Friday, November 20, 2015

He who does the talking, does the learning

All of us learn in different and multiple ways. As a teacher, it is important for me to remember to strike a balance in the way that I teach, so that my students have the opportunity to learn in different and multiple ways.

The Learning Pyramid below suggests that relatively little learning is done when students are just listening, but that students learn and retain more when they have the chance to teach others about the concept they themselves are learning about.
Ironically, this specific graphic comes from a Washington Post article that critiques The Learning Pyramid.

Although there might be problems with the pyramid above, many will agree with the underlying concept: the more students are engaged, active and put in charge, the more learning that takes place.

Recently, one of my colleagues shared a gem of a quote from Jen York-Barr: "The person doing the talking is often the person doing the learning." This saying falls in line with the idea that when students are active participants in the learning process, the more they will learn.

Trying to capitalize on this idea, in my morning Minecraft class, I learned that a student wasn't able to easily and quickly multiply 9's because he hadn't mastered "The 9 Trick".

*Please note: I understand that math tricks, shortcuts and 'helpful' phrases are sometimes damaging to students' understanding of mathematical concepts. But, sometimes they can offer students a bridge as they construct their understanding of these complex and abstract concepts.

After giving him a mini-lecture on how to use the trick and giving him multiple opportunities to practice doing the trick with different kinds of equations, I asked him to prepare a short demonstration that would help teach others about the useful trick with multiplying by 9.

Below, is a recording of his demonstration.

At a talk I attended in August, Alan November (@globalearner & @NLearning) advocated for more of this kind of "students-teaching-students" approach. As an example, he shared with us the website, which is a free, educational "kids teaching kids" project from Mr. Marcos & his Students at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, CA. The idea isn't solely to show our students these videos (some are very helpful), but to also have our students create teaching videos for an authentic, international audience.

Often times, teachers ask students to turn and talk with their partners to share their thinking and teach others right beside them. With devices that record video and audio that can then be instantly uploaded to the web, how could we put our students in charge of the teaching so that they feel empowered to teach others around the globe?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

LET 'EM CHOOSE! Using Academic Choice Literacy Stations in the Elementary Classroom

We want our students to acquire the skills necessary to make good choices in their future. In order to develop those skills, a trusted colleague told me that we must create safe places where students can make mistakes.

Ruth Sidney Charney, in her book Teaching Children to Care, echoes this sentiment when she writes, "Children are growing up in a world with frightful persuasions and terrifying problems. Rather than providing prescriptions for them, we need to give them choices. Decision making must be part of the expected curriculum. There are many kinds of purposeful choices students may make in a regular school day." (p. 374)

One authentic way students can develop these decision-making skills is by giving them the power to choose how they'd like to spend their independent literacy learning time while the teacher is meeting with a guided reading group.

But when planning out the choices we'll give children to independently complete, what exactly can be classified as an Academic Choice Literacy Stations? Conversely, what isn't an appropriate option during this time of the school day? 

To answer these questions, I turned to the teachers with whom I work. Their responses are below:

Academic Choice Literacy Stations are:

  • permanent, but not always.
  • set aside for specific learning purposes.
  • physical spaces, but not always.
  • task-oriented with clear expectations.
  • more task oriented/hands on for younger students, older students need less task-oriented/hands on.
  • open-ended inquiry!
  • spots with ongoing routines.
  • organized and labeled.
  • introduced one at a time.
  • meaningful literacy.
  • able function w/o teacher assistance.
  • flexible and provide variety.
  • targeted to instill a love of reading and learning.
  • heterogeneously grouped.
Academic Choice Literacy Stations are not:
  • a closed-ended exercise.
  • new every day (teachers shouldn't feel under pressure to create new lessons each day!)
  • done without practice, students shouldn’t be expected to do independently until they fully understand it.
  • changed too often or all at once.
  • busy work.
  • fill-in-the-blank worksheets.
  • meant to sit idle.
  • activities that require a lot of planning by the teacher.
*The responses above are based on a reading from Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children by Fountas and Pinnell.

