Monthly Archives: August 2013

Moving toward September

As I work through my third week of school, I finally feel like things are settling down a bit.  From the whirlwind first three days, to the introduction of genius hour, and time spent getting to know my kids, we are ready to get into a bit of a routine.  This week, I am introducing my learning contract for our first thematic unit.  I enjoy giving my kids a contract for each theme to allow them to drive their learning experience, find good practice and resources, and gain essential feedback prior to our summative assessments.

I love to see the student responses once I show them that the ownership is theirs.  Fear and anxiety always appear – concerned that they won’t make the right decisions about practice or pacing.  I remind them that this is my role.  I will help them when they feel stuck, guide them when they feel lost, encourage redos and retakes whenever necessary, and further them on the road to autonomy in their learning.  That is our job in high school, is it not?  Before we send our kids on to colleges, universities, the military, trade school, or the workforce, don’t we want to make sure they know how to learn on their own?

The first theme/contract is always a precarious one.  I need to give them autonomy and control while showing them all the resources, practice, and feedback available.  What I usually end up doing is meeting with small groups of kids to offer suggestions and give some feedback not only about their Spanish, but also their decisions on practice and assessment.  I talk to them about practicing until they feel ready for an assessment, and remind them they should be retaken until they reach the level of proficient or distinguished.

I also want to make sure that I infuse some incredible learning experiences for my kids this year.  Experiences that we share together no matter where each individual student is on their journey.  This is something I struggle with as I need to let my kids grow, improve, and learn at their own pace, yet want collective experiences as well.  I do have deadlines for my assessments each theme (although they can retake after the deadline to improve their mastery) so I am thinking I could capitalize on the days following those deadlines to create some unique adventures where we apply what we have learned.  Stay tuned for those, creative ideas take time to develop!

Here’s to a routine, but holding a few tricks up my sleeve to keep them on their toes!

Meet the parents

I had my yearly curriculum night this week, an evening that some teachers dread.  Even though it makes for a long day (and night), I enjoy the experience of meeting the parents, letting them see a bit into their child’s world, and hopefully getting them on board with what I do in my classroom.

My biggest challenge with this night – I only get 10 minutes with each class to explain my grading system, how to get extra help, my curriculum, my expectations, contact information, etc.  Any of these could take up all 10 of those minutes, but I must carefully divide my time, try not to overwhelm my parents, and maintain my enthusiasm for learning and their children.

So, here is what I did this year.  I welcomed my parents and thanked them for taking the time to come and learn about my class.  I let them know various ways to get in touch, and included my blog address and twitter handle.  I set out my expectations, which are:

  • Work hard every day.
  • Have fun.
  • Search for learning in every experience.
  • Relentless pursue success and mastery of the standards.
  • Be kind.

At this point, I could see parents nodding along with me, and looking like they were agreeing with what I had to say.  So far, so good!  After that I needed to get into my differentiated methodology and standards based grading system, but I had to tell them one more thing first.  I said, “You need to understand that your children and their learning is the most important thing to me.”  At the high school level we can get very bogged down with curriculum guides, standardized testing, and content standards.  I knew that it was imperative for me to communicate that learning is the focus of my room, relationships are key, and once those are in place the rest will follow.

I spent the rest of my time explaining how I differentiate for all learners, how standards based grading works and makes grades meaningful, how redos and retakes impact student success and learning, and how we would infuse technology in the classroom.

By the end of the night, there were many thank yous and smiles as they went on to their other classes, but my favorite comment of the night from one parent was “Thank you for all your enthusiasm, my daughter loves your class.”

Bring your enthusiasm and love of learning to your class each day, and extend it to your parents!

Tapping into the genius – genius hour week 1

I enjoyed sharing the concept of genius hour so much with my students this week, that I actually had a little bit of a let down the day after.  It was like the day after Christmas, when there is a great level of satisfaction along with that little sadness that the anticipation is over.

We watched Ashton Kutcher’s acceptance speech at the 2013 teen choice awards, and talked about the fact that they were all geniuses.  There were a few chuckles, but by the end of the period I had changed some opinions.  Then I put up a slide with the following question:

What if…I let you learn about whatever you wanted?

There was a hush in the room, and then I started to hear responses such as:

  • Cool!
  • I would be interested.
  • Awesome!
  • I would like it.
  • It might be chaos.
  • Yes.

Then I let them know that I would.  Genius hour would be every Monday and they would get to pursue a topic that they cared about, that they were passionate about, that was important to them.  I told them that they mattered, and they mattered now.  Too many times we tell adolescents that they will matter one day – when they are adults, or when they have made something of themselves.  I disagree with that sentiment, these kids can matter now, they do matter now, and we are going to do something about it.

We moved into brainstorming next, and the topics that came up were wonderfully varied.  The lists included sports, music, dance, theater, bullying, the environment, famine, the media, technology, people who are treated unfairly, and on and on.  Some poured out their ideas and others sat very contemplatively.  I could tell they had some ideas stirring, but were not ready to share them yet.

Many of my kids told me that it was hard to think of what they would like to learn more about or investigate because they had never been asked before.  They are used to coming to school, being told what they need to know and going back home.  What we were starting was so different, so huge, it was difficult for them to wrap their brains around.

We finished the day with some discussion surrounding potential topics.  They talked to each other to see about collaborative groups, share some of their passion, and see how they might be able to move forward together.  I told them to let their ideas simmer for the week, not to make any decisions right away.  A pep talk from Kid President left us reminded to be awesome and that we are all on the same team.

Next week, we move into the computer lab to start researching potential topics and see what is out there.  This is one reason I didn’t want them to make many decisions on day 1.  They need to see how they can learn about their topic in Spanish, and then transition to work on pitching their project.

Until next week, recognize your inner genius!

Anticipating the genius

You are a genius and the world needs your contribution. –Angela Maiers

It all started this summer on twitter.  I was looking through my feed, and something caught my eye.  I kept on seeing “genius hour” being spoken about.  Naturally, I was curious and decided to find out more.  The more I found out, the more I loved the idea.  This was a concept I could get excited about!  My students could pursue their passions in my classroom and really own the experience.  They will impact themselves, their classmates, and even the world.  

I just finished up my first week of school, three days with my new students, and it was quite an experience.  We started by getting to know each other, exploring our learning environment, discovering how we would find success, and even had some fun!  Monday begins our journey with genius hour, and I can’t wait.

I am looking forward to next week so much – eagerly anticipating what passions my students will pursue.  We are going to start our first session with an explanation of the genius hour concept and then have a brainstorming session.  I am going to provide different prompts for my students on large paper throughout the classroom.  They can add as many ideas as they want, and we will narrow it down later on.  Here are my ideas for the brainstorming posters:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you wonder about?
  • How can you change the world?
  • What breaks your heart?
  • What bothers you?

Once I feel we have exhausted our ideas, it will be time to collaborate and begin to make decisions about topics.  Students will be encouraged to work in small groups, but if there is an individual that would like to work alone that is acceptable.  Throughout the first semester, the focus will be learning about our topics in the realm of Spanish language and/or culture.  We will share out in December our findings and new learning.  The students can choose how to present the information they have learned.  Second semester, I will ask them to take their new learning and figure out how they can change the world with it.

I hope Mondays take on an entirely new reputation in my classroom and become something we look forward to.  I will be blogging about our journey as we make new discoveries, learn language, and explore different cultures.  I will let you know next week how it goes!

pipe-cleaner-a

A glimpse into their world

Wow, what a day!

Today was my first day of the 2013-14 school year and it was a game changer for me.  I began today with my message clear.  I wanted to get to know a little about my students, let them know this class would be different than others, and tell them a bit about me in the process.

I opened by talking to them briefly about the class, but not in the traditional manner.  Here is what I said.

Get ready for the experience of a lifetime!  Welcome to your Spanish travel adventure.   I will be your tour guide and if you think this is going to be one of those boring, documentary style trips…think again!  We are going to have fun, get experiential, and hopefully learn along the way.  We will do everything in our power to make learning Spanish relevant, meaningful, fun, and easy.  Wait a minute…did she just say easy?  Yes, we will work with your brain, learning style and preferences to make learning Spanish as easy as possible this year.  You will work with your travel mates (take a look around…see the wonderful group we are travelling with?) to develop language, communicate in an entirely different way, and build a community of learners.

You will pursue your passions in this classroom through a concept called genius hour…To be continued next week.

We will focus on learning.  There are no points in this class, only standards, feedback (from me, your classmates, and yourselves), and assessment.  The word homework is not used here, only practice.

We will embark on  our journey soon, but there are some  housekeeping details we must attend to before departure.

_____

After this, we took attendance and took care of any misplaced students.  Our next activity was to figure out Spanish names.  I let my students decide what they would like to be called in my room, as long as it is in Spanish.  I know this is not reality when they step outside my room, but they really enjoy choosing an identity for class, and we always seem to learn some new words along the way! (I had a student today that chose Sacapuntas as his name – Pencil Sharpener)

The final activity for the day was to take pipe cleaners and create something that tells about them.  Here are a few examples:

Fish
Swimmer
Musical note

We closed by introducing ourselves and the pipe cleaner creations we made.

The moment of the day was when one student approached me on his way out the door. “It was nice to meet you.  I can tell I am really going to enjoy your class.”

Edu-Win.

beforeclassroom3

Ready, set…

The new school year is right around the corner, today is Friday and this coming Wednesday is opening day.  I am thrilled to welcome my new students, introduce them to my learning environment and start the journey.  I am working with my space a little differently this year; below are a couple before pictures of my classroom.  I always love to see the transition from plain walls and boards to a lively space ready to receive students, so this year I decided to take pictures and document a bit.

I am so fortunate to have a large room and tables to work with, and I want to make sure I arrange my room carefully for what I have planned.  I tend to move things around a lot depending on our needs, but to begin the year I need four groups, so that is my table configuration.  I also wanted to leave a lot of bulletin board space open for my students this year.  I moved all my other decorations (posters, etc.) to the walls to leave my largest board for student work and a smaller one for gamification stats.

When students arrive, they will get a ticket with two pipe cleaners attached as they walk in the door. The ticket is a glimpse of the adventure they are about to embark upon, and the pipe cleaners will soon let me know a bit more about them.  This year will be framed as one huge journey, with stops at each theme (unit), but the ultimate destination will be learning.  We will take different paths to the destination, but the expectation is that all will arrive in the end.  The pipe cleaners are mimicked off of Dave Burgess’ idea in his book Teach Like a Pirate, he uses play-doh the first day to have the kids mold an item that tells him something about themselves.  I will be doing the same thing with less messy pipe cleaners.  This gets all my learners engaged on the first day and helps me get to know them at the same time.  There is visual, auditory, and kinesthetic input, and a fun atmosphere on top of it all.

I look forward to seeing how the first day plays out and I am sure I will be blogging at some point during the first week to share my experiences.

Have you set up your learning environment yet?  Share and we will all benefit!

To open the year

The first few days of school are crucial to set the stage for the year. I have spent significant time thinking about how I want to open the year and what I would like my students to leave either saying or thinking about my class. Here are my thoughts…

  • This is going to be fun!
  • She actually knows my name and wants to learn about me.
  • I wonder what we are going to do tomorrow?
  • Is she that way everyday?
  • I will find success in this class.

Fun is first on the list because I want my kids to look forward to coming to class. We can absolutely accomplish our goals for the year while having a great time in the process. There will be smiles starting the first day and every day following (can you tell I am not one of those don’t smile until after Christmas people?). Not everything will be easy, but stress levels can be reduced for a difficult task by making the learning environment an enjoyable, fun place to be. Each day will start with music not only because I love it, but because music is such an important part of the adolescent life. I started this last year and my kids would tell me how it was like entering another world when they came in.

Relationships are of utmost importance  I get to know my kids names within the first couple of days but I must not stop there. The primary focus during the first week is to form those critical relationships. I need to get to know my students as fast as humanly possible and let them know that I am a person as well. I am not some entity that lives at school, but a mother, wife, reader, learner, runner, and more. If I can give them a window into my passions, hopefully they will give me a glimpse of theirs.

Keep ’em coming back for more! One thing I am trying for the first time this year is to leave them hanging a bit at the end of each day.  This has worked countless times in books, television shows, etc. Why not use a little anticipation in the classroom? I have seen my children in the days leading up to Christmas and the excitement is palpable. Now, I don’t expect that this will be to the same level, but the same principle applies.  I want my class to be engaging, interactive, and a little different each day. Do you remember from your school experiences the class that was the exact same each day? Was it your favorite?
  
I want my students to wonder if I can possibly keep my enthusiasm level up for 180 school days. I love teaching and this should be present in everything I do. I also love Spanish and can’t wait to introduce them to a new language, new cultures, and a more global perspective. Enthusiasm is contagious, and I am ready to let it spread and grow in my classroom  And on the days when my enthusiasm wanes? If I have worked this out correctly, my students will bring enough to share with me.

Success will need to be loosely defined in my class before we pursue it. I will give my students the standards and let them determine the path to achieve mastery. I say loosely because I don’t want to stifle my students creativity or achievement by setting the bar and just waiting for them to get there. I want to encourage them to go beyond, the possibilities are endless. There are only so many things that I can imagine for them, but they can go much farther.  I tell my students that we will find success no matter the struggle and that it is worth all their effort.

So, as I am planning the specific activities for the first few days of class, this is what I am going to keep in mind.

What do you want your students to say and think after your first week?