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!

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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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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?

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.