how we can instead catch that ball and begin to use it with joy and skill towards a terrific teaching/learning year. Onward.


For some who live mostly in their heads for all kinds of reasons rather than attending closely to the world that surrounds them, expectations can be a foreign notion. For others, they know what's expected and typically work to meet those expectations with skill. I thought a bit about that as I wondered how I could help some students work to meet the school expectations, simple, daily expectations that help the classroom run smoothly leaving time to support all children.

As I thought about this, I realized that for some, those expectations are not readily understandable. Some are working closely with their own questions, needs, and expectations rather than the "group plan" as some name it.

To try to better this situation, I'm going to try to add expectations to the daily schedule today to see if that helps. The day's schedule will look like this:
  1. Sign in - add your lunch choice next to your name on the Friday column
  2. Read at table - read a book of choice quietly at your table
  3. Math test instructions - listen carefully to the instructions
  4. Math test - take your time, do your best, check your work, ask questions if you are confused
  5. Read when done with test - find a cozy corner and read
  6. Recess - play and have fun
  7. Library - follow the lesson, choose good books
  8. Read aloud - enjoy the story, draw while listening if you would like
  9. Instrumental lessons - follow along, learn to play the songs or Science helpers - help the teacher prepare for next week's solar oven investigation
  10. Lunch/Recess - energize your bodies with good food, enjoy the friendship of friends, and play
  11. Quiet reading - enjoy a good book in a cozy corner
  12. Math Lesson - listen to the directions, enjoy working with models and colors to study geometric shapes
  13. Clean up - stack chairs, clean up your tables, pick up papers on the floor, get your bags and meet in the circle.
  14. End day recess - end the week with play
I can imagine some saying that the schedule has too many transitions, but when you consider the energy of 10- and 11-year olds, the program moves along well with many varied activities from quiet by-yourself learning/study to whole class and group work. As the teacher, there's plenty of time to coach students ahead. Being more explicit about expectations may help some students who don't naturally think this way. Let's see if that helps. Onward. 

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The just right schedule

No schedule is perfect, but we all have some control over how we spend our time. One way to make mistakes in this realm is to think of yourself as superhuman, no one can live up to superhuman expectations. It's critical to be realistic when making your schedule and deciding where you'll invest your time and where you won't invest your time. A just right schedule brings you peace of mind, time to reflect, and the opportunity to do the good work you desire to do. This is important.

Student portfolios

This morning students will complete the first phase of their student portfolios in preparation for upcoming student-led family-student-educator conferences. The showcase portfolios in some ways are show-off portfolios where students include examples of their best work. These portfolios are also reflective pieces where students include reflections about their social-emotional goals/efforts and academic mindsets and work. The goal of the showcase portfolios is to put children in the driver's seat of their learning life by helping them to focus in on the work they do, the goals they have, their needs, and their accomplishments. It's a great guide for students to use as they lead their conference conversation.

Difficult dynamics

Sometimes life presents itself with difficult dynamics. It's like dumping 1/4 each of four different jigsaw puzzles into a box and asking someone to make the puzzle--the pieces simply don't fit and it's a frustrating endeavor.

What happens when life gives you a box of mismatched puzzle pieces?

Life, in some ways, has presented me with this amazing challenge--one that requires new thinking and a different approach.

The first step is to back away from the master puzzle makers who simply are shouting advice from the sidelines. Rather than lots of helpful comments, I need skilled hands-on help instead and simply the time and space to make sense of this puzzle.

The next step is continued focus on what matters including relationship building, just-right activities/coaching, and a good routine. This puzzle requires a different mindset and approach than past puzzles.

What will work?
  • straight talk: in many ways, straight talk works in this situation.
  • less talk: fewer words are better here.
  • time-on-task: there's lots of work to do, and focusing on doing that work helps
  • less extraneous talk and inferring: what matters here is action
  • focus on the most essential goals: the essential goal here is learning and teaching
What efforts will take main stage?
  • completing the initial stage of student portfolios
  • completing the math introductory unit
  • prepping for upcoming field studies
  • completing the introductory science and STEAM lessons
  • preparing for a few worthy professional learning events
  • care and attention to each piece of the puzzle 
What is left behind?
  • unnecessary conjecture and conversation
  • efforts aimed nowhere
  • tasks outside of the main focus
I generally am a fan of puzzles. I like to think deeply about how to solve problems and make better. Similar to way I teach students, I know that a positive mindset and good effort results in positive gain. Onward. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Just right push

There's a will to help students move ahead. Research shows that when the teaching is engaging, brain-friendly, and positive, children make good gains. I have seen this happen during my tenure, but I have also experienced student resistance to perseverance, focus, and a serious attitude towards learning. Now some might say that a good teacher can work to change that, and I do admit that my goal is to work to change that. Yet with large numbers of students who represent a good deal of variation when it comes to learning needs, I must say that to meet the needs of all is not always easy.

What's a teacher to do?

Teachers try multiple strategies when it comes meeting the needs of all children, and as you might imagine, some of those strategies work and some of those strategies do not work. There are times of utter frustration when you try and try to find good strategies to serve a child well amongst others and still reach little success.

That's when teachers have to think about what they can do to help as many children as possible. To slow down the learning in ways that stifle learning for many seems unfair to all the students who are eager to learn, but to leave a few behind because of behavior, lack of perseverance, or other factors is not right either.

The goal is the just right push--the just right encouragement to move all children forward. Teaching well is not always an easy affair as every teacher knows, but that's no reason to give up. Instead it's important to keep trying to see what will shift the tide. Onward.

