Taking a moment to breathe

This week in my classes we took a moment… moment to relax a bit, a moment to catch our breath, a moment to build community, a moment to move outside our normal classroom activity.

Day of the dead is a Mexican holiday devoted to honoring those that have come before us and left this world.  It is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, very close to Halloween.  We took this week to learn about the holiday (and how it is different than Halloween), work on cultural projects, and do a little bit of celebrating.

The project my students completed is based on the work of Mexican print maker José Guadalupe Posada.  He depicted skeletons going about their daily lives as if they were living.  Death is not something to be feared in Mexican culture, and this is one way to show the inevitable link between life and death.  My students were charged to make a skeleton themselves, depicting it as a living person, or a character we see as alive.  They chose who they wanted and let their creativity shine.  They captured the idea that Day of the dead teaches us all…life and death are hand in hand…each a part of the other.

Here are a few examples of their work:

Belle

Jack Frost

Sulley

The other side to this week was the fact that we did something different than the norm.  My students loved the opportunity to relax a bit, think creatively, and produce.  Many times we get so busy with the day to day work of Spanish class that creative thinking can get pushed to the back burner.  The quality of their work abounded when given the time and space to work autonomously.

At the end of the week as we were finishing up projects and final products were arriving to class, there was an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment in my students.  They were excited about their own work and the work of their peers.  They asked to see other projects and celebrated a job well done.

Building a sense of community is of paramount importance in the classroom, and last week played an enormous role in the continuous construction that goes on in my environment.  We can never stop building culture.  Everyone benefits from a moment to breathe.  I have a feeling that the intrinsic motivation levels for my students got recharged this past week, and I can’t wait to see what they produce in the coming days.

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!

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.

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!

Get out of the pressure cooker!

“It hurts students to accept sloppy or incomplete work, so give it back and release yourself from the pressure of deadlines.” Power of ICU – Dr. Jayson Nave and Danny Hill

Guadalupe’s story

On the first day of school last year I had a quiet, shy girl approach me.  Guadalupe (her chosen Spanish name) was in one of my sections of Spanish 2 and she asked if we could talk.  She let me know that she didn’t feel she could ‘hack it’ at level 2 and wanted to move down.  This is a frequent occurrence during the first week of school as I have high school freshmen and many get overwhelmed rapidly.  As I normally do, I asked her to stay for two weeks, let me really see where her readiness level was, and to relax!  Beginning high school is a daunting task, and many times after a few weeks things calm down.

Over the next two weeks, I informally assessed her level of proficiency with the activities we did in class.  She was appropriately placed, but definitely lacked confidence.  I spoke with her and let her know I felt she could do the work and that she should stay.  By that time, Guadalupe had made a few friends in the class and reluctantly agreed.

Things got better for Guadalupe, she was practicing her skills in Spanish and found that her readiness was very similar to other students in the class.  She was growing, improving, and gaining confidence.

BUT THEN

We had an assessment to complete – students had to record themselves speaking in Spanish, an assignment that generally evokes fear in the language classroom.  She had practiced in class, so I gave her the iPod to record herself and off she went.  I was roaming the classroom while she recorded, helping other students and giving feedback…when I saw it.  Guadalupe was staring down at her palm where obviously she had written what she wanted to say.

I had a decision to make – do I react to this, get upset with her, and dole out some harsh consequence, or do I take a deep breath, walk over there, and talk with her about it.  It may sound like an easy decision, but if you teach you know how hard it is not to be upset when you see a student cheating.  You are disappointed, angry, and hurt.  You feel like the trust between you and that student is broken.  I had to decide who was going to be in the pressure cooker, me or her.  Was it I or she who needed to learn from this?  Turns out it was both.

I took a deep breath and walked over to her.  I got down on her level and spoke quietly.  I asked her what she had done to practice and why she didn’t come talk with me about feeling unprepared.  I reminded her that learning was more important than a due date.  She was embarrassed, sad, and expecting punishment.  I am sure by her reaction to me that behavior similar to this was punished with zeroes in the past.  I told her to go home, practice, and let me know when she was ready to reassess.  I explained I didn’t have any evidence of learning until she did this.  She was shocked, thanked me, and left for the day.  I exhaled.

The next week, Guadalupe came in and recorded her speaking.  I eagerly listened to it and discovered she had really worked hard to improve and feel ready.  We had done it!  We had taken a bad situation and turned it into a learning experience.  This was pivotal for me as a teacher and for her as a student.  Over the rest of the year she worked very diligently in my classroom in part because of the relationship we had built.

I learned so much from this experience… I will never put myself in the pressure cooker again about accepting inadequate or incomplete student work.  It is their responsibility to show me proficiency, and mine to seek the evidence.