Monday, June 23, 2014

Quiet Classroom? Get Students Active and Engaged

A typical day in my classroom is rarely quiet, with the exception of writing and reading days (which certainly have their place!). When planning lessons, I strive to keep students active by planning learning activities that promote cooperative learning, collaboration, and conversations. If students are active and engaged, they are interacting with the context and utilizing key literacy skills. In my summer school reading class, I have noticed that students are quiet. They are attentive, want to learn, but they are quiet. We have only been together for a week, and students will attend four different high schools. While independent work, journal writing, reading, and self-reflection are critical, if students work in isolation all the time, they will miss out on opportunities to speak, write about and listen to ideas that differ from theirs, and even read texts that they might hear about from friends.

This weekend, I made it a point to carefully consider what I could do to get them active and ultimately, excited about reading. When students are excited about coming to class and reading, they are more likely to retain the strategies that we are learning and more importantly, develop a love of learning.

1. Super-Six Strategies Poster

Today, I wanted students to review the strategies that we explicitly learned last week, but instead of applying them independently, I wanted students to get out of their seats and talk about the strategies with their peers. During the first period of each day, I have been asking students to journal about a high-interest question from a great list provided by the New York Times Learning Network entitled "184 Questions to Write About" and follow up their entries with nonfiction reading based on the selected topic. Instead of simply having them write about the text and focus on applying one strategy in their seats, I had them use butcher-block paper to apply all six strategies in a visual chart. Asking students to collaborate, create a visual that we can reference multiple times, and become a little more kinesthetic opened up the classroom and forced kids to share what they thought of the topic. The classroom was abuzz with conversation and now we have created visual references that we can continue to talk about for days.

2. Think-Pair-Share (with someone new!)

Think-Pair-Share is a strategy often used in a classroom. It allows students to reflect on a topic independently, collaborate with one person, and then share out what they have learned with the class. When given the choice of who to engage with during this activity, however, students will always choose someone they are comfortable with and more often than not, they always choose the same person.

This week I have created a few parameters for Think-Pair-Share that challenges students to get outside of their comfort zone. For example, students have been told to Think-Pair-Share with someone who is not going to the same high school, same height, similar shoes, and who has a different color hair as he or she is. Asking students to mix-it-up and interact with others allows them to gain perspective, fosters classroom relationships, and allows them to learn about each other. In addition to sharing an answer to a prompt, students have to share a favorite childhood story, talk about their favorite movies, show a unique talent, or simply talk about what they are most excited for about the upcoming school year. Encouraging these conversations in addition to completing tasks has created more conversation in class and also encouraged new relationships among students. Getting creative with grouping can lead to great interactions among classmates.

3. Anticipation Guides

I love asking students questions that are tough to answer. Creating a sense of dissonance in their minds about a topic we are reading about can make students excited about learning more about a particular topic. It can also force them to think! By asking one, five, or more questions that students must agree or disagree with, they can begin to use critical thinking skills and apply evidence to prove a conclusion. After spending a little time grappling with a particular question alone, I have students get out of their seats, move to different sides of the room, and then take turns in the hot seat. In the hot seat, they are allowed to share their opinions and may be probed with more questions from their peers or me. Creating a class debate and challenge us all to think deeply about a topic, of which we will then read and learn more about. Again, this is certainly a strategy used by many in a variety of ways, but it works at getting students out of their seats and excited about course content!

4. Soul Reading

This one is new to me this year. I have used the popcorn reading strategy before, but this takes choral reading to a new level. While I hesitate to use choral reading in a class where students are apprehensive about reading, this makes it fun and provides students with a little more flexibility. Soul Reading involves one person beginning the reading while other students listen. Then, as another student feels moved to do so, another person jumps in. At first, students did not want to participate, but as some of their peers struggled with words or a funny name appeared in the text, they began to jump right in. They proved that they were following along and that they could find humor in reading aloud. Students were also able to practice an important fluency skill, as they felt comfortable. They were not put on the spot and told to read by a peer; instead, it became an opportunity for them to participate in a reading experience with their peers.
5. Why I Read Walk

When working with reluctant readers, it is crucial to get them talking about the different purposes of reading and encourage them to realize that they read much more than they think. And they love it! Reading text messages, social media posts, and articles that they come across while surfing the web is a constant occurrence for them. While this type of reading might not always been the rich texts we hope they spend hours of sustained time reading, it is still exposure to text! When they realize that they are reading and like reading for this purpose, they begin to open up about what else they read, when they read, and why it is important. By providing students with sentence starts and a pack of post-it notes, students can walk around the room, consider what and why they read, and even leave comments for their peers.

This semester, I used the prompts:
  • I read ______ to learn because... 
  • I read ______ for fun because... 
  • I read to gain information when... 
  • I read ______ to understanding... 

Students had to answer each prompt, which was posted around the room, on a post-it. Then they had to respond to three classmates prompts after walking around and reading responses. This activity was then followed up by a reading interest inventory, self-reflection, and class discussion about why we read, what we like to read, why reading might be difficult, and what we can do to become better readers. There are also great responses that can be found on Twitter. If my students had computer access this summer, I would definitely consider having them use this hashtag, if they had Twitter accounts.

6. Zoom: Team Building Activity

Team building activities are awesome! I love having students complete team activities every occasionally to keep them active, connected, and thinking critically. The media specialist at my school shared this new activity with me. He used the children's book Zoom by Istvan Banyai to encourage his soccer players to learn how to work as a team. First, he photocopied each page and mixed up the pages. He distributed the pages at random to students who were then tasked with putting the pages in a logical order. This book is a picture book and while it may seem easy to determine the correct order, it was quite challenging. I am hoping to use this strategy with my students to discuss not only how to collaborate as a team, but also how to determine and ultimately analyze plot. While there are no printed words in this text, it still tells a story. Discussing plot, while keeping them on their feet, makes the direct instruction about plot meaningful and memorable.

These are just a few strategies I hope to incorporate this week to keep my readers engaged, connected, and communicating about what they are reading and what they are learning as a result. Varying activities and applying learning strategies meaningful helps not only make learning a more positive experience for students, but it also keeps them excited about what they are doing in the classroom. Hopefully, that excitement will foster a greater appreciation and love of learning.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ideas to Differentiate Instruction in a 1:1 Classroom

After one year of 1:1 instruction with Chromebooks, I have seen a great deal of opportunities to differentiate instruction for students that are not as easy to accomplish in a traditional classroom model.  Being able to utilize Google Apps for Education, a plethora of online resources, and a few key web tools can open up a world of possibilities when it comes to meeting the need of every type of learner.  In a traditional classroom of 28 students whose interests, attention spans, and abilities range greatly, the introduction of devices in the classroom has allowed me to shift how I instruct slightly to make sure that students have the support they need, access to resources, and can use class time productively and at their own pace.  I still have quite a ways to go in terms of redesigning my classroom to maximize class time and encourage students to master the curriculum while using their time wisely, but with experience and reflection comes growth!

1. Screencast-o-Matic

Using this web tool is easy and has allowed me to create think aloud videos for writing prompts, demonstrate how to use a specific web tool, or provide feedback for students.  I have found that students do utilize the think aloud videos, which are used to supplement and re-teach skills that I review in class.  I'd like to do more with this in terms of grammar, thesis statement creation, and perhaps even close reading of non-fiction articles next year.  When a video has been created, students who struggle with specific skills have the option to review that skill as many times as necessary at home or even in-class while other students draft or work on another activity. 

2. Google Apps for Education (Specifically Docs): 

My school district just finished year two of utilizing Google Apps.  Students are certainly becoming more proficient and learning how to maximize the benefits that these tools provide in terms of collaboration and cloud computation. One approach I have taken with some students this year is "meeting" on their docs to help with specific writing or formatting issues.  Especially when using Google Docs, the chat feature allows me to provide direct instruction and answer questions more effectively when we cannot meet face-to-face.  Next year, I hope to try and hold "office hours" during major writing units to make myself available as well as continue to capitalize on the benefits of using these web tools.  I am eager to see how Google Classroom will work and how this might allow teachers and students to interact and engage with one another, anywhere and at any time.  


Video Notes is my new favorite web tool that allows students to take notes while watching videos that could be created by an individual teacher or simply a video found online.  The web tool syncs with Google Drive, it is user friendly, and it allows students to take notes and track the time in which they make comments.  If a person is using the flipped classroom model, this is an excellent tool.  Once a student take notes, the notes sync with a folder in Google Drive and from there, can be shared with the teacher.  While I did not discover this tool until EdCamp Chicago a few weeks prior, I definitely want to use this next year and have been sharing it with anyone who wants to experiment with the flipped classroom model in any capacity.  

4. TEDEd Videos

TED has compiled a series of videos and resources for educators and students that are absolutely fantastic.  Focusing on countless topics across many different disciplines, these quality lessons/videos are informative, engaging, and easily adaptable for teachers. In addition to great videos, TEDEd has compiled quizzes, additional resources for each video, and a place to discuss the content of the video.  Teachers can even create and share lessons with other teachers on the TEDEd website.  This is another resource that I have not explored much, but I am excited to see how I might use this to continue to approach differentiated instruction in the classroom.  

5. Google Calendar: 

 did not use Google Calendar this year with students.  Instead, I created a shared folder and made daily agendas, which the students had access to all semester.  I would like to and plan on using Google Calendar to link the agendas and also map out due dates for students.  Organization is key to keeping students on track.  The more files that are accessible, the easier students will be able to find key course documents, manage their own workflow, and engage with the course.  

I am excited to see how this will work and if it will improve the student experience.  At the same time, the Google LMS (Google Classroom) might do all of this automatically.  Technology is constantly evolving, as are the ways in which students learn.  The exciting part about next school year is that there will be more to learn, resources to experiment with, and new students to teach!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

It's Never Too Early to Plan for Next School Year

As the final bell rings on the last day of school, it is tempting to run out the door with as much exuberance as our students do.  While shutting the computer down from time to time is both incredibly valuable, necessary, and even freeing, before we complete say goodbye completely to the 2014-2015 school year, it is important to take time to pause, reflect, and even start considering what next year will bring.  In these last days of finals, with this year fresh in my mind, I want to take time to look forward to the excitement and learning that will fill the 2015-2016 school year.  Here's my finals week action plan:

1. Go through old lesson plans.  Really go through them!  

I've taken to an agenda system that involves daily Google Docs that I push out to students in a common share folder, as suggested by my great friend and colleague, Heather (She's an awesome follow on Twitter and a great source of knowledge about all topics related to teaching and ed tech).  On each agenda, I include daily learning targets, learning activities (which include: docs, handouts, presentations, videos, etc.), homework, and additional resources to look at if students have additional time.  As I plan for next year, I want to use the resources built throughout the school year to reflect on my pacing, effectiveness of individual lessons, and ways in which I can make lessons more engaging, meaningful, and memorable for students.  However we lesson plan or whatever system we may follow, this is an excellent resource that indicates how we have taught and how we can improve the quality of our courses.  While it is tempting to just scan through these plans quickly, taking the time to reread and reflect on daily work and units as a whole makes planning and preparation for the upcoming school year more thorough.

2. Look at the calendar for next year.

This one has taken me a few years to discover.  Looking at where/when holidays fall, the placement of major breaks, sports/activity schedules, semester schedules and how that could potentially line up with curriculum is critical.  Students attention spans and motivation to learn on a Monday than they are on a Wednesday or a Friday.  In addition, once certain check points hit in the year, that motivation and quality of work does alter.  For example, once prom hits for seniors in the spring, lessons need to be tight, directly applicable to their lives, and involve less formal researching in comparison to February when it is freezing outside and few school activities are occurring (besides IHSA State series).  To ensure the best work from students, timing is essential.

3. Assess technology usage.

Technology is constantly evolving!  Every day a new app or web tool is created that could potentially help improve the execution of a lesson or student learning in some capacity.  The amount of web tools available is overwhelming, but reflecting on what worked in the classroom this year establishes a strong foundation of what will continue to work the subsequent year.  Considering the stumbling blocks or limitations from the current year is also a great way to begin the initial search for new tools as well.  For example, I am hoping to do more screencasting on Chromebooks with students, find better methods for students to create videos with the technology we have available, and also hoping to access more literacy tools for struggling readers.  Now that I have established those goals and have specific purposes for the use of technology in mind, I can narrow my focus with the web tools that I explore.  Planning to use technology with specific purposes in mind makes exploring less overwhelming and more meaningful.

4. Reexamine qualitative information, student work, and feedback. 

Looking at the grade book and various polls taken throughout the year can allow us to reflect on our classrooms from the student perspective.  Their performance on unit tests and grades as a whole can also show me what I should spend more time on and what went well this year.  I love using Google Forms to get student feedback after grading major papers or when students have completed major projects/speeches.  It challenges students to reflect on their work ethic, progress made, and efforts.  In addition, it starts a conversation between students and me about what worked in the classroom and what can be tweaked to enhance the student experience.  Any type of feedback in this regard improves the learning experience for our future students as we learn, grow, and reflect ourselves!

5. Consider current events, news items, and pop cultural shifts in the last year.

I teach a class called Rhetorical Analysis of Media that focuses on developing media literacy in high school students.  Discussing advertising, popular culture, film, and the Internet, certainly challenges me every year to reflect  on what is occurring in the world.  Every year, my curriculum has to change to align with the times, but even if I didn't teach this specific course, taking the time to reflect upon the changes in the world can enhance the curriculum of any course.  Pop culture and current events are the best topics to incorporate when trying to make lessons meaningful and applicable to students.  When learning connects to their lives, students are more invested in the content and actually begin to make connections themselves.  The use of what is occurring in our world adds a little bit of fun to class conversations, themes, and units!

