Wednesday, December 31, 2014

5 Ways to Make Learning Meaningful in 2015

If what we are teaching is not meaningful for our students, we are wasting our time and theirs. I know I say this all the time but it is so very true. Why do we as educators waste our time talking at our students about things without giving them an opportunity to make connections? How can we expect them to learn about something that has no meaning for them? Imagine yourself being forced to sit through a class or lecture about something that is of no interest to you whatsoever. We've all been there...we've sat through a professional development class that we knew would not work in our classroom or had nothing to do with our subject area.'s...torture! It's not fun because it's not meaningful. We can't connect to what is being shared because we do not see a practical use or reason to learn what we are being taught.

So, today I wanted to share some ways that I hope to make learning meaningful in my classroom this year.

1) Know your students well. Know your students well enough to know what they are interested in and how they are motivated. Understand that it will not work to see them as a class but instead you must see them as individuals. It's difficult to make learning meaningful if you cannot find a way to connect personally with your students. They need to trust you enough to know that you would not waste their time sharing something that is not important or will be important at some point in their lives.

2) Trust yourself. Trust yourself as an educator to teach in a way that you know is best for your students. Don't be afraid to try new things. Give yourself permission to fail and make mistakes as you look for new ways to engage your students and make learning meaningful for them. Look for opportunities to step outside your comfort zone and do what you know is best for your classroom.

3) Be okay with a little chaos. Meaningful learning is messy. It's not always easy and does not involve students sitting in rows doing the same worksheet. Instead, it's chaotic and sometimes a little crazy. Kids are okay with this and can learn best when we allow them to explore, interact, and create. While I understand there are times when a classroom should be quiet and students need to be individually focused, I also believe that more often than not, they should be moving around and being given the opportunity to find out what meaningful learning is for themselves.

4) Get connected. Being a connected educator has helped me give my students some amazing experiences this year. Genius Hour and Innovations has had a huge impact on my students and has given us a new perspective on what is meaningful and what is not. Knowing that I have access to some of the world's most amazing educators instantly is still mind-boggling to me. Being connected has opened doors and given me the opportunity to explore what is meaningful for me and in turn, I am able to offer meaningful experiences to my students.

5) Use technology. Like it or not, technology is meaningful for our students. They get's their world. I'm not saying that technology will always make the lesson more meaningful because there are so many ways to add meaning without using any technology. However, when used appropriately technology has a way of taking a learning experience to new level. Students are learning on their terms using their devices. If it will make the learning more meaningful or provide an opportunity for connections to be made, use technology in your classroom. Don't be afraid to learn from your students. Ask questions, share concerns, and find ways to implement technology in your classroom as often as possible.

Make it a priority to ask yourself as you plan every lesson this year if it is going to meaningful or a waste of time.  And then be honest with yourself.  Look for ways to give your students opportunities to connect with the learning. As I said earlier, meaningful learning is messy. I'm still learning from my students what this looks like in our classroom and will continue to learn as long as I am an educator.  If you are setting goals for 2015, please make one of those goals to provide meaningful learning experiences for your students. They deserve it!
Monday, December 29, 2014

One Word for 2015

As we begin to wrap up 2014, it's a great time to reflect and appreciate all of the wonderful things that happened this year.  However, it's also a wonderful opportunity to look forward to the wonderful things that 2015 is going to bring.  I love this time of year because it brings the excitement of the unknown, the opportunity to write a new chapter, and the challenge to make this year the best year yet.

Last year, I began participating in One Word to start off my new year.  One Word encourages us to choose one word to be our focus.  Last year, I chose change as my one word and often thought about this throughout the year.  I used the word to remind me of my goals and my desire to encourage change in our education system while making it a priority to change my own classroom to meet the needs of my students.

So, what's my word for 2015?  Drum roll One Word for 2015 is brave.  I chose this word because I often struggle with fear and doubt.  I wonder if I can really make a difference, bring change, and give back to the world in the ways that I know that I should.

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This year, I plan on conquering this fear.  I will be brave enough to share my thoughts, stand up for what I know is right, and encourage others to do the same.  I've spent too much time wondering what it would be like to begin a speaking career, wishing I could share what I know with others, and wanting to influence other educators to look outside the walls of their classrooms in order to give their students the world.  So this year, I will be brave enough to pursue these ambitions.

I will not wonder if I'm good enough or smart enough.  Instead, I will remember that our students just need educators that are willing to stand up for what they need.  They need teachers to model that it's okay to fail and try again.  Our students need their teachers to be brave enough to do what has not been done, to try what has not be tried, and to find ways to make learning meaningful for them.

Bravery is inside of all of us.  It's just a matter of putting our fears behind us and looking forward to what lies ahead.   I'm excited about the new year and the opportunities that await.  I can't wait to see what 2015 holds for myself, my family, and my classroom.

Wishing you all an amazing year!  I look forward to continuing to learn with you in 2015.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Learning from Experts - Five Ways to Connect Your Students with Outside Experts

Marine biology, ALS research, endangered animals, and autism in children...these are just a few of the many topics my students have been researching and studying for their Genius Hour projects. Needless to say, I am not an expert on any of the topics.  However, because of technology, I am able to find ways to connect my students with amazing experts and mentors from many different places. 

As I've written before, I no longer take the lead in my classroom, but instead allow my students to navigate their own learning.  I am, however, their guide and must find ways to help them make connections while they are learning.  In doing so, we sometimes have to be very creative.

Outside experts are a huge part of Genius Hour. My students are required to have an outside expert for their projects.  This expert cannot be mom, dad, aunt, or best friend's mom.  It has to be someone that they do not know and could be considered an "expert" on the topic that he/she is studying.

Finding these experts can be difficult and I will say that it is a lot of work.  However, as I watch my students ask the questions that THEY want to know and experience their project topic in a way that is meaningful, it is definitely worth the time and effort that goes into finding the experts.

Some of the experts that we have talked to so far include:

Sea World Skyped with my student that is studying dolphins.  They actually Skyped from Dolphin Cove so we were able to see the dolphins and experience what it must be like to be a dolphin trainer.

Sea World Skyped with my student that is studying endangered animals.  During the session, they brought out an endangered seal and we were able to watch as the trainer and seal interacted.

ALS Association Texas Chapter Skyped with my student that is finding ways to raise awareness for ALS.  She spoke with the Director of Care Services who provided us with so much information.  We learned so much and my student was able to ask several questions that were on her mind.

Paws 4 Autism Skyped with my student that is learning about how dogs help children with autism. She answered lots of questions and shared personal stories about how autism has affected her and her family.

Holly Tucker came to the school and visited with my student that is creating a website about music.

Texas State Technical College allowed us to visit and tour their Culinary Arts Department.  My student was then able to sit down with a chef and get the answers that she needed to carry out her project.

These are just a few of the many ways that my students have been able to connect with people that they consider experts on their topics of choice.  In doing so, they have learned more than I could have ever taught them in the classroom.  They are able to experience their project and ask the questions that they want to ask.

Below are my suggestions if you are considering incorporating outside experts into your students' learning.  I am still learning and making mistakes but I do know that this aspect of our learning is worth pursuing.

1.  Look local.  Consider contacting your local colleges for experts.  There are professors, athletes, and students that are more than willing to share their knowledge and information with young minds.

2.  Use social media.  We contact most of our experts on Twitter.  While we don't always receive a response and don't always get to contact our first choice, it is a great way to find and contact experts quickly and easily.

3.  Just ask.  There have been many times that I have thought, "We can contact them, but I don't think this organization or person will have the time to work with us."  I have been so surprised at the willingness of experts to speak with my students.  They love to share their knowledge and enjoy knowing that students are interested in learning from them.  Don't be afraid to ask others to share and serve as experts for your student projects.  Worse case scenario is that they say no and you keep looking.

4.  Look for opportunities.  I always keep my student projects in the back of my mind.  Even when I am out and about,  I watch for opportunities to connect my students with experts.  I ask around and share my student projects with anyone that will listen and I'm not afraid to ask to for suggestions.  Many of the experts we have contacted have been suggested by other teachers, friends, or parents that know about our projects and are willing to help.  As my friend, Don Wettrick says, "Opportunities are everywhere!"

5.  Take chances.  Stick your neck out for your students.  Allow them to see your willingness to help them find experts and connect with them.  Share your desire to make these connections with your administration and ask for their support.  While they may not understand this type of learning right away, it will not take long for them them to see the value and meaning in connecting your students with outside experts.

Connecting with outside experts takes your students' learning outside the four walls of the classroom. Collaborating makes the learning so much more real and meaningful.  It opens doors of opportunity and provides students a way to invest in their own learning.

For more information about experts in the classroom, please consider reading the following:

Experts in the Classroom  - Scholastic

Bringing the Outside In: Experts in Your Classroom - Ginger Lewman

Pure Genius: Building A Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Meaningful Motivation

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Motivating's a discussion taking place in the teacher's lounge every day.  How do we find ways to motivate students to complete assignments, participate in class, and want to learn in our classrooms?

I definitely do not have all the answers when it comes to motivating students but I do know that a "one size fits all approach" will not work.  We cannot continue to try to motivate all of our students in the same way and expect the desired results.  

As I was reflecting on motivation before writing this post, I thought about what motivates me. Affirmation is very motivational for me.  In other words, a "great job" from my principal, pat on the back from a colleague, or encouraging words from my PLN are the things that keep me going. However, negative words or attitudes do not motivate at all.  In fact, if I feel like I have let someone down, done something wrong, or failed in a way that was disappointing to someone, I tend to shut down.  While there are exceptions, I would say that the majority of the time, negativity does not result in motivation for me.  

I can't help but wonder if this is the case for many of our students.  As teachers, we often try to motivate students by dishing out negative consequences.  We hope that by giving the students such consequences, they will learn from that experience and change their behavior.  However, I can't help but notice that it's the same students that are missing recess, receiving zeros, and visiting the office each day.  Can't we assume that if the behavior isn't changing, it's not working?  

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Students are different.  They are not going to be motivated in the same way and some students may require more motivation than others.  While intrinsic motivation is the goal, it's unrealistic to expect all students to be intrinsically motivated 100% of the time.  As teachers, it's our job to not only ask questions and guide student learning, but we should also consider the motivational strategies in our classrooms.  

When we get to know our students, their interests, and their dreams, we are better able to motivate them to do what they need to do reach their goals.  If they realize that we genuinely care about them and their story, they begin to trust us.  They begin to realize that we are all working together to reach one goal...success.  

That success might be different for each student.  While success for one student might be making a high score on the next test, success for another might simply be completing an assignment and getting it turned in.  Again, a one size fits all approach will not work with today's students.  They come from such a variety of backgrounds, homes, and families, it is imperative that we make it a priority to know them well enough to find what motivates them.  

I write this post simply to encourage us all, as teachers, to consider or reconsider the motivation strategies that we are using in our classrooms.  If our ultimate goal is to engage and motivate our students, shouldn't the motivation be meaningful?  Shouldn't motivation encourage students rather than discourage them?  Taking the time to know and understand our students gives us the opportunity to find what intrinsically motivates them.  In doing so, students gain an understanding of themselves and are able to understand what does and does not work for them.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Smore - Interactive Flyers for the Classroom

We used Smore this week in my 5th grade GT classroom as a way to share about the structures that we are studying.  Each student chose a structure that they wanted to learn more about and then researched that structure to find information that they wanted to share.

In planning this project, I was looking for a digital tool that would allow students to share their information in poster form.  However, we didn't want to create regular posters because we wanted them to be interactive.  And then I remembered Smore.  It had been a while since I had used this tool in my classroom, but I remembered enough to know that it would be perfect for this assignment.

After each student had completed their research, I explained what I wanted them to include in their flyer.  We talked about the why we were using Smore instead of creating regular posters.  Here are three reasons that using Smore is appropriate for today's classrooms:

1.  Smore flyers are interactive. - Students can add so much information and content to a Smore versus a paper poster.  They are able to add YouTube videos, audio, website links, and more.  In doing so, they are able give their audience an opportunity to learn even more about the information that they are sharing.  

2.  Smore flyers can be shared with the world. - Smore flyers are able to be easily shared on a blog, website, or social media.  Students can share what they have learned with their parents, peers, and anyone else for that matter. 

3.  Smore flyers teach digital design. - Using Smore, students are able to create visually appealing flyers from scratch.  They can change the fonts, backgrounds, and layout of the flyer in any way that they would like.  This gives students an opportunity to explore digital design and learn how to create using digital tools.  

My students absolutely loved this assignment and worked very hard to create flyers that would teach others about the structures that they had chosen.  Here is an example of one of the student's flyers about The Gherkin.  I love that he was able to share so much information instantly with his audience. I especially like that he was able to add his voice to the flyer to make his learning more personal and meaningful.

I was so impressed with their final products.  They created beautiful flyers that represented the structures that they were studying.

Next time you ask your students to create posters in your classroom, consider using Smore. A free account allows you to create up to 5 flyers.   Educators can purchase Smore annually for $59.00. With this purchase, you are given the opportunity to create an unlimited amount of flyers, receive reports for your newsletters, and gain access to education-themed backgrounds. You can read more about Smore Flyers for Teachers HERE.

I am so glad that we used this tool and look forward to using it more in the future.

Friday, December 5, 2014

TAGT 2014 Reflections

I just got back from TAGT (Texas Association for Gifted and Talented) Conference in Fort Worth.  I attend/present at this conference every year and I always learn so much.  This year was a little different as I went with the intention of networking and really getting as much as I could out the two days that I was there.  

Wednesday night was the Welcome Reception and I had the pleasure of meeting one of my Twitter buddies, Ginger Lewman (@gingerlewman).  It's always such a surreal experience to meet these people that you've followed and learned from online face to face.  We took a quick selfie, chatted a bit, and then I headed out to get some rest for a full day on Thursday.

The next morning started with a wonderful keynote from Nikhil Goyal (@nikhilgoya_l).  His keynote addressed today's school system and the fact that it has not changed much over time.  He pointed out that we subject kids to conditions in school every day that we would not tolerate as adults.  He encouraged teachers to offer choice and real experiences in their classrooms.  Nikhil suggested that we need to think differently about intelligence as a society.  Students should be encouraged to be curious and creative.  He shared this image during his presentation and asked if this is how we are making our students feel every day when they are at school.

After this session, I attended Ginger Lewman's session on gamification and badges.  I had some great discussions with some of the other educators sitting close by as we shared our questions and thoughts about motivating students in our classrooms.  Having an opportunity to discuss my struggles/concerns with my peers gave me an opportunity to hear different perspectives.  I left that session with a lot going on in my head and questions about how I could give badges more significance in my own classroom.

And then it was my turn.  I shared the technology that I use in my classroom and encouraged teachers to engage students in meaningful learning.  After the session, I was able to talk with several educators that are so ready for change.  They want to try things in their classrooms but just do not know where to start.  Some explained that their district just isn't ready for change and they are doing the best that they can.  I was inspired as I listened to their desire to try new things and willingness to implement technology to provide meaningful experiences for their students.  

My colleague, Brenda Davis (@brenkaydavis), shared The Six Thinking Hats strategy in her session.  She challenged educators to use this technique to give students an opportunity to think differently.  In explaining the hats, she gave teachers an opportunity to use the technique themselves.  In doing so, they were able to see the value in looking at a problem from many different perspectives.  Many of them shared how they were using these hats to challenge their students and engage them in different ways.

That evening, we enjoyed laughs and great conversation over dinner with Ginger.  It was so fun to be able to ask questions, share our thoughts, and get to know each other.  She introduced us to Uber (even though I was scared to death) and shared her story with us.  In listening to all Ginger had to share, I was so inspired by her willingness to think differently about education.  I love that she asks the hard questions and encourages other educators to do the same.  By the end of the evening, I knew we had a begun a wonderful friendship and I look forward to many more conversations with Ginger as our paths cross in the future.  

Friday morning, we had the pleasure of listening to another keynote by Scott Barry Kaufman (@sbkaufman) who wrote Ungifted.  He was so much fun and very engaging!  His story is so inspiring and his presentation was enlightening.  In sharing his story, he explained that we sometimes miss seeing the whole child because we get so focused on specific labels.  

He challenged us to help kids fall in love with the future image of themselves.  In closing, he told us about The Future Project which is an organization that provides "dream directors" to help students make their dreams come true.   I was so intrigued by this idea and still can't help but want to find out more about the initiative and the specifics of dream directors.  What a great job description!

As I sit here this evening reflecting on all that I learned and the connections that I made this year at TAGT, I can't help but be thankful for the opportunity to learn from some of the best minds in education and look forward to TAGT 2015 in San Antonio.  
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.

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!