Deeper Learning: Productive Struggle and Growing Programs

As I've noted repeatedly I truly enjoy developing curriculum programs in ways that help students learn with greater engagement, meaning, confidence, and academic growth and success. Like gardening, I work with my colleagues to assess, prune, and enrich programs year after year.

I thought of this today as I worked on our standards-based environmental education program for fifth grade. This program has gone through many iterations in the past several years. We employ the design process regularly as we assess, reflect, revise/enrich, and employ the unit activities with and for students.

Last year's assessment using student surveys, collegial conversation, observation, family member commentary, project work, and standardized test scores demonstrated that our efforts were timely and engaging, yet we noticed room for greater depth. While students were introduced to almost all the standards-based concepts, some could not apply those concepts well on their own. Thus we are adding a greater focus on reflective activities and application that involve more writing, specific vocabulary, and model making to bring the teaching/learning full circle in ways that build students' ability to apply the learning independently. For example, while students created solar ovens and learned about the way the sun heats those ovens, they were not as able to write about that process on their own.

Our effort to deepen this work finds us focusing on students' lab report work. Careful review of their after-the-hands-on-activity reflection is helping us to focus in on careful attention to the vocabulary, accurate model making, and detailed, accurate explanations. I believe this will help us to deepen students learning as we engage in activity after activity to teach all the standards.

Our review also highlighted the need to include a few standards' details that were missing in our overall program so we will include those details this year too.

An analysis of the math program demonstrated a similar need to deepen the program so that all children are able to navigate multi-step math problems and more sophisticated mathematical thinking. To fulfill this need we are employing more performance tasks and multi-step investigations as part of the math program. The challenge here is to still meet the breadth of the program while building depth too.

I had hoped that our system would take advantage of the state's great Kaleidoscope Project to build this capacity. In general, the state initiatives are wonderful since they are cost-free opportunities to gain good consultation and support for growing programs in timely, research-based ways. The system support for this project did not exist, so I could not apply for the program. This was discouraging, and in my opinion, a missed opportunity, but I'll continue to grow this effort on my own with my grade-level colleagues utilizing Jo Boaler's terrific resources, the state's resources, and my PLN.

There is great satisfaction in growing curriculum programs to better serve students in timely, forward-thinking, engaging and empowering ways. I look forward to this continued work this year. The next immediate steps include the following:
  • Working with students to reach for greater depth with reflective work related to our recent water cycle and watershed model hands-on activities.
  • Meeting with students and family members at student-led family member-student-educator conferences to discuss students' overall work habits, attitudes, and reflections which include their reflections related to recent math performance tasks. 
  • Noticing students' ability to independently demonstrate their knowledge on an upcoming math assessment and analyzing who held on to the knowledge taught and practiced, and who did not. Then thinking with colleagues how we might help those who did not demonstrate mastery.
  • Initiating more standards-based hands-on science explorations and math performance tasks and reflective lab reports to build program depth and breadth.
  • Meeting with state leaders in an evaluation pilot to look deeply at our environmental science program and determine what is working well and what we might improve. 
This is good work, the kind of work that makes teaching meaningful and worthwhile. This is the kind of work that makes you excited to go to school each day since the work helps you to provide a meaningful and beneficial program for students. Onward. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Family-Student-Teacher Conferences: Fall 2019

What started as an effort to create showcase portfolios has led to the use of a family-student-teacher model for conferences. During the next two weeks students will lead their own teaching/learning conferences and use a showcase portfolio as their guide.

Essentially children will begin the conference by introducing their parents to the teachers at the table. Then children will tell parents that they are going to share some of their signature studies and assessments during the conference.

Each child will begin the conference by sharing their happiness survey--a survey that shares the sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes that make them happy. This begins the conference on a positive note. After that students will share a brief reflection about the start of the school year. Then they will share some or all of the following:

  • SEL/teamwork surveys and academic/SEL goal sheets
  • Pictures of active learning
  • Reading list and reflection
  • Fall survival stories
  • Writing reflections
  • Math reflections
  • Examples of science labs, science study sheets, math homework, math tests, and other examples of their learning
Teachers will have a list of test scores and collegial comments available to share as well during the twenty-minute discussion. At the end of the discussion, families are welcome to bring home the students' showcase portfolio to look more closely at students' signature learning examples and assessments or they can choose to leave the book at school.

These conferences are a good way to put a child in the driver's seat of their education and a good way to demonstrate that families, educators, and students are a team working for the best interests of the child's academic and social-emotional welfare. 

Although it's extremely taxing to add twenty-plus student-family-teacher conferences on top of the typical teaching schedule, we value what these conferences due with respect to developing a strong teaching/learning team that works to positively develop student capacity and success.

A simple recipe for teaching well

Teaching well is not a simple science, but if we can create a simple recipe to stick too we will be stronger as we face the varying struggles and challenges that exist in the teaching/learning world.

Be ready
Planning and prep at least one week ahead with a collection of lessons helps educators be ready for any situation that comes up. This is an important ingredient to teaching well.

Morning greeting
Making the time to greet children each morning with care truly gets the day off to a good start. If you're at the door greeting children you notice how children are entering school that day. You have a few minutes to cheer them up, answer questions, and coach them forward for a good day.

Posted schedule
Posting the schedule each morning allows students to know what will happen that day. It keeps everyone on the same page and that helps to create a positive teaching/learning day.

