We’re Back in Business

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Students are scheduled to enter my school tomorrow morning.  It’s been a whole two weeks since I’ve seen my students.  Tomorrow, routines will be reestablished, backpacks will be filled, students will be chattering about their break, and students and teachers alike will get back into school mode after a brief hiatus.  As  tomorrow approaches, I’m reflecting on what my classes have accomplished and what still is on the plate ahead of us.  I spent a good amount of time yesterday planning out the next week of instruction and it confirmed my anxiousness to know that the school year is over half-way completed.  As I look over the next few months, I’m finding curriculum pacing guides, standardized testing, school performances and field trips all impact my instruction to a certain degree.  This happens every year and it has me thinking of what time I truly have left with the kids. I’m also aware that these next few months directly impact students in meaningful ways.  For some, this will be my last year with a group of fifth graders that I’ve seen since they were in second grade. I want to ensure that I make the most of that time remaining.  That doesn’t necessarily mean speeding through the curriculum.  I’m hoping to gives students opportunities during the next few months to make connections, reflect and set goals.  As we all come back tomorrow, I want to communicate the following to my kids:


1.)  The learning experiences that you’ll encounter in the next few months are intentionally designed for you to make meaningful math connections.  Perseverance will be key in helping you create these connections.  You might find that you don’t understand a particular concept when we introduce it.  That’s okay.  Learning is a process and we’re all in this together.

2.)  Group projects, individual assignments and standardized tests are on the calendar and will be approaching in the next few months.  Keep in mind that I believe you’ll will show your potential on all of these. The scores and marks will help teachers and your parents have a better understanding of your strengths and areas that might need to be bolstered.  Also keep in mind that the scores are a number and don’t represent who you are as a person.

3.)  Let’s celebrate a milestone.  We’ve worked hard and have made significant progress since September. Each student in here has made gains and I want us to reflect a bit on our success. There’s more to accomplish, of course, but reflecting on our past growth can also encourage us to move forward with additional confidence.


I’d like to communicate this to all my classes at some point tomorrow.  I won’t necessarily read off a script, but I feel like flushing it out on here is a decent starting point.

It’s time to get back into the routine of setting my alarm clock to wake up extra early.  I’ll be joining the trove of educators heading back into their schools this week.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

Open House Questions

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My school had its official open house last week.  This anticipated annual event invites parents to visit the school for to take a look at what’s happening in the classroom.  This is not a time for parent conferences but an opportunity for parents to visit the school, meet teachers and get a glimpse of classroom happenings. It’s a busy night.  Students often become tour guides and they lead their parents through the classroom that they’re in throughout the day.  Parents often look forward to this night as they can see their child’s work.  Each teacher puts their own spin on the night.  Some grade levels work together and have the same theme or activity while other teachers have a school scavenger hunt.

For teachers, it can be a whirlwind of a night. Setting up activities, organizing work and finding ways to hang up student work is usually all part of this night.  The focus is on showcasing student work.

I believe having an open house night is one way to help build the community and school connection.  It’s beneficial although I always leave these nights with questions of how to make this connection better.

For the majority of parents this is one of the few times that they’re able to  walk the halls of the school and actually see student work from multiple classrooms.  I believe that these types of open house nights strengthening the school and community connection.  Parents leave the night with a better understanding of what their child is doing in school.  While meeting with parents I overheard a few conversations.  I heard parents making positive comments of what their child is doing in particular classrooms.  This is all good news but I wonder if there’s a better way to improve this connection.  While thinking of this I started to put together an informal list of what some teachers are doing to address this.

There are a few teachers at my school that use social media to improve this connection.  I know of three teachers that have their own classroom Twitter handle.  They Tweet out pictures,activities and/or projects that students complete.  A few teachers at my school also use student digital portfolios to showcase student work. Parents are able to view student work and comment on their child’s work through this platform.  From what I hear and see, parents in these classrooms seem to have a better understanding of what’s happening in those classrooms.  All teachers send out classroom newsletters twice a month.  The letters are often used as a general curriculum communication tool. I believe in a balanced approach to building the connections between schools and the community.  It’s obvious that teachers aren’t able to showcase everything that’s happening in their classrooms, but what’s happening shouldn’t necessarily be hidden either.

Let me know what you think.  How do you strengthen the school and community partnership?

 

First Few Days of School

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In less than a week my school year starts. The first week is so important in helping set the tone and stage for the school year. Usually I take out my lesson plan from last year to start planning out the present school year. Some of the activities are the same from year to year and others I tend to ditch. This post/plan is by no means set in stone, but it’ll be helpful in planning as school is just around the corner. Ideally, I’d like to get to everything noted in this post, but honestly I doubt that will happen.  Flexibility is key here and this is a rough outline.

