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.

Image Source:

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.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Curious Classrooms

We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. ~ Walt Disney

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. ~ Albert Einstein

Every Tuesday, I visit the first and second grade classrooms to introduce thinking strategies and encourage creative thinking. I recently decided to begin introducing the habitudes that I read about in the book, Classroom Habitudes written by Angela Maiers.

I began by asking the students for their definition of curiosity. We talked about what it is, how it is helpful, and how we can use it to become better thinkers. We looked at a picture from 101 Questions, which is a wonderful website that encourages questioning. I love this website because not only were we able to practice questioning, but inferencing as well. As we looked at the picture, we came up with several questions. After we had finished coming up with our questions, I asked students to infer based on what they could see in the picture.

Based on this picture, students asked things such as:

"Why is he jumping off of the cliff?"
"Is the water deep?"
"Is he jumping into the ocean?"
"Is he crazy?"

I then asked them to infer the following based on what they could see in the picture:

What time of day is it?
Who is with him?
Do you think he has done this before?
How deep is the water?

As we made inferences, we explained our answers and gave evidence from the picture of why or why not we thought they were correct.

After this activity, I explained to the students that we were going to go outside and collect one object each from nature. I explained that they could choose a rock, flower, grass, or anything else that they found as we took a quick walk. We went outside and I gave them about five minutes to search for their object and come back together as a group. The beautiful weather made this part of the assignment even more fun.

Students returned one by one with their objects. They were excited and very proud of what they had chosen. They couldn't wait to show me their objects and wanted to know what we were going to do with them. When we returned to the classroom, I gave each student a notecard. I asked them to put their name on one side and on the other side, they were to write down five questions about the object that they had collected.

This part of the lesson was a great opportunity to discuss sentence structure. We discussed starting our questions with a capital letter and ending each sentence with a question mark. We also talked about using a variety of question words like where, when, how, and why.

I then gave them time to observe their item and think about their five questions. I was so impressed with their questions and their level of engagement. They were discussing, sharing, and focusing on their objects. As they finished, I snapped a few pictures of their finished products.

This was such a fun activity and a great way to introduce curiosity to young students. As a teacher, I want my students to open new doors and do new things because they are curious. Curiosity encourages learning and creates learners that seek out problems to solve. As educators, we should strive to create a curious classroom in which students question, discuss, share ideas, and ultimately find answers and solutions to those questions.

Friday, February 14, 2014

QR Code Scavenger Hunt - A Fun Way to Assess Learning

Assessment comes in many forms and definitely has a place in education.  However, that does not mean that it always has to be formal, standardized, and boring.  Assessing is simply evaluating the ability of our students to master specific concepts.
Last week, our fourth grade math teacher, Mrs. Cummings, asked me to help her find some creative ways to assess and review geometry with her students.  After discussing, we decided that there would be three parts to this activity.
The first part of the assignment required students to find a real world example of a specific geometry term.  She gave each student a different term and then asked them to take a picture and email it to her.  Before allowing them to begin, she explained that their examples could not be obvious or expected.  For example, the student that received octagon could not take a picture of a stop sign and a student with sphere couldn’t take a picture of a ball.  They had to be creative and think outside of the box.

We were so impressed with the pictures that the students brought back.  They were very creative and took pictures of everyday examples of geometry. Below are some examples of my favorites.

The second part of the assignment was the true assessment.  Mrs. Cummings wanted to find out if her students really knew the vocabulary terms and which ones were still giving them difficulty.  We wanted the assessment to be fun but also meaningful and engaging.
After discussing several thoughts and ideas, we decided to put together a QR Scavenger Hunt.  First, we made up ten riddles (example: You've scanned your first QR code and now you are hooked, go the place where you check out a book). Next, we created a website on Weebly and created the QR codes using The QR Code Generator.  This morning I placed the clues in the correct locations and downloaded ScanLife on all of the tablets that we were using.

The students scanned the code and went to the location that was described by the clue. They found 3 numbered definitions at each place. They had a list of words and were asked to put the correct number by the correct term. 

This was our first attempt at a QR code scavenger hunt so I was a little nervous.  I wanted it to be successful so others would see how effective this type of learning and assessment can be if used correctly.  And I’m happy to report that it was a huge success!
While the students were searching for clues, I heard them saying things like, “This is so fun” and “I love this”.  They were also engaged in meaningful discussions about the terms and why they felt the answer that they had chosen was correct.  As I listened to them, I realized that Mrs. Cummings would be gaining the same information she would have gained on a formal assessment.  It would be obvious which students had mastered the content and which students needed to be retaught.

After the activity was over, I walked into Mrs. Cummings's room and heard one student ask, “Can we work on this during recess?”  Success!  Then I went into the teacher’s lounge and a teacher asked me what we had done and what something like this might look like for younger students.  Be still my heart!  The teacher had noticed how engaged and excited the students were while they were learning.  You couldn’t help but want to know what they were doing and more importantly, what they were learning.
Next week, Mrs. Cummings’s students will be blogging about their experience today.  This is an important piece to the learning because it gives them a way to reflect and find meaning in what they have learned.
I wanted to write about this activity because I feel like it is a true example of how we can be creative when teaching and assessing our students.  Meeting them where they are and providing meaningful activities provide the opportunities for real learning to take place.
I am so thankful that Mrs. Cummings thought outside of the box and wanted to do something creative with her students.  The learning that took place today was engaging, meaningful, and inspiring.
Finally, I would just like to encourage you to step outside your comfort zone as an educator.  Try something new and don’t be afraid to fail.  Your students deserve to learn in a way that is meaningful to THEM.  So step out on that limb knowing that even if it breaks, you will just climb back up the tree and try again!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Realizing the Power of My PLN

So, I've been a connected educator for a few months now.  I follow so many wonderful people on Twitter that it would be impossible to name them all.  It has changed the way that I teach and has given me the passion for education that I had lost somewhere along the way.

This week I was reminded of the power of my PLN - my personal learning network.  I chat with these guys every week, learn from their tweets, and share ideas.  When I have one of those days, I find encouragement and inspiration.  On my good days, I try to be the encouragement and inspiration.  This is how it works... teachers helping teachers be their very best every day.  We work together to give our students what they need to be their very best every day.  

Yesterday, I was able to visit the exhibits at TCEA.  I was so excited to see the latest and greatest with other educators from my district.  I was also very excited about meeting some of my PLN, my tweeps, my friends.  I couldn't wait to put a face the with the encouragement and a voice with the inspiration.  So right before I had to head out,  I was able to meet with Daisy Marino, Angela Moses, and Terri Eichholz.  We were only able to visit for a short time but it was just like meeting up with friends that I had known forever. We chatted about education, the weather, and of course the wonderful sessions that they had attended at TCEA. It was a great opportunity to connect and realize how blessed I am to learn from each one of them each and every day.  

I also feel like I am able to depend on my PLN to provide meaningful interactions for my students.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, Don Wettrick has been such a great mentor.  He has helped me learn so much about innovation in the classroom and giving my students an opportunity to try and fail.  He recently gave me the opportunity to share my story on his BAM Radio Network channel, InnovatED.   I am so thankful for his willingness to Skype with my students or share ideas when I have none.  I am so thankful that I listened to the Two Guys Show that night and decided to ask questions about Innovations and what that would look like in my classroom.  My teaching will never be the same!

Today, I was able to call on another amazing member of my PLN to provide a meaningful learning experience for my students. They are learning about technology in the classroom for their innovations project.  This includes the different tools and ideas being used in classrooms and then sharing those things with the teachers in our district.  They recently discovered augmented reality and wanted to know more about what it was and how it works.  I instantly thought of Brad Waid and wondered if he would mind sharing his passion for augmented reality with my students.  I sent him a quick tweet and he said he would be more than happy to help us out.  

Brad did such a great job sharing augmented reality and giving them examples of how it can be used in the classroom as well as the real world.  His excitement and passion for augmented reality created an authentic learning experience for my students that they will not soon forget.  As my students "hung out" with Brad today, I couldn't help but realize the power of Twitter and the amazing opportunities it has given my students as well as myself.

These are just a few of the amazing opportunities that I have encountered since becoming a connected educator.  Twitter allows me to have meaningful encounters with other educators that are passionate about the work at hand.  I cannot say enough about the importance of building and connecting with a PLN.  I am just starting to realize the power of my PLN and the role that they play in my classroom.  I can't wait to learn more and share more as I continue on my exciting journey as a connected educator!