Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wait Before You Get Your Group On

We know that students need to learn to work in groups. As adults, few of us have jobs where we work in isolation all the time. I've often told students that they need to work in a group because they will have to learn to work with fellow employees. I've told them they need to learn how to get along with others, like neighbors, roommates and and future family members. I've told them they will need to learn to compromise on ideas in order to get a work project done, contribute to an athletic committee, decide on a school musical or plan a fundraiser.

I've watched enough horrifying, hand-over-the-eyes Project Runway "group challenges" and American Idol "group round all-night practice sessions" to know how wrong group work can end up.

All are valid reasons to engage students in different types of group work, or group "projects" so they can be successful later on. That skill, along with effective speaking and listening, are what I would consider life skills.

However, a recent question brought to our MN Educator Voxer group by a fellow teacher, who is also a parent, caused me to reflect on the use of groups in our classrooms. The frequency of group work, the weight of group work, and the skills needed for group work.

As I prepared for my first observation by my instructional coach (Erik), my use of group work was on my mind.

I've been touting the benefits of teaching speaking and listening skills for a long time (see this post about teaching PVLEGS ). I know that it takes a concentrated effort to include lessons on effective speaking in my daily routines. Once the ball gets rolling, like it has this year, practicing speaking just becomes part of what we do. I don't assume that my students are great speakers just because they can talk to their friends. I teach them.

What about working in groups? Do we assume that students are good at it because they've been working in groups since Kindergarten? Because they gather in groups in the hallway? Because they have been part of athletic groups, church groups, online video game groups?

Are we overlooking the fact that our students need direct teaching about how to work effectively in groups? What about informally assessing their ability to work in groups? Teaching specific lessons, with modeling and formative feedback.

In my class, once we have learned the PVLEGS of effective speaking, we'll watch strong examples as models. We'll videotape ourselves speaking, and then analyze the good, bad and ugly in order to make improvements. We'll have multiple opportunities to try speaking for various purposes and in front of various audiences. All this, before we ever give a big speech, or get graded on how well we speak.

Why then, don't we do the same for working collaboratively in groups? Why do we put students in groups on the first day, or even the first week, and expect them to work well together from the outset? Why are we surprised when there are arguments, when their work takes longer because they can't make decisions or compromise, when their workload is lopsided? Have we taught them how? Have we modeled what it looks like? Have we observed each other working in groups or videotaped group work and then analyzed it as a class? Have we showed part of an episode of a Project Runway group challenge or an American Idol group round where the members worked together effectively and were successful? Have we given students "mentor texts" for group work, like we do for writing?

Finally, are we monitoring the use of group work as a whole in our classrooms? Like how often we ask students to work in groups? Do they choose, or do we assign? How large are the groups? Halfway through my four sections of ELA today, I realized that I was asking students to work in groups of 5-6 to analyze a read-aloud. I hadn't given them enough time and practice working in groups of 3-4. Next time, I'll do better.

As middle school and high school teachers, do we check with our colleagues to even out the group work among our classes? Are they working in groups for each of us? How much is too much group work? Can we have too much of a good thing? Don't we need to work by ourselves sometimes, too?

I'm not offering any quick answers. However, thanks to this incredible colleague's Voxer question yesterday, I am giving the teaching and assigning of group work serious consideration.

It's a start.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Return of #stu2stuchat

     With any positive experience, it's natural to want to replicate it if at all possible. In this case, I'm talking about my little #stu2stuchat (Read this post to learn more.) 

     Last fall, I had the idea to start a student Twitter chat among students in my PLN members' classes. After teaching/modeling/practicing the basics of Twitter chats,  my students got pretty good at tweet-chatting. I had two English classes, and they each were able to engage in the chats once per month (since our schedule was every other week, alternating morning and afternoon). By the end of the year, we had discussed many topics and graduated from being Twitter novices to Twitter veterans. We kept track of the locations of the other classes, and looked for differences between comments from younger and older students. We explored choice books, geniuses/passions, student leadership opportunities, #youmatter (visited by Angela Maiers), writing activities, speaking and listening skills, and ways to continue learning throughout the summer.

