Monday, November 24, 2014

Possibilities = Opportunities

There are some days that it's difficult to believe that things are ever going to change.  I must admit that there are moments that I wonder why I even try.  I wonder if that light at the end of the tunnel is still there.  

But then, I read my Twitter feed, I talk to another passionate educator, I read the blog of some of the people in education that I admire the most.  The moment passes and then I's not about me. It's not about what I can do to change education because I will never be able to change it alone.  It's about us. It's about what we can do to change the classroom experience for our students and we are doing it.  

I came across this quote recently and realized that I spend most of my time complaining about what is wrong with our education system. I rarely take the time to focus on what is right and what is working. 

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While it's easy to focus on what's not working in education today, I wanted to take some time to focus on what is working...  

Genius Hour is giving students an opportunity to explore their passions and learn in new and exciting ways.

Technology is giving students opportunities that they have never had before.

Innovative classrooms are giving students the opportunity to produce, create, and inspire others each and every day.

Student blogs are giving us an opportunity to see our classrooms from our students' point of view.

Mentors are giving students access to the outside world, making it easier for them to explore and learn about their passions and interests.

Digital Citizenship is being taken seriously and in some schools has even become a priority.

Student-centered classrooms are happening...maybe not the norm, but they are happening.

If I look at the big picture, my goal is for today's students is to be given opportunities - opportunities to collaborate, create, inspire, and ultimately, learn.  I'm thankful that I teach at a time that all of these are possible.  More than ever before, students and teachers have access to the world.

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So let's keep doing what others think is impossible.  Let's focus on the possibilities instead of the problems and turn the world of education upside down!
Saturday, November 22, 2014

Three Ways to Give Your Students a Voice in the Classroom

Gone are the days that teachers stood in front of the room and taught the entire class a lesson while the students sat in their desks and listened quietly...or are they?  Sadly, this is not the case.  Many classrooms still focus on discipline, control, and fact based learning even though our students today are making it abundantly clear that this isn't working.

After becoming a connected educator and realizing that I didn't have to continue to teach at my students but could learn with them, I began to see that they want to learn.  They want to share ideas, thoughts, and even their feelings about what is going on in the classroom.  But they are waiting for the opportunity.  They are waiting for someone...anyone, to ask them for their feedback.

I wanted to take some time to share three easy ways that I give my students voice in my classroom. I am by no means an expert on the topic but I have found that by using these strategies, my classroom has become a place that my students want to be.  They feel welcomed, comfortable, and know that they are valued.

1.  Ask them.
The best way to give students voice in the classroom is to ask questions.  Ask for feedback after your lesson.  Give them an opportunity to share what worked and what didn't work.  This can be done with exit tickets or even a quick survey using Socrative or PollEverywhere.

Rebecca Alber wrote a great post titled 5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students in which she shares how to ask simple, but meaningful questions in your classroom.  She also addresses tone and ensuring that students feel like we are asking the question sincerely and not trying to make a statement.

Ask your students how they learn best.  Give them an opportunity to find how they learn best by offering a variety of activities.  Encourage them to pay attention to their engagement level and share why or why not they feel like they've learned during a particular activity or lesson.

Believe it or not, students are willing to assess their own learning.  They know, better than anyone, if a lesson was successful or a complete waste of time.   Sometimes, as teachers, we are afraid to ask for their feedback because we don't like criticism.  However, I would much rather know what works for my students than spend day after day doing things that aren't working.

2.  Listen to them.
If you ask your students for their feedback or ideas but don't listen, then it was all for nothing.  When students share their thoughts, it's so important that we really listen to them and act on what they have shared.

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So often when students are sharing, we are thinking about how we are going to reply.  We focus on what we will say, how we will react, or what we will do.  Instead of focusing on our reply, we should be listening to understand our students...understand how they are feeling, understand what they are sharing, and understand where they are coming from.

You can show students that are you are listening by taking their suggestions seriously.  If students say that a particular concept is not coming across clearly, try something different.  Make an effort to understand their perspective and why they are having difficulty understanding.

3.  Know them.
Knowing your students well is so important if you want to provide a meaningful and engaging learning environment for them.  In order to give them what they need, we must have knowledge of what they enjoy, what they don't enjoy, how they learn, and where they come from.

We can get to know our students in so many ways.  Student-teacher conferences are a great way to get to know your students.  Sitting down and talking with them gives them an opportunity to be themselves.  They are able to be "real" and just talk about what is important to them.

Offering choice and paying attention to student choices is another great way to get to know your students.  Genius Hour in my classroom gives me great insight into my students' passions and perspective.  They are willing to share and have meaningful conversations when we are talking about things that are relevant to them.  Giving them choice gives me an opportunity to know my students' preferences when learning.

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Knowing that a student is gifted or a struggling reader is important.  However, knowing what they need in your classroom in order to be successful is more important.  Find out what makes them tick, what inspires them, and what questions they have.

Our students deserve a voice in their learning.  They need to know that they are heard and that we want them to learn in ways that are meaningful for them.  In giving students a voice in the classroom, we give them value.  We give them an opportunity to be responsible and to understand that learning is more than watching someone talk while you pretend to listen.  Real learning is about connecting, engaging, and finding meaning.

Our students know what they need, they know how they learn best.  They are just waiting for an opportunity to speak up and share their voice.  It's time for us, as teachers and the rest of the education community to start listening.
Thursday, October 30, 2014

Reflection: An Essential Piece to the Learning Puzzle

As I write this blog post, I am reflecting on things that work well in my classroom...resources and strategies that give my students the best opportunity to learn in ways that are meaningful and engaging for them. In doing so, I will realize what went well, what didn’t go well, and what I can do to become a better teacher.  

Just as I use reflection to improve, students can and should be encouraged to do the same.  I should expect them to do the same.   Reflection is a very important piece to the learning puzzle and when it is left out, it seems as though something is missing and meaningful connections are not made. Reflection is such an important part of student learning.  I have just begun to explore true reflection in my classroom and my students are learning to look back and make connections each day.  

Reflection gives my students the opportunity to be an active participant in the learning (Why The Brain Benefits from Reflection in Learning, TeachThought).   We often reflect about Genius Hour, Depth and Complexity novel studies, and other classroom activities. In doing so, the learning becomes real and meaningful.  And, honestly, if it’s not real and meaningful for our students, what's the point? Reflection adds meaning which has to be there for true learning to take place.

My students reflect most of the time by blogging.  This is such a wonderful way for students to be able to share their learning and process what they have just taken in.  It serves as an outlet...a place to share their thoughts, feelings, and expertise about what they have learned.  It is in their blogs that I am able to see the learning through their eyes, experience the classroom as they do, and use that information to make my classroom a meaningful experience for each one of them.  

However, I began to notice in reading their blogs that many of them were simply telling me what they did that day in class.  According to Peter Pappas' Taxonomy of Reflection, they were simply remembering. They were not making the connections and understanding the reflection process as well as I had hoped.  They were struggling with truly understanding the benefit of reflection and seeing it as an important piece of the puzzle. I wanted them to use their higher order thinking skills to analyze, evaluate, and create.

In searching for meaningful ways to teach reflection, I recently came across Roll and Reflect cubes on Tony Vincent’s website, Learning in Hand.   These cubes use QR codes to encourage reflection in many different ways.  Students scan a code for a reflection question.  Some of the questions include, “In what ways have you gotten better?”, “What did you learn that will help you most in the future?”, “One thing I can improve upon is…”, and “What was easy for you?”.  

reflection cubes

After they read their question, students roll the cube to find out how they will respond. They may draw a picture, make a list, create a word cloud, write a quote, or even write their response in words that rhyme.  All of the response options require students to think differently about how they reflect and takes their thinking to a higher level...SCORE!  

I recently printed, created the cubes, and introduced them to the students.  They loved it! It has been a great way to reintroduce them to reflection and encourage them to think about their thinking.  

I have decided that I will also ask my students to just scan the Reflection Question card for their question and simply write their response using KidBlog.  I only have one iPad in my room but have several Chromebooks so some students can be blogging while others are responding by rolling the cube.  I actually taped the codes next to the computers at our “blogging station” so that students will have easy access and remember to scan before they write.  

My students are now understanding why we reflect and how it can help their learning “stick”.  It will be very interesting to compare student blog posts at the beginning of the year to the posts as we go through this process of taking our reflections to a higher level.

blogging station

“We do not learn from an experience.  
We learn from reflecting on experience.”  
John Dewey

Below are some amazing articles and resources on reflection that I have used to find ways to make reflection meaningful in my classroom.   Please feel free to comment and share some of the ways you use reflection to create meaningful learning for your students.  

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Creative Thinkers or High Test Scores: Why Can't We Have Both?

I've noticed that in a lot of the discussions that I have had with teachers, test scores always come up in the conversation.  It usually goes something like this:

"I just can't find time to do all the of the project based learning and fun activities because I am too busy getting them ready for the test in April."

"Genius Hour just won't work in my room because I teach Math/Reading which is tested in the Spring."

"I don't do all of the fun stuff in my classroom because my students need to be ready to test."

Why do so many educators think that we cannot prepare students for tests by using project based learning and innovative teaching?   I don't understand why so many teachers think that it has to be one or the other. Students can be prepared for standardized testing by activities like Genius Hour and projects that make the learning experience more meaningful and frankly, more fun for everyone involved.

In my opinion, application is a huge part of learning.  If students cannot take what they have learned and apply it in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them, then we have missed the mark.  One might even say that we haven't done our job effectively.

For example, knowing math facts is an essential foundation.  However, if students do not know how to apply those math facts in an appropriate situation, what is the point of knowing them?  Students need to know how to comprehend what they have read, but if they are simply comprehending enough to pass a test on the computer, then it is meaningless.

If a student can apply the learning, they will be much more capable of attempting the higher order thinking skills such as analyzing, evaluating, and creating.  On the other hand, if a student has simply seen the skill on a worksheet or on a board at the front of a room, how can we expect them to do any of those things?

Most math worksheets do not show whether a student can apply a skill.  They simply tell us if a student can take what they have learned and do the exact same thing over and over with different numbers.   Reading worksheets simply give students the ability to show that they can comprehend and successfully find the answers in what they read.  They do not tell us anything about the student's ability to connect and find meaning in what they have read.

I'm not saying that there is absolutely no place for worksheets in the classroom.  There may be times that a worksheet is an appropriate way to assess basic skills or simple understanding.  Worksheets might be a way to collect their thoughts or gather information but the learning must be taken a step further.  I often ask students to write their thoughts down before we discuss. But it is very rare that I assign a worksheet with right or wrong answers.

I'm simply saying that I would much rather hear students discussing, collaborating, creating, and really applying what they have learned in a way that is meaningful for them.  Because if this is happening, learning is happening. Students are making connections, understanding, and realizing that learning can be fun and engaging.

I like that one definition of "apply" is to put to practical use.  If students do not connect a way to apply the learning in a practical way, there is really no point to the learning.  It's a waste of their time and we are kidding ourselves if we don't think that they know that.

I've said it many times before but I can cover more standards in one Genius Hour project than I could with an entire stack of worksheets.  Giving students the opportunity to take the skills that they have learned and use them creatively doing something with passion will always be a better idea. Collaborative activities and innovative problem solving will bring excitement and energy into my classroom.  It is for these reasons that I choose to encourage this type of learning.

I write this post just to encourage us all to consider the fact that maybe, just maybe project based learning and innovative teaching might result in higher test scores.  It doesn't have to be one or the other.  That being said, I will always agree that my students come first.  Test scores are not my top priority and never will be.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Opening the Door to Opportunity

As my teaching style has changed over the last couple of years, I can't help but notice a change in my students' thinking.  When we first began Genius Hour and Innovations in my classroom, students struggled to come up with ideas.  They looked at me like I was insane when I asked them to choose what they wanted to learn about.

However, this year, as we have begun Genius Hour, students seem somewhat comfortable in my classroom.  They are open to new ideas and looking for opportunities to make a difference.  The students seem more passionate than ever about their project ideas and more driven to see them through.

I'm sure there are probably those that think that my class is simply a time for students to "play on the computer" or "do something they enjoy."  But it is so much more than that.  You see, there are many standards woven into each project that we work on.  We don't cover one standard at a time but instead put many standards into practice by doing something that is relevant and meaningful.

Friday, I was listening to two of my fourth grade students working on their Lego projects.  We are using Lego Digital Designer to design our projects before we actually create them.  As I listened, I heard them using multiplication to plan out the area for the base of their design.  I did not prompt this conversation nor did I interrupt and proceed to explain area and why it is important.  I simply allowed the students to see how multiplication gave them an opportunity to plan and create a design that worked for them.  The students were able to learn by doing and I trusted them enough to know they had used that opportunity in a meaningful way.

Giving students the opportunity to learn in ways that are meaningful for them is not an easy task. It takes trust, understanding, and an ability to find ways to challenge and motivate learners to stay the course.  On the other hand, when that opportunity is taken, students make the connection between learning and life.  They understand why they need to know a specific skill and how to apply it.

I still have so much to learn about innovations and I learn more each day.  But for now, my classroom is a place where I feel like students are beginning to see the opportunities around them and they are finding ways to open the door.   And for me, that is reason enough for me to stay the course and continue to learn about innovative teaching.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why Genius Hour is a Priority in my Classroom

"I'm so excited about this!"
"I wish I could've done something like this when I was in elementary."
"I want to innovate and be mind is constantly spinning with ideas."

These were just a few of the comments from some of the high school GT students that I invited over to the elementary to work with my elementary GT students on their Genius Hour projects.  I have learned so much about Genius Hour and Innovations from some pretty amazing people like Don Wettrick and Terri Eichholz.  In doing so, I have come to the conclusion that Genius Hour is quite possibly one of the most meaningful activities that I can offer my students.

5th Grade Students sharing their Genius Hour Ideas with the always entertaining, Don Wettrick

As we began to brainstorm and decide on project ideas this year, I realized that these projects are becoming bigger than our classroom.  We even have Holly Tucker from the The Voice planning to visit and share her experiences with one of my students!  Each project must involve an outside expert and result in a product that can be shared with the world.  As I was preparing to meet with students about their projects, I had an a-ha moment.  What if high school students could come over to the elementary for an hour a week to help my students take their learning to another level?  What if they could offer advice, technology assistance, and a "cool" factor that students need to become excited about their projects?

After deciding that this was definitely worth a try, I contacted the high school counselor and set up a time for the high school students to come over.  As I sat across from the three high school athletes and explained the projects, their demeanor seemed to change as I told them all about Genius Hour in my classroom.  They went from slumping in their seats to leaning in and listening to everything that I was sharing.  They asked questions and wanted to know more about the projects and what each student was planning. As I shared ideas and the specifics of what I need from them, they were all in.  And that's when I realized, EVERY student deserves an opportunity to be innovative and creative during their school day.  If we are not allowing time for this type of learning, we are not truly preparing students for their future.

These high school juniors were so thankful for the opportunity to share their ideas and participate in innovative projects that they asked if they could come every week instead of every other week.   As they were leaving the elementary, I was walking to my car to get something for my next class.  I noticed the high school students backing up and coming back in my direction.  As they got closer, they rolled the window down and said, "Mrs. McNair!  We have an idea."  They went on to share some ideas they had come up with while walking to the car.  These high school athletes were so excited about the projects that they were still talking about them when they left the elementary school!  So every Friday, my elementary and high school students will work together to learn in a way that is meaningful, real, and that will give them an opportunity to experience true collaboration and creative learning.

I want to encourage you to find a way to implement some form of Genius Hour into your classroom. It is a wonderful way to encourage students to think differently and prepare for their futures.  After all, if we aren't doing that, are we really teaching?

Want to know more about Genius Hour?  Check out Don Wettrick's new book, Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Classroom Backchannels

I recently began to use a backchannel while reading aloud to my students. This has given me the opportunity to interact with them in a new way that is beneficial to them as well as myself.

TodaysMeet is a great tool to use as a backchannel in the classroom. I appreciate TodaysMeet's definition of a backchannel - “The backchannel is everything going on in the room that isn’t coming from the presenter.” Why would we not want to know what our students are thinking, wondering, and processing as we read or share with the class?

Today, I asked students to use TodaysMeet to share predictions, questions, thoughts, and observations as I read Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor aloud to them in class. I explained that comments must be related to the story and that students must show that they are listening and comprehending the story through the comments that are being shared on the backchannel.

As I read, students were allowed to randomly post comments on the backchannel, but I also paused several times and asked students to make purposeful comments. For example, I would ask them to predict what was going to happen next in the story.

I also asked them to share how they were feeling at different times during the story.

Many of my students that do not like to share in front of the group feel very comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas on the backchannel. This also gives everyone an opportunity to share as the students that are always the first to answer or are often the loudest are sharing quietly on the backchannel just like the rest of the class. I have noticed the the backchannel gives them the opportunity to be more reflective and thoughtful with their answers.

TodaysMeet only allows a comment to be 140 characters. This means students are not able to ramble or go off topic. They are forced to keep their thoughts clear and concise. They must find ways to get their ideas across in a way that will reflect their intent for their peers to read and understand.

In order to use TodaysMeet, you simply visit the website and set up a room. Students then go to that room using the specific link and join. They are then able to “talk” and “listen” by typing in their comments and reading the comments of others on the backchannel.

Backchanneling can be used in so many ways in the classroom. I recently used it with students as we Skyped with Angela Moses's 2nd grade classroom. I wrote a guest blog post about this experience on the STAAR Techers website. My friend, Terri Eichholz, wrote about using Socrative as a backchannel for Genius Hour. This is such a great idea and something that I hope to try soon. I recently read a wonderful post on Langwitches Blog titled Backchanneling with Elementary Students. I also found this wonderful graphic on their website as well.

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Finally, you can find everything you might want to know about using a backchannel on Cybraryman’s Backchannel page. He has listed a wealth of resources about backchanneling, what it is, how it can be used, and why it is beneficial.

If you are using a backchannel in an interesting way in your classroom, please feel free to comment and share your ideas. I am new to using a backchannel and would love to learn more from those that have been using it as well.