Just Laugh

The first week back at school after a break often offers challenges. It was wonderful to see the students again. They were refreshed and so was I. While we all loved being away and having time to catch up on all of the activities that we can’t during the school year, it was still nice to be back together. The pressures hadn’t started building up yet, and being together felt fun, rather than stressful.

That is probably why I realized that this was not the week to impose rigid standards of behavior, though at the end of the second day back, that was exactly what I wanted to do.

It was the last period of the day, which meant that they would be ready to be done with school and work. I was tired and so were they, but we still had to have class. That is the way that school works!

I arranged the desks in groups of three, so that they could work together more easily. I wanted to avoid it being a “Stand and Deliver” kind of class. I needed for them to get back up to speed, but didn’t want the focus to be on me reminding them. I had found a new reading on the topic that we had been investigating before Break, the empire of Mali in West Africa. I told them that the goal was to read the article together and identify the significant information in the text, a skill we have practiced a lot.

What happened next was totally predictable, but it forced me to make a very conscious choice. They started reading in their groups, while I wandered around the room, pausing at each group to listen for awhile. And then the giggles and gales of laughter began. Every possible word that seemed foreign or could possibly be mispronounced brought on immediate responses of silliness.

Part of me wanted to become indignant. This was serious work, and they were not applying themselves. I wanted to demand respect for myself, for their work and for the facts that they were learning. Every part of me wanted to take control and discipline each and every one of them, shaking a finger at them. It was important information, and they were not treating it that way. Imagine the most grouchy teacher images! That’s what I wanted to be!

Luckily, I took a deep breathe and forced myself to pause. I imagined that teacher and then I thought about her students. Responding the way I wanted clearly wasn’t going to create any love of learning in my students. It was going to be about me, not about them. It might feel good in the moment, displaying my power, but the effect wouldn’t be pretty.

It was time to just relax, to not take it personally and go along with the flow of the day. I made a decision to smile, just a simple smile instead of a frown, and my entire attitude changed with it. I realized that I could engage with them, rather than separate myself from them. If I let go of my need to control, then I could begin to create a learning experience in the midst of the laughter. They did their readings, with me correctly pronunciation and answering questions. They laughed and were silly, but they practiced the new pronunciation and began to use it. Then once they learned it, they became the experts. When they heard another group mispronounce a word, they corrected them, together laughing at the mistakes. I just kept wandering around, constantly in wonder at their underlying desire to learn and be more competent.

The more I smiled and laughed with them, the more they took control of the lesson and their learning! At the end of class, they didn’t leave feeling beaten down by a cranky teacher. They left with smiles on their faces. For the first week back, that is exactly what I want. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut and let them have some fun!

“What a Good Idea!”

On Friday, I had my 7th grade class for 90 minutes before the Holiday Assembly. Needless to say, I was a bit intimidated by the challenge of keeping them engaged without turning into a Grinch about the whole thing. I wanted it to be fun, but I also didn’t want to waste the time. It seemed like a very long time, when all of the focus was going to be on getting out and away from school.

The class started with them taking a quick quiz, one that we had been preparing for all week. I had created a 30 question multiple choice quiz on our Haiku site and set it so that they could take it up to 10 times. For the first nine times, they had two chances to get the correct answer. We had worked on it together, and they had studied in pairs and alone. Each time they had taken it, they got better and better, clearly enthusiastic about their increasing mastery of the material. On Friday, the vast majority of the class got 100%, which was an upbeat start to the day.

I then presented them with a challenge for the day – to create the best map of Africa that they could in 70 minutes. I told them that they had the freedom to decide what “best” meant for their map. I sort of held my breathe as I introduced it, because I wasn’t sure if it would catch their interest or imagination. If it didn’t, it was going to be a long 90 minutes of playing Geography games. Luckily, one girl, just as I finished introducing it and saying that there would be prizes, said, “Hey, that sounds like fun!” Quick internal sigh of relief on my part!

I gave each group a Tabletop Mapmaker set from National Geographic. It was a map of Africa, printed on nine sheets of paper that can be taped together to make the larger map. (If you haven’t tried these, they are a fabulous was to kick off a unit or work on geography.) I then gave them atlases and told them that they could use their laptops as well for research and ideas. I reminded them about where the scissors, tape, colored pencils and markers were and then let them lose. I also told them that they could listen to music if they kept it low, also something that I don’t usually do, but it was almost Break!

What happened next was 70 minutes of cheerful and engaged work! They explored and shared their ideas, each group seeking to come up with new ways to show what they had found about Africa. Some started with taping the map together while others began by coloring individual pages. Some focused on showing the different countries, coloring them as they were on a political map. One group decided to show rainfall and population to show the correlation between them. Another focused on agriculture.

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At one point, as I was walking around the room, a student who can be resistant to doing the work of the class, asked me why they were doing this activity. She was clearly enjoying it but was just used to asking the question. I explained that with 90 minutes on the last day before Winter Break, I wanted them to be learning but also having fun and that working with maps seemed like a good way to do that.

Her response totally amazed me!

“Wow! I never realized you think about things like that! What a good idea!”

Made my day! If on some level, she can begin to understand that what happens in the classroom has a goal of helping her learn and grow, then we have taken a step forward!

While they were working, I created a Google Form. At the end of the period, they voted, with each student getting two votes – one for her work and one for another map. It was very close but the map with the precipitation and population won.

We made it to Winter Break with laughter and learning! I had fun watching them and talking to them about what they were doing, and they had fun working together and taking on the challenge!

Now it’s time for some rest and renewal! Happy Break to all!

Trying Out Badges

Badges are one of those tools that I have liked as an idea, but I have never found the right time or place to put them into my classes. This last week, I decided to give them a time, mostly as a last resort! I had been having a sense of losing control and needed something other than a stern voice to regain the momentum and energy in the class.

Let me start by acknowledging that the weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter Break are hard for most teachers. We are tired, and the students are ready for a break. Thanksgiving gives us a taste of some Down Time, but then it is over too quickly. We return to the classroom wanting more relaxation and less focus and concentration. The way that that manifested itself in my classes was with lots and lots of instant questions, usually before I had finished giving directions or they had had time to actually read them for themselves. Hands in the air, questions shouted out:

“Where do I find that?”

“When is it due?”

“Why are we doing this?”

It seemed like a disease had attacked all of my classes with endless streams of questions. All of the classroom management strategies that I had put into place seemed to have been washed away during the break time. I will admit that my initial response was to answer one after another, repeating myself and acting as if they were all legitimate queries. My classroom is a place of learning, so of course I want to make sure every student feels secure.

The next reaction was to feel irritated. I just wanted them to listen to me! Isn’t it their job to be quiet and do what I say? No, of course not, but still couldn’t they just pay attention for a few minutes? Luckily, I have been down this road before, and while that reaction wasn’t great, it quickly led me to acknowledge that if what I am doing isn’t working, it is time to regroup. What could I do to re-engage them in their learning? What strategy was needed to shift the power to them, to make them think before they shouted out questions that they could figure out if they wanted to do it?

That’s when I thought about badges. Was there a badge that I could make to challenge them to think before they asked a question, to consider if they could figure it out themselves. Questions, legitimate “I really can’t figure this out” questions are great; the “Make it easy for me so I don’t need to think” ones are not.

I went to Credly, made an account and connected it to my classroom Haiku sites. I called the badge Figure It Out, putting a figure of Atlas holding the world on it to encourage strength and self-reliance.
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The next day, I introduced the badge to my classes. I explained that for each time they were tempted to call out a question, the goal was to pause for 3 seconds. We counted out 3 seconds together to give them a sense of the time. If they still didn’t have the answer, then they could raise their hand. If they figured it out in that time, they were to give me a small fist pump to let me know that they had had success and then record it. I handed out sheets of paper that had the badge at the top and ten lines. We had a good conversation, making some goals for asking questions. They were easily able to identify why I had made the badge, laughing when I asked them if they knew what I was talking about.

They really loved the idea of the badge and of being in charge of giving themselves the points. I told them that this was between them and their thinking. I can’t get into their minds and know when they are wrestling with some confusion. They have to do that themselves. It is all on an honor system, but they understood that and were excited to take on the challenge.

Power shifting!

In the last week, the interesting effect hasn’t been lots of students recording that they figured it out. It has been them policing each other.

“You’re not going to get a badge that way!” being my favorite.

“Is This Right?”

As I wrote last weekend, I got really excited about providing my students with more freedom to explore and develop their background knowledge. I rewrote a series of lessons that had initially involved reading the textbook and finding the significant information. It was a list of vocabulary words as well as some questions to answer. Very straightforward with little room for variation or independent discovery.

When I reworked them, I made it a challenge to discover what life on the Arabian Peninsula had been like before Muhammad, 570 C.E. I only gave them a list of critical vocabulary – Need to Know words – and told them that they could use whatever sources they wanted – textbook, internet or a collection of books and magazines that I had. I encouraged them to add to the list, including new words that they found that connected with the original ones. I gave them the period, 45 minutes, to research and said that they could research in small groups or on their own – following the model that I had read about.

In Role Reversal by Mark Barnes, this is when the students become actively engaged in their own learning, curious to investigate and build their understanding. Only I clearly had left out some critical steps!

My students spread out around the room, forming their groups and beginning to look for just the words on the list. They weren’t interested in adding new words to the list or in making connections. They simply wanted to do just what was there and no more.

“Is this right?”

“Am I done?”

My initial reaction was to feel angry with them. Why weren’t they interested in learning more and delving more deeply? Why didn’t they understand what a great opportunity I had given them to follow their own curiosity and create a rich investigation? I had taken all this time to rethink the lesson, and they weren’t doing their part and loving it, thereby honoring my work!

Luckily, I have been down this road before and been in the classroom enough to know that they are my students; their learning and engagement is my responsibility. If the lesson hasn’t provided the hook that makes them become active participants, then that is on me. Not on them!

For the second class, I realized that I needed to prepare them more for the work that I wanted them to do. It didn’t take much, but without it, the lesson was just that – a flat and boring set of tasks that didn’t catch their imagination. I should have known better, but I got caught up with the idea of self-generated learning and didn’t create enough of an environment for that learning before I set them to the task. I rewrote the lesson and added a kick-off activity where I showed them images of the Arabian Peninsula, the desert and an oasis. I had them make their best guesses on what life was like. We generated a list of questions about which they were curious. Then I let them loose to investigate.

And it worked! They took off and ran with it, becoming the engaged and independent learners that I wanted them to be. Not every class will evolve the way that I imagined, but they will improve if I pay attention and am willing to adapt and grow! Another lesson learned and relearned!

It’s Official! I’m an Addict!

I love my work! There is simply no two ways about it! I simply love to dream up ways for students to learn in the most authentic and engaging ways possible. This morning, I started reading Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student Centered Classroom by Mark Barnes, and by lunch time, I knew that I had to throw out my lessons for the week. Almost every word that I read resonated with me and what I believe about learning, and then I thought about the week that I had planned, and the addiction struck!

It just wasn’t good enough, not by a long shot!

I started this year with two PBLs, one for my 7th grade classes and one for my 8th, that I had developed over the summer, to hook my students on the study of history. I wanted them to experience the benefits of Project Based Learning and to tackle questions that interested them. The 7th graders were investigating the question, “Why Should We Study History?” They did lots of interviewing and investigating in order to create their music videos, based on Schoolhouse Rock style videos, to convince others that it was important to study history. The 8th graders’ work was based on a Civics unit, with the driving question being, “How can we get more 18-29 year olds to vote?” They had to learn about the government in order to effectively develop public service announcements to convince people to vote. For both projects, the students were focused and committed to the work, and while I struggled a bit with the amount of content that they learned, overall both projects were a success. The students came to class ready to do the work that they set for themselves, and it was a strong start to the year.

But when it was time to start the next unit, without really thinking about it, I fell back on what I have done before…not bad, but not empowering for my students in the best way possible. I simply pulled out the worksheets that I had used in the past, slotted them into the necessary classes and felt ready for the week. When I read Barnes’ ideas on worksheets, as poor tools for engaged learning, I knew he was right and that I already believed it. I had been lazy. I did what I knew how to do, rather than push myself to do better. Addiction to making it better struck and struck hard! I just couldn’t leave it, knowing that there was a way to make the students’ learning better. I had to change it!

Out came the laptop. I opened up every Google Doc worksheet for the coming week and totally rewrote them. (Fortunately for my colleagues, I remembered to first make a copy of the original, so that they could have a choice of which Rabbit Hole to tumble down.) As I read each one over, I considered how to connect the students with the new unit on the Islamic Empires. I decided to start with questions. I found a fabulous map on the Pew Research site that showed the number of people who are Muslims around the world. Almost a quarter of the world’s population are Muslim, so I am hoping that that will spark conversation and questions. I created a Google Doc that showed the map and then made a wiki for them to write their questions and for us all to add the answers as we find them.

Next I took my worksheets, with their programmed answers that could be found in the textbook, and created vocabulary lists of words that are part of Islam and the life of Muhammad. I am going to give the students the freedom to find and record the words in whatever way they want, with the final goal being that they have a means of sharing their learning with the rest of the class. I want for them to work with a partner or small group to make the process collaborative and to generate some buzz around the learning.

I don’t think that I am unusual in any way with this addiction! It is my experience that every truly good teacher has the same addiction. We are passionate about helping our students to learn. We work and rework our lessons to make them the best that they can be, relentlessly trying to help students unlock their full power to learn and grow!

Lessons reworked! Week planned anew! Can’t wait to see how it unfolds! I love this addiction! It makes me smile!

Educators Care!

This weekend was an amazing experience in many ways! I was in Washington, D.C. for the BAMMY Awards with some truly remarkable educators, people who are deeply passionate about students and their learning. Anytime that I get to spend time with teachers and administrators who love their work, I benefit! It nourishes me to listen and learn from every one with whom I have time.

Saturday afternoon, I organized a time for teachers to get together to talk about the benefits and challenges of being a connected educator. The Library of Congress generously offered us a room in which to meet. Special thanks to Vivian Awumey for giving up her Saturday afternoon to share and spend time with us. The educators who came, making it past the possible bomb scare outside, enacted in person what we often participate in online. We brainstormed and developed our ideas together. We listened carefully and asked questions to clarify our thinking. We built new ideas together. We sought to identify why we want to spend the time that we do together, in person and digitally.

One of the main takeaways for me was that being connected is about being on a journey, and while it is a person journey, it is not a solitary one. The growth and development that has come to each one of us has come from the community with whom we are journeying. Each step that we take, we move together. We challenge each other to keep going, speaking words of encouragement and support. The wonder of the journey for me is the lack of judgment that other teachers give to each other. We all know that it is hard! Each and every day, there are mountains to be climbed. It takes effort to change our practice, to understand and support each student, to accomplish all of the big and little jobs that need to be done. The educators on the Connected Journey know that and are walking the challenging road together. It is a journey that is long, full of moments of joy and moments of exhaustion. It was great fun to talk about the process with a group of committed educators.

And then came the BAMMYs! What a contrast in so many way! While I support the idea of honoring teachers, I find myself after two years, realizing that I don’t believe in competition between teachers. That is for the movie stars, and I don’t want to be a movie star. I want to walk side by side with my colleagues, not push my way to the front. The educators in the hall actually love the “Jonathans,” the comedian’s name the that difficult child. We lay awake at night trying to figure out the ways that we can help him become an engaged learner. We open the door to the parent who is early and stressed. We always are trying to make our classrooms places where all students and parents are safe. That is what makes a great teacher! Being connected means opening the doors to my classroom, sharing my ideas – the good ones and the disasters. I no longer have the closed file cabinet that no one else gets to see. My door is open and anyone is welcome to take whatever will help them make learning happen in their classroom. I don’t want to be “better” than another teacher; I want us together to make learning better across the school and around the world! Awards do not enhance connections; they break them down.

That being said, I am incredibly proud of the award that was given to edcamp. The best part about it was that it was in its own category. We didn’t beat anyone; we simply were recognized for the power of the movement! All of us, however, would say that the true power comes not from us; it comes from educators all around the world who are willing to work to enhance their practice, to share and learn together. We are the cheerleaders from the sidelines, but the growth and power of the edcamp model isn’t us. It is the teachers and administrators who care about kids! It is the power of being connected!

Battling my iPhone! #distractions

Let me start by saying that I love my iPhone! I have since I got my first one. It is sleek and elegant. It feels good in my hand and is comfortable in my pocket. I take it with me everywhere. It connects me to the world that I have created, both family and friends around me but around the globe. It lets me easily stay in touch, providing a strong sense of personal significance in my larger community.

That being said, I have to confess to an increasing addiction to what it offers. I check my phone all the time. Did I miss something? What if someone wants me for something and I don’t respond in time? What if I am needed and don’t know it? The little voice in the back of my head, or more disturbingly the unsolicited impulse, makes me quickly press the button and check. Often, I am largely unaware that I have made the choice to do it. I close my laptop and look at my phone. I walk to my car; check my phone. I go to the bathroom; check my phone. All day long, I do it.

Last weekend, I decided to “unplug,” to try and get as far away from my digital world as I could. I didn’t do it completely, but I decided to start making some significant choices about the times and places when I connected. When I made the decision, it didn’t seem like a Big Deal. I know lots of people who post that they are unplugging, and I didn’t really expect the full-on battle in which I was about to engage. I thought I had control over my use of technology. As someone who believes in its benefits, I considered myself an aware consumer.

Boy, was I in for a surprise!

After checking my email in the morning, and basically clearly out all of the Junk Mail, I closed my laptop and went to pick up my phone before heading out to do some chores around the house. I stopped myself. There was no reason to have my phone on me. I wasn’t going to check it for email until late afternoon. Facebook and Twitter were not going to be part of the day. I was unplugging…remember. So I left it behind, not without a bit of a tug. I was used to it being on me, connecting me.

As the day went on, I had to constantly make choices, far more than I had anticipated. My phone didn’t go between the seats in the car; it stayed in my bag. My phone didn’t come upstairs with me to load the washing machine; it stayed on the counter. It simply stayed put; it didn’t travel to every space in my world. Over and over, I had to consciously make the decision to not pick it up. I was amazed at how often it happened. It took real discipline, especially the first day or two.

The downside of it was that I did miss some emails that I should have answered sooner – one about a conference presentation and one about a collaboration. I wish that I had responded sooner, BUT both were repairable and the lessons that I am learning are worth this.

What is abundantly apparent is just how distracting and compelling being connected is. It isn’t the technology; it is the community. It is feeling like you are part of something that matters and that gives you validation.

The takeaway for me is that this is the world that my students have been born into. Of course they move from page to page, screen to screen before, during and after a lesson. The need to belong is even stronger in a middle school student than it is for me. I want to think about ways to acknowledge this in my classroom and help them gain control over the impulses. They will never want to truly disconnect, as it is the vehicle that they have always used to belong, but it might be possible to help them gain more control over when and how they use it.