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.

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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!

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!

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!

Hodge-Podge: Louise Rosenblatt and a Good Week

Part One: Reading List Update

I have finished two more of the books off my 2014 professional reading list: Literature as Exploration by Louise Rosenblatt and The Experience of Reading edited by John Clifford. The former is a classic text in the formation of reader-response theory and the latter is a book of literary essays written about or in response to Literature as Exploration. 

Unless you are a nerdy English major like myself, I wouldn’t recommend The Experience of Reading — it’s pretty complicated (I had to keep looking terms up) and the essays vary highly in interest and quality. Literature as Exploration, however, is one of the most accessible works of literary theory that I’ve ever read and would be particularly applicable for high school literature teachers. In a nutshell, Rosenblatt was one of the first people to advocate for the importance of the reader in the reading experience. She argues that literature is not a body of knowledge to be digested or gained but rather a “series of possible experiences.”

In terms of application to teaching, Rosenblatt argues passionately for a discussion-based classroom that encourages students to reflect on their personal reactions to the work — not just a search for examples of literacy devices or a hunt for “the point.” She encourages teachers to not convey the message that there is only one “correct” reading of a text or passage, although she does rightly proclaim that there are certainly interpretations that are more valid than others. Additionally, she argues that students should be tasked with delving into their initial reactions and asking why they reacted that way, how and why others may have reacted differently, and what their reactions reveal about their blind spots or biases.

I really appreciated reading this book and it got me thinking a lot about working with my second graders. It can be a challenge to give young students credit for the things that they do know. I definitely want to work more on asking my students to bring their gut reactions to a text in our follow up conversations about things that we read. Because they are learning so much about the world every day, I think it would be particularly beneficial for my students to engage in a dialogue with each other and to feel as though their opinions and reactions have value and are not discounted for a more “adult” or “correct” interpretation.

Part Two: A Good Week!

The sun is finally shining here in Maine and that Arctic air that hung around for far too long in March is starting to lift. (We are projected to have freezing rain or sleet today, though…) As the snow begins to melt, my students have finally seemed more happy to be at school and much less testy with one another. We had the first full week without anyone getting tremendously upset with a classmate about a little thing that we have had for a least a month. I left school yesterday feeling like we are really getting somewhere and that we got some good learning in during our continued work with Dr. Seuss. It made me feel much more hopeful about the rest of the year!

Next week I am trying something new with my students — we are going to make recycled paper as the culmination of our work with The Lorax. I’ve decided to not practice extensively beforehand so that my students can see me working through the learning process and we can all make mistakes together. Hopefully that will be a valuable experience for them and we will end up with at least a small amount of viable paper!

I end this week with a question. Fellow teachers — what do you do for Earth Day with your students?

Dr. Seuss Unit!

This week has been … heavy. Things have seemed chaotic in my classroom, as many of my students have some pretty serious out-of-school stuff going on that is almost completely out of my control. I am spent emotionally and physically. Luckily, because I live in Maine, somehow the first day of spring has brought me a much needed mental-health-snow-day.

With all of my frustration and sadness for my kiddos, I am so grateful that I am teaching a topic that I love right now and not having to trudge along through some required learning about which I’m not completely stoked.

Two weekends ago, I had an army of helpers who brought a Seussian makeover to my classroom.

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So far in our unit, we’ve been learning about poetry and imagination. My students and I did an activity around the book “Not a Box” and they also dreamed up some crazy inventions to help them address a problem in their house for homework. Tomorrow, my school is having an all-school read-a-thon event and in my classroom, we are having a marathon Seuss read aloud. I have friends and parents coming in to share their favorite Seuss books from 10-5. I am really excited about this and my students cannot wait!

Next week we are jumping into exploring Civil Rights with The Sneetches and then we’ll be studying the environment with The Lorax. Stay tuned for future posts — this is the unit that I’ve been planning for and excited about all year long!