Category Archives: classroom environment

Hook your students into learning from the first day of school

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, try thinking about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  they are excited to use their new and shiny pencil crayons.  They actually WANT to do some work.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!).

In some schools/classrooms, there is a feeling that we need to ease students into school with a week of fun activities.  I don’t think so.  First of all, they just had 10 weeks of fun activities or camps.  Second, if you describe your first week as “fun”, then by default you are saying that real school is not “fun”.  You may want to have a few team building activities, but I would urge you to have them be within the context of curriculum.

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “How could you measure a puddle?” Or, “If all the  students lay head to toe, how far would we reach?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Or, “If we all joined hands, in the whole school, could we encircle the school?”.  Check out these sites for some great problems: http://learn.fi.edu/school/math2/ or www.estimation180.com or http://www.101qs.com/
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students. Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (without the flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.
  • If you teach kindergarten or grade one, you have to teach them to “read” on the first day–even if it is just a shared poem.  Let me take a copy home to read to their parents.
  • Just start your course–but not by lecturing, or reviewing, or a really big diagnostic test.  Start by engaging your students in the kind of learning you want them to be doing all year.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.

 

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Changing the culture of implementation

Change is cultural.  We’d like to think that school change was about adding a new program, or providing new resources, or even hiring the “right” people.  But it’s not.  School change is about changing culture and that is hard-but not impossible. In fact, changing school culture results in increased motivation and enthusiasm.  Cultural change is energizing.

Let’s look at the mathematics crisis in Ontario.  It is not as if we have been giving teachers incorrect information over the last five years.  No, the information being rolled out to schools from boards of education and from the ministry is research-based, current pedagogy.  It is not as if we do not have the resources available in most schools, in most classrooms.  No, Ontario teachers have access to professional resources, professional development, additional qualification courses, math manipulatives.  It is not as if our Ontario math teachers are waking up every morning with an intention not to teach mathematics well.  No, most teachers that I meet are deeply committed to doing the best job they can.  It is not as if the demographic of students in Ontario has changed so radically that they are incapable to doing mathematics.

In order for there to be wide scale change, there needs to be a wide scale change in both beliefs and practices.  In order to have wide-scale change, there needs to be a change in both school and board culture with regards to the implementation of change.  Typically, in education, we focus efforts at the teacher level:  they go to professional learning, they get new resources, they are charged with change implementation.  eThere is a quick aside to the principal:  “Just be the instructional leader here and make sure it happens.”  And then, everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.

Unfortunately, change in teacher practice is messy and hard.  It never happens like the video would have you believe. It almost never works out the first time.  Teachers have to risk losing the well-oiled machine of classroom management when implementing a new pedagogical practice.  Students, too, will be wary of new approaches.  And, so, change happens in a very ad hoc manner, landing in some places but not others.  In the face of messy, many individual teachers will abandon new practices or, adopt only parts of new practices that they think they understand.

But what if the implementation of change was a joint effort between all levels of the organization, both at the board and school level.  And that effort meant taking a real interest in the change, not just managing one’s respective part in the process.  For example:

  • Principals take the same amount of interest in learning about the instructional change as their teachers do.  They are not merely present but active learners.  They don’t abandon the learning to deal with a small recess issue; they participate actively in classrooms instead of sitting back; they try teaching; they read the same resources; they engage in authentic discussions about teacher lessons.
  • Principals actively monitor the change, and can do so because they understand what the change really needs to look like.  This monitoring involves using both qualitative and quantitative data. The data helps them to know where to focus support.
  • Teachers have the freedom to try out changes without the fear of being evaluated immediately.  There is recognition of the messiness.  The change process is honored over compliance.
  • Superintendents have authentic and deep conversations with both principals and teachers about the work they are doing.  Superintendents  are also learning alongside teachers and principals.
  • Professional development and training is not attended only by teachers but also by principals, vice-principals, and superintendents.  It is visibly obvious that the change is of interest to all.
  • The change is not invitational.  Throughout the organization there is a recognition that the change is important.  However, there is also recognition that the change will be big, and messy, and require support.  The support is not provided only through training and resources, but also through authentic interest and learning by all levels of the organization.

