Are Teachers Scared to Let Students Make Choices?

This year I set the goal for myself to try to give more choice for my students within my classroom. I was feeling I was making decisions for students, in terms of their projects, seating plan, novel study, etc… and after reading numerous articles about the benefits of student choice in the classroom I decided to put to the test.

As a teacher, it is shockingly hard to give over control and decision making processes to students. After all, my kids are nine years old, could they come up with various options that would encompass what I was looking for? I also think as teachers, we’ve been trained and “programmed” to be the ones in charge and be creative with the way we deliver and design our lessons. It’s scary to give a part of that over, and risk the chance to fail.

Failure had always had a negative connotation in my mind, and it hasn’t been until the beginning of this year, where the ideologies surrounding that word have shifted for me as well. Through elaborate discussions with my PLN, I am now able to look at failure as an opportunity for growth: a way to reflect, develop an understanding, and improve and grow. Failure is no longer something I fear entirely, but instead my mindset is changing. I’m trying to instil that in my students as well.

As I began to give more choices to my students throughout the year, there were a few things I discovered:
1) Kids are WAY more creative than I am. When I told them you can show me what you learned about…in any way you’d like, it was incredible to see the differences in their approaches, but also how their personality shone in each one. They expressed themselves in ways I never even thought of.
2) They were engaged! When students have choice, they are 100% engaged in what they are doing! No ifs, ands, or buts about that.
3) They used each other for support and collaborated more frequently. When they had a question about how to use a device or how to do something, they would ask another classmate. They would seek out support, and share ideas with each other.
4) They took pride and ownership in the things they chose. They were generally excited about their work, and put effort into their assignments. There never was any moaning or groaning, but instead a buzzing of excitement.
5) They had fun, and generally appreciated the fact that they had a say in the decision making process.

Within all the craziness of the last few weeks of school, I decided to let my students choose who would sit in their group. I know this isn’t a huge deal, but to my kids it was, and honestly I was a little concerned with some of their choices and the fact that school is almost done and they are wild enough already. After school a boy came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for letting me sit with my best friend.” I hadn’t really thought much about it, but to this boy, it clearly made a positive impact on him, and that’s what I’m always looking to do. I never imagined that something so small could be so appreciated. But it is always the little things. Those smalls things that make the difference and make learning better for students. Allowing students even just a little bit of choice can make all the difference in their lives. So what are you afraid of?

The Power of Believing in Students

A couple of weeks ago, all of our elementary schools in our district had an incredible day to celebrate our year of pro-kindness efforts with our K-4 students. During this morning, a student from each campus spoke and explained how his/her school has changed and the positive impacts it has had, and here is where I want to begin my story.

About two weeks prior to this event, my school held an essay contest for grades 3 and 4. After reading the instructions and explaining how the process would work, several students eagerly raised their hands as ones who wanted to participate. I passed the notices out to them, but was surprised that the one student I had “pegged” as one who would volunteer didn’t raise her hand. I approached her asking if she wanted to enter the contest and she declined quickly.

As the next day of school approached, I was stilled boggled by the fact that this girl didn’t choose to participate. Of all the students in my class she is the most outgoing, always chatting, has a big personality, and is a go-getter. I pulled her aside at recess time and questioned why she didn’t want to participate in the contest. She replied, much to my surprise, that she was terribly scared to speak in front of people, something I never would have imagined by her sparky personality. I encouraged her and explained to her that I thought she would be fantastic at it, and after much persuasion she finally agreed to at least write the essay.

She made it to the top 5 for our school and had to do her speech in front of the school, as an audition for the real thing. She was brilliant, and had incredible intonation and expression for a nine year old. She spoke even better than I could have imagined her to, and never led on to the fact that she was nervous.

In the long run, she won the competition for our school and presented her speech in front of over 1000 people, never leading on that stomach was in knots, and making me as proud as her own mother was.

I think sometimes as teachers and in our busy work lives it can be hard to remember and recognize the greatness in all kids. Each one has something unique and amazing to offer to the world. Although this girl can sometimes drive me crazy with her persistent loud voice, I realized that this was a tool that she could use. We need to help our students discover their gifts and encourage them to share them.

Since then, not only has she become more confident in herself, but our relationship has grown. It’s amazing what a little encouragement and believing in someone can do. We’ve all had those teachers who believed in us, so now it’s our time to pass on the gift and show our students how amazing each of them are!

Teaching for the Student

Thinking about my class and students this year, I have been blessed to have worked with these guys for several years. I first met them through teaching them kindergarten gym, taught some of them in grade one and two, and am lucky enough to have several again in their final year at our school in grade four. I would consider this class “the dream team.” They all are incredible students who go out of their way to work together, show kindness, and embrace each others uniqueness. They really are very special!

