The Monthly Miscellany: August

There’s a preponderance of research that shows that when you go public with your goals, you’re far more likely to accomplish them. Here’s my first monthly round-up that highlights what I hope to tackle in the next few weeks.

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Monthly Learning Topic: Solar Panels
The local college recently put in a massive solar panel installation about a mile from campus. I’ve biked by it throughout the process, and it’s been fascinating to watch it take shape. It’s prompted a lot of wondering on my part, from how solar panels actually capture sunlight, to how that energy is going to get from point A to point B.

Professional Development Books: Number Talks by Sherry ParrishWorking in the Reggio Way by Julianne Wurm

Teaching Focus: Developing meaningful, inquiry-based math activities and developing a routine for implementing Number Talks

Fiction Reads: The Guest Room & Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands (both by Chris Bohjalian), The Whore’s Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo

Non-fiction Read: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

New Recipes to Try:
Peanut Butter Oatmeal Breakfast Bars
Citrus Protein Green Smoothie
I’ve been a vegetarian for a couple of years now and I’m always looking to find interesting new recipes to try. I definitely need to come up with a quick & easy breakfast routine for when school starts again — I’ve been spoiled with all of the time I need to make eggs, toast, or even pancakes during these summer months.

Wellness Goal: 
Getting in the habit of blocking off one complete day a week(end) to not even think about school work!

Monthly Adventure:
Moving my parents into their new home & cycling in the Maine Food to Fork Fondo (33 miles)!

Epistemological Humility

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Explorations with Sewn Circuits & Makey Makey at Constructing Modern Knowledge

My primary activity this summer has been learning! I spent time in May developing a comprehensive summer learning and professional development plan and, as a result, my brain is bursting with new ideas, connections, and an even-longer list of things that I need to spend more time exploring. It is this familiar run-in with the need for epistemological humility that has me most energized about going back to school and working to help broaden the perspectives of my Curious Questioners to show them that the world contains more information than they could ever learn in six lifetimes.

Here are some of the highlights of my summer learning:

  • Constructing Modern Knowledge – For four days this summer, I was immersed in 21st century MAKERspace land at the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. The learning space allowed me access to all of the technologies that I’ve read about but never seen — Raspberry Pi, LittleBits, Arduino, Lilypads…the list goes on and on. There was no set schedule during these four days, so we were free to dabble and create. Many of the other attendees worked on large, complicated projects, but I was so overwhelmed by the choices that I didn’t want to limit myself to one idea. I spent most of the time exploring sewn circuits, finally figuring out how to use my Makey Makey kit, and integrating projects into Scratch. The experience was rich, tremendously uncomfortable in its uncertainty (in a wonderful way), and inspired me to continue pursuing constructivist tasks and projects with my students. Learn more about this amazing un-conference at http://constructingmodernknowledge.com/.Oh! At CMK I also got to talk about my question mark project (above) with Alfie Kohn, one of my educational heroes. I still can’t believe that actually happened!

 

  • Online Course: 
    • Leading Change: Go Beyond Gamification with Gameful Learning
      It remains flabbergasting that the edX and Coursera MOOC platforms offer such high-quality content for free. In this course, I’ve been learning about techniques to make learning “gamified” in ways that leverage student motivation and encourage risk-taking. The course explores what video games do so well — primarily personalized scaffolding — and how these ideas can be brought into the classroom to create more compelling learning environments.

 

  • Reading:IMG_0400 I’ve had the wonderful fortune of choosing excellent professional development books to explore this summer. No ho-hum or basic ideas here! A Place for Wonder and To Look Closely inspired my Nature Study program, which I cannot wait to begin in the fall. Hello Ruby is just the tool I needed to introduce my students to programming in an accessible and engaging way. Finally, Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, which I’m still reading, is making me rethink nearly everything I’ve ever done in math. Revamping my approach to math is my focus for curriculum work in these last few weeks of summer.

I feel so fortunate to have a career that allows me the time to continually push my pedagogical thinking. At Constructing Modern Knowledge, we talked about “taking off our teacher hats and putting on our learner hats” — this summer, I’ve been able to do just that, and it’s been invigorating.

Carving Out Time for What Matters

I believe that a classroom schedule reveals what is valued in the classroom. What the schedule looks like is, I believe, highly political, particularly in the era of standardization of curricula. I do recognize that many teachers are seeing increased usurpation of their autonomy in developing their own schedules, which makes carving out time for everything we want to do challenging. But, I also believe that the schedule shapes everything and is where we, as professionals, need to take a stand about what we value to create a flow to the day that aligns with our teaching philosophies and that will help to adequately prepare students for the ever-changing world.

Early this week, I participated in an STEM Education research conference — it was thrilling to be in a setting where everyone was talking about science. I have never had a mandatory professional development session in my district that was about science — it’s completely swept under the rug due to the massive weight of math and literacy. (Disclaimer: I have an M.Ed. in literacy, so I value and love literacy, but have experienced tremendous shifts in my thinking about science and social studies as the subjects for leveraging engagement and providing authentic opportunities for applying literacy skills.)

While at the conference, there was much lamentation about how little time there is for science. The results of a survey of Maine teachers about their science practices indicated that science instruction is minimal in many classrooms. I’m attaching the graphics from the grades 3-5 results here — the K-2 looked very similar, but I didn’t get that handout.

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I left the conference feeling determined to go “all in” on STEM education this year. And the first place to legitimize that focus is in my anticipated classroom schedule. I carved out a big block of time this week to start thinking about what I value and what needs to find its way into our precious classroom time. As you’ll see, I have the blessing (though sometimes a curse) of a 7-hour day with my 2nd graders, so my pool of time to work with is a bit larger than in some other settings.

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The biggest change from this year in my hypothetical schedule is devoting the entire afternoon after our Unified Arts classes to STEM. We’ll spend the early months of the school year doing nature study, which will integrate science and writing. This time will evolve into a more general science period during the colder weather, though I’ve been inspired by Laurie Rubin’s bookTo Look Closely to keep taking my students out periodically in the winter.

The second component of our afternoon will be spent on technology and computer science. If I want to help my young students become digitally literate, I’ve got to walk the walk and give them ample time to learn about technology and to develop their computational thinking skills. I’ll be sharing more about my computer science work (a major summer project for me) in a later post.

Another significant change are the lengthy morning work time blocks, in lieu of traditional reading and math instruction. I had the pleasure of visiting a Montessori school this year and these blocks are my attempt to bring a little bit of Montessori to my public school classroom. I’ll be meeting with small groups and individuals to provide instruction during these times, but, when they aren’t meeting with me, my students will be free to choose their own order for going through the required assignments of the week in math, reading, geography, language, writing, and Spanish. I feel optimistic, but a bit anxious, about these blocks and figuring out to set them effectively is a work in progress that I’ll continue to tinker with until we start school.

The only other large change is a slight shift in our morning and afternoon routines. I have always given my students an “Independent Learning Time” at the end of the day, where they are free to tinker and explore and make autonomous choices about what they’d like to do. After reading The Curious Classroom by Harvey Daniels, the idea of “soft starts” nagged at me for weeks. Soft starts can take many forms, but they are intended to be a way for the students to begin the day with autonomy and have a chance to settle in for the day. I plan to have a host of options for students during this time, ranging from visiting our wonder stations, to board games, to art projects. I know that I do a form of “soft starts” for myself each day — I feel like students would benefit from that same opportunity to settle in.

Because I’m shifting the ILT time equivalent to the morning, I’ve decided to eliminate Closing Circles, which are always hurried at the end of the day, to mindfulness time. I envision this time being an opportunity for students to again make choices, but to choose from a variety of activities with a more reflective, peaceful nature. I’ll play a yoga video each afternoon, but also invite students to draw, write, read, look out the window, or anything else that helps them to feel a moment of peace at the end of a busy day.

While I’m sure elements of my schedule may have to move slightly as I find out concrete times for things like guidance and library, I am committed to retaining the integrity of this schedule. For this first time, my schedule on paper honestly reflects my priorities and goals as an educator and I believe that, with careful work, it will be a positive step towards generating a classroom of truly Curious Questioners.

What does your classroom schedule look like? How do you balance fitting in what you have to with fitting in what you want to include?

Still Seeking a Curious Classroom

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” – Margaret J. Wheatly

I have been back to classroom teaching for a year and, during some long rides on my bicycle, I’ve realized that the decision to cut reflective writing out of my overstuffed schedule has not benefitted me personally or professionally. So, here I begin my re-entry into this blog. The work of trying to teach differently remains challenging, messy, and joyful — but documenting the attempt to do so seems urgent in this era of continuing standardization, Betsy DeVos (How? Why?), and shinier-flashier boxed curricula.

