Friday, October 30, 2015

School for Today

This morning our entire 6-12 teaching staff gathered at the middle school for an introduction to the School for Today Initiative. Our district has been planning on adopting this initiative in the near future and we came together today to discuss how it would look and function. While many initiatives are bandied about and dropped, this one seems to be gaining steam. Even so, a few teachers brought up the question about whether or not this project would be just a two-year deal or if we would really make this our permanent goal.

The initiative has four main themes: democracy, responsive spaces, systemic adaptiveness and community. The goal is to make school less like what it has traditionally been and more like the schools kids will need in the future. What does that look like? Well, more school will take place outside of the building, the rooms inside the building will be redesigned to take into account the different learning styles of the kids, students will have a stake and a say in their learning and kids will also incorporate the concept of service into their learning.

My initial reaction to this plan was, "Yes, please! The sooner the better!" I think that Melissa and I have been working on these concepts for several years. Kids drive their own learning in our classes, we have both overhauled our rooms to make them more kid-centric, we try to make more of the learning occur outside of he building and every year we do at least one big service project. Kids need to see that they have voice, choice and a responsibility to others.

There is always some disconnect between the middle school and the high school. That "rift" came about again during this discussion. The high school teachers are tied to test scores, college readiness and curriculum goals. There is no time for this other kind of learning, even if they wish it so. I think that the high school teachers feel trapped. They are trapped in a system that serves yesterday's kids and yet that system is still in place. Even while colleges are slowly evolving, high schools remain entrenched.

The kind of learning represented by the School for Today initiative is learning that will stick with the kids. Because the students have a stake in the learning, they will learn better. Because kids can interact more in their learning space, they will learn more. Because kids will see a new sense of purpose in school, they will see themselves as lifelong learners. When kids see themselves as lifelong learners, they ARE lifelong learners.

Teachers across the country are re-imagining their classrooms, even at the high school level. They have the same testing, curricular and college readiness expectations as our high school teachers, but they evolved and are thriving. Nothing is scarier than change but our more traditional schools must evolve or die. Even our entrenched high school can find ways to incorporate the School for Today initiative. All kids want to learn; learning is in our nature as human beings. Kids may not want to learn what we're trying to teach them, but they do want to learn. We have to find ways to give the kids more autonomy in their learning and support them in their learning. The School for Today initiative is a great start toward this goal.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Student Guest Post: "He Named Me Malala" Reflection

Recently our entire school went to see the documentary film He Named Me Malala due to the generosity of and the Students Stand with Malala Screening Program. One student, Nicole, wrote a reflection to the film that deserves a wider audience than me. Therefore, what follows is her reflection about the documentary film He Named Me Malala.

He Named Her Malala was an amazing and powerful movie. It was about a girl named Malala who spoke out for women's education in Pakistan as a teenager. When she was 15 she was shot on the left side of her head by the Taliban on the bus to school along with two of her friends. I think she is an amazing role model for everyone around the world, especially girls.
I think most kids in America are very ungrateful, mostly about school. No one ever wants to go to school, including me, and I think that’s terrible. I also think it’s not completely our fault. But if you just listen to Malala, you can tell how much she loves learning and wants to go to school. She even went to school on the day she received the Nobel Peace Prize! I think kids that have the privilege to go to school everyday should be grateful. And not just that, but kids that have the privilege to go to school everyday and not be scared that they are going to be shot or kidnapped or that something terrible will happen to them. After watching that movie, I felt very selfish and ungrateful.
Malala is very inspiring to me. Even before she got shot, she spoke about women's education when she was as young as 13! That must have taken a lot of courage considering that the Taliban had pretty much complete control over her town and they were against women going to school.
It must be hard for her. She lives in the UK now and probably has a great life there. She gets to do so much stuff and speak about women's education, but I bet she misses Pakistan. Even if she had a really hard life there, she still probably misses her friends and everything she knew for 15 years. Also, if I were her, I would be really scared all the time because the Taliban wants her dead. I would be looking over my shoulder every minute of the day waiting for someone to kill me.
Another thing that I thought was really powerful was that she said she was never mad at them for shooting her. Malala said she had never even felt a fragment of anger for them. That’s something that I wouldn’t ever be able to do. She said that it’s because Islam practices forgiveness and everything. I also think that the Taliban gives Islam a bad name. Some people think everyone who practices Islam are like the Taliban, which obviously isn’t true considering Malala is nothing like them.
All in all I think that He Named Me Malala was one of the best movies I have ever seen and I think Malala is one of the most amazing people in the world.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cardboard Genius!