Keep in mind that I usually see four different groups of students during the first day of school. Each group stays for their math block, which is about an hour.

Day One

For the past few years I’ve always had music on as students enter the classroom for the first time. This year will be no different. Students will enter the classroom and find their own seat. The seats aren’t marked. Once everyone arrives I’ll quickly introduce myself and ask the students about their summer. I ask the students to write down one activity that they participated in this summer that they’d like to share.  Students write this down on a Post-it note. I then take all the notes and read off the activities. Each student then claims their activity and tells the class a bit more about their experience.

The class then reviews the arrival / dismissal flow chart.   This is a time where I open up the floor for any questions. We then have a conversation about procedures within the classroom. This takes about 10 minutes. The class then participates in a hands-on geometry game. It’s similar to a Simon Says, but with geometry terms and movements. The students tend to enjoy this and it’s a time for them to get out of their seat and engage in a different activity related to math.

After a few rounds of the game we all find our seats again and I pass out the student consumable math journals. Students then take out their math supplies and start organizing their accordion file.  I model how the accordion file should look and place the tabs in the correct places. Students label their accordion file tabs and organize their materials. I give each student a class information sheet, curriculum guide and contact sheet. Students get all business-like and start organizing their files.

Then it’s picture time! We all line up in the front of the class and take a class picture. The picture is then usually used during Back to School Night.

Following the class picture students start filling out their hand. Students use a Sharpie and write their name on the hand and place it on the door. It remains there for the entire school year. In some sort of small way I feel like it also encourages ownership.

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Completed hand project

After all the hands have been tapped up on the door we move to the next activity, the puzzle piece community builder. This has been a staple activity for years. The puzzle starts like the picture below.

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I then cut out the pieces and each student creates their own according to the directions.  Students place their name, favorite place to visit, favorite math topic, an interesting drawing or whatever you’d like them to place on the piece.  All students in the class create a puzzle piece and then the puzzle is put together once everyone finishes. Once it’s finished it hangs in the room for the year.

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Students usually have around 10 minutes or so to work on the puzzle piece before they leave to their next class. Near the end of class I remind students of the dismissal flow chart as they leave.

Day Two

While students enter the classroom I’m planning on having the arrival / dismissal flow chart clearly visible. Today students will help create expectations for the classroom. This takes up a good part of the class, but I feel like it’s worth the time commitment. Once the expectations are established, students sign their name and this document is posted on a bulletin board for the year.   I’m planning on having students practice logging into their online math accounts today. This is important because the math student reference book is only online.

Students will also continue to work on their puzzle piece. Today I’m planning on introducing Estimation 180 and the student recording sheet to the class.  I haven’t yet decided on what picture to use, but I’d like to incorporate this periodically throughout the school year.  By end of the class students should (emphasis on should) have finished their puzzle piece. Today I’m also taking pictures of students as they work. I’m looking forward to using our class Twitter handle and Instagram to document our learning journey.  Students will be asked to compile Tweets in their own words that I will send out throughout the year.  This is another way to document our shared math experiences.

Day Three 

Again, students will follow the flow chart that’s posted. I’ll remind students of the expectations that were created yesterday. Students will start to compile the community puzzle of the classes. Today I’ll introduce the math journal to the students. Students will write about their past experiences with math and maybe even write a short version of their math autobiography.   This is a good opportunity to talk about the learning process and how mistakes are valued in this class. I want students to be able to use the math journal as a reflection tool and a place to record their mathematical learning. While students are writing in their journal I generally play sometype type  of music in the background. Students find a comfy place in the classroom to setup their journal time. Once finished, the class will move to a math game/station discussion. Each grade level will play a math game related to their current goal. Some of the more regular games that we play are Angle Tangle, Factor Captor and Name that Number.

Day Four

Today is dedicated to the Marshmallow Challenge. Before completing the activity the class will have a discussion about the importance of being part of a community that’s supportive. We also discuss the math implications of building a tower out of food items. At the end of the time the class will measure all the towers. We then fill out a plus/delta chart indicating what worked and didn’t work. Students usually end this class by having a conversation about team work and building a classroom community of support/trust.

Day Five

Students will delve deeper into their mathematical understanding by completing different types of open-ended/response problems (similar to 1 or 2) in small groups. Students will be asked to explain their thinking and find a solution. Student groups will present their solutions to the class. Many of the open response problems have already been compiled and are found in the district-adopted curriculum. Afterwards, students will be asked to document their experience in their math journals. Students will also login into their Showbie account on their Ipads. Students will be using the iPads to turn in certain math projects throughout the year. Students will be asked to take a picture of their work, annotate their picture and turn it into their Showbie account.  This will also provide students with an avenue to share math work with others.

