Saturday, September 10, 2016

Healthy Learning Community

 It is the beginning of the school year and one of the things I think about a lot of this time of year is building strong learning communities with each of my groups. This is not a new concept and certainly educators for years have been doing just that. However, we all know that some learning communities are healthier than others and that never becomes more evident than one stops working. This whole idea feels a bit more personal to me this year, because after twenty-three years I have found myself in search of one in the form of a new church. There is a lot things that have played a role in choosing a new place of worship, and in many ways what I was looking for has mirrored what I believe a healthy learning community should be. Throughout the years I have truly been blessed to be part of several healthy learning communities and my experiences have taught me that they do not just happen, but they take work and are strategically planned. 

As a learning community is being built I believe it is important remember that not all the members are going to have the same gifts, knowledge and enter the community at the same place. This means there will need to be a scaffolding activities to meet members needs. This is why procedures and systems need to be planned and followed. It will also mean that leaders might need to relinquish some control over the details of the process. I will be the first to admit that relinquishing up control as an educator can be tough, because it is more comfortable for me to know when and how things are being done. However, by the leader remaining in control we would all miss out on so much learning and growth. Within the Gifted Laboratory we have implemented several inquiry framework, such as Genius Hour and Challenge Based Learning (CBL), where my students have been involved with everything from topic selection to their solution development. As we made our way through each of these projects we have all learned a ton. At the same time, I have been involved in "learning communities" as an adult where these same principles have applied. One example would be Discovery Educator Network (The DEN), where members are encouraged to see needs within the community and then empowered to work together  to meet those needs. By giving community members a voice it not only builds the capacity for more knowledge to be gained, but it also builds trust. 

Also in healthy learning communities there will need to be a safe place for questioning, which means all members will need to feel comfortable asking any question at anytime. Teachers/leaders will have to learn to be comfortable with true exploration and/or being asked questions they may not have the answers to. As an educator, it has taken me awhile to get to use to and relax in the fact that I don't have all the answers. If I truly believe that questions are the birth place of understanding I will need to allow myself to be seen as a fellow learner and not the dispenser of all information.

Another principle I believe is that healthy learning communities need to include a growth mindset, which means that we believe that our talents and abilities can be developed through persistence. With growth mindset there is the expectation that one "gets smarter....." by preserving through challenges and these should be embraced as learning opportunities. There needs to be grace for those who don't get things right the first time,  and we all need room to fail. All members need to be seen as having the potential and are encouraged to grow. That failure is not seen as an end result, but dealt with and learned from with integrity. 

Finally,  I truly believe that at the core of a healthy learning community is JOY.  Learning is work, but that does not mean it has to drudgery. Strong learning communities know how to laugh and find enjoyment in each other. Sure there will be disagreements and times of frustration, but how a group learns to deal with that is what is important. I believe that learning to deal with these effectively is by building a strong foundation. This can be done in part by providing fun group building activities periodically. I have heard that a family that plays together stays together and I believe that is true about learning communities as well. Here is one of my most recent experiences with that principle in mind, which occurred at the Discovery Educators' Summer Institute (DENSI 2016) in July.

As I close, I want to give a shout out to those leaders who have worked so hard to strategically plan for the learning communities I have been blessed to be apart of. I have learned way more than you know and I will be forever grateful. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Need Challenge Based Learning (CBL)

   When I began using CBL with my students back in 2009 I knew it was a framework that we could use to cover the Florida Framework for K-12 Gifted Learners well, but it has also brought something else into light for both my students and myself. Within the CBL framework students are called to work hard to fully understand an issue completely before coming up with a solution, but when we look around the world today that is not what we are seeing. It seems like with so many issues we watch people take polarizing sides (sometimes aggressively) without truly understand the issue as a whole. 

I recently went and saw the Matthew McConaughey's War Drama Free State of Jones, which tells a different side of the Civil War and The Southern Reconstruction Period than what we find in our American History books. It tells the story of the Mississippi man, Newton Knight, who deserted from the Confederate Army and fought against slavery and injustice in the south. It also tell how one of his ancestors, who was one eighth African American was arrest in the 1960's for marrying outside of his race. That story along with the race issues that still remain in our country today I have to wonder if William Faulkner was right with his quote- "The past is never dead. It' is not even the past. " 


With all that said, this post is not meant to enter a race debate other than to point out that with race, like so many other issues of today (economy, how to handle modern immigration, education....), there is a need for us to dig deep and fully understand an issue before taking a stand or creating a solution. 

