Posts filed under 'Classroom practice'

Getting Started with Action Research

We are excited to have Matt Renwick back on our blog today with a guest post. He has written before about his school’s efforts to develop lifelong readers. This time he is back with some pointers on getting started with action research for both teachers and administrators.

Getting Started with Action Research
Matt Renwick

We recently facilitated action research for twenty of our district teachers. They came from all areas in grades K–12. The course was led by Dr. Beth Giles and Dr. Mark Dziedzic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teachers met one evening a month to explore their driving questions, set up action plans, collect and organize data, and prepare their work for an inquiry showcase this spring. Here are some of the questions that were specific to literacy, and what we learned.

What happens when we provide choice in reading and learning?

Three teachers investigated this tenet of engagement. A second-grade teacher conducted Genius Hour at the end of the day, a time in which students could tinker and make things of their choosing. A third-grade teacher allowed her students to decide how their classroom should look and feel regarding furniture and resources. A reading interventionist embedded choice within her instruction, including letting the students select one book a month to keep.

What they found out was that choice affected each student in different ways. For example, the reading interventionist discovered that if a student’s basic needs were not being met, he or she had a hard time progressing. She countered this reality by bringing families into school to engage in literacy activities, such as building bookshelves. The third-grade teacher realized that some students liked working with peers regularly, whereas others needed quiet time to read and write. The second-grade teacher found that, for one student in particular, a half hour of tinkering every day led to a reduction in office referrals by 70 percent from fall to spring. Providing choice in school helped teachers better understand their students and adjust their instruction.

What happens when students are taught to ask questions and reflect about their reading?

A fourth- and fifth-grade teacher working with multiple curriculums in a split classroom realized that addressing the needs of a wide variety of learners was a tall order. Therefore, she wanted to find out if teaching her students to ask their own questions of the books they read and to reflect on their thinking in authentic ways through reading journals would lead to more independence.

She modeled these skills and strategies with her own reading. Gradually, she released the responsibility of questioning and reflecting to the students. Data she gathered were anecdotal and powerful. Students not only kept reflections of their own reading, they also noted what their peers were reading. Recommendations for what to read next led to students creating “Want to Read” lists in their journals. Also, students emulated how their teacher talked in their book discussions. This teacher later noted that she was looking forward to working with next year’s fifth graders in the fall.

What happens when teachers reveal themselves as learners?

A secondary reading interventionist was frustrated with her past students’ inability to exit her program in a timely manner. She decided to focus on how her language might promote a growth mind-set in her most reluctant readers and writers. First, she wrote in front of her students about the struggles she was having as a teacher and as a parent. These were day-to-day ordeals—ordinary issues she was sharing publicly. Students were also asked to write about their struggles. Few initially took her up on it. But as the teacher continued to model a growth mind-set, more students followed her lead.

Because the teacher was so open about her own learning, students felt safe in her classroom to take risks. They started to shed their rough exteriors, revealing frustrations about classes and their home lives. This led to exploring literature that students could personally relate to, populated with characters and settings in which they could reside. Pretty soon, her students were coming to her with improved progress reports to share and celebrate. A few kids exited her reading intervention earlier than anticipated but didn’t want to leave. This teacher eventually published her action research in the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal.

What happens when we let kids read?

A fifth-grade teacher and I teamed up to provide her students with a lot of texts to read, and we decreased the reading requirements placed upon them. I would come in once a month with a box full of high-interest books and do a quick blurb about each one. The teacher also used her allocated funds to enhance the classroom library. She taught the students how to have a conversation with peers and frequently conferred with students about their reading and goals. Her work derived from the research by Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston, highlighted in a Stenhouse blog post four years ago.

My role as coresearcher was to survey the students once a month using a tool developed by Ivey and Johnston. What we learned was that every student was different. Their reading lives varied from month to month. One student who proclaimed “I hate reading!” in February was excited about a new series he discovered in March. Other students also became more honest about reading in school. “I am SO glad to be done with my reading contract, so I can read whatever I want.” This type of data was more powerful than any screener or test score. Reading lives look more like a heartbeat than a straight line. Readers—kids and adults—have their ups and downs.

In observing these teachers’ journeys, I have discovered new truths about principalship. Just as students need to be engaged in their learning, teachers have to be engaged in their work. Not merely busy or working collegially with staff, but really engaged. We need to trust in their professionalism. We need to provide teachers the room to ask questions and grow. We need to honor the process as much as the outcomes. We need to celebrate both their mistakes and their successes, always striving to become better every day as professionals. Letting go of some control as a school leader is hard. Yet when we do, teachers are able to be the leaders of their own learning.

Tips for Getting Started in Action Research
If you are a teacher…

  • Ask yourself, “Why do I want to engage in action research?” If you can identify the purpose for this work in your professional life, it will motivate you to get started.
  • Do your homework on action research to build a knowledge base about the topic. Excellent resources include Living the Questions by Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Power (Stenhouse, 2012) and The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey (Corwin, 2014).
  • Develop a community of professionals who also want to engage in action research. You can leverage the power of the group to persuade your principal to support this initiative as part of the professional development plan. If you cannot collaborate in person, check out online communities related to classroom research, such as The Teachers Guild.
  • Find a question that you want to explore and that is embedded within your current practice. This wondering should relate to your professional learning goals and offer artifacts that can serve as evidence for your evaluation system.
  • Include your students in your action research as much as possible. They will become a great source of information as you study the impact of your work on their learning. They will also come to see you as a learner, which enhances the entire classroom community.

