Kids as Catalysts of Change

Have you ever gotten so caught up in doing something that you forget to look up and see what is around you?  I have been guilty of that this year as I have attempted to make my classroom a blended learning environment.  The challenge of changing how I create and present content to my students has been overwhelming at times and I have frequently forgotten about a rich resource I have right in front of me all day long: my students!

My middle school students are, I have realized, the key to my success.  Of course there are many days when I am sure they are also going to drive me into an early retirement!  In previous years I have used their enthusiasm to help foster inquiry and engagement about what we were learning.  This was an integral part of how I taught and it worked well for me.  This year, however, I lost sight of that important facet of my teaching.  I was focusing on the “how” and not the “why” of  what I was doing in my classes and content areas.  Becoming so caught up in finding new and slicker resources and managing the inconsistent availability of technology resources became my number one consideration and I have often felt like I was just barely keeping my head above water.  It has not been a happy time for me as an educator.  I have often felt lost and inept this year; feelings no one ever enjoys.

Now that I have more of a feeling of control over the technology end of things and a more thorough understanding of the how and why of the apps that are out there to use, I can lift my head and take a look around me a bit.  My students are still there and still have so much to offer.  

I have started a list of ways I can capitalize on their innate enthusiasm in a blended learning environment.  While some of these techniques are very similar to what happened in a more traditional model, some take on an new twist in the area of technology, some are new, and all will make a big difference in my outcomes with blended learning.

  • Student as “guide on the side” – I have begun to leverage the knowledge and aptitude some of my students have shown in the area of technology (both hardware and software) to expand the amount of guidance there is available to struggling students.  I clearly cannot be everywhere at once and it is very likely that a student isn’t “ready” for some information until they are at that step in the process.  As much as I try to front load my instructions, that is not always helpful to everyone.  In order to have help available at the right time for learning, my students who find technology pretty straightforward and understandable have become my trusted co-guiders!  This is good for both the helper and the helpee because in order to be respected as a helper, they need to display certain behaviors and trustworthiness.  This role has proven to be important to some of my students improved self-image.  They appreciate the level of trust I have placed in them and they like helping their fellow students.  I plan to work on formalizing the skills and characteristics I want to celebrate with the class so this becomes a coveted designation.
  • Student as expert – I cannot know everything all of time – no one can.  We are very hard on ourselves as teachers and often hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard.  How wonderful it has been to periodically hand over the role of expert to my students!  I have seen them step up to take on this challenge for some portion of content and the pride they have in themselves when they provide the class with something they all need.  While this is not practical for everything we study, I am incorporating it more and more and even see students seeking this opportunity.  What an opportunity for growth!  Again, I need to build some further structure around this, but so far so good.
  • Making learning public – Technology is a huge asset here and there are countless options for how students can show what they know, reflect on their process and what they have learned.  This can take the form of a quick-write on a shared class Padlet or similar app, the creation of a new product like a PowToon, or a video or podcast.  There are so many options, the biggest problem is deciding which one to use!  The real power of asking students to make their learning public is the increase in the accountability and engagement – I have seen a huge increase in both of these.  I love seeing pride on their faces.
  • Creating classroom lists of “go-to” apps and tools – We are compiling a list of our favorites with reasons and this is sort of evolving into a list of “look for’s” in new apps.  It is a very backwards, organic process but the creating as we go nature of it has grabbed their attention and the fact that they have true input is powerful.  I would like to try using apps to collect some of this data through polling and google forms but I have not formalized it to that point yet.  I have info in a few different places and need to pull that together – add that to the to-do list!

This has been a year of tremendous learning and growth for me as a professional and I owe so much to my students who have put up with all of the changes and experimentation and changes in direction I have thrown at them.  I love my kids!

Google Classroom – A Blessing and a Curse

Google Classroom is the both the best thing and the most frustrating thing to happen to my teaching in a long time.  My district “went Google” and the most logical thing for me to do was to try to leverage all of what was available to me to try to maximize the effectiveness of my teaching.  My newly blended classroom was the perfect place to experiment and learn about this new tool.  

While Classroom has given me some absolutely wonderful functionality, it is far from perfect.  Google readily admits that and has a wonderfully flexible outlook on its own product.  They are very upfront about how they are always working on it and are very receptive to input.  I really cannot ask for more than that from them, although sometimes the much-desired features seem like they will never take shape.  Thankfully, many features have been added, and each time a new one is introduced, I jump on board to try it.  So far, I have not been disappointed.  We may have to wait, but what they have added is high quality.

So, let’s look at the good:

  • The distribution of assignments and resources – this process is so much simpler using Google Classroom.  Please note that I am not doing any product comparison here other than comparing using Google Classroom to physically passing out papers!  The biggest win for me as a teacher in using this feature is the ability to hold my students accountable – they can’t lose anything or say they didn’t get a copy.  Organization, particularly in middle school students, is a rare thing. I have to say, some of them are speechless when they realize that old excuse has no validity anymore.  I kind of love that………………..
  • The ability for kids to have a classroom for each teacher they work with – again, organization rules!  My students can sign in and see all of their classes in one place.  This is invaluable when working with kids who have 5 different major subject teachers with 5 different lists of assignments.  I have seen a real difference in my kids’ ability to pull their organizational skills together.  We aren’t talking miracles here, but there has been far fewer meltdowns.
  • The ability for teams of teachers to use Google Classroom in a purposeful, planned way – the potential here is huge, although there is room for growth feature-wise on Google’s part.  Not only can we make each other teachers in each other’s classrooms, but what I create can serve as an example for another teacher on the team trying something for the first time.  Built in PD!
  • All of the add-ons created for Google Apps for Education and Chrome that work with Classroom – Holy Toledo!  The number of add-ons is growing every day.  Clearly, the quality is not all equal, but the ability to have so many to pick and choose from and the fact that they are available to the kids too is terrific.  The biggest issue is choosing which to use.  Some of my students have even become “product testers” and recommend certain ones to the class or to me.  Who doesn’t like free shopping??