Time for transitions
Yesterday's classroom disharmony was caused by too-rushed transitions. That signaled to me that I have to slow it down so that we're not rushing from one activity to the next, but instead making the time needed for each transition.

Minimize extraneous events and interruptions
People time is intense in school life, and when possible, it's good to minimize that time and the activity that comes with those interactions as much as possible. Teachers can only spread themselves so thin, so it's best to minimize unnecessary interactions in order to elevate energy for the interactions that matter most.

Selective volunteer work
There are countless ways that you can volunteer your time beyond your expected teacher duties, but if you spread yourself too thin with too many volunteer tasks, you won't have the energy or time to do the work that matters most. So be selective about the volunteer initiatives you sign up for. No one can do it all.

Targeted advocacy
The best way to advocate for good change is to work with other like minded colleagues. Going it alone with regard to advocacy does not result in as much positive change or growth. Also it is important to target your advocacy in ways that truly make a positive difference.

Optimal teaching/learning environment
Continually work towards making your teaching/learning environment as positive and helpful as possible. This goal will look differently for each teacher and classroom depending on the classroom goals and efforts, but, in general, an optimal classroom environment for teaching and learning matters.

Imperfect, ever changing world

We live in an imperfect, ever changing world. Yet most of us strive for the best possible lives all the time amidst that imperfection, and as we strive we work amongst multiple differing visions of best possible and multiple differing strides toward the good life. This variation creates the weather of life--the bright sunny days, rainy dark days, storms, and quiet too.

I thought about variation and our individual will for best possible this morning as I considered the ever changing landscape of family and school. In our family, we share some common goals and many varying goals too. Our common history, small size, and love for one another makes us mostly supporters of one another as we strive for our individual and collective best possible experiences, lifestyles, and development. In school it's more complex since our histories vary, our connections are more diverse, and our goals of best possible learning environments are defined in multiple ways. This variation can be orchestrated for strength or work against us.

This school year, in particular, has found me striving for harmony amidst more change and variation than usual. Changing building administrators, changing team members, and new initiatives have created multiple points of reflection and revision. The typical situation of new students also creates lots of reflection as I think about how to best serve, partner with, and teach these children. This is a significant year of change for me at the school house because I find myself a bit alone with my vision of what it means to teach well and lead dynamic school systems. I am finding that what was a positive step towards greater teacher leadership has taken a big back step with less teacher voice and choice due to lost time, less good communication and connection, and varying definitions of what it means to teach well. Losing out on the first few months of worthy connection and conversation at the start of the school year due to an administrative change, in part, contributed to this disharmony.

So what's a teacher to do?

As I analyzed the situation at hand, I recognized a difference between supporters and takers. Takers are not interested in what I can do to empower my teaching and student service. Instead takers are only interested in what I can do for them. So where possible I eliminated or reduced my interactions with those takers--events and individuals who take my time in ways that create havoc and work against the research I've done and the work I believe in when it comes to teaching and learning well. I also identified a number of supporters including my grade level team, family members, students, and a number of outside agencies and resources who serve to empower what I can do at school to teach well. I want to strengthen the connections with these supporters in the days ahead and work closely with them to do the job well.

I have also had to revise my vision of what the year would be like. I was looking forward to a year of elevated teacher leadership, greater teacher voice and choice, new ideas that make a difference, and lots of positive growth, yet the direction of the greater environment is taking a different turn which means I've had to adjust my daily/weekly schedule, typical contribution, and professional learning. As with any unexpected situation, I look for the opportunity in the matter--the "when a door closes, a window opens" mindset. That mindset sends me even more into the realm of the grade-level work we do--good work with good people. That mindset also has me considering other goals, goals that will positively lift my life in areas that have laid relatively dormant for some time.

This change is not necessarily good or bad, but instead the way it is. I'm looking forward to reaching in more with the students I teach and program I run with my talented colleagues. Yesterday was a bit of a turning point in this endeavor as I rushed students a bit too much which resulted in some unhappiness. Today I'll slow it down, make amends, and reset our classroom routine in a more realistic, loving, and positive way. The outside agencies that rush us to do more than is reasonable and to teach in ways that are dull and ineffective cannot lead us to places of student unhappiness, classroom chaos, or frustration. Instead we have to do what we know is right and good for children with time to care for each child in ways that matter.

This change finds me making more time for responding to student efforts, thinking about program details, and developing a best possible classroom routine, the kind of routine that strengthens student-teacher relationships and teaches students in brain-friendly, positive ways.

The world is always changing and those changes affect our definitions of best possible as we navigate imperfection. We must continually look for the silver lining--the opportunity for betterment in whatever situation we face. Onward.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Support the good work

There are pockets of exceptional teaching/learning work in my midst, and there are pockets of less impactful teaching and learning. Time is limited, and I want to devote my time to dynamic areas of teaching and learning, not areas of less depth and impact.

So as we think about the ways we spend our time, it's important that we think deeply about where we devote our precious time. Don't waste your time on efforts that are not rich, deep, truthful, informed, or supportive. Do devote your time to well-researched, worthy, student-centered learning/teaching activities--the kinds of activities that energize and engage students, teach well, and result in meaningful impact.


Next steps: school year 2019-2020

The routine is established, professional learning events scheduled, and a positive home-school pattern in place. As in years past, the expected teaching load is heavy, but we've done a fairly good job with that.

Next steps include the following:

Maintaining a positive daily pattern
It was an overall good teaching day today, but it's clear that students need to move one step ahead with regard to their focus and good work. These are capable students. We have a good program in place. Now it's time to rise a bit. Though the work will be challenging, the sense of pride at good teamwork and positive learning will be positive. It's worth the positive push.