If you are an administrator…

  • Be deliberate when considering action research as a possible professional learning experience. The phrase action research can scare off some teachers who might otherwise be interested in this approach. Start small, maybe offering it as a voluntary course beyond the school day for graduate credit or pay.
  • Connect with outside organizations that can facilitate a course instead of trying to host it yourself. There is vulnerability involved in action research. The more we can have others lead the initiative, the more likely teachers will be willing to open up and take risks in their pursuits of becoming better practitioners.
  • Conduct action research yourself. I did this, using the resource The Action Research Guidebook by Richard Sagor (Corwin, 2012). The author offers several examples of a principal engaging in professional inquiry at a schoolwide level. I would share my findings and reflections in staff newsletters and at meetings. The message you send is the same one teacher-researchers convey to their students: We are all learners here.
  • Prepare a multiyear plan for facilitating action research in your school or district. Teacher questions seemed to lead to more questions during the school year. At the inquiry showcase, teachers were already asking if they could conduct action research again. “I feel like I just discovered my question,” noted one teacher.

 

Matt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary school leader in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample. His book Digital Student Porfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Improvement will be published by Powerful Learning Press.

Add comment September 12th, 2016

Poems, right from the start

Shirley McPhillips

Shirley McPhillips

In her book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers, author and poet Shirley McPhillips shows how teachers can include poetry in the daily life of the classroom and in the lives of students. Dozens of poems throughout the book can be used as mentor texts as they serve to instruct and inspire. In her latest guest post, Shirl helps us consider the importance of getting poems out into the classroom airwaves on day one, to lay a foundation for engagement and growth throughout the year.

Poems, right from the start
By Shirley McPhillips

I became a poet because of poetry’s great mystery and partly because of a second-grade teacher I had who believed poetry was at the center of the universe.
—Naomi Shihab Nye
Here’s a story:

One steamy first day of school in eighth grade, the students, still barefoot on the beaches of their minds, sat in muted reverie. The teacher, Miss Eloise, smiled, said hello, then bravely picked up her faded blue copy of Emily Dickinson. She looked at the students for a time, to let some seriousness sink in, then “introduced” herself.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Miss Eloise said hearing a poem once was never enough for her. She wondered if anyone else would like to read it to the class. She waited. Daryl’s hand went up. That got everybody’s attention. He tried to use the same expression as Miss Eloise, to the amusement of all. She smiled appreciatively and thanked Daryl for his “spirited” rendition.

That was it! No rules and regulations. Just hanging a poem in the air. This was my new class. My new teacher! A rare and strange feeling (as Dickinson said herself) came over me, as if the top of my head were taken off. I didn’t understand that poem really, nor some poems we read later, but I felt their power. And the power of a teacher who believed in words to instruct and inspire. Believed is us. Had faith that when we became friendly enough with poems, we would make connections. We would find out how they might work, on paper and in our lives.

I no longer recall what happened next that first day so long ago. I do recall we didn’t dissect the poem, or try to figure out what we thought it “meant.” I remember at the end of class Miss Eloise gave each of us a small packet of poems, as a welcome to the new year. Perhaps we might find one we liked, she said. If not, we needn’t worry. There were plenty of poems in the world for everyone. We would find what we wanted, what we needed. And leave the rest for others.

The waters parted.

Of course, as the year went on, no matter what other subject matter presented itself, there were always poems. We were building up a friendship with them. We opened up to talk about them, to consider our own connections. To consider our own questions, not just answer Miss Eloise’s. We collected poems in folders and began to write our own. That was the beginning of my discovery, with poet Mary Oliver, that poems can be a “life cherishing force.” That understanding has lasted to this day. Ever growing.

BUILDING UP A FRIENDSHIP WITH POETRY

Poems are short. It doesn’t take much time to read a poem and think about it. And that’s what our students who hope to live with poems, who hope to write poems, need to do. Day one / week one, we can get poems out into the airwaves, pin them up against the light. Give them a chance to circulate with pleasure. It works best if the habit of poetry is embedded in our experiences from day to day, where we live. Not just on special occasions.

To build up a friendship with poems that will be the foundation for going deeper over time, we need some foundational beliefs about what might support students in this goal. Once we say, “Yes, that sounds like something important for readers and writers of poems,” the next question becomes, “So what can we arrange that will give this a chance of happening?” Considering the first question, here’s my short list for now. You might want to revise and add to it.

Students need opportunities to:

•read and listen to some poems without an expectation to “do” anything.

Just breathe them in and out. Not to “analyze.” Just hear the sounds. Feel the rhythms. Experience. Get a “taste.” Crack open the door of fear to let a little light come in. Realize one can be moved by words without always knowing why. Just like we can be moved by music without knowing why. A little mystery is good. Not everything has an answer, in poems and in life.

•read poems more than once, the more often the better

Revisit poems they’re attracted to for different reasons. To be allowed time to “request” poems to listen to and read together again. To revisit and share poems they’ve collected, or that have been charted, or tagged.

•choose their own poems to enjoy, explore, talk with others about
(in addition to those the teacher will want to introduce them to).

Collecting poems, sharing with each other, reading poems consistently across time, students build up their own personal taste, an identity with poems and poets.

•write out lines and poems they like

For sounds of language, for image, for memories they evoke, because of an intimate connection. Writing (or typing) out a poem helps you know it more closely. You are doing exactly what the poet did, and what you can do any time you want.

•listen to and read different types of poems, by different authors, to broaden the field and welcome challenges.