We think that change is scary.  But, my experience is that change is exciting.  Change in practice that affects student learning energizes teachers more than anything else I know. But, change is cultural not procedural.  So, ask yourselves, does educational change in my school/board/system create high levels of anxiety or high levels of energy?  If it isn’t creating high levels of energy, then chances are, the implementation of the change is not affecting culture.  And, in the end, there will be limited change.  However, change the culture of implementation, and everyone will be excited to be learning-students, teachers, principals and superintendents.

 

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Thinking about the first day of school already-or not!

I have posted this, or something similar, at the end of June before, but I always think it is a good time to think about it.  Or at least, a thought for you to tuck away for some time later.

Just maybe, over the summer, sitting on the patio, paddling in a canoe, relaxing in a deck chair, watching the sunset, running, or whatever it is you do, you might think about school.  I always find that my mind drifts there every once in a while, and often a lot of my deep planning gets done—the ideas that anchor me.

Which day of the year will you have all eyes on you?  The keenest students? The least amount of student misbehaviour?  The first day of school.  So, try thinking about how you can capitalize on that to engage your students in the deep thinking and exciting work you want them to do.  Often we think, as teachers, that we have to set down all the expectations on the first day of school or the rest of the year will be chaos.  You do have to live and model your expectations, but I’m not sure you need to talk about them.  Maybe that class agreement is something to save until later in the first week.  By then, I suspect your students will have already figured out your expectations and the activity will go a lot faster.

Let’s think about the first day of school from a student’s point of view.  They are excited to be back and meet their new teacher and see their friends.  they are excited to use their new and shiny pencil crayons.  They actually WANT to do some work.  But frequently it is a day of “sit and get”: one teacher after another going over the rules and expectations.  Really, our rules aren’t any different than last year’s rules.  And most rules are self-evident.  We don’t really need to talk a lot about keeping your locker tidy since I doubt any of our students would think that our expectation was to do otherwise (although they may act that way over the course of the year!).

In some schools/classrooms, there is a feeling that we need to ease students into school with a week of fun activities.  I don’t think so.  First of all, they just had 10 weeks of fun activities or camps.  Second, if you describe your first week as “fun”, then my default you are saying that real school is not “fun”.  You may want to have a few team building activities, but I would urge you to have them be within the context of curriculum.

Why not have that first interaction with your students be challenging? Be engaging?  Be creative?  Set the tone for how learning will take place in your classroom.  Pose a question, get them creating or writing or exploring or problem-solving.  Hook your students in right away.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read aloud the best short story you know, or the first chapter of the read aloud.
  • Introduce writer’s workshop with idea generation activities so that they are itching to start writing.  You could even start writing. Do a quick write about what you didn’t do this summer, or the best small moment, or what you wished you had done.
  • Introduce a complex but open ended problem such as “How could you measure a puddle?” Or, “If all the  students lay head to toe, how far would we reach?” Or, “What are all the different ways we could arrange the desks in this classroom?  Why are the advantages and disadvantages?”  Or, “If we all joined hands, in the whole school, could we encircle the school?”.  Check out these sites for some great problems: http://learn.fi.edu/school/math2/ or www.estimation180.com or http://www.101qs.com/
  • Get in teams and create an obstacle course that will challenge the rest of the students. Or, read the rules to Harry Potter’s Quidditch and figure out how to create your own version of the game (without the flying broomsticks).
  • Have some equipment available and have students figure out how to move an object from point A to point B without carrying it.  Or, review structures, movement and friction by having groups create a marble maze that goes the slowest.  Or, provide students with a stack of newspapers and masking tape with the challenge of building a piece of furniture.
  • Put out a variety of art supplies and have students begin to experiment with texture and line with mixed media.  Have them create and critique a piece in the first week that can then be their jumping off point for the remainder of the year:  what did they like? What would they want to do differently?
  • In any subject present a problem to solve by the end of the week.
  • Start the year with a week of genius hour where students can learn about and present about a passion of theirs.
  • Have students create a class song on their instruments or in garage band.  Show them a clip from “Stomp” and have students create their own number.
  • If you teach kindergarten or grade one, you have to teach them to “read” on the first day–even if it is just a shared poem.  Let me take a copy home to read to their parents.
  • Just start your course–but not by lecturing, or reviewing, or a really big diagnostic test.  Start by engaging your students in the kind of learning you want them to be doing all year.