Reviewing student work
I'm making good time to review student work this year. In a sense, this review is like having a conversation with each child. I see how they respond to the learning, and then I respond to them typical with a 1(not done), 2(met expectations), 3(exceeded expectations), 4(above and beyond). This review informs the curriculum program in positive ways allowing me to well plan lessons and work with individuals, small groups, and the whole class in ways that matter.

Professional learning
There are a number of collaborative and individual professional learning events in the works--all of these efforts make the daily work more successful, targeted, and worthwhile for the students and me.

Our work together as the learning team is finding a good rhythm as family members, educators, students, and others work together to help every child learn.

Discouraged Teachers

One of my favorite parts of the teaching/learning job is growing programs in ways that are timely, research-based, and student-friendly. To grow programs is exciting and positive making the learning environment dynamic, student-centered, and energized in successful ways.

There's nothing more discouraging for teachers like me when the will to innovate, develop, and teach better is met with barriers--barriers that block new ideas, innovation, and growth. In many ways those barriers feel like a loud expletive aimed in your direction that essentially says, "Lowly teacher do as you are told, don't think, don't create, don't develop--instead teach as a rule-following robot, not an educated thinker." When those "expletives" are thrown in your direction, you are demeaned--it's like putting a pin in a balloon, and that discouragement moves throughout your day like a lead weight.

This has happened to me countless times as an educator, and it is one of the worst aspects of being a teacher. Teachers are too often treated as simpletons in oppressive, demeaning and disrespectful ways. Some educators never expect to be treated with respect and worry little about this. Others give up, and a few keep fighting to get the respect, autonomy, and support they need to grow programs in countless wonderful ways.

In the past, the barriers have been thrown in my direction when I wanted to replace old fashion desks with wonderful collaborative tables. Few would support this timely direction. I continued the advocacy, and finally about five years after my initial request and many more proposals and pleas, a parent group supported the change. Similar barriers were thrown my way when colleagues and I wanted to change to a collaborative teaching model at the grade level and again when we wanted to join forces with a local environmental organization to foster a real-world, local environmental science program. There are many more instances when support was non-existent for teacher-led projects that had solid research to back them up. In most cases, after lots and lots of advocacy, the projects did come to fruition and success. Imagine how much more successful each project would have been if so much time wasn't wasted on trying to convince so many leaders about a project's merit or value. In every case where ideas were unblocked, it was typically people from outside of the school system that created the change by supporting the initiatives with outside funding, time, and ideas.

Today marks one more timely idea that is being blocked--a worthy idea with a solid research-based foundation and plenty of good support. I've already contributed many hours towards advocating for this project and inviting colleagues to take part, but as usual, there's little support from many administrators--leaders who are reluctant to support teacher leadership and seem to subscribe to the teacher-as-robot management style instead.

What's a teacher to do?

Yes, I'm discouraged. I'll think on the next steps. Teaching is often an oppressive job that puts educators in the place of unsupported servant rather than teacher leader--this is the worst part of the job.

Do your part

There's nothing that I like more than to help children learn, however what's less enticing is the work that needs to be done to make sure everyone is contributing to the general duties of classroom life, duties such as clean-up, putting your things away, turning in assignments on time, and staying on task during learning times. It's the general sense of good discipline that's needed to make sure teachers have the kind of teaching time they need to help everyone get ahead.

Teachers employ all kinds of strategies to foster that sense of discipline and with some children and on some days that's easier to do than with other other students and/or on other days. What's a teacher to do?

First, as I think of this situation, I realize that the first step is to give a little more time for clean up and transitions. Second, it's important to review what's expected with the entire class, and it's important to look for opportunities to continue to build the level of responsibility needed to be a fully integrated member of classroom life--a student who contributes and also accesses the supports available. Classroom life requires that we all do our part, and that's important learning for the kinds of teamwork students will have to do throughout the personal and professional lives. Onward.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Not a toe dipper; Thursday musings

I am not a toe dipper, instead I typically jump right in and see what happens. Yes, I make preparations, but I know that you can't anticipate every possible scenario, so I jump in, see what happens, and then make revisions as needed. That's what happened today as I engaged all the fifth graders, one class at a time, in a watershed model lesson. With each class, I bettered the lesson. Mostly I simplified the steps to make the project more doable and successful for all. I'll update the website to reflect the best iteration of the lesson so next year I can start from there.

I talked to the children about responsibility and what it means to do the right thing. I told them that when it comes to being chosen for a sports team, college, job, and even in a relationship, people want to know that they can depend on someone and that someone is responsible. I gave a few first hand accounts related to the issue. I could tell that some were heeding the message.

That talk was inspired by the fact that a few were off task during the science lesson, and a few can truly raise havoc when it comes to teaching everyone. That's to be expected during the first "jump right in" science exploration. I'm sure that our next exploration, creating solar ovens, will be smoother.

Teaching science takes a lot of prep and a lot of energy. All in all, I think the mission of introducing watersheds and learning about how they work was a success, and now I know what to expect with these students when it comes to science learning.

The highlights of the day besides accomplishing the science teaching including reading the great book, Bud, Not Buddy, with a student and having a good class meeting about playground safety and teamwork.

Since I'm out for a personal event tomorrow, it's time to think about next week which includes lots of special events including the visit from our naturalist-in-residence, a visit from a writer-in-residence, lots of math review, portfolio work, and a Friday math test. I'm still working on the classroom routines with students--almost all the students are meeting the expectations, expectations that leave lots of time for engaging learning experiences, but there's still a bit of work to do.