Becoming more familiar with different ways poems can look and sound, we become more comfortable with tasting something new. Like a traveler who happily anticipates trying new cuisine instead of turning up her nose because it’s “different.” If we feel we have to do something “serious” with every poem we read, we won’t read enough of them to get a sense of what they can be, of finding those that stick with us.

•give voice by reading poems aloud, individually and in chorus with others.

To catch the sounds and tune the ear. To bring poems inside. And out again. Poetry is a “bodily art” says poet Robert Pinsky. Reading aloud, we can begin to intuit a feel for craft. Craft is partly what directs us how to read a poem.

•excuse themselves from the company of those who would beat a poem “with a hose to find out what it really means” (Collins 2001, 16).

“Meaning” is made at the point where a reader connects with the “voice”—some inner verbal music— of a poem. An immense intimacy is felt. An exchange takes place in which something new is created. This is a personal relationship. Mysterious and miraculous. We do want to get closer to some poems as we go, especially as writers learning craft. Also, to take pleasure in the challenges of the poem, in what the writer has done to delight or move us.

•respond naturally and openly to poems

To begin, simply “say something.” Or, “What do you notice?” “What does this make you think?” Noticing and thinking. Two actions we want to become habits. They can last all year, carry over to other endeavors, the responses and interactions becoming deeper and more extended. A good way for teachers to observe, listen, get to know the students: What is she noticing? What is she thinking based on that observation? From that information, notice how the ability to observe and think deepens with consistency, experience and the work of the community. This is a foundation for those who will be writing poems.

CHOOSING POEMS, RIGHT FROM THE START

In the beginning of the year (and always) I choose to read poems aloud that I delight in, that move me in some way, that show extraordinary craft. I also hope these poems will help set a tone of openness and thoughtfulness; will help build “community think.” At the same time, I want to encourage a curiosity for the limitless ways poems can be. We will revisit these poems along the way. Some of the specifics I list here may be helpful in choosing many other poems for read aloud and discussion. You’ll find your own.

A very few examples. Key:—perhaps older students, •perhaps younger students, **perhaps both

“Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell Luscious words, wonderful metaphor, September experience

“Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon
Anaphora (repetition of first lines), tapping into memories, things that represent a life, springboard for sharing appreciation of life’s moments, great as a model for exploring one’s own life

“Unfolding Bud” by Naoshi Koriyama
Amazing metaphor for unfolding of a poem, for reading again and again

“The Truth About Why I Love Potatoes” by Mekeel McBride
Different perspectives of ordinary object, touch of humor, human condition we can relate to, conversational tone, comparison to a poem

“Deformed Finger” by Hal Sirowitz From the author’s collection of advice from his mother, funny stream-of -consciousness, identifiable, poems from the ordinary made extraordinary

** Stone Bench in an Empty Park selected by Paul Janeczko
Anthology of haiku that shows poets looking carefully at what’s around them in the city.
Intriguing images, like taking a walk and looking around.

** “Teased” from Secrets of a Smaller Brother Richard Margolis
Short, sensitive poem, few words with deep underlying emotion. Collection of typical sibling situations. Oldie but goody.

“Dear Apples” by Takayo Noda
Speaker talks to apple, sensuous language, detail, no rhyme (the young need that too)

“Skyscrapers” by Rachael Field
A list of all questions. Could extend to notice, ask questions of objects, standard rhyme

“A Lazy Thought” by Eve Merriam
Strong noisy verbs, questions inside, internal rhyme not the usual, good for choral reading, provocative ending

“Beginning on Paper” by Ruth Krauss
Jazzy rhythm, list in syncopation, repeated phrase, great images, surprise ending, nice human touch, good for choral reading. Note: Can find poem in this wonderful anthology:

And so it goes…

Shirl is Poet Laureate for Choice Literacy online. Read some of her poems and reflections at ChoiceLiteracy.

7 comments August 24th, 2016

Tips for starting the new school year

We recently asked some of our authors for their best tips for starting the new school year. In the first installment, Katie Egan Cunningham and Jennifer McDonough both discuss the importance of building relationships with students:

 



Add comment August 17th, 2016

Finding teaching wisdom in architecture

Teaching is an art and this month guest blogger Sarah Cooper looks to architecture for lessons that can be brought into her classroom. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine

Architecture as Experience

Walt_Disney_Concert_Hall,_LA,_CA,_jjron_22.03.2012A few weeks ago I visited a massive exhibit on architect Frank Gehry’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I’ve always found Gehry’s buildings startling in their originality but not necessarily appealing.

Yet, in the weeks since, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the exhibit – for what it says about the power of ideas and what it implies about how we could be teaching.

Here are eight takeaways I aspire to implement in my classroom:

  1. Trust in students’ ideas, even the rough and inchoate ones.
    The exhibit frequently places drawings, scale models and photographs of the same building next to each other. The drawings are mere sketches, with simple lines, and yet they seem to move on the page. If we saw only the drawings, we might wonder how they could possibly turn into steel and glass – and yet they did, through revision and consultation with clients and colleagues.
  1. At the same time, realize that not every creative idea will come to fruition. Many of Gehry’s most innovative designs were never built. For our students, the process of writing a research paper or a short story may not always lead to a polished product for a portfolio or year-end show.
  1. Take into account the long view.
    Gehry’s style evolved over time. At first his philosophy involved “placing objects together so that you make the space work. As he explains, “you design the objects and then you design the spaces between them.” Later Gehry began envisioning buildings in which swooping steel exteriors integrated the spaces. What students write or say now in our classes may simply be building blocks for their eventual careers and philosophies.
  1. Help students find different ways in.
    The exhibit was a prime example of differentiation. I found myself drawn to the drawings, which felt like music in their fluidity. But I took photos of the models for my younger son, who likes building structures from cardboard. Other elements of the exhibit included quotations from Gehry and photos of completed projects. Everyone could find something to pull them in. Similarly, in history class, we could show students primary sources, works of art, photos, biographies and artifacts from the same era or event and ask them to describe which speaks to them most.
  1. Work with the power of the familiar to introduce the unfamiliar.
    My two sons already know Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall, in downtown Los Angeles, from parking in its garage for events. Before I take them to the exhibit, I’m planning to show them photos of the concert hall, to remind them of what they know, and then drawings and photos of the somewhat similar but unfamiliar Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
  1. Find technology that transforms student work.
    Gehry is famous for pioneering the aerospace software CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application) for use in architecture, making formerly impossible designs possible. As he says, “The technology provides a way for me to get closer to the craft…. It feels like I’ve been speaking a foreign language, and now, all of a sudden, the craftsman understands me. The computer is not dehumanizing; it’s an interpreter.” I would like to find more programs to use in the history classroom, beyond Animoto and Prezi, that make history pop.
  1. Turn your world upside down.
    Gehry’s design for the new Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California, features a garden on the roof that has evoked comparison to New York City’s High Line. The model was mesmerizing because the hangar-like building was hardly visible through the carpet of trees surrounding it. Especially compared with Gehry’s former work, in which the building materials took center stage, this represented something new and inspiring.
  1. Make a hands-on space for learning.
    At the end of the exhibit, a huge photo of Gehry’s studio anchors a cluster of models of current and future projects. The exhibit itself seems to feel a little like his studio does, with objects everywhere to give inspiration. To see Gehry on the page would be insufficient, but to walk through his work feels real and appropriate. I would like to be more tactile with history so that students feel they are walking through the past, whether they are making objects, videos or computer simulations.

Ultimately, the biggest spur the exhibit gave me as a teacher was to get out of my books and into the world, not just on vacation but all year round.

Add comment February 4th, 2016

Finding their brilliance

We have a lovely guest post today from Rose Cappelli on finding brilliance in your students and helping them use that brilliance or expertise to improve on another skill that might be more challenging for them. Rose is a 1996 PAWLP Fellow. She is the co-author with Lynne Dorfman of Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts. You can read more of her reflections about teaching and living in her blog entries or follow her on Twitter at @RoseCappelli.

Finding Their Brilliance
By Rose Cappelli

In Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful novel in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, the author talks about being compared in school to her older sister, Odella, who was “brilliant.” But school is difficult for Jacqueline, so soon the teachers

“…remember that I am the other Woodson

and begin searching for brilliance

at another desk.” (p. 220).

Jacqueline loves stories, and she quickly discovers that by reading the words of a story over and over again, that story eventually becomes lodged in her memory and becomes part of her. So when she is asked to read aloud to the class, she doesn’t need the book, and amazes her teacher and classmates by reciting a whole story from memory.

“How can I explain to anyone that stories
are like air to me,
I breathe them in and let them out
over and over again.

Brilliant! my teacher says, smiling.
Jackie, that was absolutely beautiful.

And I know now…words are my brilliance.” (p. 247-248)

The passages from Brown Girl Dreaming remind us of the importance not only of looking for the strengths in all of our students, but of helping students succeed by leading them to find their own strength or skill or “brilliance.” Recently I heard author/illustrator Peter Catalanotto speak about a teacher who encouraged him to write by letting him draw, a brilliance she recognized in him. Without that recognition, the world may have been robbed of such wonderful books as Matthew A.B.C. and Emily’s Art, among others.

How can we discover the brilliance that resides in our classrooms and use it to guide our students? We probably all know students who are great spellers, or who can easily solve math problems. Our students know them, too. They become the class experts who serve as resources to others. But how can we use the strengths we discover in students to help them become better writers? Perhaps we need to take time to think about the underlying skills of the brilliance we have observed and show our students how that brilliance or skill can be transferred to writing. For example, we might realize that the student who is great at solving math problems does so because she can easily break things down into smaller sequential parts. We could point out that organization in writing often requires breaking a large idea into smaller parts. The student who is great at telling a story but who seems lost on how to begin to transfer that story to paper might benefit from “pretend in-the-air” writing as he talks to better understand that writing is talk written down.

I have known writers who are good at crafting detailed and enticing beginnings, but who fall short when it comes to endings. If we can help those writers identify the skills they used to start the piece (rich detail, use of specific nouns, etc.) we can perhaps help them use the same skills to craft a more satisfying ending. We can help them find and use their brilliance.

Of course, it all boils down to the importance of us as teachers engaging in careful conferring so that we really get to know our students – their strengths, their weaknesses, their needs. Sometimes we might just catch a glimpse of an emerging brilliance – something the writer himself is just beginning to do without perhaps even realizing it. That is when we must step in to explain and guide and encourage that budding brilliance to grow so that it transfers to other places in the text and other pieces of writing. That is what we must do before we start to search for brilliance at another desk as Jacqueline’s teacher did.

In Brown Girl Dreaming, when Jacqueline’s brother stands on the school stage and sings in a voice no one knew he had, Jacqueline remarks,

“Maybe, I am thinking, there is something hidden

like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe

waiting to be discovered.” (p. 233)

What brilliance will you discover in your students this week, and how will you help them use it?

