STEM Class is All About IDEAS!

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past week or so thinking about how I’m going to go about establishing norms and expectations with so many (25!) different sections of learners. When I’ve worked with just one classroom of students, I’ve tended to devote most of our first week together to discussions about what we want our classroom to be like, what rights everyone in the room should be guaranteed, and what responsibilities everyone has to help make sure that those rights are upheld.

While I don’t want to move completely away from those democratic conversations, because I’ll be working with students for only 30-35 sessions a year (and don’t have wall space for 25 different sets of rights and responsibilities!), I’ve decided to define a set of expectations that will articulate to all students, Pre-K to 8th grade, the type of mindset that they’ll need to engage most fully in our STEM classroom.

The result of this thinking is a set of qualities and dispositions that I hope to encourage in my scientists and an acronym that I believe is perfect for STEM class — IDEAS. 
Imagine Possibilities
Dig Into Mistakes
Embrace Challenges
Ask Questions
Share and Show Kindness

In our first classes, I plan to introduce these qualities, one or two at a time,  and then engage the learners in a discussion and an accompanying activity for each one. Hopefully this will bring a balance of meaningful discussion about key STEM (and general learning) qualities while opening up plenty of space for student participation in  shaping what our classroom will be like.

If this file is useful to you in any way, feel free to make use of it!


A note about graphics in this file:
The blue question mark — Q — is my original artwork and my classroom mascot.
Gear borders available for purchase & download from Elementary Inquiry on TPT.
Critical Thinking Clipart from Teacher Karma on TPT.

*Teacher Karma.pngElementaryInquiryLogoWhite.png

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Making Morning Meeting Meaningful

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I am finally back up and running at my usual pace after developing walking pneumonia a few weeks ago. I don’t get sick very often, but this particular condition had me feeling fatigued and off for weeks. The experience of missing some school and then coming home from school completely exhausted illuminated the importance of self-care — something that I (and probably most teachers) are often guilty of sacrificing in order to put our students first.

Today I’m excited to share that I’ve finally completed a months-long project that I’ve been plugging away at a little bit at a time. Since I started teaching, Morning Meeting has been a cornerstone of my classroom practice. I developed routines for giving every student the opportunity to share, started incorporating singing, and built in cooperative games and activities and eventually, started adding activities about character.

Last year, I decided to try structuring the cooperative portion of the Morning Meeting around social justice topics. My teacher training took place in a social justice-focused program and I have always sought to integrate issues of equity and diversity into my classroom, but found that they were often feeling like “add-ons” to my other thematic units. I realized that I could utilize our whole-class Morning Meeting as an opportunity to dive in and grapple with some real-world issues. By connecting these topics to Morning Meeting, I could also ensure that these topics entered the classroom conversation on a daily basis, rather just time-to-time when certain topics or activities fit into our other learning. Thus, the idea for a “Meaningful Morning Meeting Mini-lesson” curriculum was born.

This year, I’m running my Morning Meetings with the following structure. Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 3.03.20 PM

The changes that I’ve made to Morning Meeting are going well!  I’m noticing a new level of engagement during Morning Meeting and I am pleased that we’re not just playing games or doing unconnected activities during this time. (Please do not take this as an insult to classroom games, as I  love games and fun activities and use them as breaks throughout our day.) It is exciting to be building towards the completion of meaningful projects and getting these important topics into our classroom each day.

Thus far, I’ve taught my students the lessons in the first two units of the Meaningful Morning Meeting Mini-Lessons (MMMM) curriculum. I’m about to start the media literacy unit and am excited that one of my big passions will finally be brought into the classroom in a more sustained way.

I finally completed unit nine of the curriculum and all of these units are now available on my TPT store. I’ve tried to cover a wide range of topics that connect to social justice and have incorporated many different types of activities into the lessons, including reflection activities, discussions, art projects, poetry writing, and reading response activities. In the later units, students work on larger projects which require them to synthesize their learning and to create products and practice activism.

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I am excited about these units and am eager to share these activities with like-minded educators who want to bring meaningful issues into their classrooms.

The Simple Move That Has Transformed Classroom Afternoons

My kids, probably like all students, have times when transitions are smooth, simple, and stress-free and times when transitions can be slippery and stressful. This year, my students had been struggling with the transition back to the classroom after their time at “specials” — PE, art, music, etc. When my students return to the classroom after their specials, we still have almost two hours of learning time. But, day after day, regardless of the transition strategies I was trying, we were losing time getting back into learning activities. Not only that, but their focus flagged for the remainder of the afternoon, leading to a lot of (unnecessary) redirection and frustration on my part.

With spring finally beginning to show itself here in New England, I decided to try a new strategy for navigating this difficult time of the day for my students. I’ve long wanted to incorporate more physical activity in my day, but struggled to find times to fit it in without carving into time I hold sacred for other activities. Thus, a time when we were losing time anyway became a logical place to try out a few minutes of physical activity.

So, for the past two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with having my students return to the room after specials and quickly collect their coats. Once everyone is dressed, I’ve been taking my students on 5-12 minute walks around the schoolyard and parking lot (and, around the school building itself during subzero March weather and inclement weather…).

The changes in my students at this time have been remarkable. Now they rush eagerly back to the classroom, rather than dragging their feet down the hall. They also challenge each other to get ready as quickly as possible, as they know that maximizes the time that we have for our walks. Once we get outside, their joy is palpable — they can be noisy and move their bodies freely, they can chat with a neighbor and splash in a puddle. While our walks have been limited thus far to blacktop due to especially soggy conditions as the snow finally begins to recede, as things dry up, I’m looking forward to being able to bring them onto the wooded trails behind our school, exposing them to incidental learning along the way.

The best part is, that after just this short amount of time, my students are more settled, happy, and respectful for the remainder of the afternoon. It’s hard not to be in a better mood after getting to take in some fresh air and sunshine outside — I’m sure its positive influence on me is another reason these walks have been so successful. Needless to say, we have significantly increased our productivity in those final two hours — no pulling teeth required.

Snow, Snow, Snow, and a Peace Corner Update

Well, today is the second snow day in a row for me. I was probably one of the few teachers hoping that we would get to go into school today! With these two days gone and more snow predicted for Friday and possibly Monday, too, my chances of completing of my current unit (engineering — one of my favorites!) seem to be dwindling. I’m going to have to make some creative cuts, as it is usually pretty fruitless to try to pick something back up after a weeklong vacation, which we have coming in just two weeks.

In better news, however, my Peace Corner experiment is going well thus far. My students have reached the point where they respect the space and aren’t asking to go unless they have a genuine need to do so. In fact, one of my most challenging students, who I had in mind when creating the Peace Corner, has been telling other teachers in our school about it and informed me that she’s also created one at home!

The lack of defiance that I have gotten from students that I’ve asked to go to the Peace Corner has also been shocking. I have several students who, when they get embroiled in emotion, tend to adamantly refuse to do of anything that any adult (and often, peer) might ask them to do. However, in the past week or so, these students have been responsive to me telling them, “I want to talk to you about this, but I think it will be easier once you’ve had some time to think about what you’re feeling” and then handing them either the 5- or 10-minute sand timers that I got for the Peace Corner. Once they return from their cooling-off time, the students are in such a noticeably improved state of mind and are much more capable of having a reasonable discussion about what is going on. I feel like I’ve been able to hear them more clearly and also that they are more receptive to the advice that I might offer them about handling emotions.

I’m really excited to see what impacts this approach starts to have on student self-control and self-regulation. I’d love to see my students work up to the point where they could ask to go to the Peace Corner proactively, rather than after they’ve done something they probably won’t feel so great about later on. I’m also interested in seeing if the Peace Corner will be durable as is, or if I will have to continue to make tweaks to maintain its relevancy. Only time will tell!

A New Classroom Addition: The Peace Corner

In my classroom this year, I have several students who struggle with regulating strong emotional feelings. (Don’t we all, from time to time?) Last week, after attending a training on restorative practices (a Restorative Justice-esque framework), I resolved to try to continue to avoid using traditional discipline methods. This approach aligns with my personal beliefs about how to best develop character and positive habits in young people, but, too often, I find myself slipping into more traditional approaches when a youngster gets the whole class whipped up into a flurry that seems to call for a quick solution that recognizes that wrong has been done. The amount of patience and composure required to uphold the pathway that I’m trying to choose in m classroom is often daunting, especially when I’m tired or frustrated, but, on the days when I can pull it off, things feel so much healthier and so much happier.

One tool that I have implemented in my classroom this week to aid me on my quest to stick to this path of alternative “discipline” is a “Peace Corner.” One thing that I want to move away from is sending students out of my classroom when they are being “disciplined,” and the Peace Corner is a way to recognize the validity of student feelings and the right to have some time to process feelings independently, without having to send a message that there isn’t a place for that in the classroom. The Peace Corner is a small area in our classroom that I have set up with a soft pillow, a desk with a fabric covering that can offer privacy or a place to write or draw. There are also a variety of items in the Peace Corner that can help students to feel calmer — shells, little games that require lots of focus and concentration, a glitter jar that they can shake and observe, and lots of coloring and writing materials.

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photo 1At this point, I’m experimenting with implementation of the Peace Corner. My students were instantly curious about it and have been, for the most part, very respectful of the fact that it is a special place in our classroom for thinking and processing, and not a place to go and play or avoid work.

Students can either elect to go the Peace Corner by coming and speaking to me about how they are feeling and what has triggered it, or they can be encouraged to go there to gather their composure when a flare-up or incident seems imminent or has already occurred. In the latter case, the visit to the Peace Corner is followed with a conversation with me where I ask them to respond to several questions, which were presented to us at the training last week. I have these questions as posters in the Peace Corner, so that students will be able to read and consider their answers to them while they are processing their feelings and emotions.