I am sure for your subject area you have thousands of ideas.  Often I hear teachers saying that we need to ease into school.  Maybe that is not true.  Maybe we should jump in with both feet and just start.  When our students go home after the first day of school, we want them to go home full of excitement, joy and enthusiasm for learning.  It is up to us to create those conditions.  The first day of school could be the best day ever..until the second day of school.

 

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Failure is NOT an Option-whose responsibility?

Failure is NOT an option.  I think that our collective vision would be a school in which that was true.  We all aspire to have classrooms full of students who are motivated and committed and do well.  We all aspire to be that teacher-the one that doesn’t have any behavioural problems, who the kids quote when they become famous, who reaches every student (I think I saw a made-for-TV movie about that teacher).

But it is hard.  Sometimes the kids didn’t see the movie.  Some fight us at every turn.  Home life might not be conducive to school attendance.  There may be mental health issues or behaviours that disrupt the learning processes.  Our classes have students with learning disabilities and giftedness; shy students and overt students; calm students and students with ADHD.  By middle school some of our students are discouraged and apathetic about school.

But we still desire to be that teacher, that school where failure is not an option.

Here are some school practices that may lead towards a “Failure is not an option” environment:

  • Recursive/spiralling teaching practice allows us to return to key concepts many times over the course of the year. We don’t expect students to “get” it the first time around but give them many opportunities to master key concepts.
  • Multiple entry points into learning invite students into the learning. Students are more successful when they start the learning at a comfortable place instead of one that is too hard or too easy.
  • Student choice in activities and learning allows for greater engagement. Students can choose their novel, choose the writing topic, choose the geography inquiry, choose their tech build, choose how to express themselves in art, choose chrome books or pencils, etc. Students are more likely to demonstrate grit and determination to succeed when they are engaged in the task.
  • On-going formative assessment helps students to get it right, as they are learning. Teaching is not about completing the task; it is about learning the stuff. Formative assessment ensures that students are learning the stuff.  There’s nothing worse that working hard on something only to find it wasn’t right after all.  Because we give feedback during the learning, our students don’t end up in a situation where they didn’t even know they weren’t doing it right.
  • Scaffolding learning through models, exemplars, anchor charts and checklists allows students to know the expectations before they start. Learning is not a mystery. Systematic use of guided learning with the whole class and in small groups ensures that students move in the right direction and know the learning goals and success criteria (it isn’t about posting them on the board).
  • A responsive special education model ensures that our most vulnerable students are tracked and supported. It is not the responsibility of one person but of all the teachers involved with the student. A collective understanding of the unique needs of some of our students allows for modifications and accommodations to happen seamlessly.   A responsive and proactive use of EAs and the CYW means that we avoid the crisis – most of the time.
  • Grading practices that are fair and about learning not judging.  If it is important enough for us to teach it then it is important enough for them to learn it.  Learning the stuff doesn’t mean that a failing or low grade is ok.  We have to allow  and insist upon retakes and do overs.  We have to give students more opportunities to learn.  We have to provide many chances to try it out before we give the grade.

When we think about a “failure is NOT an option” school environment, we have to think about how do we design our practice for student success.  It would be nice  to think that our belief in “failure is NOT an option” would be enough–maybe a poster or two.  It is easy as teachers to blame kids for being unmotivated and disinterested.   But, it is really about how we design our instructional practices so that students are motivated and successful.

 

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Classroom cultures that support, not just teach, social skills and well-being

While we know that we are responsible for the 3Rs and other curriculum stuff, we also know that teachers have a role to play in shaping students as they grow into healthy and competent adults.  I met with a woman this week who is interested in developing a program for schools that teaches kids about skills such as growth mindset, autonomy, resiliency, autonomy, kindness, empathy, persistence, etc.  I liked her ideas but it did make me think how do we actually go about doing those things in schools?  After all, over the years there have been a number of “programs”.  There have been posters and puppets and film clips and blackline masters.

It is important that teachers know the skills we want kids to develop, but I am not convinced that they learn them from a course or a binder of lesson plans.  Sometimes when a school adopts a particular program it is useful to have a common language, but if that is all there is, it doesn’t change much.  What does work?  I suspect that when you are able to shape the teaching in the school to support the development of the skills is when you get the greatness traction.  What types of things do we do and how might they help students to develop these important life skills?