Today as part of our Creative Genius time, I showed the kids three things, all of which we either just received or have been shipped to us. The first was Raspberry Pi, a circuit board device that allows kids to learn some basic programming skills. I then showed the kids Makey Makey, another small board that helps kids program. The last thing I showed the kids was Google Cardboard, the cardboard viewfinders that Google produces in order to work with the Cardboard app. Well, after I showed the kids a short video about how Cardboard worked, they took turns experimenting with the viewfinders. They were "wow'd" to say the least. The viewfinders that we have are ones the Melissa and I purchased after seeing them demonstrated by Bob Deneau at the Missouri Google Summit. We have written a grant for thirty more sets. Hopefully that grant will be funded and we'll be able to use Google Cardboard more extensively. Already, the kids are thinking about ways to use the Cardboard viewers. One student, Nicole, wants to create a Google Cardboard environment for her civilization project. That would be an amazing accomplishment.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

He Named Me Malala

We recently wrote a grant to take our entire school, a population of 750 people, to see the documentary film "He Named Me Malala". The film is about the life, so far, of Malala Yousafzai, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The documentary is a nice mix of her tragic shooting at the hands of the Taliban, her campaign for girls' education around globe and her normal teenage interactions with her family. All in all, it was a riveting film.

The kids were very excited. We had prepped them with some information about Malala and her accomplishments. When the theater went dark and the movie started, the kids fell silent. They watched as a girl, who was their age when she was shot, struggled for her life. They watched as she recovered and began to speak out anew for girls' education. They watched as she toured village schools and met with world leaders to advance her cause. They watched...all of it.

We intend that our program at school broadens the kids' horizons, features their learning outside the school walls and calls on them to make a difference in the world. Our 20% Time program gives the kids an opportunity to pursue learning about which they are passionate. We also ask that their project make some mark on the world around them. Knowing how our kids are and seeing the mark this film made on them, I think that many kids will consider social causes in their work going forward this year. Malala is making a huge difference in the world and we try to convince our kids that they can make a difference too. By the end of the year, nearly all of our kids have made an impact on the world.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Google Cardboard

Whenever we see something that we think might further our kids' learning, regardless of if we can immediately find a direct application, we get it. We bet that the kids can figure out some applications for the materials. Two weeks ago, when Melissa and I went to the Missouri Google Summit, we saw Bob Deneau's presentation on new Google Apps. One of the items that he showed us was Google Cardboard. We were sold. There are a ton of things we can use the viewers for and the kids can come up with a ton more. By the end of Bob's session, we had ordered four viewers.

Google Cardboard is a simple viewfinder that works with the Google Street View app in Cardboard mode. When you look through the viewfinder, you see a scene that you've chosen. The scene is all around you. You can look up, down and all around. You will see the entire "world" in which you are immersed; you're in the middle of it. Cardboard is a very cool piece of low-tech tech.

Today I put together one of the viewers and we tried it out. Pretty cool! On Friday, as part of my Creative Genius time, I am going to show the kids our new Google Cardboard viewers. We will circulate the four viewers that we have and watch as kids find a few new things they can do in class. Maybe some will use this low-tech, ultra-cool tool to help design their civilization for social studies or find a way to use it for their 20% Time project. We will have as many uses for the Cardboard viewers as we have students. Google Cardboard is just another way for students to personalize their learning.

Monday, October 12, 2015

EdCamp Harmony, That's a Wrap!