This year, I moved from elementary school to middle school. Among other changes, I now have four sections of ELA (and one advisory block). I knew I wanted to continue #stu2stuchat, and had heard from past participants that they wanted their students to chat again as well. After considering the new logistics of making this chat work for an older, larger group with varied schedules, I needed to make some changes.

  1. An easy change was involving a broader age group. Instead of focusing on 4-6, like last year, I would love students in grades 4-12 to join in the conversation.Hearing from different age levels will give all students multiple perspectives on the same topic.
  2. Another necessary and painless change is transitioning from a scheduled live chat to a slow chat. Instead of scheduling and tweeting all questions within a 20 minute time frame, questions will be posted one per day, with students tweeting/commenting when they have time.
  3. Finally, #stu2stuchat will likely become a once-per-month activity since the chat will stretch out over the whole week.

I'll try to Storify each chat, so that you have the opportunity to review the comments made throughout the week. I'm not sure if I'll storify each day or each week; it will depend on the number of participants and tweets.

What will stay the same?

  1. After the initial teaching and modeling of Twitter and Twitter chats, students will be mostly responsible for the preparation and maintenance of the monthly chats.
  2. Students will write the questions, and students will work together to answer the questions.
  3. For me, students will continue to only tweet from our classroom, using our class account @gotwinsandy (with me logging in to Tweetdeck with my password). My students aren't old enough for their own Twitter accounts.
  4. Students will tweet in small groups. Great for discussion and collaboration. Too many tweeters (tweeting alone) clogs up the chat feed.

     I can't wait to introduce my students to the magic of Twitter chats on Monday. I'm sure they will soon see the benefits of chatting with other students outside our school/district/state. They'll likely learn valuable digital citizenship skills before, during and after each chat. Another benefit is the online communication practice they'll get (whether speaking/typing or listening/reading & responding). Many of these skills are not assessed on state tests, but they are valuable life skills.

     Our first slow chat topic, starting on Monday, September 29, is book recommendations. I think of it as a mini #titletalk. Each day will focus on a different genre, and the daily question will be posted by 7:00 EST. You and your class can tweet, reteweet and favorite as much or as little as you want, with no specific timeframe. You might even tweet in the morning, and then come back later in the day to see what was shared and whether anyone commented on your tweets.

So, get your students ready to talk about their book recommendations (and support their choices) all next week. I know that I can't wait!!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Owning My Teacher Failures

 I was talking with some teacher friends about what we share on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and our blogs. We wondered why people seem to only share the good ideas, events, or lessons. Online, most appear to be phenomenal teachers, always saying just the right thing to inspire that frustrated student. Finding just the right book to turn that reluctant reader into a hungry reader. Finding the perfect way to meet with all of their groups and conferring with each student. Choosing the perfect texts that lead to enriched literature circles, where all voices are heard and respected. Developing a writing conference system that encourages peer editing, gives timely feedback, and helps all writers flourish. Making every class period an experience, while having time to write a reflective blog post during their lunch hour.

      I'll be the first to admit that I only post the highlights of my days, the lessons that worked, the pictures of happy children reading their books or displaying their play-doh creations with smiling faces. I tweet out fantastic ideas and inspiring comments about my educational philosophy. But the truth is, there were an equal number of times when things didn't go so well.

Spoiler alert: I didn't rush to social media to share them.

Here's how I have failed these past two weeks. Brace yourselves...it ain't pretty.

