Sunday, February 26, 2017

Learning Outside the Classroom

I've long been a proponent of learning beyond the classroom walls. The more learning kids can do outside of school and outside of the curriculum, the better off they will be. Certainly the curriculum is important, but often kids do not find their way in life because of something they learned in the school curriculum. It is the experiences that they have or the innovative ideas that they see that pull them in the direction that they are supposed to go in life. Field trips are essential to learning and give kids the one thing they remember most...the experience. Experiences matter more for kids in school than anything else. They may not remember an eighth grade math worksheet as life-changing, but a trip to the symphony, a college campus, a medical school laboratory, a repertory theater company, or a nature preserve may just give kids an idea of what they want to do in life. Sometimes when you cannot take the kids to the learning, you have to bring the learning in to the kids.

This week at school, we did not go on a field trip. Instead, our administration brought in a guest-speaker, Collier County Judge Janeice Martin. She spoke and answered the kids' questions for over an hour. She talked about her experience as a lawyer and a judge, spinning interesting stories about her career. The kids were interested because her talk had direct application to their lives. She grew up in the very neighborhoods where our kiddos live. Martin talked about what it takes to become a lawyer and the ability of someone in her position to help people. She also talked about her most difficult cases, both professionally and emotionally. The overarching message that came through to our kiddos is that she loves her career. That is inspirational to everyone. When you talk to someone who clearly loves what they do, you are inspired.

Many of the kids in the audience have never given a second thought to becoming a lawyer, judge, or any part of the justice system. After the assembly, many of them will. The important thing is exposure. We have to expose kids to many things and give them countless experiences so that they can see the numerous choices they have in their lives. When kids only see a few pathways in their lives, then those few choices become their world. It is up to us as educators to expand what the kids see. They must see that they can do anything with their lives. The worst thing is for a young adult to go into a field, based on limited exposure, and hate it, only to find out fifteen years later that there was a better career for them.

One of the reasons I have my little Creative Genius segment in class each week is because I want kids to see futuristic ideas and products, many of which are still in development. I always end the segment by telling them, "Some of you may end up working at these companies or coming up with an even better idea." Kids need to see a variety of pathways for themselves in the arts, math and science, journalism, publishing, athletics, construction and many other fields. If we don't show them that these careers exist, they may never know. It is these very ideas that kids latch on to and think to themselves, "I want to do that when I'm older." Anytime we get kids thinking like that, we can chalk up a win.

Is giving up class time for field trips, assemblies, Creative Genius and other segments of exposure worth it? Absolutely. I would argue that it is probably the most important part of the kids' week. It is the time that kids can wonder, explore, be awed, and see themselves in these positions later in life. It is the experiences we give them that they remember. We must make those experiences numerous and worthwhile for the kids. Their lives often depend on it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Article of the Week - Newsela

When I read Kelly Gallagher's Readicide, I saw the value of the Article of the Week. Kids read a news article and reflect on the content. It is a way to build background knowledge while practicing writing skills. Since I read the book, I have adopted an Article of the Week into our classroom. Kids have read about circuses, presidents, sports, technology and lots of current events. The kids become better-informed and can also construct an argumentative paragraph or essay about the article.

I have used Junior Scholastic in the past for our news articles but this year, I have gravitated toward Newsela. Newsela is an easy-to-use news source that has many great features. One big win for kids is that Newsela allows students to adjust the reading level of the article. Press a button and the article becomes easier or more difficult to read (lexile levels range from 1120+ to 540). This is especially helpful with students whose first language is not English. Newsela is free to use and teachers can set up classes, share the class code with students, and assign articles. Within the Newsela site, teachers can assign quizzes and other reading checks. I prefer to have my kiddos read the articles and then write about them. Too many times I have seen kids look at the questions and then search for the answers in the text. When they write, they have to finish the article to get the information and form their opinions.

One of the great features of Newsela is the ease with which teachers can assign articles. We can assign within the Newsela site itself or share out to Google Classroom, email, Twitter and a few other venues. The ease with which teachers and students can access the news articles is astounding. The ease with which we teachers can use free, current, relevant news articles to build kids' background knowledge is a win for all of us. The Article of the Week is a bedrock element of our class. It serves the purpose of introducing kids to nonfiction articles and gives us more material about which to write. Using Newsela as our current events source is free and easy.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Blogging to Reflect

Most teachers know that reflection is a key element of learning. We practice reflection in many ways. We blog, we engage on Twitter, we converse with other teachers, we read, we think and we wonder. We try to analyze what is going well and what needs adjustment. We try to figure out why something succeeded or failed and map out ways to do better next time. Reflection may very well be where most of the learning occurs. We teachers know that reflection is essential to developing a deep understanding of material and how we ourselves learn best.

Sometimes we overlook the reflection piece with our students. We are busy generating assignments so that they can perform and sometimes we don't allow enough time for kids to do their own analysis about their learning. Now, surely kiddos are not experts at reflection. They may not even know why reflection is important. "This is dumb. Can't we just do something else?" is a common refrain. Why would kids be so opposed to reflection? Well, for one thing, kids often don't know how to reflect. The way many schools work usually does not allow time for deep thinking about learning. We have material to cover. We cannot take time to think about what we are doing. Because of this rushed curriculum, kids are never given the opportunity to develop their reflective selves.

Kids have to learn to reflect on their learning just as we teachers did. We have to give them time and scaffold some activities for them so that they get the hang of it. With practice, they will develop the ability to analyze their work for the purpose of improving their learning. We have to give them time. One way we English teachers have been coaching reflection with kids is reader response. Kids spend time analyzing the books they are reading and also reflecting on their own reading skills and preferences. They take a long look at what they are doing for the purpose of improving their learning. That is the kind of reflection we want for our kids in all of their learning.

Our Genius Hour blogs are perfect for developing reflection skills in our students. They are in charge of their learning, making almost all of the decisions about their projects. Once a week, I ask them to write a blog post about their learning. What have they accomplished during the past week? What is the next step in their project? Is the project going the way they thought it would? Have they been surprised by the results of the decisions that they have made? Are they on track to complete their project? Given the work that they have done so far, what materials or resources do they need for the next step? All of these questions bounce around their brains. They have to take a long look at their learning. They have to reflect.

Our kids are making dozens of decisions about their projects each week. With each decision they make, a handful of new decisions appears on the horizon. They are figuring out that learning is a continuous process and that we are never really "finished" learning. One door leads to another and another. What we hope to accomplish with our blogs is to have kids take the first steps toward figuring out their talents and gifts and maybe take a look down the road to see how they can use these talents and gifts in their lives and in their work. We hope that they start planning some long-range goals. Some kids will discover new talents during our Genius Hour projects. That's what our projects are all about. We are learning a bit about a topic but we are learning a great deal about ourselves.