This morning, our student edcamp, EdCamp Harmony, took place. We planned this out pretty well last week, recruiting and encouraging students to conduct learning sessions and getting the schedule ready for today. To see more of the preparation, click this link. Late last week, one of our colleagues, Vinnie Raimondo (@coachraimondo), asked if his kids could also be involved. What? That was awesome! We shared our planning with him so he could present it to his kids and also shared the Google Hangout invitation with him so that his kids could also watch Hadley Ferguson (@hadleyjf), the executive director of the Edcamp Foundation, welcome the kids to the world of edcamps.

Hadley kicked things off beautifully. She talked to the kids about the edcamp movement, why it started and why people want to learn from each other. She also congratulated them on their own quest to learn from each other. After answering a few questions, she wished us well and we were on to our morning of learning.

Kids moved seamlessly to their first session. We had some great session choices and they were all well-attended.

Of course, the topics kids want to teach and learn about are a bit different from the topics that we present in class on a daily basis but that is what makes this learning so relevant. Not one student said, "Oh, I don't want to go to any of the sessions. They don't look very good." All of the kids were excited to go to some sessions and some were torn between two or more sessions at each time slot. Noah taught how to make a YouTube channel, Bryce taught some finer points of drawing while Emma taught kids about an App Store app that helps kids draw on an iPad or iPhone. RJ taught some kids about football and Mason had a session on HTML coding. Celia and Linsey held two sessions on how to use our 3D Printer and Colin showed kids how to work the 3D Doodle Pen. There were plenty of other sessions as well and the kids seemed very excited about this morning of learning. 

As Melissa, Vinnie and I roamed the rooms, we saw highly engaged students having fun with their learning. The kids were in those sessions because they wanted to be there, not because they had to be there. In the coming days, we will survey the kids to see what their thoughts were. In talking to the kids immediately after the sessions, it was clear that we would be repeating this event in the near future. The kids are hungry for this type of learning and sharing. Finally, some kids were given the platform to show others what really makes them tick. Here are some photos of our student edcamp.

Friday, October 9, 2015

"Thanks, Monte!"

Every year, Melissa and I have the kids write a compliment about each of the kids on our team. After we collect all of the papers, we stash them for a month or so. We then type out a list of each child's qualities that were noted by one of their peers. One day, when the kids have clearly forgotten that they did these "complement sheets", we post each child's list in their locker while they are away at electives. When the kids return to their lockers at the end of the day, they find a list of their qualities staring them in their faces. Some kids try to hide their lists, unsure of exactly what this paper is supposed to be. Some laugh, some read quietly and some immediately share with friends. Each of our kiddos leaves with a smile on their face. Of course, we tell them that a big moose named Monte, who happens to be our mascot, put those sheets in their lockers. This is one of our favorite times of the year. Here are some photos that Melissa snapped.

This gesture is important for our long-range team-building goals. We strive to create a family atmosphere on our team where all of our kids are kind, polite, collaborative learners who are looking out for each other. We want them to value the unique qualities in each other and feel valued about their own qualities. Knowing that others recognize their good points goes a long way toward achieving that goal. These sheets accomplish some of that even though "Thanks, Monte!" is really just a small gesture.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Roadblocks to Reading

Being an English teacher, I've always felt the awesome responsibility to get kids to love reading. I assume that all of my English teacher colleagues have the same goal in mind. We are passionate about reading, books and kids, so why do kids ever leave our rooms hating to read? It does happen, and I have a few ideas on the matter.

We regard reading comprehension as the gold standard of being a good reader, and it is. Reading comprehension is the most essential skill that kids need going forward in their lives. We also look at reading rate and reading habits to figure out if a kid is a "good" reader. Some of the tactics that we employ in class are actually detrimental to developing good readers even though they are long-valued methods. These methods become roadblocks to reading.

The class-wide novel is a killer. There is nothing that will kill a kid's desire to read quicker than assigning a novel that the entire class will read, in parts, and dissect together. Many of us have deemed this the ultimate exercise in reading. Blech! I still remember classes in high school when I had to read Herman Melville's Billy Budd. I ran right for the Cliffs Notes (this was well before the advent of Spark Notes) and satisfied all of my teacher's requirements regarding that dreadful read. I learned nothing except that I didn't like literature very much, if this was literature. That semester, we read and dissected a few other books and I employed the same methods, earning an "A" along the way. That class taught me what I don't like to read.