When we have multiple opportunities for students to try things in our classrooms without being graded, without needing to get it “right” the first time, and with our trust that they will figure it out, I think that we help them to develop growth mindset, resiliency and persistence.  For example, they know in Maker Space that it is not about getting the project to be done, or to be the best, that is important, but understanding the science behind the mistakes that is important.  They know in problem solving in math that students will solve the problem in a variety of different ways.  They know that they may be asked to share their answer that is incorrect, and that is ok.  They know that we will give them immediate feedback on their writing so that they can improve it BEFORE it is graded.  When we listen to student groups and do not take the lead, or participate as an equal, or make a small suggestion and walk away, we are saying “I trust you to figure this out”.

Empathy, kindness, and autonomy (being in charge of yourself) are also developed in our classrooms.  When our students recognize that different kids get different supports it helps them to develop empathy.  When we have them read novels with strong characters or complex issues, they develop kindness and empathy.  When we allow them to make choices that are good for them in their work, they develop autonomy.  When they have opportunities to redo and retry they develop grit and persistence; they get to know themselves as learners.  When they see us treating students with kindness, respect and understanding, even when that student is struggling, they learn about kindness, respect and understanding.

I do not think that students develop all of these social and well-being skills through lessons alone.  An anchor chart on growth mindset will not ensure growth mindset if the classroom environment doesn’t support it.  A lesson on empathy won’t have any impact when students don’t see their teachers showing empathy and understanding.  But when we purposefully shape our classroom instruction and environment so that students have many, many opportunities over the year to experience the effects of these skills, and we, at times, name them and celebrate them, then I do think that students learn them.

Programs may guide us and help us to know the skills but the program alone won’t make the difference we want it to.  Students will always be learning social skills and personal skills in the context of the classroom.  We can choose which ones we want to develop by how we shape the instruction in our classroom:  a room that is about competition, compliance, completion and grades or a classroom that supports problem-solving, multiple attempts, and challenge.  A school of rigid and unbending rules or a school where staff model inclusiveness, empathy, understanding and kindness.  It may be worthwhile thinking about how we do this in a planned and purposeful way.

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A Day in the Life of a Student at Your School

A group of teachers was talking the other day about the pros and cons of prep periods at the end of the day.  There was talk about having to be “on” for 4 periods and how exhausting that was.  There was some talk about whether it was harder to teach kids at the end of the day.  And then there was a comment, “If we feel wiped after 4 hours in a row of school, imagine how the kids feel.”  It reminded me of an article I had read where a teacher had followed two kids for two days of high school and done everything the kids had done.  The full article is here: https://goo.gl/utB7iA.

The author, a high school teacher herself, made some interesting discoveries:

  1. Sitting all day long is boring and exhausting.  The author was astounded at how tiring it was to just sit.  As teachers we forget that we stand, sit, kneel, and walk around as we teach.  Mostly the kids sit.  I know that when I go to an all-day PD session, even if I get to change workshops every hour, it can be exhausting.
  2. She found that for 90% of the day students were passively receiving information or regurgitating information: listening to the teacher or other students present, or writing a test.
  3. She felt like she was a bit of a nuisance. By the end of the day the teacher felt that she’d been nagged at all day long.  Even though she personally never got “in trouble” she felt that all day long students were being told to line up, be quiet, get to work, listen carefully and so on.  As well, she heard a fair amount of “sarcasm and snark”.  Interestingly she reflected that as a teacher she probably did the same.