6. Consider how you've changed and what you've learned. 

This year marks the end of my 6th year of teaching.  Wow, the time and the years go quickly.  A lot has changed in my life since graduating college, I have taken way too many graduate courses, and I certainly have gained a great deal of perspective from the experiences that I have encountered.  I'm sure we can all echo similar sentiments that as the seasons in our lives change, so do our approaches to teaching.  This last step really does take the summer to reflect upon, but it is never too early to start.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ending the Year "Write": Using Written and Spoken Reflections to Wrap Up a School Year

This past week, I watched my seniors enjoy their last week of high school.  Their excitement and energy has filled the classroom since prom at the beginning of May, but this week, they were officially faced with the reality that their high school careers have come to an end.  In order to allow seniors to fully appreciate what they have learned, it is important to provide time to reflect.  Metacongitive processing is beneficial at any age, and this year, with such a high-spirited group, I have really enjoyed taking the time to reflect with them.   Here are a few activities that I have tried to work into my end of the year schedule with my seniors and sophomores.  Ranging from typical to a little more unique, I saw a great deal of benefit from these activities and received useful feedback from my students.  As hard as saying goodbye can be, embracing their excitement has been rewarding and rejuvenating, and reflection is an incredibly valuable part of that process.

1. Traditional Written Reflection: At the end of the year, asking a few questions such as "What was the most memorable activity in this class?" or "What can the teacher do to improve student learning?" can provide teachers with valuable comments that can be reflected upon over the summer as a means of preparing for next year.  Every year is an opportunity for improvement and adjustments that can improve student learning.  Writing this information on a note card or a half sheet of paper is a quick, easy way for students to provide comments that I've found valuable.  Often times, I find that students write kind words as well... or draw very goofy pictures that certainly have made me laugh.

2. Google Survey Reflection:  At the end of each quarter, I have students complete a Google Survey that asks them to reflect upon their current grade, identify their strengths and weaknesses, highlight class learning activities that have been both valuable and less valuable, and asked to provide me with any other feedback that would help me improve the course.  What I like about administering the same survey reflection multiple times throughout the year is that it has allowed me to collect qualitative data that I have used to improve student work.  I always post the results (without names) as a means of opening up communication with students about the class and have identified how I am planning on making adjustments to improve their classroom experience.  Often times, kids who are excelling simply post positive comments, and students who are not turning in work or using class time wisely will admit it.  Its a great way to dialogue with the group and individuals about progress and how we can work together to increase learning!

3. Name Web: At the beginning of the semester in my sophomore classes, I have students play the name game using a ball of yarn to show how interconnected we all are.  In addition to sharing their names, students have to share the origins and history of their names.  At the end of the semester, we get into the same web and share one way their identity has changed as a result of this course.  While everyone knows each others' names, they still make the web to show how we all belong to a community that we have built together throughout the course of the semester.

4. Letters to Future Students: Writing a reflection with the understanding that a future student who is taking the same course next year will read it is a great way to encourage students to think deeply about what they learned and how it affected them.  Writing for a real audience also increases their efforts, writing level, and thought that they place into the assignment.  In these letters, outline the course, give advice, and share what they learned from the experiences that they had.  These are great tools to use at the beginning of the semester, and future students have enjoyed reading what their predecessors had to share.

5. Impromptu Eulogies: In my senior speech class, I've tried to think a little outside of the box in terms of reflections.  Instead of writing out a formal essay during the Special Occasion Speech Unit (the last two weeks of school), this year I had students complete impromptu eulogies on a classmate.  Since their high school days are over, I frame the eulogies as a way to acknowledge their commencement and recognize the new lives they are about to experience.  Each student starts by writing his/her name on a sheet of paper and then selects another student at random.  Then, they all have five minutes to write a one to two minute speech honoring their peer.  In  speech class, they have shared so much about their passions, interests, and personal lives that no matter how closely they know each other outside of class, they have enough to say about their peers.  While some students have fun with the eulogy and develop clever ways in which the student they are speaking on has met an untimely end, all speeches were good-natured, fun, and even touching.  After everyone has spoken, students are asked to write a thank you note to the student who spoke about him or her as a way of practicing effective communication and showing thanks for the kind (and in many cases, humorous) words. This certainly was the least conventional but perhaps the most fun reflection activity.

Now that the school year is coming to a close, I am eager and excited to have more time to reflect upon this school year, reexamine my curriculum, and learn more about best practices to use in my classroom this summer.  Reflection is an invaluable part of the learning process for teachers, too!
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