The required book is another reading killer. When we tell a kid that they have to read a book, they automatically assume that it is a bad book, one that they would not choose to read on their own. After all, if it were so good, the teacher would not have to require everyone to read it; the teacher would just tell everyone about the book and they would flock to it, right? No, we see the slogging through books as a noble task that builds rigor and good habits. Kids may not like these books but reading them is "good for them" no matter how much they hate the books. After all, how will they know how amazing the book is if they don't read it and have the teacher tell them, through traditional literary criticism, how amazing it is?

We also bog kids down with so many reading-related tasks. Keep a book log, write in a journal, stop and discuss with a partner after ten minutes of reading, blog about the themes and characters and write a character analysis. All of these activities, while seemingly meaningful for the teacher, are hellish for the student. If a kiddo finds a book they want to read, the last thing they want to do is stop reading every fifteen minutes to perform another one of the countless chores associated with reading. Nothing is a bigger turn-off. If we went to see a movie and the projectionist stopped the movie every ten minutes to "process the story", how many of us would return to see a movie? None. Yet we do this to kids with their reading. Shameful.

None of these tactics will help develop good readers. Our goal for readers is that they learn to love to read and, over time, pick more challenging books to read. When we pick the books for the kids and force them on the kids, we do them no service. Helping kids love reading is much more nuanced and complex. We must first give kids choice over what they read. We can suggest, show, book-talk and recommend books to kids but we cannot choose their books for them.

Each reader brings their entire collection of life experiences to any book they read. Those life experiences combined with the text of the book become an original reading experience. No two individuals have the same reading experience of a book. It is impossible because we all bring different experiences to the reading. That's why book clubs are so popular; we share our interpretations because our interpretations are different. Because we think a book is a good read for a student means nothing. The student has to think that the book is a worthwhile read.

When kids have the power to choose their own reading material, they are invested. They have chosen a book they consider worthy of the time they will spend reading. Now, we teachers must get out of their way and let them read. We need to minimize the chores we associate with the reading. We don't need much "data" to know if a student is interested in what they are reading. Watch their faces while reading. In two seconds, we can tell who is invested in their book and who is not. When a student is so invested in what they are reading that they cannot wait to share it with others, that is a huge win.

We must give kids time to read in class. Some think, "I don't have time for that. I have more important things to do than let kids read." Well, if we think reading is so important, and it is, why would we shove it to the side as an "extra"? Reading should be the main course, and not the "standard literature" that we consider worthy of schools. Kids need time in class to read their choice of reading material. After all, when a violinist wants to get better at the violin, what do they do? They practice. Yet when we want readers to get better at reading, what do we have them do? Everything except read. Crazy, I know.

When students are given ownership of their reading choices and time to read, something magical happens - they read. Kids learn that there are remarkable stories out there that they cannot put down. They find all kinds of things to read and they develop the habits of good readers. They start making lists of books they want to read, they start comparing books to other books they've read, and they start sharing and talking about books with others. This is exactly what we do as adults. This is exactly the kind of reading behaviors that we want to encourage in our kids.

Last week before we looked at some book trailers, I asked my students how their teachers in previous grades kept track of their reading. They listed reading logs, summaries, notebooks and other chores as ways for teachers to keep track. "Did you like them?" I asked. Well, pretty much all of the kids detested them and thought they hindered their reading. "I want things to be different this year," I told them, "I want you to love reading so much that you cannot wait to get to your book." I have minimal requirements to keep track of their reading because I can tell if kids are reading or not. I allow class time to read and I observe kids reading. I know who has a book they love and who is struggling to find a good book. I know who has raced through three books in a week and who is having trouble keeping up with the story. I watch, I see, I know.

I feel it is my job to get kids to love reading. If they leave me knowing that they have the skills to pick books that they will love, that they will find time to read on their own, and they want to read in their spare time, then I have done my job. I know that helping kids develop into lifelong readers is the best thing I can do for them. It is the best way for them to grow intellectually throughout their lives. It is the best way for them to learn about things that they will never get to truly experience in their own lives. It is the best way to open new worlds to them. I cannot think of a better thing to give my kiddos.