It might be worth thinking about what a day in the life of a student at your school would be like.  I know as a teacher, I was usually engaged. But I was organizing my time, and I tended to love my job.  The author of the article reflected that after her experience she wished she had done things in her classroom differently.  Here are some things that might help to make the time fly at school for kids:

  • Keep teacher talking to a minimum. I usually suggest no more than 7 minutes.  It seems short but it is doable.  Plus, you will feel guilty at 15 minutes which is probably the maximum.  Also, think about student presentations, particularly in the upper grades. What about having students present to small groups?  What about a few presentations over a shorter period of time?  What about kids doing their presentation to a smaller group and video taping it through an ipad so that you can watch it later since you won’t get to them all?
  • Collaboration and working in groups.  When I go to a conference I like to hear others’ opinions.  I also find that when I talk about what I am hearing I consolidate it more readily.  Humans are social by nature.  Sometimes we spend so much time telling kids to be quiet; maybe it would be easier, and more engaging, to give them rich problems to discuss. If I had to be quiet all day long, and work on my own, I think I’d be antsy and tempted to talk (or text) to my friend.
  • Teachers can incorporate a stretch, a quick dance video, a run around the school, some jumping jacks just to get blood moving if they find that there is a pervasive sleepiness in the classroom.  Although we worry about using up “content” time, perhaps 50 minutes of good work is better than 60 minutes of so-so work.
  • Are the tasks you give the kids engaging?  Worksheets are not.  Challenges and problems are engaging.  Try doing the activities you give the kids.  Is it engaging?  Is it fun?  Did you have to really think to do it?  Did you have a real sense of accomplishment when it was done?
  • We all know that a little bit of humour goes a long way. However, I do know that in my practice, particularly by the end of the day, or when I was frustrated, or my head hurt, or my shoes pinched, I could be sarcastic and nagging. The reality is that most kids are not misbehaving yet they probably heard my response to the few.  And I was just one teacher of 5 or 6 they had in a day. Or, in the days when I taught primary, I was the only teacher they had for the day-even when I was having a bad day.

I hope, at our school, that the author would have a more positive experience walking in the shoes of our students.  But, still I wonder.  Is there more we could be doing?  Do we need to rethink the type of furniture we have in classrooms?  Do we need to build in more movement?  Are we reflecting enough on the activities we know are engaging and trying to replicate those?  I don’t believe that going to school should be the equivalent of a birthday party.  But, it should be engaging.  Maybe you should ask your students:  does time fly while you are at school?  When I am engaged, that is what happens.  Usually time flies for me at school and especially when I’m teaching.  The time should fly for both us and the kids.  We are in charge of the time.

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John Hattie’s Visible Learning….what might it mean in the classroom?

At our last staff meeting we were looking at some of John Hattie’s work from Visible Learning. Of course some of the rankings surprised us–how could it be that class size isn’t that big a deal?  Or technology?  I have been doing some further reflection to try and capture why his meta-analysis might be important for us as teachers.  It is not that programs or ideas we do are not good for kids—he shows that almost everything works to some degree.  What is interesting is when you start to look at those things that have the greatest effect and compare them to those that have a lesser effect.  It would make sense that we would concentrate our efforts on the factors with the greatest effect size.  Here are my thoughts, in a somewhat random order as it is the end of an extra-long weekend…

  • Creating a challenging and trusting environment matters. Students do best when they know what the expectations are and when those expectations are high. And this makes sense.  We all thrive when we are doing something challenging that we believe we can be successful at.
  • Relationships matter. This makes sense, too. We are going to do our best in environments where we feel a sense of connectedness.  When you can build a sense of community and team in your classroom you create an energy for learning.
  • Knowing what and why you are doing something is important. Then getting feedback on it as you go increases learning and makes you want to learn more. This works for students and teachers.
  • When students have a good sense that they have learned something that matters. We want kids to get it, and know they have got it. That makes for confident learners.  We want to be teachers who get it, and know we’ve got it.  It makes for confident teachers.
  • Knowledgeable teachers provide opportunities for students to summarize, question, clarify and synthesize their learning in reciprocal ways—not all lecture and not all student discovery. Planned and purposeful mastery of the material. And when kids are struggling, teachers can pinpoint the problems immediately, and remediate that problem.

But these high yield strategies are hard.  None of them are just about opening the textbook or the binder of worksheets.  All of them are about teachers who intentionally determine the learning environment of the classroom.  All of them are about teachers who truly believe that the actions they take impact the learning …and when they don’t see learning happening the way they want it to, they try something new.  After all, they know that no one will die.

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100% of the kids, 100% of the time

This week I participated in a webinar hosted by a principal from Toronto, Emma Nichols (http://goo.gl/VtF6ET).  A number of times throughout the webinar she mentioned that their guiding principle was “100% of the kids, 100% of the time”.  Her school is a diverse, inner-city school in Riverside.  I like her motto:  it is inspirational.  It is also over-whelming.  I began to wonder if that could also be my motto and what would that mean if you really tried to reach 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.