Here is my real point, it is our job as educators to prepare our students for THEIR future. If we were honest, we have no idea what that future is going to look like, except that they will encounter real world problems. These problems will not come in nice neat packages, which is why I am so thankful for the CBL framework. This framework is teaching us to slow down enough to define our problems and then fully explore them before coming up with solutions. How much better would our world be if we all did that? 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Scaffolding with SOS


      For the last several years now Discovery Education (DE) has been publishing their incredibly helpful Spotlight on Strategies (S.O.S) Series.  According to DE,  "Spotlight On Strategies (S.O.S.) are creative, research-based instructional strategies, presented by teachers for teachers. These simple instructional strategies incorporate digital media in meaningful, effective, and practical ways."  If you have missed this gem on the DE website it can be found on the Professional Development Page.   Based on the feedback of DE users the layout and how these strategies have been presented has been improved upon. These strategies are now organized by skill and include written and video directions for using that particular strategy.  This has become one of my first places to go to when lesson planning and I LOVE that DE is a company that truly listens to their users, but unfortunately you must be a DE user to enjoy The S.O.S. Series. It has been my experience that by themselves they are each powerful, but can be even more powerful when utilized together.

         In that earlier post In My Own Words??, I had proposed as set of questions that I needed to ask myself and if I were honest those questions are haunting me some. However, the one thing I believe that has worked to help guide my students to deeper thinking in the past was scaffolding. Last year, we explored Who's Santa? and Exploring the Southern Reconstruction,  where one strategy was utilized to gather information and another strategy for organizing the collected information. With Veterans' Day this year I again used scaffolding to both assess and get students to think just a bit deeper on this important subject. The first thing I did was pulled a clip about Veterans' Day from DE to use. I selecting one from one entitled Observing the Holidaywhich about four minutes long. Then I combined the S.O.S. Strategies - Silence is Golden and the Visual Thinking Routine See-Think-Wonder

Here what we did:
-On a page within their Interactive Notebooks I had students divided that page into three columns and label them See/Think/Wonder.

-We then watched the video without the sound and stop it ever 30 seconds to a minutes (depending on the age of the students). Students were instructed to only write down what they saw in the video.

-Each time the video was stopped I ask the students to think and to record their thoughts in the center section of their paper. At this point of our activity we would discuss what they saw and thought about it. I would encourage students to explain why they might have those thoughts and many times the response will be it reminded me of something.... I labeled this as the skill inferring and encourage my students to do the same.

-We would repeat this process until we the video is complete.

-After the video was complete we did a variation of the S.O.S. Quick Write. Students were asked to use there notes on See/Think/Wonder and write what they thought this video was about.

-Finally, we watched the same video with sound to check for accuracy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

In My Own Words???

As I have mentioned in several other blog post over the last two years about our use of Interactive Notebooks within our Gifted Laboratory.  Implementing Interactive Notebooks have been somewhat of a challenge for me, as an eductor, but the benefits they provide have been so worth the effort. One of the benefits that I had not anticipate was how their use has effected how I both access and instruct. I believe that learning takes place in the process and before implementing of our Interactive Notebooks  I was doing my best to assess and instruct there as well. With the use of our Interactive Notebooks it has been much easier to recognize patterns in individual students and groups. Identifying where an inquiry process has first stepped off the track can be difficulty at times, but correctly diagnosing can save a lot time and frustration on everyone's part.The latest of these revelations has to do with asking student  to put things in their own words. While exploring a topic of research students will simply just copy information directly from the book or website into their notes. Then when they are asked to put the information into their own words they are truly confused about what to do. Sure we have discussed the issue of plagiarism and students usually become insulted that you are accusing them of cheating. Besides, I honestly believe that students weren't copying for copying sake, but that it is done out of a lack of knowing exactly what to do.

At first glance, one might think this situation stems from either a reading or a writing issue, but most of the time it is a combination of the two. To spite the numerous reading strategy lessons given by myself and general education educators my students' blank stares still remain when asked to put what they learned into their own words. We, as educators, do a wonderful job of introducing students strategies and calling them readers, but how are we doing about the follow through of those beliefs. Honestly, this whole thing has left me with some tough questions to answer. Most of which have more to do with how I, as the educator in the room, has been approaching the process. Such as: Am I truly guiding students  in their process or have I limited them by defining everything from the task to the process in which students report out on that process? Are the mini-lessons, graphic organizers and/or task encouraging students to be independent thinkers? We read our manuals, find ideas on Pinterest, buy a Teachers Pay Teachers Unit ......... we assign students graphic organizers to fill out, but many times these things just become a different set of blanks to fill in. We might even call it a think sheet, but the real question we should be asking ourselves is, are my students doing any real independent thinking hereHave we left a safe place for students to struggle and fail within the reading process? Have they watched and learned enough during our mini-lessons to be able to get information into our organizers to look efficient? Have we designed our lesson or activities in such a way that allow my former question to be true?Last year, I wrote a blog post about scaffolding and I realize now this scaffolding needs to happen early and often. When possible students should be encouraged to select their own graphic organizers. Choice and voice should not just be considered in the what of research, but also the how of research. Yes, I understand that not all students are ready to self select tools and that in having all my students use the same one it makes the assessment process easier. However, I do believe it is never too early to begin to discuss with students about why certain graphic organizers are used and if another could be used in its place. The truth is real-world problems do not come in a nice neat packages and learning to tackle them will take practice. I must find a better way for my students to do just that, which too will take practice. Right now, I am still sorting out these nagging questions. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Monday, June 8, 2015

Reading Across State Lines Round 2 -Final Project


Professional Growth 2014-15

The two SMART Goals that were met were:
Goal #1:  By the end of the 2014-2015 school year, 80% of gifted 4th grade students will score a seven or higher using the FSA writing rubric as evidenced by the district writing assessment.

Goal #2:  By the end of the 2014-15 school year,  80% of the fourth grade  gifted students will be reading  at or above grade level as measured by their Developmental Reading Assessments.

Based on observation and data collected within the gifted program I feel that Making Thinking Visible Routines, scaffolding of strategies, interactive notebooks, defining expectations, and our collaborations with others have all worked together to make an impact on my students' growth this year.

First, I really feel that our work with Making Thinking Visible Routines or Visual Thinking (MTV) truly deepen the thinking that went on within the four walls of the gifted program, which in turn improved my students writing. This happened over and over again at all grade levels. Good writing starts with good thinking and these simple routines do a great job of guiding students in deepening their thinking around just about any subject matter. Students reflections within their interactive notebooks were nothing, but positive towards these routines. The routines touch on the affective side of the students’ thinking. Although deeper thinking was required of my students they relish and invite this thanks to the guides of these routines.  I am a real big fan!! Over the last couple months,  I have been working with Susan Bowdoin, Media Specialist, Instructional Coach and Discovery Education friend from Albuquerque, New Mexico to produce a few Spotlight On Strategies (SOS) blog post for MTV Routines to be published on the DE website. I only promote strategies that work well with my students and  I truly believe The MTV Routines have had the biggest impact on the Gifted Program this year. I am looking forward to next year to continue our work with them.  When something works I feel obligated  to say so and the first of these post on DE  was published on May 12th.

Still there were times when I noticed that MTV Routines and other graphic organizers had to be scaffolded to help students take their thinking and organize it into a piece of writing. This really came to light as I watched students conduct research and organized notes into their interactive notebooks, but then never return to the materials to finish a task. This was an issue across the board at all grade levels and at both schools so that is when I began to start playing around with scaffolding. This is ongoing brain mental work for me and I am constantly adjusting for age and ability of the groups I work with. It is not always perfect, but I have seen some improvement.  In December I shared an example of this in a blog post " Who is Santa?- A Lesson Comparison Writing" .

Another area I am still working on with the students to define expectations for different purposes of writing and even pieces of writing. For example; we spend some time creating a list of what a good reading response is, what is meant by text evidence, what is a good reflective piece.... for each grade level or group. I am still trying to work on how to make these charts...readily available for each  group with the space I have. Trying to find the balance between having a literacy rich environment, but not creating an ADHD student’s nightmare.  We also worked with the utilized a rubric designed by 5th grade teachers in hopes of getting them ready. Admittedly, this is an area I struggle with and will continue to work. I need to bring the students more into this process of defining  what good and/or complete work.   (See change to the plan for more on that)

Finally, I believe in our need to create and participate in Collaborative Learning Communities where relationships are fostered and learning takes place in the context of those relationships. Although my original thoughts on this plan was that would just collaborate with fourth grade, I feel it doesn’t paint the whole picture of my collaboration in relationship to these goals. I do my best to model my participation within  several different communities of learners. I have a reached out to educators on both Oneco and Prine Elementary Schools campus, visited different grade level meeting, participated in book clubs (Making Thinking Visible, To Understand, Learning in the Fast Lane….), held many impromptu conversations in the hallway (many around these ELA goals), and popped into certain teachers classrooms to unofficially observe . Also, thanks to organization like Discovery Education and other interactions online I have been able to build an active Professional Learning Network (PLN)  that is a priceless resource for me (esp. in my current position).  I am in contact with other educators throughout the US and beyond daily through text, email, Twitter, Facebook, Google Hangout/Skype, Edmodo.... and much of that work relates to these ELA Goals. Through my PLN I have been about to collaborate, plan, and implement several projects related too and design to hone the standards within these two goals. There were our  two online Virtual Literature Circles (Oneco 5th graders with a Private Middle School in Iowa/Oneco 4th with two schools in Escambia County, Florida).  During these virtual literature circles ELA skills were honed through; Interactive notebook, reflective writing, MTV Routines and scaffolding of strategies. Through each of these books,  students' responses grew to be more well thought and deepened throughout the process (especially, in the case of Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson). I truly believe this was achieved by defining expectations and the ongoing modeling within Edmodo by myself and the other educators involved.  I have chronicled most of the fifth graders’ experience with virtual literature circles on my blog Thoughts and Tales of Digiduchess and these post were all tagged Reading Across State Lines.  On a side note, when students were asked to chose their three favorite activity in Gifted - Virtual Literacy Circles was number three. I felt like this was pretty impressive since 17 (K-3 students) out of  33 had not even  participate.

Next Year’s Plan
Due some of the weaker areas on my formal evaluation, exposure to Ellin Keene this Spring, reading her book To Understand,  students’ reflections, responses to our class climate surveys, and conversations with other educators I have decided to focus on creating a culture of thinking. In the spirit of beginning with the end in mind, I feel that I must define exactly what is meant by a culture of thinking and I will admit that I am borrowing this definition from my current reading Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools by Ron Richhart (Havard Researcher). The book states that within a culture of thinking: the focus should be on on the learning and not the work, teachers should teach for understanding rather than knowledge or facts, deep strategy work should be stressed, and independence should be encouraged.

Over the last several years, I feel I have been exposed to, read about, began to implement many useful strategies in creating a culture of thinking (Interactive Notebooks, (MTV) routines just to name a few)  …. and I need more time to dig deep, assess, refine and repeat this process. With this in mind, I would like to set up some sort of true Action Research, as spelled out in the book,  The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research: Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn Through Practitioner Inquiry by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey.

Some of the specific areas I would like to focus on next year would be:
-Classroom Talk-
  Teacher responses/ guiding thinking/setting up expectations.
  Student talk/strategies/ moves to encourage deeper thinking.
-Classroom physical environment that focus on deepening students thinking. This would include everything from furniture to student resources  (ex. Anchor charts how to use them effectively without being overrun by them. With a small space and different grade levels rotating through that space this is a huge challenge………..)

To achieve these goals I would like to:
-Observe teachers with strengthens that I would like to tap into. For example, I would really like to start with K. Lim’s classroom and observe "A  Grand Conversation".
-I would like to be officially put on the 5th grade team. I have visited a couple of their meetings and feel this is a team I could truly collaborate with. I have discussed joining them and have been assured that they would be in agreement with this.  We have also spoken about me joining their book study this summer on To Understand by E. Keene. I have read it, loved it and participated with J. Bradley this year. However, time was limited for book discussion and would love to discuss this book further.
-Throughout the 2015-16 school year, I need to be systematic about recording and completing self evaluations on these specific areas (possibly peer evaluations) on  lessons….. Might use Danielson rubric to help guide these self evaluations, but would be open to others as well.
-Throughout the year conduct stakeholder surveys that relate specifically areas of improvements.
-Incorporate other ideas from  Creating a  Culture of Thinking (ex. "Uncovering the Story of  Your School or Classroom" page 35 and "My Reflections on Learning Activities in this Class" Appendix A).
In other words, I would like to dig deep, experiment, collect data (that relates more specifically to moves being made), adjust and repeat to improve the atmosphere of  thinking in my classroom.