Reference: Woodson, Jacqueline. 2014. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin.

Reposted with permission from the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project

 

1 comment January 25th, 2016

Preschools without walls

The New York Times recently ran an article about Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle, where the outdoors serve as classrooms without walls. Stenhouse author Herb Broda wrote an encouraging response to the article. Read below and then check out his books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors, as well as his recent blog posts of practical ideas that help you turn your schoolyard into an outdoor classroom.

Learning from Fiddleheads
Herb Broda

The sky is the ceiling and the landscape provides the audio-visual experiences at the Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle. At this innovative preschool, eloquently described in a recent New York Times feature Preschool Without Walls by Lillian Mongeaudec (Dec. 29, 2015) students spend four hours a day – rain or shine—in classrooms among the native trees in the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. Students are engaged in a wide range of activities that focus on experiencing the surrounding environment. They are immersed in hands-on nature like digging, building forts, taking “listening walks” and building child-size nests in wood chip piles.

The most popular word at Fiddleheads is “notice”. Primary emphasis is given to observing and describing the nature that is literally at children’s fingertips. “Kids are the best at sharing in joy and wonder”, explains a teacher.

Nature preschools with daily outdoor experiences at the heart of their programs have been growing in number—up from twenty in 2008 to ninety-two currently, according to the Times article. Now, I realize that it is highly unlikely that outdoor immersion preschools like Fiddleheads will eventually dominate the scene. Indeed, there are solid arguments both pro and con regarding totally outdoor-based programming. The article does, however, encourage serious consideration of outdoor learning as an effective instructional method.

It really doesn’t matter to me whether a school has a totally outdoor-based program, or a more typical situation where teachers step outside the classroom door to use the schoolyard as a teaching tool. The important thing is that children are receiving frequent contact with nature.

Regular exposure to the natural world provides many benefits that enrich instruction and reconnect children with the outdoors:

  1. Nature provides both a spacious venue for learning, as well as an abundant source of content. Both students and teachers welcome a change of pace and place. Variety is indeed the spice of life—and the energizer of teaching.
  1. The outdoors is the ideal place to teach universal process skills like observing, describing, classifying and analyzing. Not only are these skills critical to science, they are also integral to language arts, mathematics and the creative arts.
  1. Outdoor learning experiences provide generous opportunities for creative play, and a necessary respite from the incessant beeps and glare of electronic devices. We are in desperate need of the calming effects that only nature can provide.
  1. Research over the last several years is confirming that frequent outdoor experiences contribute to good health, positive mental attitude and even improved cognitive function. It isn’t necessary to be outdoors all day everyday to achieve these benefits. All that is required are regular doses of what author Richard Louv calls “Vitamin N” (Nature).

The article gives me great hope! At a time when children’s natural curiosity about the outdoors is eclipsed by the demands of busy schedules and the ever-present glow of video screens, schools may be the only place where children are encouraged to interact with nature. It’s empowering to realize that the enthusiastic engagement and joy of learning that happens daily at Fiddleheads is possible on your schoolyard!

 

Add comment January 21st, 2016

Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives: Power Up in Virginia

The latest installment in our series of Profiles in Effective PD Initiatives takes a look at one Virginia school on the cusp of integrating technology into instruction. They used Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning by Jen Roberts and Diana Neebe to plan for the transition, examining and planning for possible pitfalls, and easing the anxiety of many teachers who are not quite as comfortable with technology.

power-upNext February, Blue Ridge Middle School in Purcellville, Virginia, will have universal wireless connectivity as part of a new Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) initiative adopted by the Loudoun County Public Schools. Instead of having to reserve a laptop cart or time in the busy computer lab, teachers and students will be allowed to use tablets, smartphones, and other personal devices to access the Internet and collaborate online anytime they want. Although many educators are excited about the possibilities for extended learning, they are also anxious about the changes to instruction, assessment, and classroom protocols.

“All the staff are in different levels of implementation of these devices in our lessons,” explained Blue Ridge principal Brion Bell.

So last summer, when sixth-grade English teacher Roberta Pomponio shared a copy of Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning (Stenhouse, 2015), Bell immediately found ways to use the book with his faculty. He engaged his administrative team in a collaborative study of Power Up, and the principal also began attending twice-monthly meetings with sixth-grade English teachers who read the book together for professional learning. Bell hopes they will share strategies and recommendations with other Blue Ridge teachers in the coming months.

“No one in our entire county is as well versed as the authors are,” Bell said. “By reading the book, we were able to look at everything from assessment to delivery to teacher connectivity and using learning management systems. Everything they’re talking about, it’s like it had an immediate connection.”

Thinking About Logistics

Throughout the book, Power Up authors Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts coach teachers through changes in pedagogy, planning, classroom organization, and collaboration so they can be successful in a 1:1 environment. They offer advice about avoiding common problems, as well as suggestions for using technology to provide immediate feedback to students, improve workflow, and reduce paperwork.

Pomponio, who discovered Power Up through a Twitter exchange with the authors, said one of the most valuable parts of her collegial book study has been thinking through potential trouble spots with technology integration. For example, she and her colleagues wondered how they would avoid losing instructional time when someone’s phone battery dies at the start of a lesson or what to do when students use the Internet for inappropriate activities. The Blue Ridge teachers said the authors’ classroom-tested strategies and good humor have given them the confidence to proceed.

