Friday, August 29, 2014

Brag Books!

Good team climate is essential for a good learning experience for all of our students. We work tirelessly with the kids at the beginning of the year to instill in kids a sense of belonging, respect for others, collaboration and compassion. After all, these are the 50 other kids that they will be learning with this year.

One of our first "assignments" is to pay one compliment, in writing, to each student on the team. I pass out a class list and kids are to write one good thing about each person. Some have known each other for years and have a long history from which to draw. Others are meeting for the first time this year. In either case, kids try to come up with one positive statement about every other kid. 

I take all of the sheets home and create a page for each student on team with a list of the best compliments that the students gave that student. At the end of the process, we have one sheet full of compliments and positive statements. While the kids are in electives, we tape them to the insides of their lockers so that when these kids open their lockers at the end of the day, a sheet of positive statements is staring them in the face. 

We love watching the moment when the lockers start opening. At first the kids are a bit startled that something is out of the ordinary but then they read "This is what your teammates are saying about you" and they begin to read all of the good things that their peers know or have noticed about them, and they stand stock still reading the page. Some ask, "Who did this?" and Melissa and I just smile to each other. Watching 50 kids read good things about themselves, smiles lighting up their faces, is a moment we wish we could record on video. Some kids take the paper home to show parents, some leave them hanging inside their lockers, and some take it out and place it on the outside of their locker for all the world to see. This is one of our favorite moments of the year!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Oh, What a Night!

Open House at school occurred tonight. My teaching partner, Melissa (@melissahellwig4), and I love this night because we get to meet the proud parents of our amazing kids and share with them our philosophy of learning, our team climate and our hopes for their children this year. It's a chance for parents to see the shiny promise of a new year and understand that their kids have adults at school who really care about them and want the best for them.

While we always go over some nuts and bolts information, the evening is spent talking more about learning and climate than rules, supplies and content. We assume that parents know that their kids will learn math, science, social studies and English during the year. What we want them to take away from the night is that we are committed to personalizing learning for each of their kids, that we honor each child's learning style and creativity, and that we will treat them with as much care as if they were our own kids.

During our talk, we stress that we will be doing things a little differently this year. Most of their work will be project-based where kids can use their natural talents to demonstrate their mastery of content and skills. They will have the freedom to choose project types and presentation modes that are as unique as they are.

We stress that cultivating a positive culture is essential to our mission this year. We try to create a lot of hoopla around our team from having a mascot, team colors, shirts, shorts, hoodies, pencils, etc. We have team banners, creatively-designed and visually-stimulating rooms, and a lot of team-specific online tools. We devote the first couple of weeks to team-building and we work hard to establish a positive feeling on team.

Well, so far it is working out pretty well. Parents were very receptive to our talk and looked visually relieved at times. They laughed and smiled at our corny jokes and hopefully saw two caring adults in the front of the room who want to go the extra mile to do right by their kids. Parents were extremely complimentary about our program and the climate we are creating. They talked about how much their kids like school this year and how eager they are to come each morning. The parents, and the kids, seem hungry for the type of learning we are doing on team this year. We believe that personalized, creative, problem-solving, project-based learning is the future of schools. Tonight, we found out that nearly all of our students' parents feel the same way. It was a great night!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Learning Classroom Culture

Classroom culture is absolutely the most important element for a successful school year. Everything else stems from a good classroom culture: learning, positive interactions, values and developing lifelong learning skills. I want the culture of our classroom to be one of collaboration, learning and fun. My goal is for kids to learn how they learn best, how to be independent and how to problem-solve. If they make progress in these areas during the time they are with me, then we will have had a successful year.

"Ours will be a class unlike any you've ever had," I say on the second day of school (on the first day, all we do is learn each others' names). They are already sitting in furniture not usually associated with school classrooms, so they know something is up from the start. "There is a difference between learning and testing. We will do learning in here," I tell them. "And so, I have some bad news for you. This year, we will have no tests." At this point their mouths drop. Some cheer subtly at their seats. Others just flat out don't believe me. The conditioning in schools is that we learn information then spill it back out on a test. That's how schools work, right? I've never been a fan of tests for a variety of reasons. If I ask my kiddos to think outside the box, why can't I do the same? Can I find other ways to see if they are making progress in class? Sure I can. "Oh, and by the way, we won't have any assigned written homework either." Well, by this time, they think either I'm not really a teacher in the building or I have clearly lost my mind. I talk to them a little more about why those things don't equal learning and after a little while, they begin to see that I'm serious.

Most of the time, the kids leave my room thinking either "This is gonna be fun!" or "This is gonna be easy!" Good! I want them to think that. I want them to know that they are going to learn a ton this year but that learning will be relevant to their lives and driven by themselves and so it won't feel like the learning that they are used to. I won't be handing them papers to fill out so I can grade them. Nope! Together, we will learn. Together, we will problem-solve. The most frequently used words in our classroom this year are going to be, "Let's find out!"

I tell the kiddos from the start that they will not have to worry about tests or mountains of homework because I want them to relax and focus on the learning. I want them to let their natural curiosity take over and drive their learning. I want them to see some of the really cool content that we cover in class and be motivated to investigate further or create something new based on what they learned.  

As an adult, I learn about things in which I'm interested. I get on tangents and learn everything I can about a topic. I create little projects for myself in order to learn more. I am relaxed when I learn best and I allow my natural curiosity to take over and lead me on my learning journey. I think this is how all adults learn and so I wonder, why do we make kids learn differently? In our classroom, our kids are relaxed, curious, collaborative, investigative and learning. We are trying to develop intellectually nimble kids who can look at a problem, develop an approach for tackling the problem, and be persistent in finding a creative solution. We don't know what these kids will be doing in ten years. Some will be in college, some will be working and some will be doing other things. One thing I do know is that if we're successful in what we're doing in class this year, these kids will be better prepared to make a difference in the world. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Amazing Race

In an effort to get to know the kiddos as soon as possible, Melissa (@melissahellwig4) and I do a variety of team-building activities, introduce the kids to the team culture we've built, and make sure that the kids know that their seventh grade school year, if done right, will be different from any year they've ever had in school. It's a tall order but we want them thinking about school differently. When they walk into our rooms, we want them to feel a completely different vibe than they were expecting. We love seeing the looks on their faces when they walk through our doors and take it all in.

The very first project that we do in social studies is our version of The Amazing Race. Each group of kids (we only have tables in class - no desks) becomes a team that will compete in the race. Every group is given one envelope and two resources (atlas and textbook). Inside each envelope is a list of clues and puzzles that, when solved, will take the kids to different places in the world. Kids find out quickly that they must do the tasks in order; being in the correct place after Question 1 is imperative because that location serves as the starting point for Question 2. Each group races around the world as quickly as they can, making sure that, as a group, they solve each puzzle or task correctly.

One reason I like to do this activity early on is that the kiddos are forced into a collaborative situation right off the bat. They learn cooperation and the interdependence of good group collaboration. They cannot be shy with each other anymore after spending three days thinking and solving together in a fun and competitive environment.

I wondered how our new Dry Erase table tops would be used during this activity. The Amazing Race is a paper/pencil activity and I didn't say anything about the table tops. As I walked around the room asking clarifying questions and making sure the kids were deciphering the tasks correctly, I noticed that nearly every group was using their table as a place to jot down thoughts, page numbers, pictures of where something might be geographically and random doodles. Kids were finding their own way to use the tabletops to help in their learning. They needed no instruction from me.

Having Dry Erase tabletops has been eye-opening for me. I watch the kids use them constantly (not always for learning, of course). I also see adults come into my room and after a few seconds, grab a marker and begin to doodle, express some of their ideas or otherwise use the space. I think this is one of those "If you build it, they will come" cases where having the tool there for everyday use encourages its everyday use. Kids and adults don't have to stop what they're doing and get out a tool to show their table mates something; they just grab a marker and go for it. It's been an interesting first few days in our learning space and I'm interested to see how learning evolves over the course of the year with all of the tools we'll have available to the kiddos. Here's to the promise of a new year!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Kiddos, Start Your Engines!

On Friday I finished preparing the room for the first day of school. Everything I could think of is where it should be. Of course, after a couple of weeks with the kiddos, things will change because of the unique preferences and needs of this group. I wanted to make sure that our classroom was movable, collaborative and interesting for the kids. I want them to feel at home and at ease in our environment. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Designing Collaborative Spaces

In the days leading up to the opening of a new school year, I began redesigning my classroom to allow for more collaboration among my kiddos. I have always been a fan of kids working together when they want and finding a quiet space to work alone when they want. It is the particular learning experience that drives a student to make that choice. I like open spaces in class, lots of tables, use of floor space, nooks and crannies in which kids can hunker down, and a free-flowing climate where the approach to learning is fluid.

Our classroom is visually stimulating - some would say TOO visually stimulating. Dozens of posters adorn the walls, country flags hang from the ceiling, street signs are strewn about and all kinds of funky decorations can be found in the room. There is one whiteboard in the front of the room, but that's about it for accessible, collaborative space. Since my mission is to get kids learning more through collaboration, I knew I had to do something to make the classroom more conducive to group learning. So...I painted the table tops with Dry Erase paint (whiteboard paint). I bought one kit at Home Depot for about $20.00. Now, each table will have a tray of Dry Erase markers and an eraser in the center. Kids will be able to articulate their ideas right there at their table and can work together to design and execute, show their thinking and demonstrate their knowledge. At the end of the class period, it can all be erased.

The first table turned out pretty well (I painted four tables so far and one Dry Erase kit was enough to paint all four table tops). Now the kids, sitting in their office chairs around the tables, can use the space to enhance their learning. I am eager to see how the kids use these table tops to teach, learn and work with each other.