Once we build Academic Choice Literacy Stations into our classroom routine, how do we keep students accountable? How can we assess students' efforts during this lengthy time?

One teacher developed the rubric below that her students will use to reflect on the choices they made while she was working with a small group. (Click the rubric below to go to the Google Doc that you can copy and edit for yourself!)

Rather than providing prescriptions for students, what choices do you give students throughout the day, but especially when they're learning literacy strategies, skills and dispositions? 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Reflection; an important part of the learning process

Giving students the opportunity to reflect on what they've learned, how they've learned it and why they've learned it is an important part of the learning process.

But who has time to set up that kind of reflection?! We hardly even have time to get through the actual lesson!

One teacher with whom I work has an answer. She has set up a reflection procedure with her students which allows them to meaningfully - and consistently - reflect on the learning they've done. Yesterday, I got to see the 
procedure first hand.

The class is currently digging into the idea that expansion transforms culture over time. During the unit, students are primarily exploring how European expansion into the New World transformed the European, African and Native American cultures.

During the lesson yesterday, the students were still exploring the concepts of expansion, transformation and culture but were thinking about these big ideas through a different context: the current refugee crisis precipitated by the violence, instability and economic troubles in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

To explore these ideas, the teacher lead the students through a Tug-of-War, a visible thinking routine from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church & Morrison. She presented the dilemma, "Countries should be required to let refugees settle within their borders," and the students had to generate "tugs" or reasons that support one side of the dilemma or the other. Students then read through the "tugs" as a class, determining the strength of each.

As students did this work, wonderful thoughts and questions were shared and discussed. Connections were made to the push-pull factors the students had learned about when they studied the European Explorers. Students also made connections to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the treaty signed at the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the Ebola crisis last year.

At the end of the discussion, the teacher asked the students to reflect on how their thinking had changed, by inviting them to complete the thinking routine, "I used to think, Now I think," where students reflect on how their thinking has shifted and changed.

The teacher also required the students to respond to the following prompt:

front of the essential elements mat

back of the essential elements mat
Below are samples of some of the students' thinking.

These students simply answered the prompt, identifying two attitudes they demonstrated during the Tug-of-War discussion.

Another student was able to identify more than two attitudes demonstrated during the discussion.

The following students went beyond the requisites of the prompt and elaborated on their responses, explaining how they showed the particular attitudes they demonstrated.

Giving students the opportunity to reflect on their learning is an integral part of the learning process. After reading about how this teacher set up a reflection procedure with her students, how could you or do you give students the opportunity to reflect on what they've learned, how they've learned it and why they've learned on a consistent and daily basis?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The (lucky) 13 benefits of reading aloud to your students

Delivering reading instruction in a comprehensive model requires a balance of student and teacher responsibility.

YOU DO IT: Reading independently and working/thinking through literacy stations are both necessary parts of any balanced literacy approach. During those two components, students are completely responsible for employing the strategies and skills taught to them during whole- and small-group instruction.

WE DO IT: During the SHORT whole-group mini lesson and during guided reading, students have considerable responsibility, but the teacher is there to scaffold the experience for the students to varying degrees depending on the task and the student's unique needs.

I DO IT: The one literacy event that the teacher should continue to hold the majority of the responsibility is the sacred "READ ALOUD". This essential part of the balanced literacy model shouldn't constitute a large part of the instructional day, but it is nonetheless crucial that students be read to, regardless of their age.

To learn more about the balanced literacy model that we're using at the school in which I work, click here: Balanced Literacy Expectations.

On September 10, 2015 I participated in a Twitter Chat (#ILAchat & #GRA15) that focused on reading aloud to students. The chat, sponsored by the International Literacy Association (formerly the International Reading Association), allowed me to think about the benefits of reading aloud to students. Below are 13 benefits I was able to capture from that discussion.

