Saturday, March 12, 2011

Go ahead, give it up...

Over the course of this school year I have written here about my release of control in my classroom and pushing my students to take more power over their learning. Many people have asked me, “How do you do it?” I have no illusions that I am an exceptional teacher who has all the answers. I am not and I don’t. However, I pride myself on never settling and always trying something new and finding better ways to help my students learn. I share freely in hopes that someone will be able to take something that has worked for me and use it help their own students. I have been redefining my role as the teacher in the classroom and in turn the work I do with my students. With that in mind, here is a list of non-negotiables that have been crucial for me to push my students to take control of their learning.


Respect – You cannot give up control of your class if you don’t have a mutual respect. If students don’t respect you, they will walk all over you and take advantage of the freedom you have given them. By respect I am not talking about kids “liking” you. You can like a teacher and not have respect for them. Mutual respect has to be in place and often is not. This is when classrooms slip from organized chaos into sheer pandemonium.

Focus – A teacher that is going to give more control to their students has to have focus. What I mean by this is the ability to keep the end goal in mind for yourself and the students. You can’t give students the keys to the car with a destination in mind. Even though I don’t tell kids how to do something, they are clearly aware of what I need them to show me in the end. If students don’t know the target, you can’t expect them to hit it.

Flexibility – Yes, in order to give up control you need to be able to touch your toes! In all seriousness, if you are the type of teacher that has their lesson plans done for three months at a time, this will be tough for you. There are days that I walk into school not knowing what we will be doing. I plan my long term goals and always have an idea of what topics we are covering, but the nitty-gritty is often done with the student in class. We look at what our needs are for that day/week and run with it. I rarely give due dates. A due date symbolizes an end to the learning.

Awareness – This is possibly one of the most important traits. You need to know when to step in and when to step back. This is difficult because each student has a “line” and it is in a different place. For some students, you will need to give them the tools, walk away, and take a hands off approach. Others need more guidance and you will be stepping in and redirecting more often. Being able to recognize when and how to do this is a key piece of a classroom “run” by the students.

Resourceful – What I mean by this is that you have to be able to pull from multiple sources to give your students access to as many learning opportunities as possible. If you think of the Textbook as the Holy Grail, you will struggle here. Students need to have access to multiple sources of information regardless of it is in print, online, or a person. Traditional schools are just one “resource” and you have to open up the door to the world of learning that is largely possible through technology. You will need to go outside your classroom and even school to find better ways of doing things. Beyond just the resources for the students, the teacher has to go above and beyond to find teaching and learning resources for themselves.

Worthwhile – Many teachers think they are giving up control and pushing student learning just because their class is working on a project while they sit at their desk. These students are often engaged in lower level thinking projects such as regurgitating what Wikipedia has to say about the endangered dodo bird. Nothing against the dodo bird, but I am not a fan of having students research and reproduce something that has already been done. I would rather they look at that same topic of the dodo bird and create something new. Synthesis and reconstruct rather than research and retell. Don’t do research, do action research. This comes down to asking students to do and guide them to worthwhile work. You don’t want students to waste your time turning in sub-par quality work, so don’t waste their and ask them to do sub-par quality activities.

Ignorant – This might seem a bit odd to add to the list but let me explain. Some teachers feel they need to be experts and smarter than their students. While my educational background in History and English does help me push students into certain areas, it is not always a prerequisite. The ability to ask good probing questions is far more crucial than your understanding of the content. I know plenty of content experts that talk at their student every day. They are brilliantly intelligent, but horribly failing to connect their students to the content.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have all the answers, but these are things that I have found to be true for me and my teaching. My teaching, as with my life, is evolving and this list will surely change and I grow as a teacher and as new students present new perspectives to my classroom.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Student Driven Learning

Last week was the end of our second trimester of 6th grade. We ended that trimester with our innovation day which was a pinnacle moment for me and my views on education. It epitomized student driven learning in a pure and unfiltered form. Kids were motivated and engaged in their learning. Immediately afterwards, I began thinking of how to sustain this feeling…forever!


Well, I had an idea.

I was going to give complete control of the learning in my Language Arts to the students. Starting three days ago, that is exactly what I did. First, we went over our district mandated standards that we had to “hit” between now and the end of the year. Then, I shared with my students various projects and activities I had used in years past that were related to the specific standards. Then it was all on them.

