The Power of “In-Context” Learning

As I worked on approaching my second year in the classroom, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to create more authentic learning experiences for my students. Last year, the richest experiences in my classroom were, by far, those instances where my students were able to see the relevancy of what they were learning by having an experience where they could apply their learning to the real-world.

To that end, I’ve been working on brainstorming authentic projects for my students — the first major one will take place in November, when we put our map and interview skills to use to create a guidebook for our school. Later in the year, in our advertising and money unit, my students will develop, create, and market an invention to “sell” during an invention fair with their parents.

These activities do involve a lot of effort on my part, but the rewards are well worth it. I was reminded and re-motivated in this area last Friday, when we went on a field trip to a local agricultural fair. I put three students in my group who I felt I hadn’t connected with on a personal level yet. One of these students is a learner who has long struggled in school. During the trip, it was fascinating to spend time with him. While he is usually reserved in our classroom and rarely volunteers (and is sometimes prone to misbehavior), on the trip he was engaged and very expressive. His vocabulary as we walked through the animal barns blew me away — I had no idea he had such an expansive grasp of language. Even more impressive were his actions toward his groupmates — he was keeping an eye on them and making sure they didn’t get lost. At one point, he even held their hands to make sure they stayed together in a particularly crowded section of the fair.

This experience led to me seeing my student in an entirely different light and allowed me to see him exhibiting skills that no typical classroom experience was likely to draw out of him. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can provide these types of experiences to all of my students — I know that, for many students, the classroom can be a threatening place in its traditional form, with its emphasis on a single correct answer and rote-type activities. I really think that by giving authentic, “in-context” learning opportunities, more of my students will rise to the occasion. It seems like a way to truly illustrate a belief that I so strongly hold: that all students can be successful learners when given the right tools and motivating activities that allow them to apply their learning and skills in a “real” way.

Fellow teachers, what types of authentic learning activities do you do with your students? I would love to hear about any projects that have proven particularly motivating and effective!

A Personal Interlude

I’ll be back with a post about my classroom next week — about the power of “in-context” learning and my hope to keep providing more and more of these types of learning opportunities for my students.

But, there’s no time to post this week because it has been a very busy and exciting week for me personally…I got engaged on Wednesday evening and could not be more delighted! My fiancee and I are spending today figuring out everything that we need to figure out so that we can start planning our wedding. It’s all very exciting! Hopefully I will able to successfully manage organizing a classroom and a wedding at the same time — I expect it will be an exciting adventure!

Our Classroom Vision and Being “CURIOUS” Learners

Things are continuing to go smoothly at school — I am quite pleased with the work that my students have been doing and how they are starting to adapt to some of the routines and procedures that we’ve jointly created for our classroom.

This week we spent some time brainstorming what our classroom vision would be. We looked back at our “best classroom” activity from last week and thought about what would need to happen in order for us to make that vision a reality. The result was the vision, which we brainstormed together: “In our classroom, we will become smarter by being kind and caring, being respectful and responsible, being happy, and working together.”

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The students spent time decorating our vision poster and then, this morning, spent time reflecting on what our vision means to them by drawing and writing about what our room will be like if we all act in a way that allows our vision to be a reality. Their answers were pretty impressive — ranging from simply things like having straight lines, to everyone being happy, to everyone being curious and asking questions.

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After creating our vision, we spent a lot of time talking and thinking about rules. My students’ first homework assignment was to list the rules that they need to follow at home (also a good way to potentially find the pulse of what’s going on at home for my students). They then completed a Venn Diagram where they compared their rules at home to their rules at school. Next, we chose a word to create an acronym for our classroom rules — they chose “Curious” because we are the “Curious Questioners.” Finally, the students had the opportunity to propose rules and then we held a class vote to determine which ones we would use.

Here are our resulting classroom rules/beliefs:

Conquer challenges
Use kind words
Respectful and responsible
Inside voices
Okay to make mistakes
Unusually hard workers
Set a good example

The students worked on writing and creating images to represent our rules.

photo 3Overall, my students were pretty engaged during these somewhat-lengthy community-building experiences. I am positive that we are getting off to a stronger start than last year and I am excited to see how the students’ investment in and accountability to our classroom rules and policies are impacted by their increased involvement in their creation.

Next week, we are beginning a new unit of study — “Being Good Learners.” My students will first be learning about whether going to school is a right or a privilege.

Imagining the Best and Worst Classrooms

photo 1School is now officially underway! We’ve had four days of school, and things have been going pretty smoothly thus far. My new kids are eager and excited to be in school. I am enjoying their energy and getting to know them. What I’ve been most pleased with, thus far, is their kindness towards one another — they seem to want to help each other and are (mostly) kind and considerate towards each other. It feels promising!

This week, we’ve been spending time getting to know one another and starting our work for building a solid foundation for our classroom community. I’ve been doing this process very slowly, hoping that the most time we spend on it, the better off we will be for the entirety of the year. 

In terms of starting to lay this foundation, we’ve done a couple of activities this week geared towards starting those conversations. So far, the students and I have talked about teachers and their jobs and what qualities they like teachers to have. They wrote their first journal entries to me about what their “dream” teacher would be like. Yesterday, we read the poem “Nasty School” by Shel Silverstein and talked about what might make such a school unpleasant (though we agreed it might be fun to go there for a day or two!) My students then used four of the five senses to describe what the best and worst classrooms smell like, look like, sound like, and feel like (in terms of both tangible touch and how they make our hearts feel.) We created charts based on a discussion that we had after the activity, which you can see below.

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The next step in this process is to create a “vision” for our classroom by thinking about what our goals are for our classroom. We will then use our charts to develop our classroom “rules,” which will be the things that we all need to agree to do to make sure that our classroom is like the “best” classroom and not like the “worst” classroom. I am excited to see how this process goes in terms of increasing student engagement and buy-in for our classroom policies. 

Classroom Tour 2014

My school had our Open House last night and it has me so excited about the upcoming year! My new students were so excited to see our room and to have their parents meet me last night. Additionally, many of my former students popped back down to our room for a visit — it was bittersweet to see some of them. I can’t believe that they won’t be in my room anymore come Tuesday!

I’m just about ready for the first day of school and my room is definitely the neatest that it will be all year. I’ve moved a lot of things around since last year and am pretty happy with how things are as I plan to start the year. (Maybe I won’t have to move everything around every month this year.) My classroom space has a lot of built-in things, which are nice, but they can also be pretty limiting in terms of options for arranging furniture. But, I think I’ve got things organized in such a way that the space will grow with our learning — there’s lots of room for displaying student work and storing their projects! 

So, without further, ado, here’s a tour of my space. 

doorThis is the door to my classroom – our class mascot “Q” remains prominently exhibited.


Our supply cart and paper station are just inside the door.

corner from door

Here’s the view of the room when you walk in the door.


This is my desk (constructed from three student desks!) and our huge classroom timeline, which is one of things that I am most excited about heading into the year. We’ll start by putting the birth dates of my students and their parents and grandparents and then we’ll add on key dates and events as we learn throughout the year.


This is a view of our book nook, our center station, and our Morning Message Board.


This is what the book nook looks like. The cubbies are being used by each “team” of students to hold their academic materials.


Here’s our Morning Meeting/game station, our “caught being kind” apple, and our book display. The start of school theme for the book display is books that reflect curiosity, questioners, and wonder — a perfect initiation for my new group of Curious Questioners!


This is the “Where?” team table. Behind it on the wall are the clipboards that I will be using to display work that my students choose as their favorite tasks and “best effort work.” Right now it has things they wonder about, an activity that we did together during step-up day last June.


This is a work-in-progress, but it will be our “wonderment station,” a place where I exhibit things that are interesting in order to invoke my students’ curiosity. Right now, there is a globe, a coconut from Hawaii, and some magnetic rocks.


At the front and center of the room is the white board and our rug area, where we gather for all sorts of learning activities.


This is where I post the groups for Morning Work Centers, where we’ll have our class jobs once my students brainstorm what they should be, and where I display our daily schedule. (Day 1 is already up there!)


Instead of counting up the school days, I am going to have my students count down.


This is a close-up of just one part of our classroom library. I have way too many books in my classroom (though I doubt that’s actually possible!) — so many of my bins are nearly overflowing now. 

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Two more shots of the classroom library — the bins have taken over all of the nice built-in shelving unit in my room! But, honestly, what’s more important than books?

corner from hexagon table corner from door corner from book nook corner from bathroom

Here are some more-zoomed out pictures of the room. You can see the “What?” and “Who?” student work areas and get a sense of how the classroom is laid out.


And one of my favorite parts of the room — the “Past Curious Questioners” gallery that shows all of my former students!

School starts on Tuesday — I can’t wait to start filling this space with my students’ creative thinking!


Back to the Classroom and an End-of-Summer Trip

After exactly two months out of my classroom, I spent two marathon days in my room at the beginning of the week. It was a little odd to be back after so long away, but I have quickly found my way back into “school mode.” The past two days have been full of sifting through all of the papers that I held onto during the year, organizing materials, and shifting furniture. I will post some pictures of my new classroom layout at some point next week. I am already being much more intentional about making sure that my classroom arrangement and design lines up more smoothly with my personal theory of learning — I’ve put almost nothing on the walls to ensure that the students have plenty of room to display their creations and I’m situating their seating arrangements far differently than I did last year. I am hoping that it will be a learning environment that will grow with us during the year, rather than confining us and our thinking.

We had a school staff meeting on Monday, so I was also able to get all of the scheduling information that I needed to plan my schedule for the year. I’m going to be trying out a few new things in terms of shaping the learning time, including an “Independent Learning Time” in the afternoons, where students will be able to work on any project of their choosing or continue to work on other things that they may have started earlier. I’m also going to be making sure that I do one Spanish lesson a week with my students — my school doesn’t offer foreign language, so I’ve been studying up so that I can teach them myself!

My weekly schedule breakdown looks like this (at the moment, anyway). We actually have a pretty long school day, but I’m already feeling really worried that I won’t have nearly enough time to fit everything in — my units tend to be long, interdisciplinary, and quite involved… We’ll see how it goes!

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I start my official staff requirements at school next week. As a final summer hurrah, I am heading on a trip to Canada this weekend. I haven’t been since I was really young (and have no recollections whatsoever about the trip), so it will be exploring somewhere new for the first time, which I love. I’m going to be visiting Quebec City and Montreal. It should be a great way to wrap up the summer!

The Ideal Learning Environment?

One of the final assignments for the Leaders of Learning course that I have been taking this summer was to devise and explain a design for our “ideal learning environment.” In my experience as an educator, this has never been a question put in front of me — too often, we are expected to respond or to “fit” into the existing learning environments, not to devise creations of our own. Completing this task, though, was a really thought-provoking experience because it really forced me to consider and articulate my own theory of learning (and to see the mismatch between my vision and the traditional educational paradigms.)

Below you can see the design that I submitted for my ideal learning environment. 


My design attempts to leverage both the physical and digital dimensions of learning to create a learning environment that supports the distributed collective mode of learning. In the physical space, I envision having a central learning lab/student center/library that would serve as a “hub” where learners could gather together and where the digital servers and employees would be housed. The sites for learning in the physical domain could include virtually any spaces or places in the community, which would emphasize that learning can truly happen anywhere and at any time.

In the digital domain, I envision there being a website that would contain information about courses in the physical domain but also have offerings for classes that met only in cyberspace. 

Hopefully, this set up would allow people to form flexible networks to support their learning and to begin to see learning as something that can truly happen at any place and at any time. One challenge to this model is ensuring that a strong culture of learning would be able to develop — that’s something that I’m going to need to think more about as I keep considering this learning design.

After completing this exercise, I am really thinking hard about what I can do within my own classroom to try to bring some of the components of my model to fruition. I am particularly interested in forging partnerships with the community this year, as it is a central part of what I think makes for effective learning and taking this course this summer has reaffirmed how important that is to me.

What would your ideal environment for learning look like? 

Last Classes of Summer Session

This morning I finished teaching my classes here at Upward Bound. It was bittersweet. As a last activity, I had my students reflect and write one thing that they learned in class that they would carry forward with them into their lives in the “real world.” Hearing their responses — which ranged from bringing a more critical view to their encounters with the media, to thinking about whether they are making the most productive use of their time, to spending time looking for the “hidden” messages that are conveyed in the world around them — was tremendously gratifying. Their final writing assignment was to think about how their attitudes toward the media/technology have evolved over the course of the summer, and I am really looking forward to reading them while I work on their evaluations next week.

I always have a difficult time when classes come to an end, especially those that I am facilitating. Inevitably, I always feel like I have so much more that I want to say and that there is so much more that we could have done. But, I am really happy with how our work together went this summer — I think everyone involved got something valuable out of our discussions and time together. I am feeling sad to see my time with these wonderful students come to an end, but I am tremendously invigorated about returning to teach second grade in the fall!

Reading Update

I have been reading up a storm lately! Here are synopses of three books from my 2014 reading list that I’ve tackled in the last few weeks.

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions 
(Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana)

This very accessible (and quick) read lays out the “Question Formulation Technique,” a process designed to get kids honing their critical thinking skills while laying the groundwork for the learning that they will pursue in relation to a particular topic. The authors suggest that rather than teachers wracking their brains to develop robust framing questions, students can be tasked with brainstorming these inquiries. The process is simple and I am looking forward to trying it out with my students this fall. I am particularly drawn to the steps of the process where students think about open versus closed questions and then have to prioritize questions. I am always interested in trying to teach critical thinking skills and this seems like a viable strategy for doing just that in a simple way that directly relates to and even drives the curriculum and content we’ll be exploring.

From the Dress-Up Corner to the Senior Prom (Jennifer Bryan)

I read several sections of this book during a course that I took on gender and sexuality and have been itching to read the rest for the better part of a year. This book ought to be required reading for all educators. Part informational guide to gender and sexuality and part handbook for addressing these topics in school settings with students of any age, this book is the best resource on gender and sexuality in education that I have seen. The book operates from the (I believe accurate) premise that gender and sexuality are always a part of the schooling experience, whether or not we choose to acknowledge this explicitly. It contains many practical examples for how to discuss these topics and how to best support all students as they work on the task of crafting this essential aspect of their identity. It left me with many great ideas to implement right away in my classroom.

There Are No Children Here (Alex Kotlowitz)

I could not put this book down this week. In my opinion, this book belongs right next to Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities on the shelf of books that all human beings should read. This book, written in the ’90s by Alex Kotlowitz (one of my favorite contributors to the wonderful podcast “This American Life”), chronicles the lives of two young boys growing up in a project in the inner city of Chicago. This book both enthralled and incensed me — at points I could not believe that what I was reading could possibly be true. I expect that things may have slightly improved since this book was written, but I am certain that many of the same issues unfortunately still exist. I became so attached to the characters in this book and I am eager to try to find out what happened to them after the story ended. You should absolutely read this book!

Loving Learning in an Online Class

In between my work on teaching here at Upward Bound and prepping things for the start of another year in second grade, I have been taking an online course offered through the HarvardX online platform. HarvardX is this awesome project that allows people from anywhere in the world to access online course content from Harvard professors. (There is also a site called Coursera, which is based out of Stanford, that offers a similar learning experience but draws from a number of different institutions.) These programs are highly flexible, as you can either browse course materials and do what interests you (like an audit of a course) or you can complete all task assignments to get a certificate of completion.

I haven’t taken a course that was entirely online before, but I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. It is wonderful to be able to work at my own pace through the material and to not worry if I am feeling stressed one afternoon — I can just make up the work later. The content has been released one week at a time, which helps to keep me on pace, but there are no hard deadlines until the very end of the course, so there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of time.

Anyway, the course that I am taking is called “Leaders of Learning” and it’s offered by Dr. Richard Elmore at the Ed School at Harvard. The content in this course has been perfect for me at this juncture — because it is about exploring and articulating your own personal theory of learning and thinking about what types of roles you might be able to fill in the rapidly exploding landscape of the education sector. The introspective nature of the course has been eye-opening for me, because I’ve now seen explicitly that my personal orientation toward learning as well as my leadership style do not jive smoothly with the structures of traditional schools (hence one of the key reasons why I think that I was so often frustrated in my job during my first year teaching).

This is terrifying to me, because I am a product of public schools and am so passionate about the equal opportunities that public schooling can theoretically provide — but it’s also invigorating, as I start to think about what kinds of roles there might be around schools that might allow me to circumvent some of the things I find frustrating about the structure of traditional schooling while still reaching the underserved populations that I am so drawn to teaching and working with. In sum, it has been a really exciting journey thus far and I am really excited to see where it takes me as I continue through the course. It has been so glorious to be back in the student role, too — I think I am always going to be one of those people who misses school, so it is thrilling to me that online courses that are high quality are becoming much more commonplace.