Change is Hard

There is a tremendous amount of content to cover over the course of a school year.  Allowing time for experimentation and discovery can be scary.  How will be sure to address all of the required subject matter and standards if we don’t stay on a schedule?  How do we hold kids accountable for achieving these standards if we allow them to go off the beaten path and work outside the familiar?

As I have worked through the process changed my teaching to a blended learning model this year, I have had to really spend time thinking about how and why we do things in my room.  If I am truly going to allow students to experience and experiment with everything technology can infuse into their education, I have to let some of my conditioned responses go.  Did I mention this was scary?  Because it is.

I have combined some new habits with some changes that have helped me:

  1. Backward design thinking – what do I want them to know and be able to do at the end of a unit of study? (We are far from covering the curriculum in any order they want to.  I still drive the bus!)
  2. Creating a draft of the post assessment/unit of study project rubric – summative assessment
  3. Creating a draft of the pre-test
  4. Brainstorming possible ways for them to show me what they know so they can show growth and reflect on their learning – the more options the better
  5. Brainstorming tech tools for student use and then evaluating them against a standard app rubric
  6. Creating learning resources for the topics included in the unit
    1. Hook activity – I want them excited!
    2. Resource/assignment list for students
      1. Strategies list for acquiring new knowledge
      2. Examples of how they can be creative within the unit
      3. Recommended websites related to our topic(s)
      4. Text sets with text dependent questions to develop background knowledge – formative assessments
      5. Discussion prompts/journal entry prompts/reflection on learning prompts – formative assessment
      6. Vocabulary work and word wall
      7. Entrance and exit slips – formative assessments

Sitting down and working through all of this can seem overwhelming but I have found that I already have much of this work done – it is just framed differently or in a different format.  The time I spend transforming my units is not wasted as I can use the work products I create over and over in the years to come, either in part or whole, as I am creating them digitally.

Of course, this is all extra time no one has!  Then there is the black hole that is the internet that holds so many educational apps for me to scour for quality and ease of use.   In the interest of remaining sane and a pleasant person to be around, I have to redesign only a few units per quarter.  Pacing myself will, I hope, prevent me from reaching my burn out point too rapidly.  So far, so good.  The students seem to be ok with the back and forth between having more and less choice.  Summer will give me more time to work on the redesign and having worked on some with students will help inform my future work on unit creation.

The storage of all of this digitally is a real bonus – can we say goodbye to binders?  Hooray!

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!

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.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

We’re back in school and I am busily familiarizing myself with the kids, their individual talents, and quirks.  I’m sure they are feeling the same way about me.  Looming over all of the work I am currently doing is my plan for piloting a blended classroom using a station rotation model this year.  A number of challenges have emerged, but I have also experienced some wins during these first few weeks.

The set of chromebooks I am supposed to be receiving for my classroom (8-15?) is supposedly in the building but the charging and storage station for it has not yet arrived. To sidestep this issue, I have been booking one of the building chromebook carts and ignoring the nagging voice in my head whispering, “Don’t hog the chromebooks!”  I really have to get my kids used to the routines involved in daily use of technology.  There is a whole list of introductory messages I need to make clear to them about responsible use, the routines of using Google Classroom, and ways of interacting with me in nontraditional ways.

My current students span two grade levels and two subject areas, which makes planning more complex.  Half of them are old enough to access gmail and the other half are not (district requires age 13+).  This adds an interesting wrinkle to efficiently using Google Classroom for communicating with them.  I am trying to narrow down my main apps for communicating assignments and stay with Google Classroom for the full year exclusively. I am going to have to create some routines for myself for working around this limitation.

Behaviors have emerged as an ugly reality this year.  I am encountering many off task behaviors in some of my class groupings.  While these behaviors are challenging with or without technology, trying to get full class tech adoption off the ground with these occuring in the background is making my days interesting. Luckily, technology use can be leveraged to help with these behaviors and I see a huge increase in engagement and attention when we do use tech to drive learning.

We are moving forward, however.  All of my students have joined the Google Classrooms I have set up for each period and subject and have completed a number of warm-up assignments.  They have verntured out into Blendspace, Glogster, and thinkCERCA to get a feel for what is possible for them going forward.  I am seeing excitement and a high level of engagement and productivity from many of them.  Changing their traditional mindset is emerging as a new wrinkle for me as they are just beginning to see what is possible as we move forward into our year of blended learning together.

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: