Monday, September 22, 2014

Kindles and Books! Kindles and Books!

Last week, we put a grant on for five Kindles. We have a classroom Kindle program and wanted to increase the number of devices available for kids to check out. They are very popular. Well, on Friday, mostly through the generosity of our kids' families, our grant was funded. We are extremely appreciative.

The last donation to our grant was from the Rise Up Foundation in Orange County, CA. With the donation came a note saying that the organization, in honor of National Literacy Month, was sending us books for our classroom. Today, those books came. Wow, that was quick! Now we have eight new books for kiddos to read and five brand new Kindles on the way. It was a good week for our Harmony Team reading program!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Sense of Belonging

Over the years, Melissa and I have worked hard at building our team culture. It is important for us to have a connection with each of the kiddos. We believe that when students know that the most important part of school for us is them, then they will trust us, buy into the program and learn more than they would have otherwise. To that end, we encourage kids to contribute ideas for helping develop the culture of Team Harmony.

One thing we've always done to foster a sense of belonging is have team t-shirts made. Most teams and schools do this. It is nothing outstanding or unique. However, we have long since gone beyond team t-shirts to an  entire line of Harmony Gear. Several years ago, kids started asking if we could have hoodies. Then they asked about pants. Then shorts. You get the picture. Kids wanted choices. They wanted different colors, styles and designs. We took their wishes seriously and found a company that offered an entire line of goods that the kids could choose. Now, our Harmony Team logo is attached to t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, cinch sacs, flannel pajama pants, basketball shorts and other miscellaneous items. Each of the choices comes in various colors and styles. The kids can show their individuality while still maintaining a sense of team. All of this came from ideas that the kids have had over the years.

Often we are visited by former students. They come back from the high school to tell us how their year is going. Many times they will tell us of a conversation they struck up with a younger or older high school student because they were wearing their Harmony Gear. There was instant recognition and so they started talking. Those are the stories we like to hear because we try to cultivate a family atmosphere on team. The kids show a sense of pride that they were on this team and it shows because, even in high school, they are still wearing their team gear. We are just as proud of them.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ken Robinson: Do Schools Ignore Talents?

When we narrow the focus of education to that which exists on a standardized test, we are doing our students and our society a huge disservice. Our schools should be as varied as the talents that walk through those school doors and we teachers should be encouraging the development of those talents, whether or not they fit on a standardized test. It is our responsibility to our students.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Our First Week Using Google Classroom

When we got word this summer that Google Classroom would debut in the fall, we, like others, were excited at the opportunity to use a learning management system that would be integrated into the suite of Google apps. Many teachers in my building applied to be early adopters, wanting to get their hands on the beta version to see how we could use this tool in class. Would it be as good as Edmodo? Would the learning curve be big? Will it actually be a good tool, allowing us to work without it getting in the way? Well, we started using Classroom on Monday after kids got their Chromebooks last Friday (we just went 1:1). Here are some observations.

The interface is clean and easy to navigate. Adding classes was a breeze and having kids join my classes was a snap as well. We chose to do it by having the kids join a class with the class code. It took about ten minutes to get all of the kids in class up to speed.

The navigation for creating assignments and loading files and links into the assignment for the kids to use is also very intuitive. Click a button, load an assignment or link, and you're done. From the kids' perspective, they see all of their classes with the assignments for each of those classes in the little class box. They get a snapshot view of upcoming assignments. When they click on the assignment, they can get right to work; everything is right there for them.

Some things were tricky. We learned this week that students can create docs, presentations and spreadsheets right inside the assignment and, when they do, the assignment is named for them (their name and the name of the assignment appears at the top as the file name) and I, the teacher, automatically have permission to view the doc. One problem we ran into was that sometimes I had a student create a file in Drive and, since it was not created in Classroom, it was not automatically giving me permission to view. Only the files created IN classroom (Docs, Presentations, etc) automatically give the teacher accessibility. Otherwise, we must change permission on the file or link, just like before. This was an inconvenience but an easy fix.

A view of Google Classroom from inside one of my classes.

The way I decided to use the grading scale is as follows: if a kid has turned in the assignment, I put a 1/1 as the score. That tells them to go to the grade book (we use SIS) and see what their grade is. If a 0/1 appears as their score, it means that they have not turned it in or I could not open the file. This system saves me time by only having to enter grades in one place. Some kids had a problem finding, within the assignment box, where the 1/1 or 0/1 was. I looked around on my computer and didn't see it. As the impatience grew and a bit of whining ensued, I said, "Instead of waiting for me to figure it out, let's see which one of you can figure it out first!" Immediately, Claire's hand shot into the air. "I know how," she said. "Okay, everyone. Claire knows how. Claire, come up here and show everyone where to look." She took over the media stand (where my old compute sits attached to a projector and speakers) and proceeded to show the kiddos where to look. Then, she worked her way around the room pointing it out individually. As soon as she showed one kiddo, that student had to get up and show another student, etc. It went on like that for about five minutes until everyone knew.

We decided at the beginning of the week that Google Classroom is going to be the tool that we use. It's just too well-integrated and easy-to-use not to. We also decided, as classes, that there will be glitches along the way and that we would, as a group, solve them. I no longer am the answer-guy in class. I may be the one that directs the show, but that direction usually means matching kids up to learn together or, as in Claire's case, asking the kids to solve our real-life problems and then having them teach the others. It's a way of learning that is sometimes noisy and sometimes frustrating but always effective because the kids are actually figuring out relevant problems themselves or in collaboration with others. That's just how we roll!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Our Digital Environment

Since our kids have received their Chromebooks for our 1:1 Laptop Program, we have been immersing them in a digital environment. Over the last couple of days, we've begun using Google Classroom, discovering new tips and tricks along the way. Kids have discovered shortcuts to attach files (docs can be created IN Google Classroom rather than being attached from Drive), I learned that the same assignment can be assigned in multiple classes, and kids have discovered how to link work from outside Google into their Classroom assignment.

We've also started using 3DGameLab, a site that allows teachers to create learning quests for the students to complete. Each student has an account within our group and, upon completing a quest, earns points. Kids earn points and badges that allow them to level up. The kids, so far, have enjoyed the game lab. I find that it satisfies their desire to be online in a game-like environment while also completing their work and learning new skills. After all, kids who see learning as fun tend to learn more, in my view.

These boys are completing a quest using 3DGameLab and Google Apps

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A One-to-One Classroom - Let's Figure It Out!

Our seventh grade class is kicking off a Chromebook 1:1 Program this year. The students on our team, Harmony Team, received their Chromebooks on Friday. Of course, there was all kinds of jubilation and excitement; the kiddos were stoked. Each class spent one period learning how to navigate the school wifi, signing in with their school cloud accounts, and troubleshooting any issues they might have had. Later in the day, we got the kids signed in to, and familiar with, Google Classroom. This coming week, we will work more with the kids, helping them learn Symbaloo, Google Classroom, Khan Academy, BrainPop, and a few other essential "creating" apps that we'll be heavily using this year.

Working in a 1:1 classroom environment is both easier and more difficult for teachers. It is easier because we no longer need to run copies, haul bags of paper assignments back and forth from school to home, chase down missing paper assignments, and spend much of the hour delivering presentations before differentiating for the students. A 1:1 environment is more difficult because the work for the teacher is front-loaded. It takes a lot more preparation up front to run an effective 1:1 classroom. We need to find or create the learning resources that we'll use in class or that kids can use on their laptop at home. Many of us will flip instruction from time to time so not only must we prepare for the classroom instruction but also instruction that occurs beyond classroom walls. Teachers will also spend less time delivering whole-class instruction because that instruction can be created and delivered individually in class or out of class. Instead, we will spend more time differentiating in class, conferencing with kids to make sure they are understanding the concepts we are trying to teach them.

The shift to a 1:1 classroom is ripe with possibilities. We can transform the learning so that students get even more individual help, collaborate with their peers, create, have the learning personalized for them and use the technology to learn at their own pace. Students will have an amazing tool in their hands that will allow them to go as far with the learning as they can, even beyond what the teachers intended for them. Our role as teachers continues to change in the classroom, especially in a 1:1 classroom. We have to take on the role of Lead Learner. We have to stress to the kids that the way that class works nowadays, we don't have all of the answers anymore and that we must be a learning community that will problem-solve, create and learn together. I expect that the most used words in our classroom this year will be, "Let's figure it out!"

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Climatology of Harmony

At the beginning of the year, Melissa and I spend a lot of time building relationships and creating a meaningful community on team. We nurture those relationships and that climate throughout the year. Most years, it snowballs into a wonderful year for all of the kids. Former students come back years later and talk about how seventh grade was their best school year ever. We love hearing that because it validates what we are trying to build each year.

One of the digital tools that we are using this year to help with community-building is Tagboard. The tool is designed to collect all references to a particular hashtag online and deliver it to one stream that can be embedded in a blog, on a website, etc. We have embedded our Tagboard stream on all of our blogs including our team blog, the place where parents and students go for assignments, updates and information about our team and school. By glancing through our Tagboard stream, we can see all kinds of cool things that are going on.

We are now encouraging parents and students to contribute to our Tagboard. The idea is that if a kid is doing something cool outside of school, we'd like to know about it. Those activities in the past have ranged from baseball leagues, ice skating competitions, Irish dancing in Ireland, volleyball tournaments, community plays, writing awards, Indian dance classes, etc. There are so many things these kids are involved in that we never hear about and Tagboard can help us keep up with all of them. Our hope is that parents (and students) will Tweet (or whatever social media tool they use) some of their kids' community events using the team hashtag so that all of us can see the variety of cool things that our students and classmates are doing. We think it will go a long way toward getting to know the kids better and building an even stronger community.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Learning Showcase #1

We've been back at school for a few weeks now and it's finally time for our first assessment in social studies. Because of the change in the way we do things, we will not have a test with bunches of questions, multiple-choice or otherwise, for the kids to sweat. I'm not interested in "gotcha" test questions; I'm interested in what the kiddos have learned during the last few weeks. There is a big difference.

During the past three weeks, we've talked about archaeology, prehistory, Otzi the Iceman, forensic science and how we gather knowledge and clues to figure out the solution to a problem. One of our activities was an archaeological dig of our own. Students brought in five artifacts to share with the class. The artifacts had to pertain to an aspect of their interests and personalities. Then, students had to fill shoe boxes with five related (the relationship could not be too obvious though) artifacts hidden in layers of dirt. We assigned random show boxes and had the kids carefully dig through to uncover the hidden artifacts. Once the artifacts were uncovered, they had to try to match the boxes with the owners. Most kids were able to match the box with its owner but some were not.

I constantly talked to the kids about the thinking that was going into these decisions. After all, it is the logic, problem-solving, reasoning skills I want these kids to have so when we talked about the assessment in class yesterday, that is what I stressed. I told them, "I'm just going to give you a big question like 'How do we know what we know?' and based on what you've seen and done during the last few weeks, you'll answer it. What skills did you learn what you learned? Isn't that what archaeologists do? If you talk about that and explain your processes, you'll do great. I want to know what you know; this is a chance to showcase your learning." One student commented that this will be hard for her because she is more used to a sheet of questions with definitive answers.

On Monday, the kiddos will have one class period to write all they can about their learning experience and answer the questions "How do we know what we know?" We also talked about options in case a kid's strength was not writing. "You can draw a series of pictures over the weekend and caption them in class on Monday. You can create a presentation and fill in the writing part here in class on Monday. You can take a recording device into the hall for ten minutes on Monday and talk out your answer. You can stay after school and we can discuss the learning together. Whatever it takes for you to demonstrate to me that you have a handle on what we've learned over the past few weeks."

I am eager to see what the kiddos come up with on Monday. I know some will flounder for a few minutes and I may have to support them a bit but I think that once the kids see that we're talking a great deal about their personal learning experience, they will eventually take the lead and flourish in this environment.

Sifting through layers of dirt to find artifacts.

The artifacts found sometimes raised more questions than they answered.

Learning by doing!