I'm not exactly sure why, but this year has been the busiest year of my career--it seems like the days move from one event to another with little time to take a breath or sit back a bit. In general, all that we're doing is positively directed so that's good. Onward.

Another fork in the road; school year 2019-2020

I'm not exactly sure why this has been a busier-than-ever school year, but it seems like every second from early morning to late in the evening is spoken for, that said, it's time to take some time to look at the big picture with regard to what's ahead.

Science/Social Studies Mornings
We're in the midst of integrating a number of science/social studies mornings for some deep hands-on investigations, project work, and study in those areas. Those mornings are lots of fun, but require substantial coordination, prep, and set-up.

Expert Visitors
We have a number of expert visitors who will be visiting us and working with students. These events are positively impactful, but require substantial coordination and prep.

Field Studies
Our wonderful menu of terrific hands-on field studies will begin soon. These also require substantial coordination and prep yet it's worth it since these are rich learning events that serve to build a strong, collaborative learning team.

Professional Learning
We front-loaded the teaching year with a number of professional learning events that will take place in the coming weeks. I'm sure we'll learn a lot and hopefully share some valuable information with educators from other districts during these events.

Math Curriculum
I believe that our introductory unit in math has been a successful start to the math year. This unit provides the language, models, and concepts that underly all the units to come. While it takes time to teach students all about the math tools, resources, mindsets, and learning routines, it's worth taking that time to get the year off to a strong start.

Student Support and Routines
Students are doing well with the routines and our collaborative support teams are beginning to take shape as we work together to serve students many needs and wonderful potential.

All in all, the plans are set, routines in place, and now it's all about doing the work day by day.

Start of the science year

Today marks the first deep day of science study. We've set the stage for this study with a related read aloud, an introductory slideshow, and lots of teamwork focus and activities. We've also changed our minds a lot about how to fit science into the teaching/learning schedule, a schedule filled with reading, writing, math, social studies, and lots of special events. For now, our science will fit in with what we have named Science Mornings, mornings where students rotate through three related science activities. For example today the fifth graders will make watershed models with me, engage in a water cycle activity and introduction with a colleague, and take a deep look at rivers and our local SUASCO watershed with another colleague. It will be a morning of connected learning about water systems and the general and specific role that water plays on Earth and why this is important.

One reason I'm a fan of standards is that those standards guide our study in ways that connect with years past and the years ahead. There's a lot to know out there, and the standards framework provides a way to ensure that children get a strong foundation of useful knowledge, concept, and skill. How we teach those standards continues to grow and deepen as we learn more and the world around us changes. Our science study has a climate change connection too since as students learn about Earth and space systems, they also learn how and why they can care for those systems in life enriching ways.

Where is our science study headed?
  • Water cycle, watershed, and river studies
  • Wetlands review
  • Interconnectedness of people and the environment
  • The sun, solar energy, solar ovens
  • Water conservation, phase changes, water filters
  • Plant parts, plant packets, plant cycles
  • Climate change and climate change projects
  • Space lessons - winter
  • All about matter - winter lessons
  • Composting (moved to spring due to Triple E threat in fall)
We're on our way. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Deepen Math Education: Performance Tasks

This year the teaching team is designing and utilizing performance tasks with greater intention. The performance task is an investigation-like, deeper, meaningful math activity that students work on with a partner to apply math skills, concepts, and knowledge. I just reviewed students' completed work on the first performance task, and I noticed a lot that worked well and lots to revise too.

What worked?
  • Students were engaged in the task.
  • All educators on our team were involved in guiding and supporting student efforts.
  • Children who profit from small groups and specialist attention received that help.
  • The task gave students time to dig into math concepts with greater depth and some good productive struggle.
  • Rubrics guided students' efforts
  • Students' self-assessed their work and work habits
What could be better?
  • It's very difficult to find the time to review deep student work when you are working with lots of students at the same time--good review of these tasks takes considerable time. Better design of the rubrics, task format, and flow will help to make review of the work more targeted and efficient.
  • Making the tasks meaningful, relevant, and timely is important when it comes to optimizing student engagement. 
  • Looking closely at the students who struggle with the tasks the most, and figuring out how to provide those students with more targeted support for these tasks and other learning events.
Students will reflect on this first performance task next week as they prepare for their fall parent-student-teacher conferences. They'll also have a chance to review their work and in some cases complete that work, then they'll place the task outcome in their portfolio to share with family members.

Math is taught in a large number of ways at our school. Children collaborate around learning tasks, engage in investigations and problem solving, complete practice exercises, watch videos, interact in whole group lessons, play games online and off, and take assessments

As I think of the many papers I reviewed tonight, the next steps include the following:
  • Continue the weekly home practice exercises with an emphasis on vocabulary review and the inclusion of videos that students can watch as many times as they would like to learn that math vocabulary so they are able to apply the concepts better.
  • Work with colleagues to best design the performance tasks to elicit deep mathematical thinking, problem solving, and memorable learning.
  • Continue to teach using a varied daily approach that personalizes the learning when needed to support individual learners. 
  • Look carefully at students who are not achieving as well with colleagues and think about how to change the teaching/learning program to serve those students better. 

Support for new ideas?

Seymour Papert, Pioneer of Constructionist Learning 

A long time ago as a new teacher, Seymour Papert, the American mathematiciancomputer scientist, and educator, who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT, invited teachers to join him on an exploration of coding. I was very excited about this opportunity and tried to get a team of teachers from my school system to join me. I could not entice anyone to form a team. I was very disappointed and did not take part in that ground-breaking opportunity, an opportunity at the forefront of coding in schools. 

