Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Noise of Learning

I have discovered and come to enjoy EdChats on Twitter. It is a great way to learn from other teachers and share problems and solutions across the globe. A topic in an EdChat this morning was active learning and what it looks like. As I begin the process of moving to a more student-driven learning atmosphere in social studies, I have to have an idea in mind of what I want my classes to look like. I've always had one of the "louder" classrooms in my hall, sometimes to the detriment of learning, but I've always felt that there has to be conversation around learning and sometimes those conversations get pretty loud. Is this good? Well, for my classroom, yes.

I must admit that there have been times when I've walked down the hall, glancing into others' rooms, jealous of the quiet that these teachers can get from their kids. That never seems to happen in my room. What I've come to conclude is that we are different teachers and use our talents in different ways to get the most out of kids. I learn through active conversations with others, bouncing ideas off of others and thinking out loud. I learn loudly. I know that there is a time and place for quiet reflection, focus, pondering, imagining, dreaming and wondering. We do a lot of that in class, but since we are all together in class at the same time, I figure we should also do much of the collaborative work there. When kids have productive conversations, they do get excited. It's not misbehavior or intentional disruption, rather it is excitement at the exchange of ideas or the creating that is taking place. This is the noise of learning.

There have been times when I have had a class that had to be reined in more than I'd like because the group could not stay focused enough to learn. If the noise becomes a detriment to learning, then we have to find other ways to collaborate, whether it is to divide into smaller groups, move kiddos around, etc. The worst thing to do would be to throw out the collaborative piece because of too much noise. Problem solving through collaboration is an increasingly necessary skill to have and kids have to learn how to effectively do it using their talents and skills.

Because of the way I learn, loudly and with energy, that is probably why my classes are the same way. They are a reflection of my personality and my values as a teacher. It is why my classroom may be different than others teachers' classes. The other classrooms reflect the personalities and values of those teachers and they too skillfully get the most out of their kiddos. Mine is the blessing of the loud classroom. I wouldn't have it any other way!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Power of the Story

Social Studies - I did some planning with my colleague, Jill Right, today. I love brainstorming ideas with someone else, especially when our minds work differently and our thinking goes in different directions. That kind of give-and-take allows for me to see things I had not considered before. That's is the space in which learning occurs. It is also during these talks with colleagues (my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig, and I have these kinds of conversations constantly) that I get my best ideas. So do they! See, in my opinion, the BEST professional development sessions would be structured so that teachers are put in the same room with NO AGENDA and allowed to collaborate and create. They will, and what they come up with will be so much better than anything that would have been programmed for them.

In planning for the Medieval unit, we first plotted out the dates for the Socratic Symposium sessions. I love these events because kids usually come prepared, speak intelligently, agree and disagree with respect, and put forth their best ideas. I only facilitate these class discussions; I do not lead or dominate them. Jill and I plotted the dates for these discussions to make the planning for the rest of the unit more manageable. Each discussion will come at the end of 4-5 days of research on one of the Medieval learning goals. For example, if the learning goal is Feudalism, the kids will have 4-5 days to research and learn about it and then we will have our Symposium on Feudalism. That day of conversation should cement the concepts in the kids' minds. While reading online, watching video and finding other materials on the topic are great for learning, it is the conversation, the story, that really seals the idea for the kiddos. I believe that people's minds connect to stories, narratives, and they learn best through storytelling. That is why, even on the learning goals, I write "What is the story of Feudalism?" I want the kiddos to have the layers and textures, the full body of the historical events. They get that from the stories.

The Europe section of the Middle Ages is well mapped-out, the Kingdoms of Africa section is somewhat planned, and time is set aside for both assessment and the Inquiry Project. We are barely going to get everything in by the end of the year but if we have to cut some of the breadth to make sure we get the depth, then so be it. I would rather the kids connect to a few things really well than try to gloss over many things for the sake of "getting it in". What's the point? They will not remember a bit of it.

This unit will be good practice for next year. My plan next year is to conduct the entire year in social studies through a student-driven model. The feedback that I get from the kids at the end of this year will help me greatly in preparing and planning for next year.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mirror Images - Haven't We Been Here Before?

English Classes - When I first came to Webster Groves, members of the English department at the middle school and the high school were putting the finishing touches on a book for publication. In the book, Mirror Images: Teaching Writing in Black and White, these teachers described the challenges and victories of teaching writing in a workshop setting to middle school children with a particular emphasis on African American boys.  What they found was that the strategies developed to reach these boys worked with all children.  This was groundbreaking action research and the book was received with great acclaim.

While we have continued the work that these teachers began, over time we have had to modify our classes to accommodate new curriculum goals, some assessments, etc.  However, next year we are going to rededicate ourselves to teaching writing using the workshop model and delve back into Mirror Images, using it as a thematic backdrop for what we plan to do.  After all, the workshop model of teaching reading and writing is the ultimate student-driven model.  It puts the student front and center in their learning, empowering them to make learning decisions on a daily basis and fundamentally changing the role of the teacher from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side".  We have been using the workshop model to some extent in our classes but next year, we plan to make it the primary teaching framework. Sometimes, the best research and methodology is right under our noses!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Holding My Breath

Social Studies Classes - Late this week, I will give the social studies district assessment on the Classical Civilizations of Greece and Rome.  As soon as the kiddos are through with the test, we will begin the Middle Ages unit and change how we do things in class.  I reread the curricular topics to be covered during the unit and have rewritten them so that kids can take charge of their learning.  Using Google Docs, I will share a template that they will copy and rename. On this planning sheet, they will describe what they will learn, how they will learn it and how they will demonstrate their learning.

I expect that at first, many will flounder.  Let's face it, these days kids are used to having things spoon-fed to them and know that if they don't get it, someone will come in at the end and rescue them.  This year's group has done a reasonably good job of becoming independent but we're not there yet.  This unit should go a long way toward helping that evolution.

As an example of what the kids will see, here is the first part of the template I will share with them. Remember, we are working within the curriculum, trying to learn the various components of the Middle Ages in Europe and relating them back to the overarching theme. This is what some of it will look like to the kids.

The Middle Ages Unit
Student Learning Goals

For each of the following areas of the European Middle Ages, describe how you plan to learn the material, what resources you will use and how you will show your learning.

Premise of the Medieval Unit:
The Rise of Kingdoms, Feudalism and the Crusades all contributed to the development of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Each student is responsible for learning about each of the following points and relating them to the concept of Europe's development in the Middle Ages

The collapse of Rome led to the rise of Feudalism

How will I best learn the story of Rome's collapse?

What materials will I use?

How will I show what I have learned?

There is a feudal social order that includes a monarch, lords, knights, serfs and vassals.  How was the social order structured?

How will I best learn the story of Feudalism?

What materials will I use?

How will I show what I have learned?

I will show the kids where all of my print and online materials are and make them available to the kids so that they can work with what they are most comfortable.  Kids may choose to pair up or work individually.  My role in class changes because, while we will still have the occasional Socratic Symposium (a form of discussion) about parts of the Middle Ages unit, I will be moving around to each student, helping them plan their learning.  It very much resembles a workshop approach to learning.  Throughout the unit, I will be working with the kids and touching base to make sure they are accomplishing their goals.

While the content of our unit is dictated by the curriculum, the process of learning it is entirely up to each student.  I can already tell which kids will choose which resources because they know how they learn best.  I'm eager to see how this unit works.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Social Studies Classes - In the unit coming up, we learn about the Middle Ages in Europe, the Great Kingdoms of West Africa and how all of it evolved.  For this unit, I will give the curricular information to the kids at the beginning of the unit; I've read about other teachers doing this.  We will then talk about how the kiddos would like to learn about these things.  I expect we will have as many different ways of learning as we have kids in the class.  The kiddos will have access to all of my materials and, while we will conduct several class-wide lessons involving some of the most pertinent information, they will be able to delve more deeply into areas that interest them.  Indeed, we will probably have each student studying in-depth a different aspect of the Middle Ages.

In order to organize things better, we will use some of our online tools (probably a mix of Google Forms and Google Docs, etc.) so that kids can give structure to their learning and chart their progress.  It is going to be on me to be highly organized so that I can properly see the progress that each kiddo is making.

The curriculum topics are pretty straightforward and I reworked them a bit to be more student-friendly:

7th Grade Social Studies Curriculum of the Middle Ages

Topics to Cover - Europe:

The Rise of Kingdoms, Feudalism, and the Crusades all contributed to the development of Europe in the Middle Ages.
• The collapse of Rome led to rise of feudalism
• There is a feudal social order that includes a monarch, lords, knights, and serfs
• The Magna Carta was a significant document because it limited the power of the King (King John) and all future kings and governments
• no taxation without representation
• speedy trial
• Crusades re-opened communication and trade between East and West

What you should be able to do:
Analyze the social and political development of Europe in the Middle Ages.

Topics to cover - West Africa:

The West African Empires of Songhai, Ghana, and Mali had strong central authority and a strong economy, so were wealthy.
• Songhai, Ghana, Mali got wealthy because controlled trade routes and taxed for use.
• Trade routes for gold and salt supplies went through Songhai, Ghana, Mali.
• Rules were based on controlling trade.
• Oral tradition was an important part of passing along history.
• Islam became the primary religion of the West African empires.
• Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali, contributed to the spread of Islam, after making a pilgrimage.
• Muslim traders brought their religion with them, spreading Islam along the trade routes.
• Because Islam was a “world religion” its introduction in west Africa caused it to be more
respected, bringing more trade, education and scholars to the area.
• The Koran is the holy book of the Muslims.
• East Africa (Ethiopia) was also a trade center, but was predominantly Christian.

What you should be able to do:
Analyze the rise of the African Empires during the Middle Ages

While the curriculum topic list looks content-heavy, I want the kids to be able to look at this historical time period through the lens of how it applies to things going on in the world today.  It is important for them not only to be able to relate current happenings to things that happened in the Middle Ages, but also to be moved to do something about the causes they learn about and feel passionate about.

This is all a work in progress and I'm eager to see how it works out, not only to see how much the kids learn but also to see how much the kids take charge of their learning. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Planning in High Gear

Social Studies Classes - While getting ready to turn my class over to a student-driven (or student-designed) learning model for our Medieval unit, I am torn. Of course I will outline the learning goals that they must achieve in their individual way but I also want them to apply what they learn to their lives today.  If we are not empowering kids with the tools they need for their lives and futures, then are we really doing them a service?

I want these kids to go beyond learning the curriculum and content of the Medieval unit.  I want them to see how what happened in those times can be seen even today, in their world.  I want the "capstone" of this unit to be an inquiry project with each student (or group) considering a "big" question of their own choosing.  Showing kids what an inquiry question looks like will take a bit of time.  I define it as a question that has not yet been answered and forces the student to create new knowledge.  These types of questions are difficult to construct but kiddos can do it!  I tell them, "If you can Google the answer, then it's not an inquiry question!" These are the kinds of questions about which books are written.

Wouldn't it be cool to pursue one aspect of the Middle Ages and really learn about it?  How could what you learn about that topic apply to your life today?  This is the stuff of which inquiry-based learning is made.  I want kids to use the content we discuss in class as a springboard to a more focused project of their choosing.  I will model some questions for the kids and some of them may choose one of them as their project questions.

Questions I am thinking of including as examples are:

- How would the USA look if we had Feudalism as our governmental system?
- In what ways is the class system in the United States comparable to the class system of Medieval Europe?
- How is war waged differently now than it was during the Crusades (include more than just obvious technological advances)?
- How does the role of women change from Classical Greece and Rome to the Medieval period of England.
- What kind of "personal fulfillment" did people have in their lives during the Medieval period and how does that compare to today?
- In the Middle Ages, countries often went to war over territory. What was the process of going to war then and how does it compare to the Russia/Crimea/Ukraine situation today?
- Many people trace the birth of the Renaissance to the Crusades. Explain why they would make this claim.

While not every student will want to investigate these topics, these questions represent the kinds of question I hope the kids will ask and attempt to answer.   A good inquiry questions is a great exercise in thinking and researching and that is what I want these kiddos to do!