Students worked in collaborative groups and some partnerships to create a syllabus for their learning. With my assistance, students began construction activities and projects to meet their learning standards. My requirement of them is that they needed to demonstrate mastery of the learning standards. How they went about it, and what format they used for evidence was entirely up to them. If they wanted to work alone, great! If they wanted to work in groups, awesome!

Here are some examples of what the students were doing today:

Four boys decided to form a book club to work on their literature standards. They invited me to a meeting next week to discuss their understanding of “theme” in their novel. Rather than do a formal written paper, they wanted to have a discussion with me. They then spent the rest of the time discussing the first chapter. Their conversation was unscripted, unprompted by me, and yet was rich in content and literary substance.

I had two girls researching figurative language in their literature books. They then went and found four poems, and two short stories that had examples of the various forms of figurative language. To finish things off, they wrote their own personal examples of these literary devices to demonstrate their understanding. I will be pushing them to “teach” their classmates in small groups next week.

A handful of students were recording themselves with webcams reading picture books. They are working on the reading rate and fluency and will be sending them home to their parents as part of read aloud day/week activities.

One student was researching Justin Bieber as part of her expository writing standards. She will be writing an expository essay while addressing those standards and then preparing an informational presentation. Another student was looking at engendered species and working with the same learning standards.

In another corner of the room, I had two girls who checked out poetry books from the LRC and were reading various forms of poetry. They then began working on mimicking and writing their own poems using a variety of styles and formats. These poems will address another writing standard.

If you were to look in the room, it was a bit chaotic as I was rolling around (I roll on my desk chair in between students/groups) the room checking in on student’s work. All of the students were doing different things, but all were working towards a set of learning standards. It was pandemonium, but learning was happening and it was great.

As we move forward, I have placed a large calendar on my back wall. Students will be signing up for small group mini lessons, and meetings with me. If there is a standard they don’t understand or need some guidance with, they sign up and we meet. This will allow me to work with small groups and tailor class time to what they need. In addition, students are empowered to do the work because they are choosing what to work on, when to work on it, and how to demonstrate their learning. No cookie cutter instruction for the rest of the year…

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Blogger 101

My latest tutorial...
This is a very short overview of blogger and some of the features I use. The two big ones are embedding video and inserting a table without knowing HTML coding. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Green Screen Magic

Here is a short tutorial on how I create some of my green screen videos. In addition, if you are interested in doing blue screen work with Movie Maker you need to check out this site: http://www.wikihow.com/Chroma-Key-in-Windows-Movie-Maker I tried to do a screen capture to show how it worked but it would not work our properly within Movie Maker. If you follow the directions on this website it will out just fine.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing Activities for Social Science

After this evenings #sschat I felt compelled to formalize all of my random tweets into a more organized post. Here is a list of ways in which I have used writing in my social science classes.


Historical Newspapers – Have students take on the role of a reporter in a historical time period. I have done this with Ancient Rome in the past and the students had fun writing articles about Julius Caesar and the battles with Carthage.

Podcasts – Students create a script and record a podcast with a webcam. This is great because students have to focus on making sure not only the content is good but the writing flows nicely. They are easy and quick to do once you teach students the basics of what every program you are using.

Carousel – This is one of my favorite review or introduction activities. You put up posters around the room; I have also done this on computers with word documents. On each poster is another topic. Students work in groups to add something to each poster. For example, on the first round they may have to come up with key terms that go with their poster’s topic. After rotating they might have to write a question on the next poster. Students rotate around the room and hit all the posters and each rotation has a different task associated with it.

Menu – This one I used with my team teacher Lauren. She created a menu of writing options the students could choose from. It was laid out just list a menu in a restaurant with sections for dessert, entrees, and appetizers. Students picked from a variety of writing prompts/activities and the choice helped with motivation and engagement.

Journal/Diary – These are nothing new and have been used a million times. I have had students write diaries like Leonardo Da Vinci and journals from a serf living in the feudal Europe. Key is to have them take on the role of a character or time period.

Song/Rap – If you have watched any of the historical music videos out there you know they are pretty cool. They are a great way to get students into the content in a new and fun way. I have had my students write their own songs and recently started using ujam to add music to their songs.

Graffiti Walls – Another easy idea here…just toss up a huge piece of butcher/poster paper on a wall in your classroom. Students can write up ideas and new thoughts they are having at any time during a unit of study. You can also encourage students to draw symbols or small pictures as well. If you are looking for a more focused “graffiti”, you can put a word or a question for them to address in their work.