Throughout this year, I’ve always wondered has this five year relationship with them attributed to their outstanding character? Is it true that building a strong relationship with your students is more important than anything else? I don’t doubt for a second that it isn’t, and this year has proven that to me time and time again. If I didn’t know their favourite sport, that their older siblings annoy them, the snack that they always despise, would we interact the same way? I would say no. I believe that when you truly understand each one of your students, learn who they are as a person, only then will true learning occur. This is the first step for authentic engagement for students.

Having this strong foundation of a relationship being built for the last five years, has allowed me to really understand how my students learn; what works for them and what they struggle with. They are open to communicating, excel for excellence, but support each other when failure occurs. I teach for them. Not for a test. Not for the highest marks, but for the students.

Tonight I participated in a twitter chat, #mnlead, led by a student, whose discussion focused on creating a student centered place for learning. It brought up many ideas and questions about how we get the most out of student’s learning, to be an effective teacher. Below is a brief summary of this chat:

Question #1: How should you record a student’s comprehension of a subject? Essay, test, quiz, or an in class discussion? What works best?

Question #2: How do you instill a mindset in student’s that failure isn’t an option? What motivates students to excel?

Question #3: In a classroom there are several types of learners. How do you make sure you are reaching everyone?

Question #4: Should you encourage students to take a variety of courses or focus on one that they are passionate about?

Question #5: How do you create a positive learning culture for your students where they are wanting to be there each day?

Providing a caring environment, where students can take risks, be challenged, and be supported when they fail is important for every classroom. It all begins with building a relationship. How will you discover each of your students in order to optimize their learning? Get to know them! Teach for the student.

Why Genius Hour?

It has been my own personal goal this year to learn and understand more about the idea of “Genius Hour,” and how and what it would look like in the classroom. It is a constant buzz word that always includes the ideas of passion, engagement, and self-directed learning for students.

Genius hour is a relatively new movement in education based on the idea started by Google, whereby employees are able to spend 20% of their time working on projects they are passionate and excited about. You could refer to it as “free time.” A chance to explore and research something that interests you. The ideas are entirely student generated, and of course will vary as student passions are different.

On paper, the idea sounds great, but in the crazy life of the classroom, where would this fit? How do teachers find the time to implement yet another idea? What program or subject do you ignore? In the end, is it worth it?

Tonight the topic of the twitter chat #mnlead focused entirely on genius hour. The passion, energy, and belief in the benefits were apparent with every participant. It was an incredible chat to be a part of. Here’s a quick summary of our discussion:

Question #1: What do you think of when you hear the term genius hour or 20% time?

Question #2: How do students benefit from a genius hour philosophy in the classroom?

Question #2 Follow Up: How do teachers benefit by allowing students to learn focused on their passions?

Question #3: How can genius hour projects be celebrated within the classroom, school, community?

Question #4: What are some of the challenges facing an implementation of genius hour in the classroom?

Question #5: As a leader, how can you support and promote genius hour?

Question #6: What possibilities does the genius hour concept have for professional development?

The discussion tonight further reinforced my preconceived ideas of the benefits of genius hour. When you give students choice, when you take the time to build relationships with them, when you allow them to be advocates for their passion, and when you embrace their learning (whether it’s successful or a failure) an opportunity for growth and further learning continues. This is exactly what genius hour provides!

Here are further resources on genius hour:
What is Genius Hour?
Genius Hour Resources
Mr. Solarz’ Class Examples
Genius Hour Starter Questions

Online, Blended, or Face-to-Face Learning: Which is Best?

Recently, I have been taking some google courses online and have been surprised by my reaction with the way I prefer to learn. I have always considered myself a “text” learner. I love reading and feel that I learn best that way, as I can go back and reread, go at my own pace, and have the ability to take notes as I please. This was the way I learned through university, and always just assumed it was the best way for me. However, through taking these online courses, I have found myself gravitating immediately to the video tutorials, and retaining the information much quicker and easier through watching a video, not reading the exact information in text. It brought me to question my traditions views on my learning style and why it has changed. It also led me to think about my students. Each student has a way they prefer to learn and a way that works best for them. Am I able to fulfill their needs throughout the day? Yes I use a variety of technologies, such as videos, iPads, laptops, as well as texts, and face-to-face interactions, but is this sufficient enough? What works best for them?

Tonight I participate in yet another twitter chat (my new addiction!), #edtechchat, and was excited to hear about the discussion on online, blended, and face-to-face learning. I guess I always assumed that online learning works best with adults/teens, but was shocked to hear it happening in kindergarten classes as well. Our discussion was filled with incredible ideas and opinions on learning in this day in age, and what the best options for our students are. Here’s a summary of our discussion:

Question #1 asked whether teachers worked in schools with online, blended, or face-to-face learning, so I’ll skip that question and jump right into the good stuff! For your reference, f2f means face-to-face.

Question #2: What do we see as primary advantages of online learning over f2f courses?

Question #3: What do we see as the primary advantages of teaching f2f over teaching online?