Just recently the Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts sent out a link inviting teams of teachers to join a new state initiative to deepen education. Similar to how I felt about Papert's initiative about 32 years ago, I know the Commissioner's new initiative, the Kaleidoscope Initiative, is the start of something rich and meaningful for our state with regard to deeper teaching and learning. I want to be apart of that to deepen how we teach mathematics. I've reached out to teachers, but have only heard back from one. I wonder why teachers may not be eager to be apart of something new and exciting like this, an initiative that will be well supported and is cutting edge. This is positive.

I hope four or five teachers and/or administrators will join the initiative as one way to support new ideas and grow the work that we are doing. Papert's work so long ago supported amazing development in many schools, I know that Kaleidoscope will do the same. 

Training students to be independent learners

Much of the start of the school year is spent training students to be independent learners who ask questions when they don't understand, utilize multiple "intelligent assistants" when completing work, establish positive study routines, make good choices, and work collaboratively to optimize learning. In a sense, I want the students to be the driver's of their education, not me, other teachers, or their parents. What do we do to help children make this transition.

Ask me, email me, and share ideas
We encourage students to not stay stuck and to ask questions when they don't understand. We welcome questions during class time as well as via email after school. We welcome students' ideas about how to make the learning more engaging.

Utilize the class website, our virtual classroom
The classroom website has countless links to information that can support student learning. The website can be accessed from almost anywhere 24/7.

Work with friends
The best learning often occurs when students are working side by side with friends during the school day or after school. They learn a lot as they discuss assignments and complete the work.

Choose well
Generally students have a choice about where they work, who they work with, and what they will work on to learn the focus material. We continually work to help students make the kinds of choices that optimize their learning.

We coach students along in a large number of ways to build their foundation of skill, concept, knowledge, and a positive, helpful mindset for learning. This coaching can occur when we sit side-by-side with a student, respond to their completed assignments, small group work, via email or with the whole class.

The goal is to encourage students to be independent, skilled learners who know how to use the many online and offline tools, resources, and people around them to learn skills, develop knowledge, solve problems, and create.

Focus: A Positive Routine

Every year various priorities rise. This year it's all about a positive routine. This has always been a focus, however, for multiple reasons this a greater focus this year. What does the positive routine entail?

Morning Greeting
To greet students with care each morning means I have to be to school a bit earlier and I have to have the morning prep done ahead of time.

Standards-Based Learning Experiences
To teach the standards-based lessons in meaningful, relevant, culturally responsive ways takes a good amount of reading, research, prep, and planning. A good schedule demands significant time for this work.

Meeting Students' Needs and Interests
A good schedule leaves plenty of time for thoughtful observation, individual and whole class student meetings, and good time to plan and prepare to meet students needs and interests.

Professional Learning
A good schedule includes a good amount of time for professional learning.

Health and Happiness
A good schedule optimizes energy with plenty of personal time for health and happiness.

Good Classroom Set-Up and Organization
A good schedule relies on a positive teaching/learning environment too.

This is year is one of those dig in and do the work years. Due to many factors, it's not a year with lots of support or enthusiasm for new ideas, but instead the expectation that I'll do all I can to teach every child in my midst as well as I can. Onward.

Monday, October 14, 2019

School days; Fall 2019

This was the first weekend that was not overtaken by school work this year. Thanks to a number of religious and national holidays, there's been extra time to catch up on planning, preparation, reading and research as I plan for students' learning experiences and collegial professional development events. In a sense the important work is in the cue ready for meeting and delivery ahead that include a re-look at RTI, evaluation and promotion of our environmental science efforts, a potential deepening of the math education program, and lots of engaging, standards-based teaching with students.

As I work this year, organization is a big theme--to better organize the countless supplies in my STEAM classroom is important as the more children and teachers can access the right tools and resources to guide and support their learning, the better their learning will be. Also, when space is used well in a classroom, it frees everyone up to do their work better. Another theme, as I wrote about last week, is relationship building. Those relationships demand a positive routine at school, and I think we've finally created that at our grade-level. Making a good routine takes time at the start of the year because we're coordinating services amongst many professional staff and students' interests and needs. With a good sense of whom the children are and what they need now as well as our abilities, time, and focus as a collegial group, we're read to get this machine we call school in full gear.

When we return to school on Tuesday, I'll make some time to meet with students too to make sure they have time to voice their needs, wants, and desires. I stop to listen to them as a team now and then to make sure the teaching/learning is well directed and supportive for them. I'll focus in on the main aspects of the teaching year including planning and preparing for learning experiences, responding to and recording students' learning efforts, developing my professional expertise and abilities, and contributing, as I can, to the school community. Onward.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Friday Musings on a Saturday Morning, October 12, 2019

I slept like a baby last night after a very busy school week with many early, early mornings of school reflection and prep. It was a good week all in all. Next week will find us working more with coordinate planes to solve problems and create wonderful illustration. Students will also learn about watersheds by creating watershed models and reading, watching videos, and discussing what watersheds are, how they work, and why it's important to take care of them. We'll continuing our read alouds, Front Desk and Ghost, find time for quiet independent reading, and continue to work on student portfolios in preparation for upcoming conferences. My colleagues will engage students with story writing, more reading, and lessons about the history of the local watershed, the science of water cycles, and a deep look at the the United States during colonial times.