With all good comes some bad.  Let’s take a look:

  • The grading situation – I cannot get my head wrapped around this flow – it seems unnecessarily cumbersome to me and involves way too much clicking.  There is vast room for improvement here and, if Google can figure out how to smooth this out and streamline it, they will have a huge win on their hands.  And a big fan!

 

  • The stream – it could just be that I am not a Facebook user or a fan of social media, but I don’t like this interface.  Visually, I would love the ability to change the layout – the timeline is just not working for me and many of my students struggle with this view as well.  The ability to display the assignments/announcements/questions in multiple ways – user choice – would be a very welcome change and would make this tool so much more user-friendly for many of my students.

 

In the end, I am much happier with Google Classroom than I was without it.  I do believe it will get better with time and user input.  I appreciate Google’s commitment to making Classroom function better for both teachers and students.  If you haven’t given it a try yet, what are you waiting for?  Dive in.

The Spirit of Adventure

Skydiving, bungee jumping, zip lining, these are all things my students tell me they would definitely love to try.  I believe them and encourage them to pursue those opportunities as they grow older.  In the classroom, however, my students don’t all present themselves as such risk takers.  They play it safe over and over again, even when given the opportunity to branch out.  My concern is that overwhelmingly I am asked for neat, well-defined assignments from my kids and from the adults I teach.  Why is that?  What are we afraid of?  And what role have I played in that mindset?

The majority of us came through school receiving these neat, self-contained, easily gradable assignments that checked to see if we read, or memorized, or could explain a concept.  We all turned out fine.  (Well…………mostly.)  Teachers moved us through the curriculum and we all marched in line towards the goal.  That has been the educational model for a very long time.

Many of us are trying to change the way content is delivered, consumed and used in our classrooms.  In implementing a blended learning model in my room this year, I have run into this expectation that assignments will stay the same as they have always been; look the same, require the same level of effort, and be graded the same.  And when students realize that what they are used to is not what they are being asked to do, things can get ugly!

At first I found this a pretty disheartening, considering I am working in what should be a place of experimentation and discovery.  I am not blaming the students and teachers, but where is this attitude coming from?  Is this what the current educational process is communicating to our students and faculty?  Am I?  If we want technology to become an everyday part of learning, we need to make sure we first encourage a love of exploration, experimentation and discovery and a willingness to stick with something even if it is hard.

So back to the sky diving, etc.  How do I make engaging with content and creating new knowledge as appealing to my students as those adventures?  I don’t think the answer is going to be the same for everything we do, but if I try reframing how I look at designing the work, maybe I can get a little closer to exciting my students than I am right now.  There is truly nothing worse for a teacher than the look on students’ faces when you present them with a new unit and they are thinking, “really?”  I hope I can change that!

Wrestling With An Octopus

If you are at all like me, you are already thinking about heading back into the classroom and the details of what that will look and feel like for your students.  I have an added dimension to plan for – a station rotation model using a set of Chromebooks.  Great news but holy moly, what direction do I run in first???  As I research resources, talk to colleagues who have some experience with this, read about best practices, and reference my CCSS aligned curriculum I am quickly overwhelmed.  Yes, my new reality is like a many tentacled octopus – and we are definitely wrestling!

Perhaps it is the expectations that I am placing on myself.  Never one to dip a toe into the water when I could just cannonball right in, I have quite a list of goals for myself and my students.  I have also offered to be a resource for other teachers to further their professional development.  Along the way I will be blogging, maintaining a website, creating learning portfolios to document the experiences of some of my students, and trying to figure out if my teaching is actually more effective as a result of this change.  The list is a teensy bit long but I am not ready to ditch any of it,…. yet.

My real problem is information overload.  For each of the tasks I listed for myself above, there are about a gazillion sub-topics, videos, hints, tips, tweets, blogs, books, and podcasts.  My brain hurts….

Maybe I need to stop looking, but I am one of those people who really struggles to do that. You know, the perfect resource could be right there, just beyond that next click.  I swear, its like gambling!  I am addicted to clicking.  There it is, that is my problem.  I am a serial clicker.  I’m glad we figured that out.

Let’s face it, I am going to have to pull my act together – August 25th is looming large!

A Worthwhile Read – PD Style

Reading for professional learning and growth can be frustrating.  While authors need to convince readers that they know what they are talking about and that the content they are presenting is true and backed up by research, this can often lead to dense, slow, and overly-detailed writing.  There are two types of PD reads – theory and practice – and there are lots and lots of offerings out there.  It is important to think about what you want to come away with after your reading when making your choice.

It can be difficult at times to tell what you are going to get when you order some of these books.  While the description might sound appropriate, I have had multiple experiences with receiving a book that is much more theory than I had anticipated.  I truly appreciate it when publishers like Heinemann and Stenhouse allow me to see some of the book before purchase so I can avoid this disappointment.

I have to confess that I am an impatient reader when engaged in reading for PD.  I am all about improving my practice as an educator.  As a classroom teacher I have a specific agenda when I sit down with one of these books and that is to take away some concrete tools, ideas, and techniques to use to improve student learning and experiences.  Given that I have limited personal funds to spend on PD books I have some criteria I use when choosing.  I look for:

  • clear organization
  • real world examples of use with students in multiple content areas
  • access to actual files, copies of the tools used or explained in the book, a dedicated website, and/or study guide

Nothing makes me happier than finding a professional book that I can dig into!  There is a real excitement in finding a new technique that I think will open my kids’ eyes or enhance their learning.  Here are some of my favorites: