Category Archives: learning environment

Survey says…

I asked my 9th grade students for narrative feedback on their first semester experiences in my classroom through a survey about our standards based learning environment.  We always have room to improve and grow, but we also have so much to be proud of.  My kids create the learning environment with me, and the responsibility for maintaining it is shared as well.


Several major themes seemed to develop from their responses – they enjoy the freedom to work at their own pace and choose their work, they do not feel stressed out regarding learning in my classroom, they feel safe to try new things and revisit their learning when proficiency levels are below the learning target, and they preferred a standards based grading system to emphasize learning over points, scores, and grades.  Here are a few examples of their responses:


On Freedom:
“I have the freedom to learn how I choose.”
“I like being able to have the freedom to do the things you need during class, without scripted backwork.”


On Stress Levels:
“I enjoy how unstressful the learning environment is.”
“I do not feel pressured to know everything right away – there is time to become proficient.”


On Safety of Learning:
“The learning environment is welcoming and makes you feel safe.”
“We can redo our assessments, so we can get better and better at it.”


On Standards Based Grading:
“I enjoy the learning atmosphere because of the grading system.”
“I like that we don’t have traditional grades, because it makes more sense.”



There is one more comment that I would like to highlight. It humbled me as it also reminded me what a huge impact we as educators have on kids.


“What I enjoy most about Spanish class is how I learn not only the language, but how to be something in the world.”

Expectation

As we opened second semester in my classroom, we did a variety of reflective activities that will help us make the next 18 weeks as productive as possible. We spent a day reestablishing the norms for our classes, and one of the things I asked my students was what they expected from me each day. Each class came up with a variety of things, and I was impressed. Here is the list of adjectives from my 5 classes:

  • supportive
  • kind
  • different
  • challenging
  • creative
  • fun
  • happy
  • kind
  • impactful
  • empathetic
  • trustworthy
  • honest
  • reliable
  • patient
  • confident
  • respectful
  • understanding
  • appreciative
  • outgoing
  • helpful
Quite an extensive list of expectations that I will do my best to fulfill! I was inspired by their thinking – most of these adjectives also came up on the expectations for themselves and their peers. My students realized that we all need to bring our best each day. Each person plays an integral part in the learning environment. We spoke about continuing to create a culture of learning in the classroom and how to do it. We decided together how important risk taking is to learning and determined methods to support each other through the process.
I am keeping the list of adjectives very visible by my desk as a reminder. My students have set the bar high for not only me, but for themselves. Time to support each other for the good of learning!

Pushing learning ‘out of the box’

Should learning be unsafe? As I consider the idea of unsafe learning, my answer would be a resounding yes.  As confusing as it may seem, I believe that unsafe learning happens in a safe environment.  Unsafe learning involves taking risks, making mistakes, and failure.  Unsafe learning pushes the envelope of innovation and creativity.  Unsafe learning challenges our students to push the ceiling higher, stretch their knowledge farther, and use content in new and exciting ways.  But how do we create an environment that fosters this learning in our schools and classrooms?  How do we facilitate innovation in a world that demands standardized tests, high stakes grading, and cultivates a fear of not being perfect?  We have spent generations in a safe learning mode where a one size fits all model indicates fairness, and competition and grades are seen as motivation.  We have a moral imperative to change this model and push learning to new levels, outside the traditional norms we have grown accustomed to – ‘out of the box’.


It begins with creating a learning centered environment – a safe place to try new things, grow, and improve.  True learning cannot be high stakes, standardized, conforming, or perfect.  Learning must be personalized and focused on the individual student and meeting their needs.  The culture of learning must be conducive to collaboration and growth.  Students must come in feeling comfortable, and leave feeling accomplished each day, while also sensing an urgency to work.  The role of the lead learner is an essential one – behaviors and learning must be modeled.  Educators must engage in unsafe learning themselves and model risk taking.  Students must own what they are pursuing and engage in challenging work.  This fosters the growth mindset essential for learning.


What does this look like in my classroom?


When you step into my classroom, learning is valued above all else. My students demonstrate proficiency and mastery of standards in a variety of ways.  Standards are posted, discussed, and exemplified in the formative work we complete. I share my own learning in the classroom, successes and failures. Learning and thinking are facilitated while creating a safe haven for my students.  Grades are only discussed when necessary – evidence and a focus on feedback for learning drive the experience.  Redos and retakes are a normal part of the learning process, and each day is a new opportunity to improve.  Once this safe environment is established, my students can dive outside of the box of traditional schooling without fear.


Our safe haven evolves throughout the year as I continually get to know and form relationships with my kids.  Formative practice is differentiated by readiness, interest, and learning profile.  Learning is happening in different ways, and at varying speeds in my classroom all the time.  Student choice is essential for growth and carries many imperfections as my kids learn how to make good decisions about their learning and practice.  At times poor choices are made, and it is my role to assist and guide, but not to mandate compliance.  When we dictate behaviors for our students, we deny them an opportunity to learn.  Failure can facilitate growth and improvement when it is handled properly.  I let my students know that they will fail before they succeed, and that learning is a journey of progress and recession, of struggle, frustration, and achievement.  Perfection is no longer a part of our goals, but rather proficiency and mastery.


How do you get your students to push ‘out of the box’ while helping them feel safe?

Best self, best work

It is the mantra at my school this year – Best self, best work.  Our administrators started the year at our kick off assembly talking to the kids about this phrase and what it would mean for their school year.  Each day since, the morning announcements end with “Best self, best work.”  The kids have actually started to say it along with my principal each morning.  So, I began to reflect…

What does it mean for me?

My favorite thing about this mantra is the idea of best.  Best doesn’t mean perfect or flawless.  Best isn’t the same thing every day for every person.  Best challenges without insisting on the superhuman.  Best is never ending, there is always room for improvement.  I would hope that our best shows growth throughout the school year.  Our best will give us a redo the next day, and the day after that.

The next piece to the mantra is self.  We each bring our own individuality to our learning community.  We need a variety of passions and strengths to give our students what they need each day.  Each member of the community needs autonomy to learn in their own way, students, teachers, and administrators alike.  Learning is a personal, individual activity and schools provide a place where we all share the experience.  We form relationships that in the end better ourselves at least as much as the academic studies, if not more.

And finally, not to be left out is the concept of work.  Learning is full of vigor and hard work.  If we don’t bring our best self, the work may seem impossible and more difficult than it actually is.  Learning is a demanding process, not to be taken lightly.  Work is a key part of the mantra, it is the promise that it won’t always be easy, but if you bring your best self and persevere, you will succeed.

The expectation is clear – bring your excellence, bring your individuality, and bring an inquisitive persistence to seek knowledge.  I can’t help but smile when I imagine the greatness that will abound if everyone just subscribed to this simple request each day.

Best self, best work.

Let’s go outside!

I said the magic words today in class…the ones that make students’ faces light up and cause smiles to emerge.  “Let’s go outside!”

It was a beautiful day today, temperatures in the 70s and partly cloudy.  Why keep these kids inside all day wishing they could just get a moment or two outside?  It is not that the activity we were doing couldn’t be done inside – of course it could.  But the beauty lies within this question…could we go outside for that?  Could we take advantage of the nice weather before yet another harsh Chicago winter bears down on us?  One of my goals for this year is to move my kids outside the walls of our classroom more often.  We can not only go outside, but use the other spaces within the school to provide a change of pace and setting.

Too many of our students go through the monotonous motions of their day – every day.  A simple act like moving our class to a different locale will make today memorable.  It takes an activity that might be easily forgotten and turns it into a shared experience of something different and fun.

Here they are outside!

Here’s to making every day as unforgettable as possible! 

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!

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!