Since I last wrote, I spent one year working in an urban elementary school in a non-classroom role and struggled every day with not being the one providing instruction. From where I now sit, I see the tremendous value in the step I took to explore a different perspective and position in education, but wish that the knowledge I acquired could have been gained without such complete severing of my ties to the helm of a classroom. The boxes of school materials I had packed up to take this new position didn’t have time to collect much dust — through an unlikely series of events, I actually found my back to the same rural school (even the same classroom) where I began my career. This year, I welcomed my third bunch of Curious Questioners, a group that tested and challenged me pedagogically, mentally, and emotionally.

Throughout this year, I kept hearing comments about how, as a third year teacher, things get easier, because you know what you’re doing. While it’s true that I know worlds more than I did when I first started teaching, it occurred to me that, while I have created some classroom and learning frameworks that seem to “work,” I still feel a profound dissatisfaction that my classroom and my teaching does not fully embody the ideals that I have for it.

One day in May, I was getting agitated because of students lollygagging on their way to the rug, where I had requested that we meet to discuss or go over something — I honestly can’t recall the circumstances. For some reason, I paused and pondered and then started asking myself a series of questions: Why was I having students come to the rug? Did students need to come to the rug to be successful at whatever was coming next? What did calling them to the rug signal about ownership of learning time in our classroom? Why was I sitting in a “grown-up chair” instead of on the rug with my learners? Why was I getting frustrated with students who wouldn’t stop what they were doing just because I asked them nicely? And then, it hit me — I had, once again, fallen into the trap of routines and traditional teaching when, it seemed likely, that a far better and more student-driven approach could be found.

Of course, there are times when it makes wonderful sense to have students gather on the rug together. But does it need to happen each time an activity changes? And how many times should I be changing activities? Also, why was I expecting all of my students to be working on the same thing at the same time? These questions had fallen absent, as — under the pressures of end-of-the-year-assessment-madness and the weight of (perhaps) too many afterschool commitments — I was struggling just to make it through each day of learning.

But now it’s summer — my most productive season for professional development and instructional reconfiguring. It is my hope for the next nine weeks (and for the next year) to critically examine my practice, to finally go “all-in” on those practices that I have seen bring students (and their teacher) most fully into sustained and engaged learning, and to constantly ask, “Why am I doing it this way?” I hope you’ll join me.

Education as a Lever for Addressing Inequality

Last week, I had the privilege of seeing Jonathan Kozol speak about “Race, Poverty, and the Corporate Invasion of Our Public Schools.” Kozol has long been one of my personal heroes working in the field of education, so I relished the opportunity to be in the same room with him.

So much of what he said made such obvious sense to me, including his belief that we are shortchanging students before school even begins by failing to offer quality preschool to all children, particularly those children who could most benefit from it and all of the services that ought to accompany a reputable program. And where would the money come from to fund such an initiative? His answer: from the budget we currently pay to standardized testing companies.

He also spoke at length about the continuing — and perhaps worsening — inequities in public education as segregation in schools continues unabated. This issue is of particular interest to me, as I am looking at positions in urban schools and have been floored by the intra-district inequalities in terms of free and/reduced lunch rates. (Of course, free/reduced lunch is a contested indicator of poverty, but I think it works to support the point made here.) I was shocked that it would be permitted to allow one school to have 12% of students receiving free/reduced lunch while another school across the city has upwards of 85%. Perhaps it was naive of me to assume that these types of obvious inconsistencies would be viewed as intolerable and immediately eradicated.

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Prior to attending Kozol’s talk, I read one of his works that I hadn’t read previously — Amazing Grace. I found the book difficult to read, even though his other works have given me some familiarity with the contexts described. It is always painful to read about difficult situations; however, what made this one particularly challenging was the gnawing sense that even though the book was written two decades ago, things don’t seem to have improved a whole lot in that time. It is unfortunate that the political priorities in this country continue to lie elsewhere and that public interest is not constantly directed toward the staggering inequalities that persist in our own country and are, as the title of another Kozol book suggests, “the shame of the nation.”