The challenge right now is keeping students on track amidst the many science materials, books, and math materials that fill the classroom. This year the space seems smaller than usual--the class itself isn't greater in numbers, but I think the fact that we have a few more students who like to spread out and move a lot makes the space seem smaller. To deal with that, we're trying to use spaces outside of the classroom for small groups and individuals now and then to simply make more space to spread out. I'll continue to think about this space issue in the days ahead and how I might deal with it so everyone has the space they need. Most of our material-intensive science is happening in the next few weeks, so once we finish with those activities, there will be more space as those materials take up a lot of room.

Another reason that classrooms may seem smaller is that we are doing more hands-on learning with lots of materials, and that means students needs space for all those activities. I wonder if new school regulations make classrooms bigger for elementary school students. I think that would be a good idea.

I have a good number of student papers to review. While I like to review as many as possible with the students, I simply run out of time to do that due to numbers. In many ways, teaching is a numbers game--it's difficult to keep up with all the questions, efforts, and interests of large groups of students, but as a team, we do our best. We keep family members informed of what we do regularly too in hopes that they will extend that learning and discussion at home.

Now it's time for family, chores, and other weekend matters. I'm looking forward to a positive week of teaching ahead.

Friday, October 11, 2019

The problem with projection

When we project what others need, we often err. It's best to go right to the source when you aim to serve others, and ask those people what they need, what they want, and what they desire? Otherwise your service is often in vain.

Today: Friday, October 11, 2019

After an early morning of big think, it's time to focus on the day ahead's goals and activities.

Morning greeting
I've been greeting children at the door each morning, and I must say it is one of my favorite parts of the day. I enjoy saying each child's name, observing their mood, responding to their needs, and encouraging a good start to the day.

Performance Task - Part B
Students will begin the day by completing part B of a math performance task with a partner. I'm excited to see what students create with this task.

Learning Menu
During the morning and at the end of the day, students' will use the online learning menu links and choices to guide their study. There's lots to do and as students get used to this approach, I find that they make better and better learning choices.

Science Set-Up and Buddy Choices
I'll work with a small team of students to choose books for kindergarten buddy time and to set-up next week's watershed model making lab.

Portfolio Reflections
Students will complete surveys about social-emotional learning, happiness, and the year so far to place in their portfolios and share with teachers and family members during upcoming conferences.

Recess Duty
I'll interact with students as they make playtime choices.

ELA Data Meeting
The teaching team will take a deep look at students' reading scores and needs today as we determine reading instruction strategies to help every child comprehend well and become both engaged and fluent with reading.

Meeting for Advocacy and Clarity
I'll meet with a district leader to advocate for program change/refinement and to receive clarity related to a few program questions I have.

A busy and positive day ahead. Onward.

Raise the level of conversation

I'm tired of useless conversation. It's time to raise the level of discourse which will, in turn, raise the level of living.

The Best Kid in the Room

Who is the best kid in the room?
  • Is it the child who entertained kindergartners by counting by 2's, 5's, 10's to 100 while they waited for their teacher to be ready?
  • Is it the child who quickly jumped up to clean up the coffee spill when another child bumped into the teacher?
  • Is it the child who cleaned up the library after 65 fifth graders met there to listen to a science introduction?
  • Is it the child who sat on a bean bag chair and read to his kindergarten buddy?
  • Is it the child who asked if he could help children who didn't understand the math concept?
  • Is it the child who drew a beautiful poster to encourage children to ride bikes rather than drive in cars?
  • Is it the child who showed kindness to a friend who lost a loved one?
No one kid is the best kid because all children bring good traits and actions to school each day. Every day children do so many wonderful things in school life. Sometimes a less than positive act overshadows the daily triumphs that happen again and again and again. We can't lose sight of all the good, and we must find ways to recognize that as often as possible. 

Growing programs and using time effectively

This afternoon I'll meet with an educational leader in our school system to discuss the topic of growing programs and using time effectively. The meeting was planned because I think there is room for using time and staffing better to uplift learning experiences in specific areas of the overall curriculum program.

As I think of this conversation, I am thinking of the following questions:
  • What does effective use of time look like? How do we assess that? 
  • How do we regularly update and develop learning programs in ways that matter--ways that engage students in meaningful study?
  • How do we communicate effective teaching and learning efforts so we all benefit from the good ideas, teaching, and learning happening in the system?
I want to understand the systematic outlook related to these questions, and then more specifically, I want to advocate for the following specific updates in our curriculum development process:
  • More pointed, holistic, and targeted use of data to move our programs ahead.
  • More pointed, holistic, and targeted use of research related to cognition, specific disciplines, cultural relevancy, and social-emotional learning to move our teaching/learning programs ahead.
  • Greater teacher leadership, autonomy, and decision making with regard to curriculum programs. 
Fortunately I highly regard the leaders I will meet with. He is a bright individual with a positive, modern outlook with regard to teaching and learning. He's the kind of leader who uses ambition to feed mission rather than working for ambition alone. This is good. I'm looking forward to the meeting. 

Assessing Efforts: Relationship Building

Second-to-second the school day is filled with interactions. I was thinking about yesterday's interactions in the wee hours of the morning. There was the stern interaction with a young child who was fooling around rather than attending to the math study--I want to build this bright's child's capacity for academic focus and a serious attitude and confidence towards his studies, and there was the joyful interaction when a little girl ran towards me in the hall to give me an impromptu hug as well as many, many more interactions during the day as I taught the 65 fifth graders and interacted with many more children throughout our approximately 400-student school.