The rationale behind the motto is valid.  If you don’t have this mindset then, by default your motto has to be something like 75% of the kids, 100% of the time or 100% of the kids, 75 % of the time, or 75% of the kids, 75 % of the time.  Would you really want to be the parent of the child who fell into the 25%?  Would you want to be that kid? When you start to think about it like that, of course it is true.  But is it doable?  How would a school go about living the motto of 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.

Upon reflection I think it is a lot about mindset- if we approach each day, each task, each period, each kid believing that we can reach 100% of the kids, 100% of the time, then we might have a better chance of achieving that goal than if we begin the day believing that we can’t.  But as with all great educational ideals, what might it look like in our practice?

  • Understanding and believing in differentiation. Do we always differentiate or do we sometimes say “I’ll just see if they can do this before I change it”.  When designing a learning opportunity do we look at it through the eyes of each of our students?  Does your school’s special education model help or hinder in the support of 100%of the kids?  Is anyone getting left behind?  Do you believe in multiple entry points into learning?  Differentiation is not just giving the kid a B because of an IEP–it is reaching 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.
  • Relationships.  Sometimes it is hard to like 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.  I usually can sense when someone doesn’t like me.  I bet kids can, too.  I think that sometimes my frustration may be interpreted by kids that I don’t think they can be successful.  We know that kids who are successful at school feel that there are adults who care about them.  Wednesday wasn’t my best day for that. I keep working on trying different approaches for different kids.  Figuring out how to be firm and consistent and kind and caring to 100% of the kids, 100% of the time!
  • Engagement.  When you look out on the sea of faces are they rapt? Attentive?  Are kids eager to get going on the activities you set out?  Do they feel confident to begin or are willing to give it a go?  School is not a birthday party.  You do not need to “entertain” your students.  However, if you look out, day upon day onto a sea of sleepy faces, I’m not sure your students are engaged.  Do you like workshops or meetings where you are not engaged?  Do you learn in those situations?  Best guess if your students are not engaged is that either you are talking too much or the task is not challenging.  Just because you might remember that school was boring doesn’t mean that it has to be.  And sometimes, I think that we fall into the trap of thinking that it is the kids who have to do the engaging.  But, if they are not engaged that is pretty clear feedback for you about your lesson.  I know that if I am leading a meeting and no one is paying attention that it is not an engaging topic for my staff.
  • Small group instruction. Kids are complex and learning stuff is hard.  The easiest way to meet the needs of 100% of the kids is to teach them in smaller homogeneous groups within a flexible model.  You will never reach all of your students through whole group instruction alone. As you begin to value small group instruction more, you will begin to be purposeful in how you plan for them, intentionally, instead of accidentally, reaching 100% of the kids.

It is a lofty goal:  100% of the kids, 100% of the time.  But most goals worth striving for are lofty.   I know that I will keep it in mind when I am thinking about our more challenging students and reflect upon whether I believe it for that kid, too.

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Letting go of teacher control is not chaos

Today I had to really think about why we integrate technology so well into our program at our school as  I had a visitor who came to observe and ask questions.  He was impressed by the fluidity of the technology use in all the classrooms.  He was impressed with the level of engagement of the students.  We talked about how using chrome books or ipads was not an event at our school but just part of how we do school.  How did that happen he wondered?    I think there aremany of reasons but the main one is pedagogy.  In all things about teaching, all the pieces have to complement each other:  teaching style, resources, assessment, classroom management and technology.  One of the questions that our visitor asked was how did the teachers feel about giving up the computer lab two and half years ago?  My response was that by the time we started to think about doing so, the way we taught had changed so that a computer lab really didn’t mesh with how we were teaching.

In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher had all the control:  all the students did the same assignment at the same time with the same due date; all the students created the same art project; all the students read the same book finishing at the same time.  And, all the students used the computer lab for the same purpose at the same time.  This gave the teacher a sense of control, and comfort.