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I really like the questions bring the behavior, rather than the person to the forefront; rather than saying, “You are a bully” or “You are a cheater,” the conversation focuses on how they are a “person who has been unkind to others” or you are a “person who has made a poor decision which impacts your learning.” Additionally, there is also a turn towards thinking about how the behavior impacts others, with a special emphasis on how to make things right.

I’m really excited to see how this change works out over the next few weeks — hopefully it will send the powerful message that I want to convey that we all make mistakes and feel intense feelings, but that we do have a responsibility to be able to work on taking responsibility for what we do with those feelings and/or how we repair the potential damage we may have done when we do let our feelings get the best of us.

 

Curious Questioner Character Strengths

After a lot of thinking this week, I’ve finally compiled the nine character traits that I aspire to cultivate in my students. For some of this work, I’ve borrowed heavily from the resources at the Character Lab. Because I love things that come in 3s, I decided to go with three categories of character strengths, each containing three different traits.

I’ve created the overview sheet that you can see below. I see myself using this as both a poster in my classroom and then also having students keep individual copies somewhere visible, where they will encounter it frequently. I think this will be a particularly valuable tool if I do wind up teaching slightly older kiddos next year.

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After devising the overview sheet, I also developed a more detailed version that describes how I’m defining each of the nine character strengths.

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While it might be a little late to be starting this work for this year’s class, I am going to work on starting to use the language I’ve defined here when I talk about character with my students, which will allow me to build the “muscle memory” I need to use this common language and to help my students start connecting their actions to specific traits.

I introduced the word “grit” to my second graders this week and they are so excited about trying to practice it. They even asked if we could have a way to visually track the grit that we are showing in our classroom. Work relating to character seems to really pique students’ interests, because it can be so obviously connected to their real lives. As long as the instruction is not overly didactic, I think these types of lessons can be highly motivating for students. I’m excited to see how my students progress in terms of perseverance over the next few weeks, as we continue to talk about and identify grit.

My next steps in this project are to start developing lessons and activities that I can use to get students thinking and talking about these traits. While almost all lessons leave room for character objectives, I think it is really important to talk about character explicitly and on its own and not always have it implicitly embedded into something else.

I’m already starting to collect some resources that I can use for these lessons. One really fascinating piece that I heard on NPR this week connects directly to grit: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/15/377526987/yosemite-dawn-wall-climbers-reach-the-top-after-19-days This piece discussed the arduous journey of free-climbers struggling to ascend El Capitan in Yosimite National Park. I think that students would find this piece fascinating, cool, and see the direct connections to grit and perseverance.

I’ve also been poring over Peanuts cartoons, because I think that they get at some really interesting things related to character, but in a humorous, lovable tone.

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I’m excited to start making good on my commitment to elevate character skills to the same level of importance as academic skills!

Considering Character

For the past few weeks, I’ve been taking an online course about Teaching Character. Throughout the course, I’ve been reflecting on what I already do to work on building character with my students and how I can make those practices even better.

One thing that I have decided is that I want to become more intentional with my use of language around character. I think that, often, when I am giving character-related feedback, I often describe what my students have done, but don’t tie it to a specific word or set of words that would be meaningful for my students and which would be frequently discussed and used over and over again. For example, I’ll usually say, “Wow, you really stuck with that task” or “you didn’t quit” without mentioning the words “perseverance” or “grit.” After taking this course, I think it would be so wonderful to teach my students this vocabulary and then have them be able to apply it in our classroom to describe their own or other students’ actions on a routine basis.

So, this week, I am going to be working on coming up with a list of the eight or nine most essential character traits that I hope to cultivate in my students. I had done this, to some extent, when designing my own version of a character-education curriculum called “Things Curious Questioners Do,” but I think that I can be much more specific and intentional in my use of language.

As someone who believes that developing character in my young students is at least, if not more important, than developing academic skills and knowledge, I am both daunted and invigorated by the task of trying to pin down just what it is that I hope my students will do and what type of people they might practice being while in my classroom. Defining what character strengths I most desire to cultivate in my students seems like a logical jumping-off point for developing character activities, but too often it is easy to overlook this defining step in favor of specific lessons and activities that sound interesting and worth exploring.

I’ll let you know what character traits I settle on in my post next week. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions, please let me know.

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Finally, as an unrelated side note, I added Alan Turing’s name to my list of “under-appreciated heroes” to introduce my students to during our biographies unit after seeing The Imitation Game last night. It was a fantastic film and I especially appreciated what felt like an honest and authentic portrayal of someone human, with flaws and strengths, rather than the whitewashed, heroic representations we often get of prolific film protagonists in biopics.