Now that we've got a good routine going, it's time to focus in on my overarching goal of the year which is framed with the word "Relationship" and the image below:

How am I doing?

Relate to children by making time to get to know who they are, what they enjoy, and what they need. Our team began the year with lots of get-to-know-each-other activities which led to a positive start. We are also in the midst of working with students to prepare their showcase portfolios which they'll use to introduce their learning year and goals to family members at upcoming fall conferences. This process as well as the conferences will further deepen our knowledge of each child. Our mostly interactive, hands-on learning program puts us actively in the midst of children all day long too. We're off to a great start in this area.

Effectively embed social-emotional learning (SEL) throughout the curriculum. We've spent a good deal of time doing this via video, class meetings, and read aloud. I'd like to be even more explicit about this effort by organizing and coordinating the resources we use with greater connection to the many units of study we teach.

Look deeply at the schedule at the beginning of the year and create an effective routine for teaching and learning. It's true that we stuff a lot of learning into our days. I am always debating whether we are trying to do too much, yet the program, for the most part, matches the exuberant energy of 10 and 11 year olds so for the most part, I think our schedule is working well. We will continue to tweak the schedule week to week as we make room for the many varied learning events that make up the year, events that include expert visitors, hands-on projects, field studies, traditional learning experiences, and more.

Arrange the classroom in ways that welcome, empower, and inspire students to learn with capacity and success. For the most part I believe that the classroom is welcoming, empowering, and inspiring. I'd say we're a bit short on space altogether and it would be nice to have a sink, but all in all, the students enjoy working at the tables, sitting in comfy chairs, expressing themselves on the white boards, and using the many varied materials that exist in the classroom.

Teach in a variety of ways to appeal to students' diverse interests and needs. In general, the curriculum is filled with a good variety of learning experiences. Now it's time to personalize that learning even more especially for those students who are exhibiting needs for greater personalization. This work relies on the entire team's efforts and synchronization. We are in the midst of doing this work now.

Inspire effective learning via positive, deep interdisciplinary project based learning experiences. Remaining positive is essential, but not always easy when you are trying to introduce a new concept to a large group of diverse learners. Yet, typically just relaying the challenge up front to the students enlists their empathy and support for lessons like this. Also acknowledging that some of the structures in school are not that natural such as spending an entire day in a room with about 25 persons--it's a bit crowded to accommodate all the needs and interests that exist. Nevertheless we make the best of it, and at times, that somewhat crowded room transforms into a dynamic, creative, and vibrant learning community. Our team is working hard to deepen the project work we do. We have signed on to a number of consultant opportunities as well as working to restructure and deepen the project work to make the learning more engaging and profitable. The challenge here is time.

Offer an inviting menu of inspiring, enjoyable, and educational field experiences, expert visitors, and special events. These activities demand good planning and preparation, and when done well serve to build a dynamic, invested, and collaborative learning team of students, family members, and educators. We've got a good venue of activities planned, activities students, family members, and teachers are looking forward to.

Embed new research, tools, and activities from regular professional learning via reading, research, and teamwork. This kind of work enlivens the learning program for all. For example when colleagues discussed the Four 4's math activity, they made many good suggestions about improving the activity for all learners. This resulted in a successful, engaging math activity for all. Similarly colleagues discussed our recent math performance task and this too was improved to benefit all. I find that targeted learning discussions amongst colleagues and students result in better teaching. The key is to well-organize and focus those discussions on research-based efforts, try out the learning experience, and then reflect and revise as needed. There's no shortage of professional learning resources, but there is a limited time so we have to choose well. Following good threads on social media helps too. Just a couple of days ago, I read Will Richardson's Modern Learning blog interview with Conrad Wolfram which provided a perfect introduction to students' lesson related to patterns, variables, and coordinate grids. That information uplifted the lesson in a meaningful and relevant way. Finding the right patterns for regular updating and improving learning experiences with regard to new research is critical to teaching and learning well.

Support more consistent, targeted, and personal support for all students with particular attention to those without at-home academic support. This is an area of some challenge, challenge not born out of will, but challenge born out of the fact that personalization is tough when you are in charge of many students at once. The best path to this personalization is to use time, resources, and staffing well. I wrote a post about this earlier in the week, and continue to think about how I can better serve all students and those students without at-home academic support well. The challenge here is that often our children most in need are the least served since there are few that advocate for them. Children's whose parents are visible, communicative, and curious are noticed, but students whose family members are often not available are sometimes not noticed or served well. These students typically demand a different perspective and resources. I think we can continue to improve in this area of school life.

Have a positive weekly routine that includes teamwork, standards-based learning experiences, and in-school/at-home practice. Our routine continues to take shape. There's some work to do to tweak specific areas of the schedule so that all children are well served. Starting the week of 11/11 we'll start a homework club which will be a positive addition to the routine.

Respectful, caring, and kind interpersonal efforts and teamwork are essential to teaching/learning success. With high expectations, a people-intensive environment, and little personal time to reflect or prep throughout the day, respect, kindness, and caring can be challenging, yet those attributes are essential in the teaching/learning environment. For ambitious teachers like me it's good to slow down and notice the educators around me who are the most respectful, caring, and kind and use them as mentors to foster my ability to slow down, listen, and respond with care. It is critical that learning communities are loving communities and that has to be a first priority.

Partner with colleagues, families, students, and the community to teach well. It's critical that we work together to teach well. Fortunately I work in a community where people are eager to partner to do the good work possible. Our team is committed to this and this is a good thing.