  1. On the first day of school, we were supposed to have a picnic lunch with our advisory class on the soccer field. I brought out a Would You Rather book and planned to pose questions, leading to an engaging debate while we ate. In reality, I asked about 10 of these situations to the students right around me. However, many other students didn't quite get the message that we should sit together and ate elsewhere. We ended up going inside early, where I tried to give a school tour of a building I was still trying to find my way around.
  2. On our second day of ELA, I organized a book pass with newer books from our classroom library. However, I didn't think to have them take pictures of book covers with their iPads until later sections, had too many books in each bin (and wasn't careful to include a variety of genres in each one) and didn't leave enough time for them to share out before class was over.
  3. I knew Dot Day would look different this year, since I would only have each section for 50 minutes. I thought I wouldn't have time (in 45 min) to do dot art, so tried a shared/unique circle discussion activity that didn't quite meet the "make your mark" philosophy. I felt that I tried to do too much with this one activity and tried too hard to make a connection to the book The Dot that I'd read aloud the day before. I should have just had them make unique dot art or contribute to a group dot and called it a day.
  4. I introduced Biblionasium and Kidblogs on the same day, planning to get both icons on their home screen, and even thought I could have them write their first blog post. I forgot how long it takes for large large groups to accomplish this, especially with new iPads. I realized then, as I have many times since then, how much hand holding the students are used to from elementary. We barely got the initial login done. Then, the next day, I thought we could blog AND run through Article of the Week. Who was I kidding? Logging in and writing a first post (and publishing it) took most of our time. Oh well, my teammate Melissa said the benefit is that I am now planned for Monday.
  5. Finally, I engaged my advisory students in a Harmful/Harmless activity to inspire conversations about presenting a fake identity online (one of our digital citizenship lessons). However, there was too much movement that distracted attention away from the lesson they were to learn. After a few scenarios, I noticed the students gathering in clumps to chat before we could discuss why they made the choice they did. I should have had them stand/sit, face the side or given thumbs up and thumbs down to indicate how they felt. It would have allowed more time to share their reasoning. In addition, I missed a valuable opportunity to practice speaking.

However, I did do a few things right during the same time.

  • I read some incredible picture books, and started displaying them in the hall like Jilian Heise. Yes, I read aloud to my middle schoolers every day...picture books!
  • I gave my students read to self time for at least 10 minutes every day, which is one of my non-negotiables.
  • I taught specific lessons on speaking skills, and consistently identified, reinforced, corrected, and praised them as much as I could.
  • I book talked countless books to my students as they searched for just the right book for them, leading to many excited students who continue to read them.
  • I started an online community where my students can share their book love through weekly blogging on Kidblogs and their bookshelves on Biblionasium.
  • I learned all but a few names of the 140 students in my classes. Pretty good for just 8 days, with less than 50 minutes each. In addition, I built rapport with many and can comment on something specific about their hobbies or interests.

I'd say that's pretty good for the first week and a half.

My failures haven't made it onto social media, until now. Maybe if we all admitted when things didn't work out as planned, our tweets would better mirror our reality. We shouldn't be airbrushing our failures or photo-shopping out the "not so great lessons." It's those humbling experiences that inspire us to reflect and become even better teachers. Like my good friend Laura Wagenman shared with me recently, "When brain researchers watched people make mistakes and hooked them up to EKGs, they found their synapses were firing stronger, creating more learning. Thus, mistakes make greater connections in the brain and you get smarter."

If that's the case, I must be one of the smartest teachers around.

Who knows, I might be even smarter at the end of next week, too.

Will you?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Today, I Felt Like a Reading Teacher!

It was the day my students had been waiting for.

After a few days of gearing them up for reading, talking about books, modeling read-alouds and sharing my reading life (as well as making it past the multiple schedule changes), we were ready.

  • I had explained that they would have time to read IN CLASS every day.
  • I had shared how I've lovingly collected books for our classroom library over the past years, carefully selecting ones that current students would enjoy...hoping that my next year's students would as well.
  • I had shared how these books are like my babies, and we need to treat them carefully and keep them organized so others can find them.
  • I had reassured them that I trusted them to take these books home. (How else were they going to become WILD readers?)
  • I had book talked some favorites, and engaged the students in a book pass of recent acquisitions last week.

Today was the day they had been waiting for, ever since they walked into our classroom and saw the wall of books.

Anticipation had been mounting. Students had been asking..."When can we check out these books?"

Today was a day that I felt lucky to have four sections of ELA. Lucky to have 140 students. Lucky that I have this incredible job..

Today, I experienced the joy of students having pure, unadulterated BOOK CHOICE.
No required reading levels.
No limits.
No interference, other than to book talk and recommend favorites.

I was one of them, rediscovering favorite books among the bins.
We oohed and aahed as books were taken off shelves, held excitedly in our hands.
Front covers begged us to pick them up. Back covers assured us that this one or that one may be just the right book.

Students checked out my babies. Books I have read and loved. Books I wish I could reverse time so I could read them again without knowing what happens. However, a few students were rereading a favorite, and that thrilled me as well.

I had many incredible book conversations and witnessed books flying off our classroom library shelves.

What a beautiful thing to then see them start reading. Right there in the classroom.
OUR classroom, where choice reading is valued, where independent reading time is a non-negotiable.

This teacher is a reader. I model WILD reading and encourage my students to become WILD readers, too.

In this room we read.
In this room, choice is encouraged and respected.

Today, I felt like a reading teacher.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

I'm Not in Kansas Anymore

I just finished my first week as a middle school teacher. Yes, that's right...middle school. After more than 20 years as an elementary teacher (a generalist, a jack-of-all-trades), I finally made the move to secondary. What a difference.

One of my former administrators once said, "An elementary teacher loves her students, while a secondary teacher loves her subject." There is much truth in that statement. Over the past few years, I've found myself more and more drawn to one subject in particular...English.

Ok, it's more like I live and breathe reading, writing and speaking. I read book after book. I have added hundreds of books to my classroom library over the past few months. Most of my Twitter chats and Voxer conversations involve English-related topics. Even my edu-heroes (Men(tors) on Sticks post and Multiple Personalities) are teachers of reading, writing and/or speaking.

My career move to teaching middle school English was exactly right for me.

If that's true, then why does it feel so strange? Why have I spent so much time pondering how to do what I've been doing for the past few years? Why have I second-guessed myself? Why have I felt defeated because I haven't connected with every student and we aren't as "far" as we were the last few years?

I'm not in Kansas (elementary) anymore. It took a wise secondary English teacher (Erik, who is also my instructional coach) to help me realize that.

Thursday morning, Erik wandered in my room during my prep to chat since my door was open. We started talking, and I shared my frustrations with not knowing all my students' names and not having time to get to know their reading preferences. I'm used to having a few full days with my classes (two instead of my current four..and much smaller class sizes) to build our classroom community, engage in writing activities to express & reflect, and share hopes and dreams for the year.

Instead, every day there have been changes to my class lists. Students added, students transferred to other sections due to scheduling. So many faces I can't seem to remember without looking at their name tags. Minutes shaved off each class due to kids getting used to passing time and me getting used to taking attendance every hour. Locker issues and iPad distribution issues. Class sizes that range from 20 (my third hour) to 39 in my sixth hour.

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love this age and I love my students. They are wide-eyed and excited to be in middle school. They are still young and adorable. They love my humor and work best when we keep busy (which we have). They love listening to my stories and listening to me read picture books. They love having a choice of where to sit and having opportunities to talk and stand up when needed.

Some of my best middle school moments have involved giving my students the freedom they didn't have last year, but desperately needed. The freedom to talk in the halls (since they are such social creatures), the freedom to move freely around the school between classes, and the freedom to walk to lunch on their own. On the first day, when I opened the door and said, "Have a great lunch," a few students looked at me and couldn't believe I wasn't walking them to the cafeteria. No more taking lunch count in the morning. No more bringing down the cold lunch bucket. No more waiting for bus numbers to be called at the end of the day. And, drum roll please...no more recess (which in MN meant many indoor recess days)!

After talking with Erik on Thursday, I realized that although I knew my way around Kansas (elementary) and knew how to teach in Kansas, I would eventually learn how to navigate my way through this new place, too. He asked me to think about the rapport I built with my one class in the first week (having the entire day) and how it might take four times as long with four classes (and only 50 minutes each day). I was trying to be the same elementary teacher with a middle school schedule and increased student number. He predicted I'd drive myself crazy if I expected to do the same and be the same as before. What great advice.

I know I'll get to know all of my students. Not just their names, but their interests, their reading preferences and their writing styles. We'll become comfortable speaking and sharing with each other. We'll enjoy many books, take risks and make mistakes. We'll connect with other classrooms and share our voices on social media.

We aren't there yet. But I'm giving myself a break. Teaching middle school means it will take more time to develop my community of readers, writers and speakers.

I'm not in Kansas anymore. However, I sure like where my house landed.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The POWER of a PLN

Recently, I asked a question of one of my Voxer groups...a valued and trusted part of my PLN. The response and subsequent conversation was incredible. In fact, we are still in the middle of the discussion.

This experience caused me to reflect on the power of having a PLN. I have many different groups of educators in my PLN. This particular group of teachers all started off in 5th grade, yet despite a few grade level moves and one cross-country move, we continue to connect. They are: Jess-a 5th grade teacher from Chicago (@JessLif), Rob-a 5th grade teacher from NY (@Mr_U79), Rosy-a 5th grade teacher recently transplanted to Delaware (@rosy_burke), Cara-a former 5th, now 4th grade teacher from Kansas City (@cahillcara) and me...who recently made a job switch to 6th ELA in middle school. Quite an eclectic bunch, yet a close-knit and friendly bunch.

Today was a question about writers notebooks, reading response journals and/or iPads. My students will be 1:1 iPads, and I wanted advice about whether to use them for all writing or not. After this thoughtful discussion, I have a better understanding of the benefits and limitations of both tools, and I have a plan. Change is always a little scary, and hardly ever gets going without a hitch. Good educators question and seek advice on best practice. They reach out, as I did.

My PLN was there for me today.

I have another incredible PLN of Minnesota educators, who connect via Voxer. My "besties" Kim (@khurdhorst) and Jenny (@JennyWamsley), incredible principals like Brad (@GustafsonBrad), Mark (@PrincipalFrech), Dawn (@dawnbrown11), Jen (@jenhegna), Sharon (@SharonHendrix1), Tech leaders like Chris (@TurnbullChris), Leslie (@LPralleKeehn) and Andrea (@halversonandrea) and fellow teachers Kory (@korytellers) and Sarah (@SarahBosche1). We chat about life as MN educators, often discussing current issues and sharing ideas and accomplishments.

Then, there are my Twitter chat PLNs: #tlap, #5thchat, #6thchat, #sstlap, #satchatwc, #titletalk, #whatisschool, and most recently #2ndaryela and #ditchbook. Led by some of the greatest educators/authors/speakers and game-changers in the field of education, and joined by incredible educators from all over the globe, these chats push me and inspire me.

My PLN has expanded with a couple of new and exciting additions: Facebook groups. I feel lucky to connect with other like-minded educators in FB communities such as Notice & Note, 7th-9th grade ELA Teachers, and Kelly Gallagher Inspired Teachers. Members of these groups ask questions, share resources, vent, and seek advice. There is no hierarchy in this group. No fees collected. Just open, generous, incredibly knowledgeable educators with shared goals. These teachers want what's best for their students and know that more heads are better than one.

Of course, there is my new group of 16 teachers (including me) on my 6th grade middle school team. This is my daily face-to-face PLN. Except for one of us, Leona (@luinien), we all came from elementary. It's our first time at the middle school rodeo, and we will need each other for support, laughter, some tears, and camaraderie.

I am a better teacher because of the POWER of my PLN

I'm Ready For My Students

I'm ready for my students.

I'm done organizing and arranging my new classroom.

                                       My books are ready to be read.
                    My graffiti wall is ready for metallic penned book quotes.
                    My Wonder Wall is ready for questions and inquiry.
                    My door is ready to display students' summer reading.
                    My circle of tables/chairs is ready for discussions.
                    My counter is ready for the picture book read-aloud display.
                    My heart and mind are ready for their joys and struggles, their laughter,
                    their insight, their teaching, their stories, their hopes and their dreams.

      My classroom is not complete without my students.

      I'm ready for them.

      I'm ready for it to become OUR classroom.