 

 

 

Beyond Standardized Assessments

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Over the past few years I’ve noticed a trend in elementary schools across the nation.  A growing emphasis has been placed on controversial high-stakes standardized assessments.  Too many, this isn’t really a surprise.  Most, not all, state standardized assessments at the elementary level focus in on the subjects of reading and math.  Don’t get me wrong … both of these subjects are extremely important and school scheduling often revolves around them.  Since I teach mostly math throughout the day I am grateful for the time that is dedicated to the subject. Math and reading can be foundational for other content areas to flourish.

The test taking emphasis with reading and math sometimes crowds out some of the time dedicated to other subject areas.  Some of the subject areas that might be reduced because of that emphasis may include social studies, history, geography, art, science, etc.   If the subject area isn’t part of the standardized assessment schedule it might not get priority instruction time.  This doesn’t happen in all circumstances, but it does happen.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with talented elementary teachers that have a passion for their social studies and science content areas.  These teachers bring a contagious energy to their subject and make social studies and science a priority in the classroom.  I appreciate these teachers and the effort they put into their craft.  One of the teachers organized our school’s first ever Geography Bee this year.

I was given the opportunity to serve as a cohost for this event.  Being primarily a math teacher, I was looking forward to helping out with our school’s first Geography Bee and thought that many of my math students would be part of the bee.  Many of my students expressed interest in participating.

To start preparing for the event, about 40 students started attending weekly geography study sessions after school or during their recess times.  These sessions occurred approximately one month before the bee was scheduled to start.  Students that were interested started using iPad apps, websites and geography study materials to review locations all over the world.  As the event came closer more practice sessions were attended by the students.  Teachers volunteered to host the practice sessions in their classrooms during this time.

The culmination of all the practice ended when the Geography Bee began yesterday.  Parents of the community were asked to attend and cheer on their child and other contestants.  It was great to see the community support each other and our school.  Approximately 30 students participated in the event that was hosted by eight teacher volunteers.  The preliminary, final and championship round came and went.  Overall, it was a worthwhile experience and I feel like it helped build the community and school partnership.

It was great to see students receive recognition for an accomplishment that wasn’t tied to the staple reading and math curriculum or mandated on a standardized assessment.  Exposing students to a variety of concepts and curriculum opportunities can help students discover their own passions.  I can think of genius hour and the hour of code as two examples that can lend itself for students to start developing interests that may eventually become passions.  Creating a classroom/school environment that fosters an appreciation for learning is important and shouldn’t be lost.

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A Sharing Culture

photo credit: overgraeme via photopin cc
photo credit: overgraeme via photopin cc

Teachers Aren’t Meant to be Islands


The ISTE 13 conference in San Antonio is now over.  I wasn’t able to attend this year, although I was amazed with the amount of digital sharing that occured during the conference.  I was able to follow the #iste13 hashtag which provided me with links that were directly associated with conference keynotes, slides, sessions, speaker notes, videos, pictures and a multitude of useful information.  This type of generous sharing should happen in education more frequently.

I’m now reflecting on how schools and teachers share resources with each other.  I’ve experienced sharing through social media and have a variety of experiences sharing ideas/resources in schools.  When comparing schools and social media PLNs, I find differences in the volume and quality of sharing that occurs. I’ve observed teachers that actively share resources with their PLN through social media, but not so much in their school and vice versa.  There may be reasons behind this that are directly associated with how many people are in your PLN compared to the amount of staff in your school.  Regardless, the amount of sharing within a school truly depends on the culture.  Some teachers are very private with their resources and ideas, while others will freely handout their resources to anyone who asks. I believe the reasoning can be partially tracked down to who completes the work and a fear that their resource wouldn’t be used correctly.

Current teacher evaluation systems that include VAM may also play a role. VAM scores seem to be making a splash and are unintentionally causing teacher competition. One byproduct of competition is often isolation, which causes a decrease in sharing as teachers are numerically pinned against each other.  This culture negatively impacts teachers, students and the community.  I believe teachers aren’t meant to work in isolation. One of my newest PLN members, Victoria Olson said, “…we are not intended to be islands, yet many of us are.”  I believe that quote is spot on and applies to educators everywhere.

How do education leaders encourage sharing and collaboration?

