A New First Day of School

Prior to my students arriving on the first day of school, I was trying to envision a new “first day.” I was tired of the same old ice breaker or get-to-know-you activities that really end up doing neither of their intended results. After a couple of hours spent reading blogs, exploring twitter, and searching on Pinterest, I knew that I needed to change the way I approached my first day of school. I wanted my kids to know that I value creativity, collaboration, and hands on projects, and what I had done in the past wasn’t representing the teacher that I am.

So I decided to scrap most of my plans, and start fresh. Although this can be a scary thing, especially for us teachers, it was something I felt that I had to do. In the afternoon, during our character time, I read the story Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller. It’s a great book that talks about a rabbit who meets new neighbours, the Otters, and has to decide how he would like his new neighbours to be. It highlights important characteristics that we look for in others, like being polite and considerate, and ultimately leaves the reader with the rule to do unto otters as you would have otters do unto you. I’m a sucker for puns, so this book is right up my alley!

After we read the story, we shared our thoughts about it, and how the qualities the author discussed in the story are qualities that we look for in others. We also talked about when we work with others, that we must ensure we are treating them respectfully. My students came up with some great ideas about the ways that they want to be treated when in a group.

From here, I presented my students with a challenge: Each prearranged group of three would receive 20 pipecleaners and 3 large sheets of tin foil. They didn’t have to use all of the supplies if they chose not to, but these would be the only supplies that they could use. Together they would need to plan and create something. Much to my surprise, and with very few questions, the groups got right to work. They had over an hour to plan and design their projects, and the results were fantastic.

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Although the kids thoroughly enjoyed their creations, it provided me with insightful information about them. Instantly, I was able to see how my students interacted with one another; whether they were quiet and shy, or bold and took the lead, it gave me a quick read on their personalities and leadership qualities. Secondly, I could see how my students negotiated through their ideas. Some students were very adamant about their idea, but when others disagreed, it was great to see how they were mindful of the concepts we discussed to collaborate and come up with a new idea together. It was wonderful to see all students engaged not only in the process, but together as a team.

After completing this activity, it left me to wonder, what do I learn about my students in an ice-breaker or in a get-to-know-you game? Why have I chosen to do such activities in the past? Through a simple change, I am now able to answer these questions successfully and have a purpose behind my activity design. I challenge you to ask yourself the same question: Why?

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Coding: The Next Generation

“We live in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before. Today’s children will face a continual stream of new issues and unexpected challenges in the future. Many things that they learn today will be obsolete tomorrow. To thrive, they must learn to design innovative solutions to the unexpected problems that will undoubtedly arise in their lives. Their success and satisfaction will be based on their ability to think and act creatively. Knowledge alone is not enough: they must learn how to use their knowledge creatively.” Mitch Resnick

When thinking about setting up our students up for success in the future, what kind of skills do you feel they need? A few ideas come to mind: How to problem solve, how to work cooperatively together, how to persevere, and how to think outside of the box. Keeping these ideals in mind, has caused me to reflect upon my own teaching in the last year. Do I provide opportunities for these skills to develop to my classroom?

Through my master’s course, I have been exposed to a lot of the current research in the learning sciences, and am continuing to find ways to challenge my own thinking. If the research says students need opportunities to play and discover, how can I ensure I provide these in my class?

Today, my students participated in the Hour of Code, a global movement designed to introduce students to computer programming and making it possible for all students to learn the basics of coding. I initially showed my students a couple tutorials and then just let them play. What happened next was something I dream of as a teacher. My students were 100% engaged, they collaborated and helped one another out, they shared their skills and taught each other, they problem solved, they persevered, and they were creative! However, the most powerful piece of this lesson was when it ended and the responses I heard:
“This was the best class ever!”
“Oh my gosh, that was so much fun!”
“Ms. Petley, can we please do this again?”

Do you need to know how to code in order for your students to learn? Model learning together. Model problem solving. Let them experiment and teach you. Let them be creative. Let them code!