“We guarantee you that lessons will not always go smoothly. The website you used last week could be blocked by the content filter this week. The power will go out. The app you were sure was free no longer will be,” Neebe and Roberts write. “We could go on, but we think that’s enough to terrify you for a while. All of these issues are temporary, solvable, or rare, but they might slow you down for a day or two. Have a backup plan, and don’t panic. It is tempting to give in to frustration and vent a bit when things like this go wrong, but remember: your students are watching you.”

Such frank talk emboldened Susan McWhorter, a sixth-grade English teacher who’s been reading Power Up with other members of her content-area team. A twenty-year teaching veteran, McWhorter was anxious about the school district’s expectation that technology integration become a routine, rather than an occasional, part of classroom instruction and assessment.

“For some of us older teachers, it’s kind of scary. It’s a big step for us,” she said. “The book helped my thinking, especially reading about the other teachers using it. It’s really just about flipping your classroom around. The book is helping me to plan better, helping me to think about how I can set up something that students can immediately get into when they enter the classroom.”

Using the Free Study Guide

McWhorter and Pomponio said the book’s free study guide, available on the Stenhouse website, has been an invaluable resource. The discussion questions provided by the authors were especially helpful in preparing teachers for collegial study and filling awkward silences when the conversation ebbed.

“I would definitely recommend using the book and study guide together,” Pomponio said. “It made everybody focus on the topics and then stay focused so we didn’t get too far offtrack.”

In her own classroom she has begun trying some of the authors’ recommendations, such as using Google’s online forms to provide feedback to students and simplify her workflow. One of her favorite chapters in the book focuses on differentiation strategies and how 1:1 learning enables teachers to offer accommodations to students without calling attention to their learning challenges.

“The examples the authors give with in-class situations have been very helpful too,” Pomponio said. “My copy of the book is completely marked up and used. It’s turning out to be our bible.”

Karin Nixon, the school’s sixth-grade dean, said reading Power Up as an administrator has helped her anticipate problems teachers might have with 1:1 learning and what kind of training they might need. Because she’s been out of the classroom only a few years, Nixon said she appreciated the authors’ message that good teaching and assessment practices don’t get replaced in a 1:1 classroom. Rather, they are enhanced through tools that are more motivating and engaging to today’s adolescents.

“Good assessment is good assessment. It does not matter if it’s electronic or in person. It’s just a shift in how teachers are thinking,” Nixon said. “Once we gain comfort, the possibilities are endless.”

Add comment December 21st, 2015

In the Schoolyard: Where Do I Sit?

The weather might be getting cooler, but it’s still a great time to take your class outdoors! Here are some tips from Herb Broda on finding the best seat in the house — or out of the house. Herb is the author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors.

When is the best time for outdoor learning? Any month will work, but the start of the school year is ideal!

“But, what should I do first?” I strongly encourage folks to begin by locating a suitable staging area near the school. I like to call it the “Teaching/Meeting Area.”

The teaching/ meeting area is more than just a location—it’s a powerful classroom management tool. Rather than just running out the door and scattering on the lawn, students know that they are to move directly to the meeting area where they will sit, hear directions for the activity or receive materials—actually experience an introduction to a lesson just as they would indoors.

As you plan the outdoor meeting area, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Keep it close to the building. The less walking time the better. The longer the walk to the teaching/meeting area, the longer it will take to bring everyone back on task.
  2. Be aware of distractions and student traffic patterns. Avoid nearby playground equipment and walking routes that students and adults typically use.
  3. Be aware of sun and shade. If you know there will be a certain time of day when the space will get heavy usage, try to find a spot that may be a bit sheltered from the sun

The best news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on an outdoor meeting area! Here are a few basic ideas:

Logs
Logs provide ideal seating material! They are inexpensive or free, very easily obtained, and readily moved. Logs placed vertically will accommodate varying student heights and, by including several log diameters, most any size posterior can also be accommodated!
Probably the major downside to using logs is that they are destined to disappear! Especially in damp areas, logs will rot in a few years and will need to be replaced. Contact a local nature center to learn what types of trees are most rot resistant in your area. Some teachers have also noted that logs may attract nests of insects, so inspect and replace is a good policy.

Pix7

Although replacement will be necessary, a rotting log beautifully turns into a teaching tool when its useful life as a seat is over. Just lay the log on its side near your outdoor learning area and let students watch how the log becomes a habitat for tiny critters, and eventually enriches the soil.

Rocks and Boulders
Rocks and stones are certainly durable, but also heavy! Before installing a rock or boulder seating area you need to be very sure that your location will not need to be changed.

Pix3
Another potential down side of rock seating is the difficulty of trimming around the rocks if they are in a grassy area. Logs can be easily rolled aside for mowing, but rocks require manual trimming or things can look overgrown by mid-summer.
Benches

No need to spend a lot of money on benches. Just make sure that they are sturdy and safe. One Wisconsin school just used one long sturdy bench as its teaching meeting area. You can also position logs horizontally, or as supports for boards to create a bench.

Flexible and Cheap!
It’s best to use the same location for your meeting area, but you don’t have to have fixed seating in place. Students can carry old stadium cushions to the outdoor teaching/meeting area. Put out a general call for cushions and you may receive more than you need! Another option is to take gallon freezer bags and stuff them with rags or paper– a throwback to the sit-upons made popular by Girl Scouts. Some companies make bags larger than one gallon, which makes it easier to accommodate bigger students.

A school in Michigan contacted a local home improvement store and received a classroom set of plastic pails. The buckets can be inverted to create seating, and also provide a handy way to carry materials outside.

