A Vision for Curriculum

On Tuesday night, while watching a Youtube Live event hosted by one of the great folks at Go2Science (https://www.go2science.com/), I was struck by a comment made regarding the Go2Science materials, which I’ll do my best to replicate here:

“Feel free to take the materials and rearrange them and make them your own. We know we’ve made a good lesson when you can can take it and make it your own.”

This insight struck me because it illuminates a vision of what a curriculum could be. It’s a thought that I needed articulated three months into the implementation of new curriculum materials that have been introduced in my district. These materials do not espouse such an open-source or teacher-empowering stance and it’s caused quite a philosophical struggle for me as an educator.

As a teacher whose favorite part of the job (other than the kids) is curriculum development and creating learning activities, I’ve been fortunate to grow into my practice as an educator in a district where the directives were to use curricular resources as just that, resources. For five years, I’ve been pulling ideas and inspiration from a host of sources and combining them together to create what I believe are rich, meaningful, and integrated learning experiences for my students. The act of creating a mosaic from all of these sources allows me to flex my creativity muscles and is, for me, almost spellbinding. Many of the other aspects of the job often feel like chores, but I’ll happily spend an entire Saturday engaged in designing curriculum.

Most significantly, I’ve relished the opportunity to create materials that respond directly to my students’ interests and current needs. All teachers know that in any given classroom there are a wide range of skills and diverse personalities; for anyone who has spent an extended time in a classroom, the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach seems both irresponsible and irrational. Yet, one-size-fits-all, with subtle changes for “differentiation” continues to be what the big education publishers proffer and is, unfortunately, the turn that we appear to be taking in my district.

Last year, during the curriculum exploration phase, I had several conversations with folks at school about how mass-produced curricula are market-driven, responding to the latest zeitgeists and repackaging the same old stuff in newer, flashier packaging. And, when looking at national publishers, we’ve seen in films like “The Revisionaries” that states and districts with the largest budgets often get their needs and requirements enshrined in the packages offered across the country. It hardly makes sense that my students in rural Maine should have their educational experiences dictated by the pursestrings thousands of people thousands of miles away.

At any rate, I now have in my classroom a 750-page, two-volume phone book of math activities and worksheets for each of my students that is supposed to guarantee “Common Core Success.” And, it’s been a struggle to grapple with balancing directions for implementation with the boxes of resources that I’ve developed and tested. It’s hard to rectify trading conceptual understanding for shallow coverage and to extinguish all the work I’ve done to teach kids that math isn’t just about the right answer with solution-focused worksheets. For now, I’ve struck the balance of using the curriculum to loosely frame what I cover, picking and choosing those activities that make sense as resources, but not being afraid to use a tried-and-true lesson that I know is better.

These small actions are allowing me to teach while retaining my conscience and allowing me to keep focused on my vision for what quality curriculum is and could be.

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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.

A Hive of Activity

My Curious Questioners have been stretching their scientific reasoning muscles over the past week and a half. This impromptu bee and wasp unit has brought me so much joy as an educator — my students are engaged, curious, and making rich connections between their learning and the real world.

To ground this inquiry project in real-life experiences, I started our study of bees and wasps by having students write and draw about what they remembered from the encounter with the swarm of angry insects. Their work, on the 8th day of 2nd grade, really impressed me! It was particularly interesting to observe the way that some students automatically gravitated towards making predictions about what it was that stung us. When introducing the task, I explained how scientists try to remember details that would help them later on as they try to make sense of an experience. I expected students to write things like, “they were yellow and black,” or “they came out of the ground,” which I did get, but many students went further and made a hypothesis.

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After capturing their recollections of the event, the students got divided into four groups, each assigned to examine a suspected stinging insect. I set up four stations in the room — one about the life cycles of stinging insects, one about the anatomy of stinging insects, one that had students compare bees and wasps, and a final station with me that involved reading a nonfiction article about their insect.

As students rotated through the stations and developed their background knowledge, spontaneous scientific thinking and evidence-collection erupted. “I know what it was! Only yellow jackets nest in the ground.” My burgeoning scientists impressed me with their abilities to stay focused on the question at hand and to seek genuine evidence to support their hypothesis — one student was adamant that we re-watch a video 3 times to ensure she could get the screenshot that showed a yellow jacket nest in the ground. “See?!” she excitedly exclaimed.

Yesterday, my student groups shared their completed posters about their stinging insect. I subdivided each group into 4 roles (love a class size of 16!), so that each student would have a particular focus area — appearance, behavior, nests, or interesting facts. Their posters exceeded my expectations in terms of focused, relevant facts and specificity of detail in their drawings of their insect.

Tomorrow they’ll tackle the last part of this inquiry project — choosing which insect they now believe stung us and defending their choice with the evidence they’ve learned along the way. I can’t wait to see their work!

Serendipitous Mayhem

Untitled 2.pngThe part of my revised curriculum that I’d most been looking forward to was Nature Study. Our first few lessons went swimmingly — students wrote and drew pictures in their notebooks of their observations, they were noticing unusual plants, and there was a keen interest amongst the class in getting to explore lots of different outdoor spaces around our school.

On Thursday afternoon, we went out on a cleared trail for Nature Study. Students were working on a 5 senses observation. We’d been out for almost all of the 20 minutes I’d allotted when, suddenly, this scene emerged: clipboards being thrown in the air, bloodcurdling screams breaking the serenity of the woods, and my 16 second graders scrambling back towards the school.

Yep, probably the worst case scenario — one of my Curious Questioners stepped on a yellow jacket nest, sending a swarm of angry wasps after us. Half of my students got stung at least once and one student began to have a reaction to the stings. (Fortunately, I somehow avoided being stung — that would made things far worse, as I have severe reactions to stings of any kind.) In short, utter mayhem reigned as I tried to ensure that students who had been stung got taken care of and had their parents notified against a backdrop of extremely over-excited and frightened 7-and 8-year olds.

Everyone was okay and things had leveled off by the time Friday arrived. In fact, by the end of the day, many students were citing “the wasp incident” as their favorite part of the week. Additionally, many of our questions of the week were inspired by wasps — a popular one was, “Why do they sting so hard?”

After the students left on Friday, I let out such a sigh of relief. The stress of the past couple of days finally washed away and now we could move on. But then, an idea nagged at the back of my mind — what could be a more clear example of a “teachable moment” than this episode? An opportunity to engage my students in meaningful inquiry about a topic in which they had a vested interest had come right up and “stung” me.

So, scrap the lesson plans! I spent the majority of yesterday designing an inquiry unit around the question, “What stung us?” I’d used the word “wasp” to describe the incident when talking about it with my students, but this word doesn’t pinpoint the species of stinging insect that attacked us (yellow jackets). So, I haven’t answered the question for them, leaving it wide open for exploration.

Tomorrow, when my students arrive at school, they’ll be assigned to a group that will be researching one of four possible stinging candidates — honeybees, hornets, yellow jackets, and paper wasps. I’ve created readings and some other bee-related centers that students will rotate through, learning about their assigned insect, but — most importantly — looking for evidence that might help determine whether or not their species is the culprit.

After groups complete their readings in a small group, they’ll work together to create a collaborative poster highlights facts about their insect’s appearance, nesting habits, and behaviors. Each group will share their findings with the class (and with families during our community meeting this Friday) and students will have to synthesize the information to create a scientific case for which insect they believe attacked our class.

I can’t wait to see them working like real scientists on this inquiry task! While I do wish that we hadn’t disturbed those yellow jackets, I am excited that something meaningful and likely memorable can come out of the chaos.

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Independent Learning Time

I can’t believe that April is half over! It seems like I forgot how quickly the time goes once spring arrives. We are down to under 40 days left in this school year — where did the time go?

Anyway, today I’m going to discuss another initiative that I’ve been piloting this spring with my students: independent learning time.

Immediately following our classroom walks, which have continued to be a pleasant aspect of our afternoons, my students have been engaging each day in “independent learning time.” During this time students can, so long as they’ve met expectations for work throughout the morning, work on any activity of their choice, as long as it is somehow related to learning.

Philosophically, independent learning time makes so much sense to me. How can we expect to develop students who are creative, critical thinkers when we are always telling them what to do during every minute of their school experience? By removing the directives about what students will be doing, I have found that my students are creating surprisingly rich learning experiences that are catered to their interests — all by themselves!

After an initially rough couple of days during the beginning of the implementation of independent learning time — my students were flabbergasted when they were given the authority to direct learning according to their interests — things have settled nicely over the past few weeks. ILT has become such an exciting time in our classroom! I’ve learned so much about what makes my students tick since implementing ILT, which has also helped with keeping our classroom flowing smoothly all day long. The kids look forward to ILT and don’t want to miss a second of it, so they have been increasingly motivated and focused during the other parts of the day.

So, you might be wondering what my students have been up during ILT. Here’s a short selection of some of their self-chosen and self-directed activities.

  • Learning how to write in cursive
  • Learning multiplication
  • Exploring how different types of paper and folding lead to different results in paper airplanes
  • Creating a book about recycling
  • Using pattern blocks to create mandalas and to try to build multi-story structures
  • Using Toontastic (an app) to create their own animated stories
  • Exploring natural objects collected during our afternoon walks
  • Working on reading books of their choice
  • Asking to spend more time working on projects from other parts of our day(!)

As you can see, my kids aren’t just “playing” and pretending that it’s learning; they are stretching their minds in significant ways, all on their own.