Benefits of Reading Aloud

1. To allow students to focus completely on understanding the story instead of decoding the print.

2. To improve listening comprehension.

3. To read books at a higher level than what they independently can.

Reading aloud benefits everyone, especially our non- and struggling readers because it allows them to develop high-level thinking skills, even though they cannot (yet) fluently decode print. Allowing students to build these critical comprehension habits, skills and strategies is essential - even if they're not yet reading themselves, because they'll need them once they eventually break the code.

4. To build background knowledge of the concepts studied during the other parts of the day (
like in the Unit of Inquiry in a PYP school).

5. To expose students to a variety of vocabulary.

6. To kick-off a mini-lesson.

It is no secret that we teachers are busy and there is a lot to get through! So why not make our read aloud an integrated part of the learning we're doing, rather than a random selection, separate from the other learning we're doing in the classroom?

7. To build community through a shared experience.

Especially at the beginning of the year, everything we do must be done to build relationships, establish trust and create community. Reading the same text, having shared discussions and contemplating together what will come next builds community in our classrooms.

8. To develop a love, enjoyment, interest, desire & motivation for/of reading and books.

9. To hear a model of fluent reading.

10. To see the authentic contexts in which particular strategies are used by thoughtful readers.

11. To understand the rewards of reading.

Our students look up to us. It is inevitable that we're their role models. Reading aloud to students allows us to show them through our actions that we're good readers and we're passionate about reading.

12. To honor diverse populations and establish an appreciation of others.

13. To recognize students’ own experiences, lives and struggles by reading books to which our diverse student population can relate.

The books that we choose to read aloud are important. As authors write and publish texts that better represent the diversity that mirrors our students and their lives, it is essential that we pick texts that reflect the students in our classroom. Our hope is that these choices lead to acceptance, empathy and tolerance.

Through the Twitter chat with ILA, I was able to gleam 13 benefits to a read aloud. But what do you think?
  • In your opinion, what are the benefits of reading aloud that I missed?
  • What are books you plan on reading aloud to your students this year? What have you read in the past?
  • Who wants to be a part of the Global Read Aloud: one book to connect the world?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Know Thy Impact

Those in education understand that new, innovative ways of doing things are popping up all the time. Especially now, as savvy educators connect on social media platforms like Pinterest, Reddit, Facebook, Blogger and Twitter, there is a superfluity of new things to try out with students.

"Try this! Now try this! Look at this new thing! How about this new graphic organizer?! What about this new thinking routine?!"

All promise to increase student achievement. But John Hattie, a researcher who has authored various publications on maximizing teachers' impact on students' learning, says in this video that, "there is hardly anything we do as teachers that harms kids." He continues that, "95%-98% of things we do to students enhances achievement. All you need to enhance achievement," he jokes, "is a pulse."

But we cannot settle for simply increasing student achievement. Since virtually everything we do to kids will undoubtedly increase their achievement, what we need to do is carefully select the interventions that have the greatest impact on students' learning. In Hattie's language, those treatments with an effect size of .4 or more are desirable. Hattie explains that an effect size of .4 is about a year's growth and he argues that in order to have a remarkable, systematic, positive impact on kids, we need to be doing things with students that will increase their achievement more than that.

So, how do we know what we're doing is working and working to the level that we need? How do we know the strategies, interventions, activities and learning engagements we're doing with kids are growing their achievement more than a year's growth? We must answer Hattie's invitation to "Know Thy Impact".

When we're working with kids, we must look for the evidence that what we're doing with our students is working. We must ask, "what are our kids doing, saying, and thinking that shows they are learning ... and learning a lot about big ideas that are timeless, abstract, universal, and transferable? How can we prove that what we're doing is actually improving their lives? 

If we can't prove that students are learning with evidence, it isn't their fault: it is ours. It is our responsibility to change what we are doing, so that they can be successful.

To learn more about Hattie and his research, start here: Hattie Ranking: Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement & Hattie's 8 Mindframes.

The concept of impact has been on my mind a lot in the last 36 hours, ever since I heard that my dear Auntie Judy passed away unexpectedly. Judy, or Ms Higbea as she was known to literally thousands of students, was an educator for 50 years. I learned so much from my aunt; among them, the continual need to question and reflect on what is best for students.