Pix6

A word about commercial seating products
An internet search for “outdoor seating” will yield thousands of options! The only limit is your budget! If you decide to invest in commercial seating, I would encourage the use of tables that also provide seating. Many schools have utilized sturdy picnic tables, some of which are convertible from bench to picnic table. A sturdy table/seat that is weather resistant and tough enough to last for many years will be expensive. I encourage schools to use inexpensive items like logs or simple benches until you are certain where you want to permanently place the meeting area.

For further information: Chapter Two, “Enhancing the Schoolyard for Outdoor Learning”, from Moving the Classroom Outdoors (Stenhouse Publishers) has additional information and pictures relating to setting up an outdoor teaching/meeting space.

Add comment September 21st, 2015

Blogstitute: Classroom Talk — A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement

We hope that you are still with us on these hot summer days as we continue our Blogstitute today with Liz Hale, author of the recent book Readers Writing. In this post Liz talks about how her thinking evolved around classroom talk and how she harnesses its power to enhance her teaching. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15 and be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win free books at the end of this year’s Blogstitute!

readers-writingClassroom Talk: A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement
By Elizabeth Hale

If you had asked me what I thought about students talking in the classroom during my first year of teaching in Boston, I probably would have thrown my hands up, looked to the sky, and said, “It just drives me crazy!” Back then, classroom talk was something that seemed to work against my teaching, not support it.

The longer I was in the classroom and the more instructional strategies I learned from colleagues, workshops, and professional literature, the more I understood how classroom talk is one of the most powerful vehicles for teaching and learning, from both a cognitive and an affective standpoint. Of course, this change required a shift in my perspective on what classroom talk meant. Rather than see it only as student-generated talk that disrupted teaching and learning, I began to understand that it could be a purposeful tool for student learning and engagement.

Many teachers understand that productive and beneficial classroom talk does not just happen but is something that needs to be initiated and supported by the teacher, even if it eventually becomes student driven. The more defined the form and purpose of classroom talks are, the more productive they tend to be. In my books Readers Writing: Lessons for Responding to Narrative and Informational Text (2014) and Crafting Writers, K–8 (2008), the main instructional focus is writing. But embedded throughout the lesson structures and instructional strategies are purposeful times for students to talk. They are critical vehicles to help students learn about, and care about, what we teach them about writing.

Here are a few specific ways I use student talk to support learning:

  1. Turn and Talk to name what is being taught or modeled

In this first, twenty-second turn and talk in a mini-lesson, all students are asked to tell a partner the name of the craft technique or “writing about reading” strategy that was just modeled within a paragraph of writing. This consistent expectation supports accountability and engagement as well as memory retention.

  1. Turn and Talk about the “why” of the lesson

In this also-very-brief turn and talk that comes in between teacher modeling and students writing an entry in their reader’s or writer’s notebooks, everyone briefly tells a partner what he or she is learning or why the “writing about reading” strategy or craft technique is beneficial to know. Here, I am supporting not only accountability of learning but also student ownership: I want them to be able to verbalize and understand how a particular strategy will help them as a reader or writer.

Sometimes I do this same kind of turn and talk before the direct instruction part of the lesson. For example, in one of the Readers Writing lessons, I ask, “So why do you think writing about the relationship between two characters is a good strategy to use in your reader’s notebooks? Why not just write about one character at a time? Tell your partner what you think.” The purpose here is less about reinforcing a concept just taught and more about getting students to think analytically about what they learn.

  1. Partner Share of writing

After any kind of independent writing, whether it is in a writer’s or reader’s notebook, I always have a partner share before the whole-class share. This takes a little extra time, but it is worth it! I have seen so many students who previously did not care about their writing start to become more invested during independent writing because they knew that, every time they wrote an entry, it would be shared with a peer.

Classroom Talk: The Benefits

Making room for purposeful student talk—whether in the context of literacy instruction, read-aloud, or content subjects—does take thoughtful planning, attention, and time, but here are three reasons why doing so is worth the effort!

  1. Student Learning

Unlike listening, talking is an active way to process ideas. You can learn by listening, of course, but it is a more passive way of learning. Production of speech is cognitively more demanding, and so talking about one’s ideas, as opposed to just thinking or listening, can result in deeper processing of information (Cazden 2001). In fact, scientific research using brain imaging shows that certain areas of the brain are more active when talking is about to occur than when a person just listens or thinks about an idea (Carota et al. 2009).

  1. Student Engagement

While there is much to be said about how students learn as they are talking out ideas, talking also greatly benefits student learning and engagement that occurs before and after talk—and you probably don’t need to conduct a study to agree. Think about the teacher workshops you’ve been to and how much your engagement differs depending on whether the speaker just talks at you for hours or makes time for you to process what you are learning with someone next to you. When you get to talk every now and then, your ability (and desire) to absorb information from the speaker can be maintained at a high level.

  1. Lesson Management

Unbeknownst to my first-year teacher self, classroom talk can also be a preventative management tool! This is a simple matter of human nature. Again, put yourself in your students’ shoes. If you sat in a chair all day right next to people your age, five days a week for 180 days, it would be hard—if not impossible—to always be quiet, listen, and pay attention. By channeling the desire to talk into academically productive ways, student learning not only benefits but can often curtail the off-task talk that is otherwise likely to occur.