I believe every staff member has something that they can share, regardless of their position in a school.  Sharing often brings opportunities to innovate as one idea is built upon another. Sharing also empowers teachers to find additional resources and possible teaching strategies that may help their class.  This sharing may strengthen the trust between teachers and school teams.  It may also encourage teachers to begin to direct their own learning, as Dean Shareski says in his post.  Teacher and administration sharing sessions can benefit many stakeholders and can lead to brainstorming opportunities.  This is not a top-down approach and isn’t necessarily consistently embraced, but it can yield positive results.  Administrators should encourage sharing with colleagues (like this) and incorporate staff sharing moments during scheduled meetings. Sharing shouldn’t be seen as being narcissistic. George Couros expands on this idea in his post.  Sharing your ideas/strengths also validates that we’re all learners attempting to improve our practice.  Having a dialogue about the sharing is essential in the process and may improve teaching practices.   No matter who you are, or what experience you have, there’s always a way to become better at your craft.  Starting off the school year by sharing ideas/resources can help build a solid foundation that encourages additional sharing.   What should be shared?  This depends on the school and leadership.  Here’s a rough idea list:

  • Workshops
  • Conferences
  • Education Journals
  • Education related books
  • Blogs
  • Experiences over the summer
  • RSS feeds
  • Colleagues
  • Teachers

I have respect for administrators that share what they’ve learned when they were teachers.  I believe that sharing these experiences and resources have potential to build a positive rapport between administrators and teachers.  This modeling may help motivate others to share as well. When sharing becomes the norm, administrators can encourage teachers to participate and even lead professional development sessions with their staff.   This type of professional development has many benefits.

How do you promote collaboration and sharing with your staff?

Using Skype to Learn about School Communities

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Throughout this school year my class has been focusing in on the topic of community. The class has engaged in learning activities related to building a positive classroom community of learners.  We’ve co-created anchor charts and thoroughly discussed what our learning community looks like.  While searching for new ideas, I came across a unique idea … a classroom was going to have a Skype session with many different schools across the world about the topic of community.  I decided to sign up for this activity a few weeks ago.

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Before the Skype, guiding questions were developed by the host.

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I confirmed my class’s participating with Katy and my students were split into three groups. One group became the welcoming party.  Students created signs and communicated the school’s demographic and geographical data.   The second group was designated as the research group.  This collection of students researched information about the local and school community.  In doing so, the students also were reminded of how much of an emphasis we put on creating a positive learning community in the classroom.  This group put together a small presentation for the 5A class (Katy’s class).  The third group, the questioning group (still looking for a better name for this group), was directed to create at least 10 questions that the 5A school would answer.  This group was also expected to answer the questions that were asked from the other school.

Today my class had a chance to Skype with Katy’s class from New York City. Katy’s tireless fifth grade class engaged in approximately 15 different Skype sessions in one day – that’s some perseverance.

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The Skype session involved both schools discussing the topic of community.  My class learned about 5A’s class community and they learned about ours.  The total session lasted around 25 minutes.  Afterwards, the class reviewed and compared the two communities.  My class was especially intrigued that 5A had recess on the roof!

This  method of comparing communities through Skype seemed to enhance the learning experience.  Soon after the Skype session ended, my students wanted to research other communities around the world.  This may be a kick-off to #geniushour projects in the fall.

What do you think?  Have you tried Skyping with another class to learn about community?

The Power of Education Naysayers

Do we want conformity?
Should conformity be the norm?

More often than not, most schools have a naysayer or a group of naysayers.  A naysayer might not necessarily agree with a school’s initiatives or mandates. These staff members are often perceived as being negative or confrontational.  Naysayers might not participate on district or leadership committees.  They might assert their opinions regarding education funding, history of education, evaluations, response to intervention, student data, status quo,  leadership, initiates, etc.   I feel like most teachers have met a naysayer.  You might even be a self-proclaimed naysayer or skeptic.  Naysayers often feed off one another and their ideas can be contagious.

Regardless of how naysayers are perceived, they have power.  I find that teachers want what’s best for students.  Beyond the overarching goal of wanting what’s best for students, teachers’ philosophies differ.   These opinions can start arguments and can cause disruptions among teams/schools.  Confrontations can cause disruptions if not handled properly by administration. Experiences and opinions should be valued and communicated with candor.  Everyone who is part of the education organization is valued and that should be communicated as well.

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Being labeled a a naysayer doesn’t have to have a negative connotation   You might be called a naysayer if you aren’t a fan of the status quo in a school or district.  Is that bad?  You might disagree, but being a positive change agent in a school might start by being called a naysayer. Naysayers that bring solutions to the table introduce ideas that may encourage others to innovate.  Conforming isn’t always an option when challenging decisions need to be made. Disagreement may bring a different perspective and initiate a positive change in an organization.  Teacher strengths and ideas may often remain hidden until called upon.  Encouraging naysayers to join school leadership teams and become more involved in the decision making process may benefit your school.

Are you a naysayer?

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