My hope is that the sense of wonder surrounding ILT will translate to their time at home. If students learn the skills of managing their own learning at school, they will be much better equipped to create their own learning experiences at home. My vision as a teacher has always been to cultivate students who are curious, self-directed learners; ILT time is one of the most significant (and initially scary!) steps that I’ve taken toward making that vision a reality.

Working on Our Play

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We are entering the third week of work on our Dr. Seuss play. I find myself marveling at how slowly the process is going, but also satisfied that we are taking the time to lay a solid foundation of organization and expectations that will hopefully lead to success further down the line.

As you can see from the first picture, the initial step in our play process was making a list of all of the things that we would need to do to successfully put on a play. It was very interesting to observe the steps that my students believed would be necessary; they offered many very detailed ideas that had to do with parts of their costumes, but struggled with conceptualizing the bigger categories of tasks that we would need to accomplish. (No big surprises there, I suppose, as looking at the big picture is often challenging for second graders!)

In addition to making our to-do list, our first week of work also consisted of reading The Lorax many times to familiarize ourselves with the story, discussing how the book is very different from the animated version that came out a few years ago, and generating a list of characters that would need to appear in our play.

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During week two, we looked through various scripts that I found for The Lorax online (I was lucky enough to not have to start from scratch), considered how to adapt the script for our purposes, and applied for roles in the play. The students also started working the music teacher on two musical numbers that we will incorporate into our play, which I am very excited about!

This week, we started by making a set of expectations for play practice and I told the story of how my performances last year were undermined by some goofy behavior from students not involved in the group that was currently on the stage. We also have highlighted our individual speaking parts and stage directions in the scripts. On Thursday, we are going to open discussions about costumes and sets and have our first read-through of the script.

Already, I can see that this experience is going to be very challenging for many of my students. The amount of patience involved in waiting your turn, the degree of teamwork required, and the sheer amount of time it takes to stage a production are not easy things for second graders to handle. I am really looking forward to observing how my students respond to these challenges and (hopefully) watching them grow some essential life skills in the process of putting on our play.

Passion and Risk in the Classroom: Planning a Play

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 1.24.10 PM On Monday, it’s Dr. Seuss’ birthday, which is undoubtedly one of my favorite days of the whole year. I am a Seuss fanatic — a Seuss-ologist, if you will. My independent research project during my senior year of college explored the influence of the language use of Dr. Seuss on students’ comprehension and I am constantly seeking ways to incorporate Seuss-ian texts into my classroom. In fact, the current unit my students and I are working on is about Dr. Seuss, poetry, and is focusing more specifically on The Lorax and environmentalism.

Teachers are often told to “teach what you’re passionate about,” and the beginning of this unit has illuminated the wisdom of that statement. I feel myself being more excited, more enthusiastic, and ultimately, more engaging, when I am talking about Dr. Seuss and his work with my students. They seem eager to listen, to ask questions, and to be around the positive energy that I feel emanating out around me. Right now, I’m not feigning energy and passion, as I sometimes do with other, more mundane topics that are the sort of necessary evils that you have to teach but that are just impossible to get enthralled and swept up by. My excitement is authentic, it’s genuine, and my young students notice.

I’ve also found that it’s considerably easier to be creative and to exercise risk when you have passion for what you’re teaching. One of the major tasks that my students will work on in our Dr. Seuss unit is a theatrical adaptation of The Lorax. Now, last year, when I did my Dr. Seuss unit, my students worked in their guided reading groups to create mini-plays, based on their understanding of The Cat in the Hat, The Butter Battle Book, and Horton Hatches the Egg. This, too, was a risk, but nothing on the scale of what I’m endeavoring to pull off over the next several weeks with my students. I’m not exactly a theater person — I appreciate plays and musicals, but the idea of orchestrating a whole production is definitely something new for me. But, because I’m passionate about the subject matter, I find myself so much more willing to devote the time and effort to taking a creative risk in my teaching.

This has gotten me thinking about what is lost as teachers are increasingly encouraged, in my opinion, to move away from creative approaches in the classroom in favor of increased standardization because of the ever-increasing demands of accountability. Creative enterprises, like my Lorax show, can fit within the standards being delineated by districts and the federal Common Core initiative. But, if teachers aren’t actively encouraged to cultivate their passions and to use the energy they feel about those topics to engage in risk-taking, I feel like we might miss out on the facilitation of  some exceptionally memorable and meaningful educational experiences for their students. I feel fortunate to be in a setting where I can take these creative risks and be supported in doing so, and hope that I will continue to be as long as I stay in the classroom!

So, this week, I’m diving in. My students and I will be working on a script for our play and deciding what characters to include. Their excitement about this project already seems boundless, and I am eager to work with them on a long-term project that will help them develop academic skills, but also, give them a chance to apply so many of the character skills that we’ve been working on cultivating throughout the year. I think it will be valuable for my second graders to work on something that is long-term and hard, that will undoubtedly involve mistakes and maybe crises, and that will push them out of their comfort zones. Stay tuned!