Question #4: How can blended learning take advantage of opportunities in both online and f2f settings?

Question #5: Teacher PD/training for online and blended courses is paramount… what’s your best resource?

Question #6: For those of you who teach, blended or online… what’s your top piece of advice?

As you can see, this discussion was filled with great ideas, recommendations, and beliefs. I think there were two things that stood out for me the most:
1) Blended learning appears to be the best option for learning. It allows that face-to-face contact, the ability to build those strong relationships with your students, chance to reach all learning styles, and still allows for continual learning and reviewing outside of the classroom. Learning becomes accessible to all students, anywhere. I wonder though how much additional work this requires? In a profession where there never seems to be enough time, it is attainable? Or is it one of those learning curves that takes awhile initially, but once you’ve mastered it, it’s just like typing out a lesson?
2) In our modern world, I believe it is a teacher’s duty to expose and teach kids about technology, the different tools, how to use it, and how it can help them learn. We are educating our students for jobs that we don’t even know will exist, so we need to provide them with the tools to be successful in the future. We must!

Below are a number of resources that were also provided through this chat. Thanks again to everyone for sharing their incredible ideas and knowledge.

10 Promising Free & Inexpensive Products for Blended Learning
37 Blended Learning Resources you can use Tomorrow
Blended Learning Universe
Project 24 – Planning for Progress
Quakertown Community School District – Blended Learning Program
Blended Learning Resource Page

Failure: A Starting Point for Greatness

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, failure is defined as “omission of occurrence or performance” and the “lack of success.” Failure happens when you don’t achieve a desired outcome. Failure is associated with negative words and connotations such as defeat, unsuccessful, ineffectiveness, and set backs. Why does failure have these negative views and how can we change this?

Everyone is subjected to failing and struggling, but it’s how you handle it that makes all the difference. Do you reflect upon what has happened to create the outcome? Do you learn from your mistakes? Do you use your set back as an opportunity for growth? Do you get up and try again?

Tonight, I participated in #mnlead chat on twitter, where an incredible group of educators came together to discuss failure. It was an excellent talk, and from it I learned that educators do believe in the power of failure for growth and learning. Below is a summary of our discussion:

Question #1: What is the value of failure?

Question #2: How can we encourage failure as a good thing and a part of the learning process?

Question #3: What role does failure play in furthering mindset shifts in education?

Question #4: How do you encourage that failure is okay?

Question #5: How do failures in society, business and government affect change in your school/district?

Question #6: What does ‘fail forward’ actually mean?

As educators we need to embrace moments of failure, model, and discuss them with our students and colleagues. We need to show people that it is okay to make mistakes, and look at these as opportunities for learning and growth. We need to encourage others to share their failures, reflect on them, and find ways to improve. We have to develop an understanding of the process and how to persevere. How can you change the negative mindset around failure and adapt a positive outlook to encourage your students to use failure as a starting point for greatness?

Has Literacy Been Redefined?

balanced-literacy1

Thinking about the definition of literacy, it is easy to find the meaning in the dictionary explained as: “The ability to read and write.” You could think that this is correct, as reading and writing could define someone who is literate, but does literacy encompass more than simply reading and writing? How do you define a literate person?

I believe that literacy is more than being able to read and write fluently, but rather the ability to understand through questioning, making connections, learning new concepts and vocabulary, and applying those skills to writing and other texts that one reads. It’s not only books, but other sources of texts, and for me, technology has played a major role in redefining literacy. I recently came across an online book titled, Learning to Read in the Computer Age, and read a passage that helped to clarify the meaning of literacy. Below is an excerpt from chapter 5 in the book written by Anne Meyer and David H. Rose

Computers are causing us to rethink both our definition of literacy and our approaches to teaching it. We are in a transition period, beginning to move away from print-dominated classrooms where literacy learning focuses almost completely on tasks related to dealing effectively with text — learning to decode text, learning to understanding text, learning to write text. New technologies and new media are broadening our perspective on the goals of teaching literacy, shedding new light on the learners we are trying to reach, what we should teach them, and how they should be taught. Even the ways we talk about the simplest goals and tasks are beginning to change. “Write your name on your paper” no longer covers all the options. Saying to students “identify the piece of work as yours” could result in them typing their names, making a digital recording, pasting a personal logo or a scanned photo of themselves into a document, or creating a link to their home pages.

Some visionaries are already reframing our traditional idea of literacy into a subcategory called “letteracy” to make way for a more expansive definition of literacy in the modern age (Papert, 1993). Our concept of literacy has been based on the assumption that print is the primary carrier of information in our culture and that the most important skills are those that enable students to understand and express themselves in text. The new definition of literacy is based on a different assumption: that digital technology is rapidly becoming a primary carrier of information and that the broader means of expression this technology makes possible are now critical for education. Text literacy is necessary and valuable, but no longer sufficient.

How does a teacher adapt to teach the new literate student? What changes does this create for you in your own teaching practice?