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!

Plan A Becomes Plan B

Have you heard the one about the teacher who decides to create a blended learning classroom with 22 kids and 6 Chromebooks?  She ended up in the funny farm!  Yep, that teacher would be me and the Chromebooks started out as a promise of a class set, then were reduced to 15, then 8 were delivered later than expected, and now 2 are off being repaired.  What was I thinking????

I cannot blame our IT people.  Those poor souls are straight out trying to service way too many people and machines.  They are miracle workers as far as I am concerned.  Between the shirt tugs in the hallway from desperate teachers with tech problems and the school committee breathing down their necks for estimates of how much money they will need next year, you couldn’t pay me enough money to do that job!  

I really blame myself for opening my big mouth and saying I would pilot a blended learning classroom in a district that has not defined what they believe blended learning is yet.  That is a detail they really need to spend some time on!  On the other hand, my administration was nice enough to be flexible and let me think outside the box and supported my initiative.  They didn’t have to, but they did.  I do appreciate their good intentions.  The execution………….well, not so much.

All of these factors have conspired to create a situation where I am sometimes planning for one reality – Plan A, but come into school and realize my reality that day will be much different which means I have to pull out Plan B.  Teachers learn early on to have a backup plan because a school can be an unpredictable place.  Interruptions like fire drills, sick kids, office announcements, impromptu assemblies, etc. can make it impossible to complete the lesson you had planned on for the day.  This year and my new attempt at a blended classroom have added more potential interruptions to the mix.  The problem is Plan A is taking so long to create, Plan B is often nonexistent!

Let me explain.  Every lesson this year is new for me.  No, I am not a new teacher, just a teacher using new tools.  Really exciting and interesting tools but new nonetheless.  I am taking what I have taught in previous years and trying to turn it into digital content, at least in part.  I love doing this, and I think it is really worthwhile, but it takes a tremendous amount of time.  

Each night I look at what we are learning and try to create lessons that are interactive, engaging, have choice built in and allow students to work at their own pace.  I can’t always include all of that, but I am trying.  This means I spend hours at night trying to find just the right mix of apps and tools for my content and for the kids to use.  By the time I have it ready, creating a Plan B ain’t happening!  Of course I could just fall back on what I did last year, but the pacing is different and it doesn’t always work well to do that.  

My school day starts with me hoping the technology will work and the resources I am counting on will run correctly.  Many days, it all goes very well.  Unfortunately, there have been far too many days lately where a major problem has occurred and we can’t get online or I have no working equipment for the kids to use.  Honestly, there have been days where I have considered just giving up on this whole thing and waiting until we, as a district, are more ready.  

My kids have been so great about all of this.  They have stepped up and learned to use technology to learn and it has not always been easy for them.  They have also had to regroup when they have started an assignment online and then found out that they cannot finish in school.  They have had to put up with me changing things on the fly when our internet is down.  They have endured some not so engaging lessons because Plan B was needed and I didn’t have time to create any bells and whistles after having created the Plan A we had to scrap.  They are real troopers!

We are in the middle of the year now and have come so far together in using this technology to learn.  A big part of me is really questioning why I am putting myself through this.  It is all made worthwhile however when one of my kids creates something they didn’t know they could a few months ago.  They are growing and learning and that makes it all worthwhile.  Plan A or Plan B – we are a team and will keep moving forward!

Am I Overwhelming My Students??

I just presented the list of work required, included deliverables, for our next unit of Geography.  You should have seen my students’ faces!  After some prompting, one girl finally was able to tell me that she felt overwhelmed.  “I feel like it is too much and I can’t do it.” Wow.  I feel that way everyday I work on building this blended learning environment. How could I be so blind to the fact that my kids are feeling that way too?

In an effort to give them a clear picture of how they are expected to show me that they understand the content, I have been building assignments in Google Classroom that take them through the content and require them to create something that shows they are understanding, can combine this new knowledge with what we have already covered, and do some analysis or synthesis.  These are the same goals I had with no Chromebooks in the room, but now there are more options for them and better ways for me to present the information to them.  I front load a great deal of stuff – resources, files, links, etc.  Clearly, some of them are not comfortable with this new model.

Part of the issue could be that they have arrived in this blended classroom having experienced predominately teacher-led learning.  They struggle with independence and having to help themselves as they are conditioned to ask for clarification constantly.  They will ask me a question before even reviewing the content of the assignment instructions.  I am redirecting them but they have such a look of betrayal on their faces – like I am refusing to help them. They are not used to having a choice about what to do during each class period or having a list of to-do’s rather than one assignment at a time.  Choice is really freaking them out!

For my part, I tried to be more explicit about the actual deliverables this time.  I am still seeing a lack of familiarity with the Google Classroom interface and how they can see and track assignments.  In order to help them with that, I created a tracking spreadsheet and posted it in the room.  Each student is listed and there is a column for each assignment. They have been asked to physically “x” out the box next to their name and under each assignment as they complete them and turn them in, whether physically or electonically.  I think this will help all of us to have a better picture of progress and pacing.  It will also up the ante a bit for those who are not particularly motivated to complete anything in a class period.  I plan to keep referring back to it and to remind them to keep it updated.

Today was a wake-up call for me.  I have to slow down a bit and make sure my kids are ready to absorb all of these new procedures and ways of receiving and submitting information.  Although I was trying to be super teacher, it turns out I was making it more difficult for them because I was moving too fast and assuming a comfort level with the model that just doesn’t exist yet.  It is no wonder they are looking at me like I have three heads!  I have been sprinting – it’s time to slow down and make sure everyone is with me.

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: