Thursday, September 1, 2011

I've Got a Feeling

What a great kick off to the year!
As a brief reminder, I am in a new school.  We are a small school with 50 students that is housed inside another school.  The school is only in its second year.  Most of the students are new and the staff is new as well.  What to do on the first day?  Team building!

I think team building is an important way to begin every year, but this year it is especially important.  We are keeping the kids together today and tomorrow and then we will divide them up into advisory periods for the experience/ pbl learning environment we have once we know the kids a little bit better.

Team building activities that we used include:

  • Name Game.  Come up with an adjective that begins with the first letter of your name and an action to go with the adjective.  We went around in a circle introducing ourselves.  This really helped kids remember names better than normal introductions.  We did this as a whole school, and next year I think it would be better in smaller groups.
  • Play-dough People.  Pick an object to represent yourself and shape it out of play-dough.  Everyone then went around and explained why they created what they did.  This was done in small groups and worked really well.  I didn't lead this activity, but a co-worker said all of the kids were really into it and shared some really great things.
  • 2 Truths and a Lie.  Kids write 2 true things and one made up thing on a card.  Then they share the three items and the kids guess which is false.  I gave an example before I gave the kids a few minutes to work on their own responses.  We then went around the circle and kids guessed which was false by holding up 1, 2, or 3 fingers.  This worked really well for background knowledge.  Some kids shared some really personal things.  In the future I would have them all share with an elbow partner first and then open it up to the whole group because due to time constraints some kids did not share.  I also think this would have encouraged deeper discussion between a small group of students.  
  • A variety of physical team building games such as pass the noodle, pass the hula hoop, etc.  These were a lot of fun and broke up some of the more personal sharing times.  It also allowed the kids to work as a team.  In our learning environment this is going to be really important.
  • Letter to a teacher.  At the end of the day we had the kids write a letter to a teacher (or teachers) to share some info with us that we should know.  We recommended things like successful past experiences, topics they were interested in exploring, etc.  These letters were really great and also serve as a great baseline writing sample.
So I am exhausted but happy.  How do you build a team in your classroom?  Do you have any favorite team building activities you use?  I'd love to hear everyone's ideas!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Generative Curriculum

I am thrilled to be using a generative curriculum model for the upcoming school year. Although I have encouraged student choice in the past, this type of curriculum is really going to allow me to take student choice and student centered curriculum to the next level. I am really looking forward to connecting with others who use this technique.

So what is generative curriculum? I really had no idea and googling the term doesn't net a lot of results. Basically, it is allowing the students to direct their learning. Students are still required to meet the same standards as other students in the district and (sigh) take the same standardized tests, but they learn content and skills as they develop a need for them. A teacher at the school told me about one such experience she had this past year.

This teacher has a mixed-age class with third, fourth, and fifth graders. She had been noticing that a few classroom jobs would be helpful. She jotted these on the board and asked the students what they thought about these jobs. They loved the idea and then brainstormed a list of additional jobs that they felt would be beneficial. The teacher then discussed with students how jobs should be assigned. The students decided that some sort of an application process should occur. That night the teacher went home, created a job application, and worked with students to complete the application the next day. They also learned how to create resumes and answer interview questions. A panel of three adults eventually held interviews for the classroom positions.

After the positions were given, the teacher pretty much thought that would be the end of the learning experience. However, after a while the students decided that they should probably be getting paid for their work. A classroom currency was created and the teacher began stocking a little store with trinkets. She discussed with the kids how adults do not get to keep their entire paycheck. Taxes and rent are required every month. I don't recall what the taxes go to pay for, but a lot of great spin-offs could happen with this. Once again, the teacher thought this was the end of the learning experience.

Then a student wanted her mom to teach her how to sew. One weekend mom bought fabric and the student started making pajama pants and a few other items. She asked the teacher if she could bring them in to 'sell'. These items were a big hit and other students began creating items they too could sell in their classroom. Some students have integrated projects, performances, and other hobbies into the classroom economy. Once again, the teacher thought this was the end of the learning experience.

You may remember that a lot of craziness happened in Wisconsin in January. Around this time, students started asking questions about health insurance. The teacher did a mini lesson on how insurance works and integrated it into the classroom economy as one more 'bill' for students to think about each month. They had a choice to go without health insurance, to have a high deductible plan, or a low deductible plan. Plans were used to see the school nurse. (Regularly needed meds and emergencies were free). Not only did this teach elementary school kids (!) about copays, deductibles, and budgeting, but it also helped one student who was constantly requesting to go to the nurse for bandaids to rethink the frequency of her visits.

I can see a lot of additional directions to go with this amazing experience. Additional financial literacy lessons would dovetail with this experience. Historical economic lessons could have been covered (new deal legislation, the national bank, etc.). Basic economic concepts could be covered with the students who are creating their own cottage industries. Speaking and listening skills were covered during the interview portion of the learning experience. Additional literacy and writing skills could also be covered with finding an appropriate novel for the kids to read on similar topics. (I am pretty sure the teacher did this, but I am not sure how closely it tied into the classroom economy)

I think as I work through this generative curriculum process I will rely on current events for inspiration. The students will also be working on individual projects that could provide opportunities for whole-class learning. I should mention that we will only be covering writing, reading, science, social studies, technology, and the arts with the generative curriculum – math will be separate.

So that is my understanding of how life is going to work. I think it's all about recognizing and capitalizing on teachable moments – and finally having the freedom to follow them down the rabbit hole as far as they will take us!

Does anyone have thoughts or tips? Could this work in a more traditional singular discipline classroom?  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How You Doin'?

This trick is so easy and cheap, and thus far is working really well with the kids!  I just had to share!

This is a classroom management strategy that I have been using for the past month or so, and I think it will work really well in my new PBL home.  Each child gets a stack of three cups (white, yellow, and red) for their work area.  If all is well, they leave the white cup on top.  If they are starting to get confused or have a non-urgent question the student puts the yellow cup on top.  If they are totally lost and need my help, they move the red cup to the top.

Reasons I love this:

  • The kids know that they should keep working at all times and if they are hopelessly lost, they should move onto something that they are comfortable with.  This expectation is really helping the kids stay focused and productive even when they get stuck in one area.  
  • They know that I am working around the room and that I will get to them ASAP.  
  • It also allows kids to struggle with a problem a little longer.  I love it when I see a student change a red cup to a yellow.  
  • I have not done this yet, but students that finish early could work with students indicating they need a little bit of help.
  • I had a real problem with students mobbing me with questions and interrupting my time working with other students.  This has really stopped that.  Now I know that if a student comes up to me it is an emergency.

I wish I could remember where I collected this idea from, possibly it was from The First Days of School.  I think this will work well in a PBL setting, but I am wondering if there are any other ideas out there that could also work.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What's In A Name?

I am trying to set up a classroom blog where I can start to update students and families about things over the summer.  Eventually I would love for the kids to take over the blog.  Once the school year gets started I see it as a place for absent students, parents, and local people that we are working with on projects to find out what is going on at school on a day to day basis.  I think the posts will be relatively short and include a variety of media types.  I don't know if it will be necessary to have it obvious that a lot of different people are posting or if there should just be one general author name that is actually many different students.  I anticipate that the students (at least some) will start their own personal blogs to go into more depth on specific learning experiences and their reflections.

I have looked into several platforms, and I think I am going with Tumblr., although I like the ease of having multiple people work on a Posterous blog.  If you have experience with either of these platforms, I'd love to hear what you think about them.

Here is my bigger question.  What do I call the thing?  The obvious: Ms. Smith's Classroom Blog or something more inclusive?  The whole point of this school is to create a student directed, individualized learning environment.  Does plastering my name on everything take away from the community feeling I am trying to create?  Would a 'house name' (it is my understanding that Griffindor is already taken) say to students and visitors "This is a student-centered learning environment?" more so than using my name?  Or would using a house name create unnecessary confusion?  (Wait, which ridiculous, made up word is my child a part of again?)

The blog is what is forcing me to make this decision, but I am thinking about an entire vocabulary switch.  Why should only my name be on the door?  Why should students say "I am in Ms. Smith's class" instead of "I am in the Tiddlywinks".  (I am a Tiddlywink?)

Also, if I do have a group name, I don't want to choose the name.  If the whole point is to give the kids ownership, it would be dumb for me to pick a random word or non-word to use.  (The Caffeines?  The Penguins?  The Heffalumps?)  But, as afore mentioned I want to get the blog going before the beginning of the school year - so what do I go with now?

Of course - I could be over thinking things a bit.  Thats always a possibility as well :)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In the Beginning

The to-do list of things to decide before September 1st is long to say the least.  I am excited to think about all of the different possibilities for the coming school year.  I am probably going to be bothering everyone a lot over the next few months for opinions and feedback, as I am going to be in a lot of new territory.
Some things I will be focusing on

  • Space.  We will be changing our learning spaces.  I will be thinking about everything from use of space to paint colors.
  • Standards.  We are reworking our standards to work better in our multi-grade learning environment.  The kids also use the standards when designing projects and learning experiences.  How specific is appropriate?
  • Pacing.  This is a big concern of mine.  How do I set reasonable standards and timelines so that the students and parents (and me!) know the peanuts are making adequate progress?
  • Assessment.  Currently we are thinking about creating portfolios and an "assessment triangle" consisting of student/teacher self-reflection, project and experience assessment, and a more traditional assessment for people that are used to paper and pencil assessments.  How we organize and share this information needs to be decided as well.  Will we use the traditional report card?  Switch to a standards based report card? 
  • Community Building.  Because middle school is the easiest time when it comes to everyone being comfortable in their own skin. With the kids being expected to work in cooperative groups, I really want the kids to understand how they think and work and use this information to work more productively in groups.  I want everyone to feel safe and accepted in the school and it seems that there is a need for some bridge building in this area.
  • General Curriculum.  ELA, Math, Social Studies, Science, and more :)
  • Using Generative Curriculum.  If you have a class like this - I would love to talk!  It has been hard to find many resources in this area!
  • Project Based Learning.  This is the area I am most comfortable with.  It just makes sense.  I'll be looking for information on how to start the year and set the kids up for success.
  • Entrepreneurialism.  The goal of the school is for the students to start and operate a business.  This past year the business has focused on an organic garden.  We are looking to take this project to the next level.  We also want to work with the kids to develop the skills required for business leaders.
  • Sustainability.  I am pretty solid here as well.  I used to work with our local environmental office and was in charge of environmental education.  If I come up against a problem I don't have any clue about, I at least know the local resources that I can utilize for help.
Well, I think that just about covers it.  Its a good thing I have all summer and a fabulous group of people to help me get through all of this!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

When A Door Closes

As the year winds to an end I am finding myself more sentimental than usual.  Finals are ready to be given. I have purchased this years copy of Oh The Places You'll Go.  (I buy a copy every year, read it on the last day, and then have the kids sign it like a yearbook.)  The peanuts are all excited about their summer plans (and I am too!).

And finally this last week I couldn't avoid the questions I have been getting for the past few weeks.  The kids have noticed me leaving as soon as possible (unusual for me) and the fact that I have been packing up a few more things than I normally take home for the summer (and I usually take home almost everything).  So I told the kids I had gotten a new job and wouldn't be returning in the fall.  I work with kids that have people come in and out of their lives with disturbing frequency so I was glad that I had the opportunity to explain why I was leaving and how I hoped we would all keep in touch (what did people do before Facebook?).  It wasn't as long-winded as Oprah's farewell, but it was closure.  I am going to miss working with this group of kids and I will probably cry like a baby at graduation, but I am also very excited about the things to come.

In the fall I will be moving to the 'burbs working in a mixed-grade classroom at a 6-8 charter school.  The schools focus is on entrepreneurialism and sustainable initiatives.  The curriculum is a mixture of project based learning and experiential learning.  It is also generative.  I am a little type A so while I'm sure this won't be a cake-walk, I am very excited to say the least.  We are going to do standard based grading, which I have experience with, but not on this grand scale.  We are working this summer to rewrite standards and learning targets into a multi-grade format.  The school is only in it's second year, and there is only one other teacher (who is also a new hire).  We have a million ideas and I think our biggest problem will be that there are only so many hours in a day.

So, while I have recently taken a brief sabbatical from the online world, it has not been for lack of thoughts.  I look forward to this new journey and can't wait to share it with all of you as well.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Weather Day and the Milwaukee Brewers

Today we took half the school to a Milwaukee Brewers game.  The event began with TMJ4's weather day where the kids learned a lot of interesting facts about meteorology.  The kids were very engaged in the presentation and especially enjoyed learning about the technology used by meteorologists and television production.

The students also really enjoyed the game.  I was surprised to learn that many students did not know how to read a ticket to identify their section, row, and seat number.  In the future, I would include this information in my discussion of expectations prior to the event.

I was so proud of how well the students behaved.  Our students were being polite and were having a really great time.  I noticed one of my peanuts even went up to a man to politely inform him that he had mustard on the back of his shirt.  Another highlight was when one student decided it was his goal to get on the big screen.  He led the students in cheers and the wave and just as we were about to leave, the whole group made it on the big screen.

I had a few personal take aways from this event.

  • Going over expectations and content with students increased the enjoyment of the event. 
  • Double check EVERYTHING before leaving for an event.  We discovered that we had only grabbed half the tickets (!) but this was quickly solved.
  • Having procedures in the classroom is really a benefit when traveling outside the classroom.  We marched to the stadium and when we needed to have the students shift out of the way, it was very easy to give a side-step direction that is commonly used at school.  I was also able to quickly gain student attention by calling out 'Marco'.  Students respond with 'Polo' and then pay attention to the speaker.  These types of procedures make for a smooth event.
  •  I had a student ask if he could journal about the event.  I think I will rework my lessons for tomorrow to reflect and connect yesterday to our curriculum.