Monthly Archives: November 2011

Time to Think

My classes are starting a research project this week. We have been studying the Roman Empire, and they are creating a museum exhibit around a topic of their choice. We have spent the last month learning about the rise and the height of the empire, looking at the different characteristics of empires that can be found in Rome. We will use this model to then look at the Islamic Empires.

The students chose topics of interest to them, ranging from Roman baths to arches to how various gods were worshipped. I worked with them to expand or contract the topics that they had chosen, as they only have 3 days to do their research. Then, before moving into the research itself, I wanted them to pause and think about what it was about their topic that interested them. What questions did they hope to answer? What did they already know, and what did they want to find out?

I decided to give them a 10 minute “Thinking Time” to reflect on their topic. I didn’t give them any specific questions to answer; I just told them to consider what they were interested in. Each of them took a sheet of unlined paper and went to find places around the Middle School where they could sit and not be disturbed. I cautioned them to no sit too closely to their best friends, as they might be distracted. I encouraged them to draw or write if they wanted to, but that I mostly wanted them to focus on thinking about the topic.

I sent them out and then began to slowly walk around the halls. It quickly became apparent that many of them felt like they had to fill up the sheet of paper, that just having it represented a “task to be done” and they were madly scribbling away. Others were clearly watching other students walk by or paying attention to conversations down the hall. Others were simply sitting, looking around them or focusing on the wall in front of them, no outward sign of mental activity at all.

When I called them back after the 10 minutes, I asked them if they had learned anything. The main response was that they loved the quiet. Simply sitting still felt like a treat to them, an almost unknown kind of time that they really enjoyed. They clearly were surprised at how much they liked it. I think they thought that they were getting away with “no work” by having time to be still. That part made me smile, because part of what I want to train them to recognize is their brains at work, without a lot of outside stimulation. To teach them that, I have to give them quiet time to listen to their own thoughts. I am willing to give up some “teaching” time to have them learn to hear their own ideas rattling around inside their brains.

When I asked about using the paper, many of them acknowledged that it had been more of a distraction than a help. They had felt the need to “show” that they were working and focused on recording more than on thinking.  Note for next time: no paper.

While I am not sure how much they accomplished in terms of thinking about their topic, they clearly loved the time to pause and think. Time to be in control of their own minds. They recognized that too often, they just give in to each new distraction, and without anyone or any task to intrude, they enjoyed the work of their mind. As they started researching today, many of them seemed to have a sense of purpose and attention to the facts they found. They demonstrated a connection to their topic and to what they wanted to learn that appeared deeper than I have seen in the past.

We shall see! If nothing else, it showed me that it is a good thing to pause and let my students’ brains relax and then build. It is a good skill to for them to know their own thinking. And there is so much that comes at them all day long. Some peace and quiet can not hurt.

Portfolios Published!

It has been a wild couple of weeks as my two classes of 7th graders have created and published their portfolios. We are on a trimester system, so this is the end of the first trimester. For the first time, I am teaching an ungraded, portfolio assessed class. As I have written earlier, the students have grown more and more adept at identifying the skills that they are learning as well as their strengths and challenges. They have moved away, not completely but to a large extent, from expecting that I will tell them, through a grade, how they are doing, and they have begun to develop an independence around their learning, which is very exciting.

History 7 is the only class in the school with this form of assessment, so it is new for the parents and for the students. I wanted to make sure that I guided the students carefully through the process of building a portfolio that showed what they had learned. I gave back to them examples of their earliest work of the year that I had saved just for this purpose.

Together we created a Google Doc in their History collection that was titled “Portfolio Planning.” We talked about the skills that they had been working on and the kinds of activities that they had done to learn and practice their skills. We generated a great list, everything from new memorization strategies to taking walks to get the blood circulating, from how to annotate a history text to writing an effective paragraph. They did a great job of remembering the trimester.

I then organized the skills that they had generated into four categories: Studentship (which included preparation for class, class participation and collaboration), Thinking and Learning (memorization, organization, learning styles: strengths and challenges), Reading and Writing. For each of these categories, the student wrote about what she felt comfortable with and where she felt challenged. For each page, she needed to chose at least one photograph, scan or screen shot to add to the page, very some visual interest. They had an album of photographs that I had created with images of them working at various tasks. Then we had an amusing “reenactment” of hand-raising to answer a question. They took screen shots of the lists of documents in their Google History collection. They scanned examples of their first attempts at annotating and their last. They took screen shots of mind maps that they had created. When they had generated all of their ideas and images, I went through their documents and left comments: How will you do this? What steps will you take to make this happen? Explain your thinking more. It definitely took more time than slapping a grade onto a piece of paper, but I wanted to push their thinking beyond their initial ideas.

With that feedback, they wrote paragraphs. They took those and put them into their Haiku ePortfolio, along with the images they had chosen. They also created a movie, 20-30 seconds, in Photo Booth to use as an introduction for their parents, explaining how to navigate their way around the portfolio and what its goal was. At that point, I again reviewed all of them – very time consuming, but also very exciting. They were demonstrating a control over their growth as students that was very exciting!

I decided that I was not going to do the actual editing of their work. While I knew that that would mean that there might well be uncorrected errors, I wanted what was there to fully be their own, awesome writing as well as spelling errors. I made a Word document for each student. When I saw a mistake, spelling or grammar, I cut and pasted it onto the document for them to find and correct. Also, if there were places where the language was confusing or the student needed to explain further, I did the same thing and added a question to help her understand what was missing. I emailed each girl her corrections and gave them time in class the next day to make the changes.

I then wrote a blurb that was posted in the report cards, directing the parents to the online portfolio:

“In history this trimester, your daughter has grown in her understanding of herself as a student. She has learned to identify the skills that she is practicing and to monitor the level of her mastery. With my guidance, she has reflected on her learning at each stage, and has then set new goals for herself.

 Each girl built a portfolio to share how she sees herself as a student of history at the end of the first trimester. Without worrying about grades, each girl focused on the process of her learning, becoming increasingly empowered to develop, articulate and understand her strengths and challenges.

 All of this work was closely monitored throughout the trimester. While I edited every website and gave each girl notes for revisions, some errors have been allowed to remain. One goal is for the girls to improve their proofreading over the course of the year, and when they look back on these, see their growth.

It was a lengthy process, one that was not specifically devoted to learning more history, but nonetheless it was one that clearly led the students closer to owning their work and being able to set and achieve new goals for themselves.”

I did have one student turn to me and say, “Now that we are done the portfolios, will you give us our grades?” It was unbelievable to her that I had actually meant it when I said it was ungraded, not un-assessed, that there had been no gradebook hidden away somewhere.