Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Responsibility of Learning

We took our Medieval district assessment on Thursday (more on the results of that test in a later post) and reviewed the study guide the day before. During that review, I noticed some interesting things. Now, kids always want a list of the questions from the test with a list of the corresponding answers to those questions. That, in their minds, constitutes a "study guide". Well, the study guide they received was a list of topic areas with blank spaces for them to fill in what they knew about said topic. Many of the kiddos were not pleased. However, they had a week to fill out the study guide in preparation for the review.

The review was not a question-and-answer session. I explained to the kids that we will have a conversation, based on what the kids know about each topic, to review for the test. They are welcome to write down some of the ideas from our conversation as they apply to their study guide. "It will not be," I said to them, "a time when we look at the question and I tell you the words to put in the blank space. We'll converse and you'll write down what strikes you as important." The talk was going to go in one of two ways: a huge bomb or a pleasant surprise.

It was a pleasant surprise. For the first time that I can remember, someone in the room, other than me, was able to address each of the topics on the study guide. Many of the kids came across a lot of the ideas and information during their searches the past few weeks as we worked through the goals and standards for the Middle Ages Unit. Some of the kids even did their Inquiry Projects on the very topics that we were reviewing for the test and those kids talked with expertise about those topics. I told them many times, "You know more than you know you know."

In the past, I've always tried to use film, fun activities, interesting readings and robust online resources to teach the material for social studies. The kids would half-listen to me blather on about such-and-such topic and when the test came around, complain that they'd never even heard of the topics we'd been covering. Now, by putting the responsibility of learning on them, with me acting as a resource in class, kids actively learned, mustering all the skills they had and learning some new ones. This active learning was apparent during the review.

During the unit of study, I showed the kids the standards and goals, gave them a Google Doc of good resources (video, digital, book, etc) and left it up to them to determine how best they would learn. Now that they had a stake in their learning, they appear to have learned more than if I'd done things the old way. They chose how they would learn, making dozens of decisions along the way. They also chose their Inquiry Project question, assuring that it was of interest to them. Putting the responsibility of learning on the students was the key. They learned the material and some vital learning skills along the way.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Testing the Test

Yesterday we talked about the Medieval Assessment and what the kids should expect. I used the presentation linked here to make points about what learning should be taking place in class. We talked about content questions and thinking questions. We talked about why, on a test, kids are being asked random facts about history when most have a device in front of them with which they can find those answers in ten seconds. It makes no sense.

On the Medieval Assessment, we are going to "test the test". Using Google Forms, we will take the test online. If the test question is a content question and the kids can look up the answer online, they may do so. If the test question is a thinking question, then they will not be able to look it up. Our tests should focus on thinking questions, not content questions.

After each question on this assessment is a survey question. The survey question simply asks if the students searched online for the answer or if they reasoned out the answer. That data will be used when we tweak our assessments this summer. Hopefully after some tweaking, significant in some cases, the assessments will focus on thinking questions rather than random historical facts. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Twitter Power!

I have had a Twitter account for about four years. It was dormant for a long time but then my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig, and I presented our 20% Time Project Classrooms at EdCampSTL in February and that's where my Twitter love affair began. Nearly every teacher in attendance at EdCampSTL was a techie and immersed in Twitter. We quickly got Melissa on Twitter and started connecting with other educators at the conference. Later I discovered Twitter Education Chats, and it was over!

When I got into my first Twitter EdChat, I was amazed by the number of teachers who were doing online professional development, usually in the evening. This was on their own time, after a long day at school. What they were sharing was wonderful. These educators were sharing the stories of their classrooms, the technology tools they were using to advance the learning of their students, the stumbles that they made along the way and the successes they had every day in class. This was amazing to me. There were teachers, student teachers, principals, superintendents and board members from across the country, and the world, in these chats. It really was mind-blowing.

How had I missed this entire subculture of online learning and sharing? How did I not even know that it existed? Fortunately I just happened to stumble on a chat and from that stumble, I learned that there is an entire online learning community that uses Twitter as a personal learning network (PLN). Incredibly, I have to admit that I have learned more about teaching, learning and technology in the last six months on Twitter than I have in my entire 26 years of district-offered professional development opportunities.

The thing that makes Twitter PD so good is that it is immediately relevant to my classroom. If I am doing something new, I can find dozens of teachers across the country who have tried the same thing and instantly access their experience. If I want to find out about a particular topic, I can attend an online chat and "lurk" (just read what the other teachers are saying in order to learn from their experiences). All of this PD is immediately relevant to me. Some of the most intellectually nimble and imaginative teachers are in these Twitter chats.

One of the most important things about these chats is that I get to share what we (Melissa and I) are doing in our classrooms. Twitter has metaphorically allowed me to fling open the classroom door and share with others what is going on in class. Now, I have always been one of those, "Let's close the door, do some really cool things, and not worry about getting into trouble" kind of teachers. I know that many things that I do in  class are not "traditional". However, seeing all of the like-minded teachers on Twitter, I realize that there are a lot more teachers like me out there and that has given me even more confidence and faith that what I am doing is right for kids. A solid, progressive, forward-thinking, technology-laden education is what I've always tried to give my kiddos and now I see that there are thousands of others out there with the same values.

There is an audience for what we are doing in our classes but what we have found is that audience is more outside our school than inside our school. We have so many talented teachers on our staff who are doing their own thing with little time to see what others are doing, but by sharing on Twitter, we have found support systems, like-minded teachers, and cheerleaders who want to replicate in their classrooms what we are doing in ours. That is validating and it is awesome!

Now, at least three times per week, I find myself starting conversations at school with, "Last night on Twitter, I saw this really cool...". Sometimes people may get sick of hearing about all of my learning on Twitter but my students are the primary beneficiaries of it. I try to get into as many EdChats per week as I can because I get a charge out of the learning, sharing and validation by teachers for teachers. Twitter gives teachers the power to access professional development from some of the leading minds in education today. It is an amazing tool.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

#Harmony - Our First E-Book

English - This morning we published our first e-book (found in the right hand column of this blog). I know that plenty of schools around the country have published e-books before and it's nothing revolutionary or cutting edge, but for us, it's a big deal. For years our kids have written incredible stories, poems, essays and plays. In the past we have tried to get authentic readership for those pieces but it was always difficult. Because we use a Writers' Workshop model, we know that publication is the best end product for our writing. Whether it is publishing for a readership inside of class or inside of school, we have always tried to have kids write for a real audience. In the past, we have even had school-wide writing contests where kids could submit some of their best work to be judged by a panel of teachers. All of these are great opportunities for kids to publish their work.

There is something about putting out a book, though, that is especially satisfying. From start to finish, kids were instrumental in creating this book. They wrote the material, they designed cover art and voted on their favorite, and they created the title, #Harmony. Now these kids can look at their work online, download it to their device, read it on a computer, and share it with a worldwide audience. They now can see that the little ideas that they had for writing projects have turned into polished, published pieces. They do not know how many people will read their stories and love them. They don't know who will read their poetry and be moved by it. All they know is that their writing is out there for anyone to pick up, read and enjoy. They are now real published authors.

This morning when I put up the QR code with the URL to their e-book, a dozen kids immediately got out their phones to get the book, many of whom didn't even contribute to the book. Many kids looked to see who contributed and what they wrote. When I told John, a particularly good writer, that one of his stories led off the book, he said, smiling, "Whaaaaaat?" Cool, indeed. I posted the QR code for our book throughout the school so that parents, students, teachers and staff can download it. It is on Google+, Twitter, our blogs and websites. The next step is trying to get it into the Google Play Store and on Amazon. We'll see about that.

The e-book is one example of exactly what Melissa (my teaching partner) and I have been trying to do with the kids all year. We are trying to have kids connect their learning to their lives. We want them to create things that have real applications to the world in which they live. When we make this connection between the kids' learning and the kids' world, we are making the learning so much more relevant than otherwise. Our 20% Time Project blog,, documents our journey with those projects, and each of those projects is absolutely relevant to the kids' lives. The e-book demonstrates the same thing, that their work is for a real audience and relevant to their world.

Today and for many days in the future, we will have students walking around with a bit more spring in their step and their heads held a bit higher because they can point with pride to a physical manifestation of some of their best work. It is out there in the real world and available for anyone to read. They should be very proud of that!