The very ironic thing about a teacher like Judy who is continually asking, "What's my impact?" is that they will never truly understand the impact they have. It is those teachers who aren't just increasing students' achievement scores. And they're not even just increasing students' learning. They're improving the quality of the lives of students, their families, colleagues, and those in the larger community.

As news spreads of Judy's passing, those that were impacted by her are voicing their shock, heartbreak, and words of comfort and appreciation. Through Judy's formal work with the Freeport school system, Freeport Community ServicesWolfe's Neck Farm and her informal interactions, she impacted the lives of many different people in many different ways. Many are sad. Many are grateful.

Judy would probably think it obnoxious of me to be writing about her in such a way. She was quite humble - one of her many lovely qualities I didn't "inherit". But if by her example, we all can continually question, "what's my impact?" her impact on us and on our students will continue.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

What do we do now? A reaction to the atrocity in South Carolina

My head and Facebook feed are full of reactions from the atrocious event in Charleston, South Carolina.

Many of the reactions include emotional responses, commentaries, prayers, confessions of bewilderment, castigations of the media, comments on what it all means, ideas about who or what is to blame and lots and lots and lots of questions.

One dear friend simply asked, “What do we do now? As citizens of the world, not only of the United States, what do we do now?”

Who the heck knows? Cry? Lament? Get angry? Gnash our teeth? Fight?

Hatred manifested in this way often leaves me with many questions.

As an educator, I am apt to wonder about what role teachers play in responding to this crisis. Not the acute, specific event that took the lives of too many individuals, but to the chronic misunderstandings that exist between individuals and groups of people who think they are more different than not.

Educators, we must ask: “What do we need to teach children now, so that these events no longer take place?”

Currently, my thinking is that we must …

teach children to see themselves as citizens of the world.
teach children to recognize their common humanity.
teach children to celebrate diversity.
teach children to understand their shared responsibility of caring for the planet.
teach children to examine multiple perspectives.
teach children to investigate issues that affect us globally.
teach children to be self-aware.
teach children to be empathetic.
teach children to be tolerant.
teach children to be respectful.

teach children to be open-minded.
teach children to be caring.
teach children to ask questions when they don’t understand instead of reacting in hate.
teach children to see the need to know how others live.
teach children to openly talk AND listen.
teach children to take risks as they explore ideas, things, situations, perspectives and people new to them.
teach children to recognize the interdependence of all people who live in this world.
teach children to thoughtfully consider the world around them.
teach children to deeply think through complex problems.
teach children to act with a strong sense of justice.

Some will say that I’m being too cheesy or corny and that perhaps these ideas are not the answers to the problems that plague our world. But my IB friends will notice that I’m promoting the development of the IB learner profile and whereas this profile may have become standard nomenclature to many of us, it still represents the ultimate goal we have for our students: for them to become internationally-minded citizens of the world who recognize their common humanity so that they will create a better and more peaceful world.

If we decide that everything we do in the classroom with students must lead them to this goal, maybe we might make their world, if not the entire thing, just a little bit better.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

I was originally going to title this post "A Case Against 'I can' Statements," but as you'll soon find out, I'm advocating for starting inquiries with provocative questions, so why should this post be any exception? 

So here it is, the fascinating question that we're exploring today: Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

Some history: For the last several years, teachers in our district have been busy converting rigorous academic standards into student-friendly language in the form of "I can" statements. Here are some examples from various grade levels and subject areas.

I can identify cause and effect in a nonfiction passage (based on ELA benchmark

I can sort objects by shape, size, color, and thickness (based on Math benchmark K.3.1.2)

I can describe societies that existed in Mesoamerica and North America before 1500 (based on History benchmark

I can recognize that plants need space, water, nutrients, and air and I can explain that plants fulfill these needs in different ways (based on Life Science benchmark

Clearly communicating to students the intent of the lesson is of utmost importance. Hattie writes it is important "to communicate the intentions of the lessons and the notions of what success means for these intentions," (p. 126 of Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.)

