Sunday, December 27, 2015

Making a Difference in 2016

Is it really already 2016?  2015 has come and gone and it seems like it went by so quickly.  I like to start the new year by setting new goals for my classroom and this year is no different.  So here we educational priorities for 2016 are (drum roll please) boldness, passion, and conversation.

Boldness - I want this for myself as well as my students.  I want all of us to be bold enough to use our voices. As an educator, I want to speak up for what I know is best for my students.  I also want my students to speak up for themselves.  I want them to know that their voices are powerful, that they can make a difference.  More than anything, I want them to follow the paths that will lead to the lives that they've always imagined.  I don't want them to allow others to choose their paths for them. Instead, I hope to inspire them to realize that they have the opportunity to do amazing things by being bold and leading the way for the change.

Passion - As most of you know, I am a huge fan of passion projects, Genius Hour, and other activities in the classroom that give students opportunities to pursue their interests.  I believe that passion is the key to unlocking many problems in education today.  When students are interested, they are engaged. One size fits all classrooms will not work anymore.  It's time to realize that these students are different and they have different skill sets.  Because of this, we as teachers must play a different role and be okay with that.  Allowing our students to pursue their passions gives them the opportunity to learn by doing.   I've seen the impact of this type of learning in my own classroom and it changes everything.  Passion makes learning real and meaningful.  And, honestly, if it's not, why are we teaching it anyway?

Conversation - I want to start conversations in 2016 that matter.  I want to be a part of the conversations that are changing education.  I believe that conversation trumps everything.  In my classroom, conversation comes before grades, worksheets, and assignments.  I understand that through conversation, I will really know my students.  I will understand what works for them and what doesn't.  In having conversations with my colleagues, I am able to inspire and be inspired.  I want my students to understand that they can start conversations that ignite change.  Understanding the power of conversation is so important in education today and will definitely be a priority for us in 2016.

So that's it!  Boldness, passion, and conversation are my priorities this year.  I want to be bold enough to do what is best and passionate enough to start conversations that will make a difference.  These are the same things that I wish for my students.  I can't wait to see what this year holds.  I wish all of you a wonderful New Year and hope that you find ways to make it amazing! Let's rock 2016 and make it a year that we will remember for a long time!

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Mystery Skype to Remember

I'm a little late on writing this post but wanted to share because it was such a fun day for our students and gave them an opportunity to see themselves as teachers as well as students.

We were recently given the opportunity to participate in a Mystery Skype with teachers at a session at the Microsoft campus in North Dakota.  Kelly Rexine had contacted me to ask if we would be willing to participate and we were more than willing.  We were so excited!  Our third grade students absolutely love to Mystery Skype and I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to share their expertise and excitement about the topic with teachers that were wanting to learn.  

I want to begin by saying that our third grade teacher, Mrs. Battistella, is amazing at making each Mystery Skype a success.  She does a great job of explaining the roles, asking for feedback, and ensuring that it is a learning opportunity for everyone that is involved.  The first time that I observed her class participating in a Mystery Skype, I realized right away that every student was engaged, willingly engaged. 

We began the session by taking time to let Mrs. Battistella explain how a Mystery Skype works.  She shared the roles of each group and explained why each of them are important to the process.  After this, we turned it over to the students and let them work their magic.  

When the students correctly concluded that the audience was in North Dakota, they were so excited! As closure,  Kelly asked his audience if they had any questions for the students.  One teacher asked what it was about Mystery Skype that the students liked.  In response, several students shared that they liked learning about new places and liked that they were learning by having fun and meeting new people.  They absolutely loved answering the questions and being the experts as they shared with the teachers.

It was so fun watching them find ways to share their learning and express their feelings about the activity.  I was so impressed with their willingness to speak up and give their perspective.

As we wrapped up, Mrs. Battistella asked her class to reflect on the event.  She has a wonderful reflection sheet for each Mystery Skype and so she gave one to each student.  Below are a few of their responses. 

I love that almost every student was surprised to learn that they could teach teachers. They were in awe of the fact that they had spent their afternoon showing teachers how to do something well.  

It was such a fun day!  The students were given an opportunity to teach and they did.  Sometimes learning from students is more engaging and has more of an impact than learning from our peers.  I love nothing more than to hear from student panels and see students doing whatever it is that I am learning about.  I am so thankful that Kelly was willing to ask our students to teach educators about Mystery Skype and share their perspective.

If you haven't considered trying a Mystery Skype in your classroom, you should.  It is such a wonderful way to encourage critical thinking while using geography skills.   And even better, it's a lot of fun!

Genius Hour - Application at its Best

So I recently began challenging my students to find ways to apply specific standards when working on their Genius Hour projects.  For example, this week I gave them a TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) objective for Math,  ELA, Science, and Technology.  I then asked them to tell me if they found a way to incorporate that specific skill into their project.

I wasn't sure how this would work out or how my students would respond to the challenge.  I like to give them as much freedom as possible during Genius Hour and worried that this might put a damper on things.  In order to encourage them to consider using the skills, I offered a digital badge for each skill that they were able to apply during Genius Hour.  It was not mandatory and students were encouraged to find creative ways to apply the skills.

Genius Hour in our classroom

The first week was a little bit rough as they were confused about how to weave the standards into their projects and just weren't really sure why we were doing this.  The second week, I gave them a second set of standards.  Fifth grade students were challenged to use the following:

Math - Select tools to solve problems
Science - Collect information by observing
ELA - Use context clues to clarify meaning
Technology - Use various search strategies

Before we started Genius Hour, I spent several minutes giving specific examples of how these might be used in our projects.  I talked about using measuring cups, rulers, and other tools to measure.  I shared how they might take notes while they observed or watched YouTube videos.  I explained that when researching online, we sometimes use context clues to clarify meaning of specific words.  Finally, we talked about searching on Google and Pinterest and the various strategies that we might use.  As I explained, I realized that the students were beginning to catch on.  They were asking questions and sharing their own examples as well.

We are on week 3 of applying the standards and I have to say that it is making an impact on my students.  Above all else, they are beginning to realize that they are applying the skills that they are learning in class.  They are making connections between real world application and their classroom experience.  I love that they are able to see that the standards are not just something that can be done on a worksheet but instead something that they can incorporate into their life outside of school.

I knew I was onto something when one of my students sent me a message on Edmodo.  She asked me if she could earn a badge for using one of the standards outside of class.  In other words, if she realized she was applying a standard in her everyday life, would I give her a badge for that?  My answer...of course!  Isn't this what I want?  Don't I want my students to understand that they can apply what they are learning outside of my classroom?  Just seeing that she could apply the standards to her Genius Hour project has given her the ability to see the many ways she uses her learning every day.

We certainly still have a lot to learn but I'm so glad that the students are responding to this idea.  It has not hindered their creativity in any way and is in fact, encouraging them to be more creative. Many of them are finding interesting ways to weave the standards into their projects and realizing that this can be done in so many ways.

I look forward to encouraging this throughout the year and seeing where it leads.  I believe that if we can't find ways to help our students make these connections, the work is not meaningful for them.   If it's not meaningful, I'm wasting my time and theirs and that's just not something I'm willing to do.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

3 Reasons to Hold Student Conferences

Today was possibly one of my favorite days as a teacher.  I have often had conversations with my students.  We've had Genius Hour conferences, brainstorming sessions, and class meetings.  But today was different.  Today, I let my students negotiate and give input as I completed their 4C Rubrics for the end of the six weeks.  I had heard Don Wettrick share how he allowed his students to do this and wanted to give my students the same opportunity.

I met with students individually and shared the rubrics that I had completed.  I explained why I rated them the way that I did and then gave them an opportunity to respond.  I could have never imagined the amazing conversations that occurred as a result of asking for their feedback.

You see, I honestly expected that students would just accept the score that I had given them or argue that they deserved higher a score with little evidence for their argument.  Boy, was I wrong!  Instead, my students did the opposite.  They listened well as I explained my decisions and then responded. Not only did they respond but they justified their responses with evidence and specific examples. They shared struggles and successes, strengths and weaknesses.

I was so impressed when I heard things like, "Mrs. McNair, I really think I need a 2 instead of a 3 for risk-taking.  It seems like I take a lot of risks but I don't like to if I feel like I am going fail" from the mouths of my fifth grade students.   Many of them shared specific examples of how they had demonstrated specific skills.  They also shared examples of their weaknesses and struggles.  This is huge in a Gifted Education classroom.

In reflecting on today's experience, I saw three major benefits to allowing my students to have a voice in the feedback process.

1.  Students see you as someone that is on their side.  I wasn't sitting behind my desk handing down my opinions and judgment.  Instead, we collaborated to come up with some of their strengths and weaknesses.  We discussed what they need to work on and what they do well.  They saw me as someone wanting to help them reach their goals.

2.  You learn so much about your students and their goals.  There is only so much you can know about your students from a parent information sheet and a stack of completed worksheets. Conversation opens doors to relationships and give us opportunities to really know our students. Knowing our students helps us make their learning experiences meaningful and know what will and will not work for them.

3.  Students begin see themselves as learners.  So often our students just see school as a place that they have to be and learning as a chore that has to be accomplished each day.  When they are given the opportunity to take an active role in their learning experiences, they begin to see learning as meaningful.  As a result, they see reflection as a beneficial and necessary part of the learning process.

Today was such a great day!  My students amazed me with their ability to assess themselves honestly.  This is definitely something that we will be doing at the end of each six weeks.  I look forward to seeing progress and watching them grow in their areas of weakness.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

LaunchMe Reflection

I finally have time to reflect on this week's experience and write about the wonderful time that I had at LaunchMe in Clearwater, Florida. 

So, a few months ago Brad Waid encouraged me to come to the LaunchMe Academy that he was hosting in Florida.  I said "sure" but honestly, was a little unsure and insecure about going.  I thought I would feel out of place, uncomfortable, and just weird around so many people that I had never met.  
However, the experience  was the complete opposite.  I flew in on Wednesday evening and hardly slept because I was so excited and nervous about what was to come.  Thursday morning I arrived at Plato Academy ready to learn.  I instantly realized that I was in for an amazing experience when I met Brad Waid, Katrina Keene, and Bryan Miller at the front desk.  They were so welcoming and helped me realize I was right where I belonged.

As the day went on and I sat in the room with so many amazing educators, I listened to their stories and their experiences.  It was evident right away that I was in for more than I could have ever imagined.  I loved hearing them share their passion for education, innovative teaching, and risk taking.  I loved having conversations about changing the world and following our dreams.  More than anything, I loved being around real people that were like me.  People that know they are on a specific path, just not sure where it's going to lead.  People that want to share their passion with others and feel like they can make a difference.  I was right at home and was so pleased to be included in such an amazing group of people.  

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Every person in the group contributed in their own special way.  Brad shared so openly about what he does and gave us the inspiration to go after our dreams.  Kevin couldn't be there but was so gracious to share videos from the airport answering our questions and offering wonderful advice.   Katrina asked honest questions and kept us laughing with her Twitter antics and fun personality.  Bryan was so inspiring as he shared his goals and challenged us to think bigger.  Mona kept me laughing and helped me realize that we all have purpose and worth.  Fran was so sweet and introduced us to the BEST Italian food I have ever had by taking us to Villa Maria for lunch.  Jen made me feel so comfortable by introducing herself right away.  It was so fun meeting Troy and hearing him share about his podcast.  Nik kept us laughing and his excitement for innovative education was so inspiring and contagious.  Adam inspired me to try something new by sharing how previews ruin movies...LOL.  I will definitely think before I watch a movie preview next time!  There were so many other wonderful people that played a role and made LaunchMe such a terrific experience.

On the flight home, I reflected on what I had learned, who I had met, and how my life was changed.   It was so much fun being around like-minded people that were passionate and believed that we could make a difference.  I thought about the words that Brad shared and the challenges that he gave each of us. In reflecting on all of these things, I came to the conclusion that life is what we make it.  We can't achieve what we don't go after and being ourselves is enough.  

I am so thankful for this experience and would not trade it for anything.   It was two days of being inspired, being challenged, and making connections. I learned so much from every single person in that room and will forever be grateful for the role each of them played in helping me find my inspiration.   I am grateful for the friendships that were made and look forward to crossing paths again in the near future!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

6 P's of Passion Projects

It's finally here!  Time to start thinking about our Genius Hour projects in my classroom and I could not be more excited.  My students have waited all summer to share their new ideas and I have waited all summer to hear them.

As we began to discuss Genius Hour and we what wanted it to look like in our classroom this year, I wanted to have a clear process for my students.  Last year we did one project each semester.  The problem with that plan was that some students were stretching their projects out just to satisfy the time requirement and others didn't have enough time to finish.  So, this year we have decided on no time requirements. In other words, some students may finish in three weeks, others in six weeks, others in a semester, and some projects might take all year.

However, in order to make this work, I needed to have a specific process students were to follow so they would know where to start, steps to take, and how to wrap it up.  As I thought about that, I realized that Genius Hour could be summed up with 6 P's.

Passion - Every Genius Hour project starts here.  What are you passionate about?  What do you WANT to learn about?  Passion is what drives the project, makes it meaningful, and makes it theirs. Passion comes from a desire to know more.  Merriam-Webster defines passion as "a strong feeling or enthusiasm for something or about doing something".  I want my students to be enthusiastic about their projects.  I want them to have strong feelings about why their project is important and why they should carry it out. 

Pitch - This year, we are really making a big deal out of our pitches.  We watched some short clips of Shark Tank today and will be doing our pitches "Shark Tank" style next week.  I have read several blog posts about this approach and love it.  This was one of the examples we watched today and we talked about the props, persuasion, statistics, and technology that group used to persuade the sharks that their idea was worth the investment.  I then gave (4th and 5th grade) students Mariana Garcia's Pitch Planning Sheet that I found in Joy Kirr's Livebinder and asked them to blog their responses. I also asked them to include additional ideas such as props, technology, and statistics/facts that they want to share during their pitch. 

Plan - After their pitch, it's time to really plan their project.  While they present an overview in their pitch, the planning stage requires more details.  This is when we begin to set up our Trello boards. We use Trello to track our learning as we work on our projects.  Students will set up lists such as KWHLAQ, Math, ELA, Technology, Links, Resources, and Science/Social Studies.  They will document their KWH now, document the standards they are using as they work, and will document their LAQ at the end of the project.  This is also when students will decide on an outside expert.  This is someone that they feel can offer them the information that they need to learn how their topic relates to the real world.  Outside experts are my absolute favorite part of Genius Hour.  You can read more about outside experts here.

Project - This is the "doing" part of the project.  Students make, design, create whatever it is that they have decided for their project.  This is when the learning and the passion become very evident.  As students work on their projects, I like to use questioning to weave in the standards.  For example, last year two students were using the sewing machine to make pillowcases.  They noticed that the markings on the machine were 3/8, 1/2, and 5/8.  I used that opportunity to ask what else could be in the place of the 1/2 marking which allowed us to discuss equivalent fractions.

Product - The product is what is produced and can be shared out with the world.  This may be a YouTube video, a tangible prototype of their idea, or a digital book that they have written about their topic.  Sharing with an authentic audience is an important part of the Genius Hour process as students like to know they are sharing beyond the four walls of the classroom.  It makes it real, relevant, and brings even more meaning to the learning.

Presentation - Finally, students present their projects to the class.  They can do this in a variety of ways.  Some will share images with Google Slides, others will share videos documenting their entire journey, and many will use other technology such as Powtoon and Keynote to share their learning. However it is done, this is simply a time for students to reflect on their learning and share their project with their peers.  Reflection is so important and helps students realize what went well, what didn't, and what they learned in the process.

In closing, if you are considering introducing Genius Hour into your classroom, consider using the 6 P's as a map for students to use.  It will make the steps clear and help them stay on track as they go through the process.  As students experience this process, they will begin to realize the importance of each step.  Remember to give opportunities for students to make mistakes and be patient.  Genius Hour is not easy and does not always run smoothly.  But when you see the connections that are made and the learning that takes place, you will be so glad that you gave your students the opportunity to experience Genius Hour!

Want to learn more about the 6 Ps of Genius Hour?  Check out the ONLINE COURSE!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Easy Ways to Provide New Learning Opportunities

Every student deserves to experience new learning at school.  Students should not have to sit through things that they already know simply because the rest of the class doesn't understand yet. They have a right to be exposed to new learning experiences.

So often, students that finish early are asked to tutor their peers, run errands, or help in the classroom. This type of "busy work" is not beneficial and can be frustrating to students.  Students want to learn but they want to learn new things.

Sitting through things that you already know is exhausting.  Think about yourself when you are in a workshop or professional development session that you thought was going to be awesome.  You expected to learn new things that you could take back in and use in your classroom.  You entered the workshop with high expectations and willingness to learn.  As the speaker begins to share, you realize they are sharing the same things that you heard in an earlier session.  They are simply sharing things that you already know.  Think about the frustration that you would feel.  You would want to be anywhere but there and would probably leave if you were able.

However, our students don't have that privilege.  They cannot simply leave a classroom when they already understand the material.  All they can do is prove that they have mastered a concept.  It is up to us as teachers to respect them enough to offer a variety of learning opportunities that will engage them.

Here are three tools that will engage your students using the computers in your classroom.  It will require little to no extra work on your part but will give students an opportunity to experience new learning that is meaningful for them.

Wonderopolis taps into student curiosity and makes learning fun.  Students can choose a wonder that is interesting to them or complete the Wonder of the Day.  They watch a video, read about the topic, and then take a short quiz to demonstrate their understanding.  Students can also complete a vocabulary challenge as part of the wonder.

Students could complete a Wonder and then answer the questions from the quiz on an index card to show completion.  If your students blog, they could write about the wonder on their blog.

DogoNews is a great place to find current events that are appropriate for kids.  The articles are fun and interesting.  Students can click on unfamiliar words and will be given a definition.  My favorite feature is that when students click on a location, they are shown a map.  At the end of the article, they are asked three article comprehension questions and given a critical thinking challenge.

DogoNews could be done at the computers in your classroom.  Students answer the three article comprehension questions on the front of the index card and the critical thinking challenge on the back.  Again, if your students blog, they could blog about the article as well.

Ted Connections 
These are a part of the Mensa for Kids website and they are awesome!  Students watch a TED Talk and are then given several critical thinking questions related to the video.  The questions really stretch their thinking and encourage deep learning and understanding.

This is an activity that could be done at the student computers as well.  Students could use headphones to watch the talk so that they do not disturb the rest of the class.  When the TED Talk is over, they can answer their questions on the PDF that is provided or blog their responses.

It's so important that our students realize that we value their time and see them as individuals.  By providing new learning opportunities, we are sending that message.  Take time this year to find ways to engage students even when it's not easy.  After all, "busy work"  is a waste of your time and theirs.