Shifts in Perspective

I realized that, for me, taking advantage of talk in the classroom required two shifts in perspective. The first was getting over my fear of losing control. Especially in my first year of teaching, I thought that unless I was facilitating and directing all conversations, students would just start talking about anything and everything. It took a few years to understand that creating places for student talk, both short and long, actually gave me more control in terms of management, because I valued the reality of the receiving end of instruction. The second thing that shifted for me was redefining what learning was. I had a hidden assumption that, unless I was in that role of facilitator and was present to hear and give feedback to every spoken idea, students would not really be “learning.” What I do as a teacher still very much matters, of course. But now I place a lot more value on what all of my students’ minds experience in terms of processing what I teach than on whether I am there to hear everything they say. After all, the goal of our teaching is less about what we do every day in our classrooms and more about what our students’ minds experience. Bringing different kinds of talk into your classroom, even though it will take some trial and error along the way, is an investment in how your students experience learning.

What other forms of classroom talk have teachers found useful in supporting student engagement and learning? I would love to hear your ideas!

References

Carota, F., A. Posada, S. Harquel, C. Delpeuch, O. Bertrand, and A. Sirigu. 2009. “Neural Dynamics in the Intention to Speak.” Cerebral Cortex 20: 1891–1897.

Cazden, C. 2001. Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

11 comments July 13th, 2015

Blogstitute: What Yoda can Teach You About Engagement and Motivation

Well, it’s not really Yoda who is doing the teaching in today’s post, but the lesson remains the same: to keep your students motivated, you have to keep them engaged. Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins, authors of Reading Wellness, bring you a lesson in physics, Star Wars, and the art of making small adjustments to your teaching, that will have a big impact.

X-Wing Fighters, Superheroes, and the Difference Between Engagement and Motivation
By Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

Always with you what cannot be done. . . . You must unlearn what you have learned.–Yoda

Randall Munroe—author, former NASA roboticist, and creator of a science and mathematics webcomic that has a cult following—volunteered to teach a weekend class at MIT on the physics of energy, which he talked about on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. The class was for interested high school students—students obviously motivated to learn science and math, since they were signing up for a weekend physics class. Midway through the lecture on the first day, as he was staring at students’ bored expressions during his explanation of how to calculate the joules of energy (x) required to move a five-kilogram weight, Munroe noticed that these highly interested students had checked out. Suddenly he realized that, even though these students were interested in physics, his explanation of the content had made it abstract and seemingly irrelevant to them.

In such a situation, with students leaning away and looking uninterested, it would have been easy for Munroe to default to blaming them for their lack of motivation. As we work in classrooms alongside teachers, literacy leaders, and administrators, it is not uncommon to hear educators talk about the low motivation levels of students. Inevitably, however, “unmotivated” students are being asked to sit through lessons that are heavy with teacher talk and light on engaging texts and reading experiences.

So what did Munroe do about his seemingly disengaged students in the weekend physics class? He asked a better question. Rather than talking about how to solve for x, which is completely abstract, Munroe told students that, using the formula for potential energy, they could figure out how much potential energy it took for Yoda to lift the X-wing fighter in a scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

Once Munroe told students that this X-wing problem was a relatively straightforward calculation—all you have to know is the mass of the X-wing, the distance Yoda lifted it, and the gravitational strength on Dagobah—the students were suddenly running ahead of him, figuring things out before he could even get to them. They immediately went to a Wikipedia article to find out the mass of the X-wing, and they used YouTube to estimate the distance it was lifted. Once Munroe asked a more engaging question, the seemingly unmotivated students were suddenly leaning into the math and science work, drawing from their energy, not the teacher’s. Munroe was able to watch them problem-solve as he gathered formative assessment data and scaffolded in ways that supported rather than supplanted their efforts.

In the end, of course, they learned a lot of science, because they were actively engaged in applying it in ways that were relevant to them. Since then, Munroe has made it his full-time job to draw comics that ask and answer interesting questions, making abstract mathematics and science relevant enough for people to engage themselves. Ask yourself, which text would you more likely engage with to learn about physics: this one:

physics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or this one?

physics2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This connection between student engagement and learning holds true beyond physics, of course. In fact, research from Gallup indicates that a 1 percent increase in student engagement is positively correlated with substantial increases in achievement scores.

Students are naturally curious and enthusiastic learners. If your students appear unmotivated, assume the best of them and look for ways to affect their motivation by making changes to the learning experience. For us, the bulk of the engagement work during a reading experience happens before the lesson, when we select a text. Text selection is to student engagement during reading instruction as interesting questions are to physics students.

Here are a few questions that may prove helpful as you explore ways to engage (vs. motivate) students:

  • Are the texts you are using too difficult for students, requiring extensive teacher talk to scaffold them?
  • Are you spending weeks and weeks on books that should take only a day or two to read and understand?
  • How can you show more than you tell? Can you use visual art, video clips, or other images to engage students?
  • How much actual reading do students do? Is extensive time spent on teacher explanations and/or student documentation?
  • How much of the reading instruction is about aspects of the text—genre, structure, form, theme—rather than about responses to and connections with the text?
  • How much say do students have in what they read? Where can you give students more choice?
  • How relevant are the texts for students? If the marginally relevant texts are required, how can you make them more relevant?
  • How much are students moving? Do they sit for one long period after another, with little or no opportunity to get their blood circulating?
  • Do students know that you think of them as motivated, smart, and capable?

Just as Randall Munroe discovered that a simple shift in questioning could make a profound difference in the tenor of his learning environment, shifting your focus from motivation to engagement can lead to similar responses from your students. Even minor adjustments can have a powerful effect on learning.

May the force be with you!

8 comments July 8th, 2015

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