As we move toward more student voice and choice, toward a more workshop environment, we find that kids are working on different assignments, at different times.  They are reading different books at different speeds.  They are writing different genres and on different topics.  They may be working on an Ipad, on a chrome book or laptop, on their own phone or in a workbook.  Some students may be using voice to text software.  Some students may have the google document translated to a different language or different reading level.  Students may be working individually or in groups.  A traditional teacher, thinking about this might think it sounds like chaos.  But it is not.

The trick to teaching is not in control but in intentionality.  When you, as the teacher, know exactly what you want your students to be able to know and do then it is easier to allow them to arrive at that learning goal in a multitude of ways.  Your intentionality will lead the way.  It is important to realize, though, that student voice and choice is not the same as “anything goes”.  If you intentionally want students to be able to write a well-crafted and organized paper they may be able to choose the length, the topic and the format.  But, a diorama will not meet your learning goal.

Our fluid use of technology in our classrooms is not because we are tech-savvy (although many of us have become so).  It is because our pedagogy allows for fluidity.  We are intentional in what we want students to be able to know and do and we create an environment in which technology supports those goals.  Had we tried to implement this degree of technology into a traditional teaching practice it would not have worked.  It is not about the technology.  Technology is not a thing.  It is all about the intentional learning and teaching in the classroom.

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Differentiating the physical space in your classroom – increased movement and flexible groupings

Have you ever been to an all day workshop where you sat in the same spot all day long?  When I have those kinds of days I feel tired and achy.  I find that I start to lose my focus by mid-afternoon or earlier.

As a teacher you have multiple opportunities during each period to sit and stand and walk about.  What about our students?  What is their day like?  A high school teacher shadowed students for two days and has this report:  https://goo.gl/utB7iA.

Many teachers I know have been experimenting with different designs of classroom furniture.  In our goal of being planned, purposeful and proactive it may be worth examining how you arrange both your classroom desks and how much movement your students get during their time in your classroom.  No one method is “the answer” but all may be worth a thought or two.

  • Sometimes students may wish to work in groups and sometimes on their own. Having a variety of seating arrangements available may be easier than moving desks around all the time.  Within a single class students may move to different seating or standing arrangements to work.
  • Some teachers are experimenting with desks facing the wall. It both provides students with an opportunity to work on their own and for students to be more accountable with their technology as you can easily monitor what they are doing.  Plus, it will give you a lot more floor space–read on.
  • There is a trend towards standing desks. Standing while you work should be an option for all students.  Particularly students with ADHD will find this beneficial.  Studies have shown that students use 17% more calories just by standing at their desks.
  • We tend to use PDA/outside time  as a “reward” at the end of class. Two teachers I know are having their students do 10-15 minutes of DPA at the beginning of class and find that their students have much more focus.
  • In most classes the guided learning table as become the centre of instruction where students know that they can get support and help. Teachers who use this space regularly find that students ask to work there.
  • When students are doing group work, try having them work standing up at the white board. If you can find enough space try having all your groups stand up and work on non-permanent surfaces.  The standing up means they can move as they talk and the non-permanent part means that they will take more risks.
  • One teacher has let her students sit on the window ledge. I sat there and it was fun (and I could focus).  The students were able to stretch out in ways they can’t in their desks.
  • Think about having a few exercise balls that replace chairs.  Although our natural inclination is to think of all the negatives, the classrooms I know that use them find that after a few days the novelty wears off and students who need the balls for seating, use them.
  • Students often like to work on the floor in the hallways. It allows them to spread out.  Of course, the difficulty with the hall is that it is often hard for you to supervise.  Can you arrange the room, even temporarily to give all groups a space?
  • Table groupings based on a specific theme are also useful. Grade 7 history students adopted a particular perspective for the War of 1812.  They sat in their 1812 communities, using their 1812 identify.  Some of them started to sign all their work with their 1812 name!  The grouping of the students helped them to stay in character and enhanced their understanding.

And a caveat….in the midst of all this movement and flexibility, there will be some students who need to sit in the same spot every day.  It is comforting for them.  Even grownups tend to gravitate towards the same place in the room time and time again (think about staff meetings).  So, do keep that in mind as well.  A differentiated classroom is not just about differentiating the assignment.  It is also about differentiating the physical space students have and the amount of movement they may require to be able to focus for the whole day.

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