Hattie found that teacher clarity - which Fendick (1990) defined as organization, explanation, examples and guided practice, and assessment of student learning - has an effect size of .75 and ranked it 8th on his list of most effective influences on student achievement. Read more about Hattie's list on his website.

We all can agree that when students clearly understand where the lesson is heading and what they need to do to be successful, they'll achieve at higher rates. But is an "I can" statement the only way to clearly communicate the intention of a lesson?

In the fall, our school's teaching staff read an article by Brookhart and Moss about learning targets. The authors echo Hattie when they write that "when students understand exactly what they're supposed to learn and what their work will look like when they learn it, they're better able to monitor and adjust their work, select effective strategies, and connect current work to prior learning," (p. 29). They continue by saying that a learning target can take on several different forms. They suggest that the learning target can be words, pictures, demonstrations, or other experiences. They warn that a learning target does not have to be an "I can" statement.

I wonder, can a learning target be in the form of a question?

In a Primary Years Programme teachers should consider communicating the intentions of the lesson and what success means for these intentions in the form of a thought-provoking question. This will provide our students with opportunities to build understanding through structured inquiryBut how is this done?

Once teachers identify what they want students to understand (concepts), know (knowledge), and be able to do (skills), they should craft questions that will drive student inquiries. These questions should serve to motivate students to construct their own understanding of concepts and engage them in acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. Yes, teachers should clearly communicate the intentions of the lesson but I would warn against "giving away the answer" in the form of an "I can" statement. Instead, teachers should ask questions that engage learners and motivates them to seek out the answer.

Communicating the intention of the lesson in the form of a question allows teachers to "model explicitly [for their students] the asking of open-ended, driving questions that will promote conceptual development," (p. 37 of Making the PYP Happen). Fun Fact: the word 'question' appears in Making the PYP Happen 140 times.

McTighe and Wiggins advocate in multiple ways for the use of questions in their book Essential Questions, but they really ramp up the rhetoric when they purport that "once we have learned to question - really question - then we are immunized from falling victim to people who want us not to think too hard about what they say, be it politicians, advertisers, or bullying associates," (p. 18).

So, can teachers tweak "I can" statements to make them into questions that clearly communicate the intention of the unit/lesson and what success means while not "giving away the answer"? My answer is a resounding, YES! WHY NOT? LET'S GIVE IT A TRY!

Here is my attempt at it, converting the "I can" statements previously shared above into questions.

What are cause-effect relationships? Where are the cause-effect relationships described in the nonfiction text we're reading? How does discovering cause-effect relationships help us understand what we read?

What are the different ways we can sort things? How does putting things into groups help us understand them better? How does putting things into groups hurt our understanding of them?

What were societies like in Mesoamerica and North America before 1500? What caused them to change?

What do plants need to survive? Do all plants fulfill their needs in the same way?

So, let's revisit the question again: Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

I certainly am not making a case for throwing "I can" statements completely out the window. There is certainly an appropriate time and place for explicitly telling students the intent of the lesson and what they'll need to do to have success. 

However, I am suggesting that teachers consider clearly communicating the learning target by asking challenging questions at the onset of a unit or a lesson that engage learners and draws them into the inquiry. These questions should capture their head and tug at their heart. As the lesson or unit continues, students' responses should be revisited; misconceptions should be corrected; new learning should be added.

Recently, a first grade teacher asked her students at the onset of a unit of inquiry, "Why is it important to make careful and close observations?" She recorded her students' initial answers, leaving out any repeats. Throughout the entire unit, as the students explored, discovered, and investigated making observations, classifying, and drawing conclusions, they continually revisited their original ideas, editing and revising as necessary. The poster below is their "finished" product.

As a thoughtful colleague recently reflected, the questions we ask - both by teachers and students - must really kindle a strong desire, passion, or need to follow through. If through asking thoughtful, relevant, and provocative questions, we can successfully light a fire within our students, imagine the learning and achievement that is possible!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Taking ACTION in 3 easy steps!

Choose. Act. Reflect.

