3 Big Goals for the School Year

A new crispness can be felt in the evening air here in Maine, which can only mean summer is coming to a close. I’m just a handful of days from welcoming a new group of Curious Questioners and I’m feeling more energized and calm than I can recall being at this point in any other teaching year.

In between all of the small tasks — labelling mailboxes, finding homes for all of the random items in my classroom, and meticulously measuring for wall hangings — I’ve been trying to keep a focus on the big picture, the real reasons I pursue teaching. Having time to think about these things is a luxury that I’ll find harder to come by in just a few days.

I came across a quotation this morning while I was reading Working in the Reggio Way by Julianna Wurm and it reminded me how important it is to be rooted in a particular philosophy of education and to name it, if only to yourself.

“It is not a question of right and wrong answers, but of determining what you really believe about children and education, and then making sure that all of the millions of decisions you make as you work with children reflect that vision to the best of your capacity” (Wurm, 2005, p. 13).

With the idea of firmly aligning my practice with my views of children and education, I’ve crafted the following three big goals for the school year.

  1. Create a classroom grounded in discovery-based learning.

    “When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself” – Jean Piaget I am strongly in the constructivist camp, and I am committed to letting my students figure out as much as they can for themselves this year. I’ve worked more and more in this direction over the years, but I think I’m ready to allow room, time, and opportunity for students to uncover learning, to create their own connections, and to let students follow their thinking, wherever it might lead. I’m most interested in pursuing this in math — the subject that I think often is considered the least open for discoveries.
  2. Leave room for and honor wonder.

    A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had an influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over all children I should that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last through life.” – Rachel CarsonLeaving room for wonder was an area where I thought I was doing well — until I read a few books this spring and summer that allowed me to see how much further I can push the foundations that I’ve laid in this area of my practice. I’ve always honored student questions and spent time exploring them, but this year, I’m making wonder a solidified part of our schedule. We’re going to have “Wonder Workshop” on Fridays, where students will begin by writing their wonders of the week, which I will display on our “Wonder Wall.” Each week, I will select one of these questions to be our “Wonder of the Week” and students will be able to use Post-Its to share their thinking about that question. Finally, during “Wonder Workshop,” students will be working on exploring their wonders and creating projects and products that matter to them. Wonder Workshop is very open and I cannot wait to see how the students will shape it and where they will take it.
  3. Maintain an ever-present curiosity about my students.

    “Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.  –
    Loris MalaguzziWorking with kids is exhausting, frustrating, and exhilarating. Too often, I’m  finding myself falling into the trap of being very closed towards my students after a while, making assumptions about their motivations or how they’ll react to certain things. I think this is natural, but want to work a bit more against this instinct by finding more time to be an observer, to document what I see, and to pay closer attention to what my students are trying to show me, what their behaviors reveal to me. This will be a bit of challenge for me, particularly in terms of documenting my observations, but I am eager to see what insights such a change of perspective and practice will provide.

Having these three big goals defined makes me feel laser-focused as I begin the school year. Now comes the hard work of making sure that, as much as I can, the decisions that I make on a day-to-day basis align with this vision of teaching and learning.

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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?

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.”

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.

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.