ABC Books – As a fan of ABC books when reading to my children, these are great. Students create an ABC book for any topic, time period, or area of study. You can have them add pictures or get into as much detail as you want.

Campaign Posters – You can have students write out and create campaign posters for a variety of time periods. Personally, I have had students create these when studying the Roman emperors.

Debate – I am a huge fan of debates in class as they have the potential to engage students in high order thinking. They have to write and create compelling arguments based in historical fact and be able to articulate their ideas.

Obituary – Another crowd favorite is writing historical obituaries. I bring in some samples for students to model them after…not “real” people. It allows them to reflect on the historical figures life and what they left behind.

Annotated Timelines – Rather than just having students put dates on a timeline, I have them annotate historical timelines. They provide a date, the event, and short description of the historical significance of that event. It is great for students to see a visual representation of events.

Commercials/News Casts – I really enjoy these writing/video assignments. If you follow my work at all you know I love making videos for my classes and letting my students create them as well. Students can write up scripts and then “perform” their scripts in front of the class or the camera. I use a green screen to help put the students into the places they are reporting from.

Alternate Histories – This is more of a creative writing assignment where students write about historical events from varying perspectives. For this, it requires students to have a fairly sophisticated understanding of historical events and cause and effect. For example, what would have happened if Brutus would not have killed Caesar?

Have any other good ideas? Please share them in the comments below!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Take the Red Pill


Four months ago, I took Morpheus’s Red Pill and it has changed my life. In the Matrix, Neo takes the red pill and has an “awakening” to the perceived real world. For me this awakening was to a world beyond my classroom. To start, I grew up in a town of 1100 people and change, with a high school graduating class of 24. I then went to a smaller 4 year college with a graduating class of a few more than 500 students. So, I have led what most would consider a rather sheltered life. Right out of college I was married and hired to teach in the same school I student taught in. My professional life was set and I began what most would consider a “good” teaching career.


That is where the red pill came in. I made the decision to start blogging and become active on twitter about four months ago. This “awakened” me to a world beyond my school, my classroom and my community. I have seen how schools are working and classrooms are running all over the world. Conversations I have are opening my eyes to methods and pedagogy that were never on my radar. I am thinking about things in ways I would never has imagined were possible.

Resources I never thought existed are now my norm and benefit my students daily. My PLN on twitter are sharing more resources than I can consume in a day, week, or month. Blogs are piling up in my reader and I can’t keep up with all the new “stuff” that is out there waiting for me to try with my students. More than the resources themselves, but the potential they hold in unlocking even more learning for my students.

Beyond just the resources, I am having educational conversations about topics that range from standardized testing and grades to professional development and digital citizenship. I am no longer the naïve teacher with a narrow viewpoint and perspective. There are people that I am talking to that I never even knew existed. Had I not taken the red pill, I would still never know of them or their varied perspective and experiences. The myriad of people I have met and talked to have broaden my educational horizons further than I could ever have anticipated.

Some people may not see this as an awakening, but for me it was. As Morpheus said, “After this, there is no turning back.” This is so true. I have learned what is out there and I can’t go back. I have new perspectives and resources that are ultimately bettering the learning for my students. I cannot conceive going back to putting my head in the sand and focusing just on what is being done in my classroom. I know what is out there and I can’t deny the power and potential learning at my fingertips.

When the opportunity presents itself to you, I encourage you to take the red pill.

Just Learning Stuff

This evening my five year old son, Tanner, was on the phone with his Uncle that lives out of state. They were having their usual, “how are things going” conversation. Tanner told him about his latest hockey game and how annoying his little brother was. The conversation then turned to discussion of Tanner’s school.


Uncle: How is school going?

Tanner: Good.

Uncle: Are you getting all A’s in school?

Tanner: I don’t know what A’s are, I am just learning stuff?

Uncle: A’s mean you are doing good in school.

Tanner: My teacher tells me I am doing good so I think I am.
That small conversation just summed up what I think most of us see as the fault of education. As children we go to school because it if fun and we love learning. We have no concept of grades but only of the activities and great work we are doing. My son comes home every single day and tells me that he loves school and that it is fun.

Education has failed when it ceases to be about the learning and is about percentages or letters. A five year old knows this, why not the people in charge of education?

The notion of grades or the concept of an “A” is beyond him. I hope to keep it that way as long as possible. I am not going to argue about grades being good or bad because there are folks smarter than me engaging in those debates. However, I will argue that education is working when kids don’t know about grades but just know that they are “learning stuff”.