In the International Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Programme (PYP), it is expected that students construct understanding of life's timeless, abstract, universal, and transferable ideas. Developing an understanding of these big ideas must lead students to thoughtful, appropriate, and responsible action.

This action must be initiated by the student and needn't be grandiose. As teachers, we have the responsibility to enable students to choose their action carefully, to facilitate this action, and to encourage them to reflect on the action they undertake, (Making the PYP Happen, p. 26). These three steps - Choose-Act-Reflect - make up the PYP Action Cycle.

Recently in kindergarten, students were constructing understanding of the idea that some choices are based on understanding weather. To better understand observing, recording, and predicting weather, the kindergartners watched a video called Weather Starts: The Sun, Heat, Air, Wind on Discovery Education. The class also read The Windy Day by Melvin and Gilda Berger.

Then, students wrote down what they learned in a vocabulary booklet called "My Weather Words".

Here's one student's thinking:

"Wind can blow trash in water and an animal will pick it up."

Upon seeing this student's thinking, the teacher thought this would be a good time to discuss the PYP Action Cycle. She used the Hover Cam to project the student's thinking and also displayed the 3-step Action Cycle (Reflect-Choose-Act) so that they could discuss the cycle together.

The teacher said that the student was very excited to see her writing up on the SMARTboard. They talked about how the student reflected or thought about what happens to the animals with trash flying around. They even said the trash didn’t need to just go in the water, it could be in the woods or a park, to negatively impact the animals.

After reflecting, the students brainstormed what they could choose to do to help fix the problem upon which they were reflecting:
  • Throw paper (trash) in the garbage.
  • If you find trash on the ground, pick it up, and find a trash can to put it in.
  • Go to the woods or a park to pick up trash.
To help the animals, students brainstormed the following list:
  • If you see an animal eat a pencil and choke (or eat trash in general), call a vet.
  • Pick up the trash. We talked about if trash is in the parking lot that the students need to ask permission from parents to pick it up.
  • Get bags, pick up trash, and put it in the bags.
  • They thought we could pick up trash around the school and playground.
  • They could pick up trash in the lunchroom and the classroom.
  • They want to go outside and pick up trash.The teacher the students that next week they could go outside and pick up the trash around the school
After this discussion on Friday about doing something with what they had learned in school, one student did this over the weekend and brought it in to show her class.

In the PYP, this is also considered action because it was student-initiated, thoughtful, and is in reaction to learning that was done in school.

After reading about how one kindergarten teacher used the Action Cycle with her students, how could you or have you enabled students to choose action, facilitated this action, and encouraged students to reflect on the action they undertake?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Documenting Thinking

Spring has sprung and many classes in our school have begun to dig into different scientific inquiries.

In second grade, students are busy constructing an understanding of the big idea that survival depends on the relationship between living things and their environment. To begin, students formulate questions on the inside of their plant journals that guide their inquiry. These questions are the starting point for their own inquiries and research.

Students are required to write at least one question, but they can write more if they have more questions. They share their questions out loud to generate more questions and ideas. Then they write the questions on cards and post them on the wall. Students can continue to keep adding questions to the wall and to their lists throughout the unit.

After formulating and recording their questions, students are ready to research. Specifically, students are learning about how plants survive, the life cycle of plants, the relationship between plants and their environment and about how human actions/choices/decisions can impact the environment.

Students are encouraged to title the pages of their journals with the questions they've previously formulated and then write what they've learned with words, illustrations, diagrams, labels, and captions. Here are some examples of G2 plant journals.



To be able to give students feedback on their progress, some teachers have used this rubric. The descriptors were whited out for copyright purposes. You can fill them in with your students or buy the text the rubric came from: Differentiating Instruction with Menus, Language Arts (K-2) from Prufrock Press Inc.

Meanwhile, in first grade, students are constructing an understanding of the idea that making observations leads to discoveries. To document their thinking, G1 students are also using science notebooks.


After seeing how these G1 and G2 students use journals to document thinking as they construct understanding of timeless, abstract, universal, and transferable concepts, how could you or have you use inquiry journals/notebooks with your students?