Time to mix it up: cross-collaborate with shared classes!

As a science teacher, I am always trying to find ways to cross-collaborate with other teachers  to make my curriculum more meaningful. During my physiology unit I tend to pair up with the P.E. teacher for a project. During physics I team up with the math teacher. Cross-collaboration allows students to see connections between subjects, making content richer and more relevant to their lives. However, it can be difficult to assess cross-collaborative projects when you don’t necessarily see how students are making use of their time in the other classes. The solution? ClassDojo Shared Classes!

Sharing classes on ClassDojo is very simple. On your home screen you will see each of your classes. In the top corner of each class you will want to click on a small triangle, which will open up a drop-down menu. Click “Share!” You’ve got it from there. Shared Classes allows multiple teachers to have access to one class, both contributing points to students and messaging with parents. You might implement shared classes year-round or if you are more hesitant, a cross-collaboration project is a great way to try it out for a shorter period of time.

When starting a project I like to make sure all points have been cleared, then I share the class with collaborating teacher. Customize feedback points depending on the type of project. I tend to give students points every day for “productivity” and “teamwork”, which are a certain percentage of their final project grade. Once the project comes to an end, points given in-class can be used as part of students’ final assessment. Sharing classes holds students accountable for their behavior and work ethic in all classes involved. Cross-collaborative projects are the perfect opportunity to take Shared Classes for a spin, and hopefully will lead to better teaching and learning!

Happy sharing! 🙂

Get the best out of your students with Literacy Task Lists!

Students working either independently or within a learning team have always been a large portion of my classroom environment. It frees me to work with small groups on skills or concepts that they may need a little more assistance in mastering. The majority of us call them ‘stations’ and have some type of management system to complete the stations. If managed efficiently, stations can be very valuable to the learning process.

During this past year, I changed from stations to a Literacy Tasks List. I felt I was limiting my students and myself with the structure of stations. In stations, students were moving from work area to work area every 10 or 15 minutes. I was always at a station in that procedure. Lastly, the idea of stations seemed very elementary. My students were one step away from middle school. Changes needed to be made.  I wanted to give my students a little more decision making ability, and I needed my groups to be flexible. I really didn’t need to work with ALL my students on something.

After a little research and planning, I created a Literacy Tasks List for students to use as a “To Do List”.  The tasks list included the weekly objectives, tasks that were required, and optional activities they could work on leisurely when they were done with all the required tasks. Each week or two, I would provide my students with a detailed overview of the tasks. Students would receive a copy of the Literacy Tasks List to check off the tasks as they completed them and use as a cover sheet for the required tasks.

With a few tweaks in the management, the Literacy Tasks List was the best change I made. My students loved the independence the list created for them. They had the ability to start on what they wanted. They also enjoyed being able to choose a partner or two, instead of being anchored to the students at their table.

With the tasks under way, I had the ability to call students to my table whenever I needed them. It could be just one or a small group of four. It enabled me to differentiate and really use the data I would receive from pretests to develop the use of the time I had. I found I could also take as much time as I needed with those groups.

My daily goal has always been to get the most and the best out of the time my students and I have in the hour we are together. If the management is in place, we have little to no distractions and we can get so much done. Changing to the Literacy Tasks List did just that. We were getting some really great discovery and growth. And that’s all a teacher can ask.

 

Adolescent Development in the Classroom

Adolescence is an exciting time, neurologically speaking. Young people go from only being able to think concretely to being able to think in the abstract. This happens around the age of 12. The adolescent brain also develops forward-thinking skills and this process is not complete until the mid-twenties.

Here are five ways to help support this development in your classroom:

1) Tell middle schoolers about how their brains are developing. They can get the idea that they are stupid (and will always be stupid), just because they cannot visualize the concepts you are describing. Let them know abstract thinking appears on its own schedule. At graduation, one of my students said how much of a difference it made to her and I had forgotten I had even told the class about it. I always make a point to do it now.

2) Give lots of puzzles and brain teasers. These are satisfying and give the brain a bit of a work out. Word play jokes and riddles can also work, even if they make your students groan. Anything that makes the brain think around corners and try different possibilities on for size.

3) Have them pose questions instead of quizzing them yourself. This could be in terms of a list of things they want to know or making their own quizzes to stump their classmates. Being able to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter is a major life skill.

4) Give opportunities for skepticism. If they are expected to find out information on the internet, they need to read it with a critical eye. Have activities where you deliberately give them links that are written by charlatans, and get them to work out if they trust the information they are reading and why.

5) Reward students for effort. Give them higher level thinking activities even if they are not quite ready for them. In a physical workout, in order to get stronger you must do something that  is slightly too hard. It’s the same with thinking. Far too hard and students become demotivated, far too easy and they switch off. Slightly too hard is the sweet spot.

This can mean that they cannot do it. That’s the inherent risk in choosing something slightly out of their reach. This is why you reward them for trying. Even if they can do it, reward them for effort so that if next time it is actually too hard, they will still give it their best shot.

 

The Power of Second Chances

I, like most teachers, have really high expectations for my students. I also work with middle schoolers, and I know the first half of this sentence has a large portion of you thinking to yourself that I’m a brave soul. But I love them, and I know that they’re capable of great things. In fact, I believe that middle schoolers are the most underestimated people in our population. But I’ve only come to realize that as I’ve learned to give my students the power of second chances.

I really see this power come into play on large essays and projects. Students spend a lot of time pouring their hearts and minds into them, and I do my best to give them input along the way. Tools like Google Apps for Education are making this easier every day. But there are also many times when I’m unable to see their progress every day.

Because of their hard work, their projects turn out great. I enjoy looking at them, and they often prompt me to see a small sliver of the world in a new light. However, when I sit down to give them a summative assessment, I also find a few things I haven’t given comments on along the way. I see a few small things my students could tweak to take their project to the next level (or two or three), and these make up the final grade and comments I leave my students.

But I’d like to argue that it shouldn’t stop there. I’ve begun allowing my students to take that summative feedback and apply it once more to their project, just to see what might happen. Yeah, they can earn a few points back, but more than anything, I want them to see what just a little bit more time and just a little bit more feedback can do their work.

And they do. I’m sitting here smiling as I think of all the projects that really finalized in the stage after they’d received their grade. These are the ones that truly rocked my world. These are the ones that I’ll remember no matter how old I get. These are the ones I share when I present at conferences. But more importantly, these are the ones of which students are most proud. These are the ones that email to their grandparents or post on Facebook. These are the ones that make their faces light up. And that pride in their work, that makes it all worth it.

 

 

Connecting to Teens: Develop Your Teacher Persona :)

Teenagers are among the most interesting people on Earth, combining paradoxes in fast succession.

  • They are oddly predictable and unusually unpredictable at once.
  • They are idealistic, able to wish for a better world with a zeal many adults cannot fathom – but unbelievably cynical about even the smallest thing.
  • They are passionate and emotional and also can put up emotion-squelching walls that nothing can pass through.
  • Working with them can be exhilarating. Working with them can be devastating.

How can a non-teenager connect to teenagers – visiting their world for inspiring, aiding, supporting and encouraging – for teaching – but not being sucked into the chaos and instability?

Create a persona.

Practice it.

Rely on it.

Now, let me begin with what a Persona is not.

  • A persona is not “being fake.”
  • A persona is not “inauthentic.”
  • A persona is not a “mask.”

On the other hand, a persona is:

  • Your best self.
  • A professional identity that can defer your own needs – and focus on children’s needs.
  • Endlessly positive, endlessly patient.

Is this possible?

It is. On the one hand, this isn’t different from what professionals do all over the world, every day. If you’re a barista at a coffeeshop, the fact that you detest the ever-popular triple-double-decaf-halfcaf is irrelevant. You’re there to make drinks to order.

If you’re a zoo keeper, the fact that you prefer pangolins to penguins is irrelevant. It’s feeding time for both.

On the other hand, some careers require a deeper-dive into the persona.

Stand-up comics: the moment they become frustrated or angry with their audience is the moment they’re booed off-stage.

Therapists: the moment they demonstrate their boredom with the client’s complaining is the moment they lose their client – and deservedly so.

Teachers: the moment their frustration with teenager’s admittedly frustrating behavior becomes evident is the moment they lose the respect of the students. It’s the moment they undermine their own potential to teach.

Your persona is your voicebox. Your buffer. Your shield. It’s the point of contact between you and the children. It’s the difference between Evan Wolkenstein and “Mr. Wolk.”

When I enter the school, I am Mr. Wolk. You can find your persona, too. Maybe our personas can have lunch.

Persona Dos and Don’ts:

Do:

  • Dress the part. Wear something nice every day. Show that you respect your profession, you respect the students, and you respect yourself. For more on the power of a great outfit, check out my blog, Style For Dorks!
  • Reflect on the kind of traits you’d want for someone teaching a child close to your heart. Write about them, talk about them, and look for them – in other people, in movies, in books, and on the street. Practice and emulate.
  • Do develop phrases and mini speeches to help you communicate potentially frustrating messages in a non-emotional way.

Example One: “I just want to remind everyone that this is quiet work time. If you’re talking with your neighbor, now is the time to refocus back on your work.”

Example Two: “I just want to remind everyone that this class is for this class only. If you are [working on homework for another class, passing a note, surfing the net on your phone], it’s time to stop.”

Example Three: “I just want to remind everyone that when I say it’s worktime, it’s not a good time to start a conversation. I’m looking for people to move quickly into work groups.”

Bottom line: You don’t have the brain-space to be creative – and you can’t afford to be reactive. So memorize a nice, little speech, and if you need to repeat it – or say it louder – or call a student’s name and then repeat the speech, so be it. My tip: start your speech with, “I want to remind everyone that…”

For a deeper dive, check out my blog post and animated cartoon, here.

Don’t:

  • Don’t Boast or complain about anything in your life. This is not about you. It’s about the students. That said, disclosure as a way of connecting to students and teaching is acceptable – as long as you never share anything private. Be reflective as you share about the message you are sending. The line is blurry one, so play it safe. If it feels weird to talk about it, it’s probably weird for them to listen to it.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when a student comes to you for a one-on-one on an emotional subject. That’s the time to be your most patient, kind, collected, and professional. Sharing your own pain on any subject isn’t helpful to the student. Being a kind, comforting, professional presence for the student is.
  • Don’t Confuse mock debates for actual debates. Argue about the superiority of the Rolling Stones vs. The Beatles. Do not argue about politics, religion, or personal values.
  • Don’t Drop your persona when you think students are not listening. Gossiping in the cafeteria with other teachers, cracking crass jokes – the students will see it. And it will undermine their trust.
  • Don’t Yell. Ever. There has never been a time when I yelled and didn’t regret it afterwards. Speak clearly, speak truly – and be controlled.

6 Ways to Foster Positive Attributes in Our Youth!

It becomes increasingly easy for teachers to point out the traits in students that they wish were “different” or “do not want to see” as the year goes on.  Can we just as easily describe the traits or characteristics that we want to experience from our students?  Can we identify what positive attributes we try to foster in our students to help create a safe and supportive learning environment?  And what can we do to help elicit those characteristics from our students?  Lets take a look at our students from head to toe to see which characteristics will help create a positive school culture and how we, as educational professionals, can help create it!

What we can do as educators to help create an environment that helps support positive traits in our students:

  • Embed social/emotional learning into everything we teach.  Concepts such as self-advocating, standing up for others, being passionate, empathy vs. sympathy, cultural diversity/competency, awareness of self and others, sensitivity, intuition, etc. can be embedded and taught in all academic subject areas.  Don’t be afraid to put a lesson on hold for 5 minutes if there is a life lesson that can be learned form an experience in the classroom.  These moments are priceless and can’t always be created for learning.
  • Find ways to teach to ALL learners.  There are many modalities of teaching and it is critical to teach to the different aspects of the brain and to our different learners and abilities.  Consider music, art, dance, writing, speaking, problem-solving, debating,
  • Find strengths in all students and help foster them.  Every student has strengths and every student has weaknesses.  Some make it easier to see strengths than others.  Find a strength in every student you work with.  Make sure that you find ways to recognize or acknowledge this/these strengths.
  • Create an environment that is emotionally and physically safe for learning, wondering, questioning, disagreeing, etc.  Do not allow judgment, making fun, or ridiculing to be an acceptable part of your classroom environment.
  • Create an environment that is culturally competent.  Make it an expectation to respect people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, genders, sexual orientation, etc.
  • Be language neutral.  Don’t make assumptions about your students, those who live in their households, or what abilities they have.  Allow them to reveal themselves to you without judgment.

 

Teach ALL:
Think positive.  Be proactive.  Nurture partnerships.

Whole-Brain Teaching: How to meet ALL students’ needs!

Working with students who come from high-trauma and low-income families and communities adds a different stressor to students, a classroom and teachers. As educators, we can support families by letting them know about resources in their communities. This might include assistance programs, free services for families, and more from public resources like libraries. For students, we can work to make a classroom community where they feel safe to learn. This includes one where students can take space to calm down, get a snack to keep their energy up, talk out their issues, and learn in a quiet, respectful environment. These take time to build, and with each student, which can add an extra responsibility to a teachers’ workload. Without each of these supports, and a child feeling safe, the student cannot take in extra knowledge.

I had a student once come into class, late, and he just was not focusing. He was disrupting the class, being disrespectful to other students, and in general, not being a scholar according to our classroom and school norms. I held him in during recess, and I checked in with him and asked him why he was acting out. He said, “I didn’t sleep because the guys outside were fighting (gangs), then I had to get my sister ready (who is 5), take BART to the city, and take 2 busses to get to school. And I didn’t eat breakfast. So I don’t care about math.” He was 8 years old. And it all made sense.

A child’s brain is stimulated so much by nurture. This doesn’t only mean being held in a loving way by a parent. This means having quality interactions, both emotionally and physically, at home, in school, and in transition. This means knowing that your basic needs for survival are being managed, and that the child is not the sole-provider for those basic needs. Someone once related this to my hand. It’s like looking at your own hand, and making a fist. That fist is your whole brain working. Each finger is a different need that you need to have met before you are able to use your whole brain. If your thumb is out, your whole brain isn’t ready to work. That might be your need for nutrition and safety in being full and not hungry.

As educators, we can work to make sure those basic needs for safety and security are being met, by providing families with food bank information, safe housing options, and nonviolent communication workshops. But in all reality, we don’t have control over their home. We have control over our classroom home, of which we can provide the same basic needs that a student needs to learn, even if only for 6 hours of the day.

Encouraging Teamwork with Pooled Responses, Individual Assessments

Let’s say that you come up with a cool project for class.

Say: Design and build (using computer drafting programs or 3d craft and found materials) a monument to be placed in the Mall in Washington DC for something that has affected American society during your lifetime.

Let’s say you teach all the concepts of brainstorming and bouncing ideas around – planning, building, revising – getting feedback. The whole shebang.

Now what? You grade it with a rubric?

Sure. You can do that.

I have a better idea:

Have students link to their projects on a shared class document – either to a photo, a screenshot, or to whatever online link brings a visitor to the students’ work – along with a document providing a “tour” of their project, an explanation.

Next, assign an essay that requires students to explore a topic, where a component of the analysis requires them to review their classmates projects and, choosing 2-3:

A. Compare / contrast / critique various projects’ details, approach, and / or themes, statements

B. Riff off ideas begun by various projects

C. Suggest changes the artist could (hypothetically?) make to make a more effective piece – using the phrase: “If this was my project,” I would ______.

Additional Notes:

1. Students may analyze their own buildings; include a slightly adjusted set of prompts for this.

2. This allows even students who bomb the project to recover and learn from the unit.

3. Knowing that others students will see their work is an incentive to create a polished piece of work!

Flipping Out: Have you tried flipping your classroom?

For the past few weeks, Mr. Burnaugh’s students have been experimenting with simulated parallel and A/C circuits, chatting with him and each other, answering poll questions, and uploading graphic organizers on their LMS (Learning Management System)—all online and before they even enter the classroom. When they meet with him IRL (In Real Life), they have an opportunity to really dive into Ohm’s law and the algebraic recipe for calculating current. In their labs, they use a resistor, a battery pack, an ammeter, and a voltmeter to explore how this equation applies to real life.  They have the opportunity to ask Mr. Burnaugh questions, receive 1:1 and small group help, and connect with peers. When they go home, they can review what they learned in class by accessing teacher notes, re-watching a recorded lecture, downloading a helpful video on TeacherTube or Khan Academy, and completing practice equations. Following classroom learning sessions, they return to the LMS and review, practice, and process what they did in class. A drone delivers college acceptance letters and scholarship offers.

Okay, maybe there’s no drone, but flipped instruction is not science fiction—schools all across the country and world are making this model work for students.

What can flipped instruction do for me?

One of the most heavily touted benefits of the flipped classroom is the efficient use of in-class time. Students view pre-recorded lectures that are either given by the teachers or another expert in the field through Ted talks or Khan Academy for example, or any number of educational podcasts. This cuts out 15-20 minutes of class time otherwise designated to direct instruction/lecture. After listening to online talks, students complete a simple assessment exercise. Using assessment results, teachers can craft the next day’s lesson or project to target all levels of competency. (This last piece is key. Khan Academy cannot to do all the teaching. Effective instruction is presented in multiple formats and from a variety of angles. “See, Hear, Do” still applies.)

Another benefit of the flipped model is the ability to differentiate.  Students who require more time to process and practice can move through pre-lessons at a pace that suits them; they can review and access additional resources for extra help. They can receive assistance from peers both online and in person. Depending on how the teacher sets up live chat sessions, they may even get more one-on-one time with instructors. Students who want to move at a faster clip can complete several pre-learning modules in one session, access and complete extra credit assignments on the LMS, and delve deeper into topics of interest in “Parking Lot”-style chat rooms. Students could even create their own pre-recorded lectures or screencasts to post to the LMS for other students to learn from. (Here is a good example of a screencast from a 4th grade student.)

One last benefit that’s worth mentioning is allowing students to transcend their own biases. Not all teachers are good at delivering dynamic, interesting lectures. Even if you are, not everyone will enjoy or connect with your dry wit, interesting trivia, and wealth of knowledge on a given topic. These are the risks teachers take on a daily basis when they stand up in front of a class. But if we know that Ken Robinson or Neil deGrasse Tyson say it best, then by all means, please let them deliver.

What are the drawbacks?

One of the most obvious drawbacks to flipped instruction is lack of access.  In low-income schools and communities, it’s still a harsh reality that many students don’t have regular and reliable internet access. Smart phones can help level the playing field, but some LMS systems aren’t compatible with all smart phones. Students may be able to view lecture modules, but often encounter obstacles when it comes to interacting with assessment tools.

Another pitfall is the issue of time. Since one-room schoolhouses, teachers have never had enough time to plan lessons, grade papers, attend meetings, and stay ahead of the curb on research; flipped lessons require an extensive and intensive block of time to develop and curate in an attractive and organized manner. In addition, flipped instructors have to manage after-school hours. The ideal is for students to have instant feedback, but as always, educators have to figure out how much of their personal time they are willing to give up.

One final item to consider when weighing in on flipped instruction is the issue of homework, or pre-learning in this case. Interactive videos and podcasts are meant to be more engaging and interesting—certainly more interesting than a worksheet; however, just because homework is delivered to student computers or iPads, doesn’t mean that they will do it. As is the case with any meaningful homework assignment, if students don’t take responsibility for completion, they will come into class the next day with little to contribute and far less understanding than their peers.  Nothing new here.

As technology becomes more accessible and widely utilized, we’ll most likely make the full fledged shift to a blended model of technology-based pre- and post-learning outside of the classroom, coupled with hands-on PBL inside of it.  Now is the time to experiment, play, and try this out. And don’t forget to let your students help you!

 

ClassDojo App Spotlight: Parent Connection – Sushi Monster

As a former classroom teacher I know how important it is to provide resources for parents looking to support their children at home.  When I started using iPads one-to-one in my classroom I found more and more parents and caregivers asking for app recommendations.  They wanted to make sure their children were practicing the same skills we were working on in the classroom with the devices they had at home.

One of my favorite apps to suggest to parents looking to make an at home connection to learning is Sushi Monster.  This app is completely free, made by Scholastic, and works on both the iPad and iPhone.  With this app students can practice addition and multiplication skills.  The Sushi Monster in the middle of the screen gives students a target number they must reach.  If they are in the addition level users must choose two pieces of sushi that add up to the target number.  If they are in the multiplication level users must choose two factor pairs that have the target number as their product.

When families have access to technology at home, teachers have a great opportunity to give advice and suggestions that support student learning.  In the past parents would ask for a list of books for summer reading or suggestions of what to borrow from the local library.  As families increase their use of technology in their home get ready to share a few ideas for favorite apps and websites during the school year!