Helping each other out during the #HourOfCode

Helping each other out during the #HourOfCode

We participated in the #HourOfCode

We participated in the #HourOfCode

References
Resnick, M. (2014). Give p’s a chance: Projects, peers, passion, play. Constructionism and Creativity conference, opening keynote. Vienna.

Is Collaboration More Than Group Work?

Educational research throughout the 20th century focused on learning through an individualistic approach. Learning happened on a personal level, all teaching occurred in a similar fashion, and all students learned the same thing. Educational folk theory is a prime example of this, as there is a focus on individual differences and why some students have problems learning (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2008). The successful student is used as a standard and comparison for others (ibid). I would like to believe that as we live through another century our ways of teaching students to learn has changed. However, a part of me questions the truth in this. Is standardized testing not another form of applying the educational folk theory? Do we still measure student success as a comparison to the norm?

The learning sciences attempt to answer this question by focusing their research on how students learn. Instead of questioning why students have trouble learning, they would question why a concept is difficult to learn (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2008). Researchers argue that students should no longer be treated as individual learners, but instead as members of a knowledge building community (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2006). Knowledge building can be viewed as a community that aims to improve ideas rather than assuming a truth, through developing collaborative problem solving and in-depth understanding (ibid).

Throughout the exposure to all of these theories I see great application for this in my classroom. I understand that students learn differently and need to be a part of a collaborative, knowledge building community, but I also would argue that school systems haven’t completely ignored that notion either. When I think of my own educational experiences, I had ample opportunities to be part of a collaborative classroom community, where we worked together to be creative and form new ideas. I am beginning to question though if our definition of collaboration has changed. Has it moved away from the idea of group work towards a sharing and building of a knowledge network?

Kolonder et al. (2003) would support the assumption of this as they explain that:
“We try to help our teachers understand that collaborative learning is not simply a call to have students work in groups, but rather, it is a value that needs to permeate the classroom-through sharing across groups, more expert students helping less expert ones, the teacher admitting what he or she does not know and getting excited about learning from the students, the students together figuring out what they need to learn more about and helping each other with their investigations and experiment designs, and so on” (p. 539).

Through this definition, it becomes clearer about the transformation that the word collaboration has moved through. It also leads me to reflect upon my own teaching practices and wonder to what extent am I truly providing collaborative experiences for my students?

References
Kolodner, J.L., Camp, P.J., Crismond D., Fasse, B., Gray, J., Holbrook, J., Puntembakar,           S., Ryan, M. (2003). Problem-Based Learning Meets Case-Based Reasoning in the           Middle-School Science Classroom: Putting Learning by Design™ into Practice.                   Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(4), 495-548.

Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and                     technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp.           97-118). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (2008). Toward research-based innovation. In F. Benavidis         & D. Istance (Eds). Innovating to learning, learning to innovate. Paris, FR:                             Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. pp.67-88. DOI                           :10.1787/9789264047983-en

Choice, Collaboration, and the Social Learner

The Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) began in the late 1990s, as a “bold approach to supporting the improvement of student learning and performance by encouraging teachers, parents, and the community to work collaboratively to introduce innovative and creative initiatives based upon local needs and circumstances” (Davis et al., 2012, p. 374). One AISI project that my school district worked was with math assessments, where we partnered alongside David DeCoste and our grade level teams to create meaningful performance tasks. Another AISI focused on academic vocabulary with ELLs, where Hetty Rossingh provided her expertise and grade level teams collaborated together to create moments of explicit teaching of academic language in our classrooms. In both of these experiences, AISI planning was used as a collaborative and effective team effort, thus being apparent that through these cycles “connectivity and collaboration have been sustained and amplified through AISI” (Davis et al., 2012, p. 394).

In the article Understanding School Districts as Learning Systems, the authors present four varying types of network structures for AISI: centralized, distributed, decentralized, and fragmented (Davis et al., 2012). It is apparent through the learning sciences research, that the ideal environment would be a decentralized one, in which customised learning, diverse knowledge sources, and distributed knowledge are present (Sawyer, 2009). Many current theorists further emphasize these ideas through putting the focus on the learner and their learning: Jarvis believes in making learning social, and Kegan and Engeström put special attention on how people learn (2008). All of these continue to emphasize the social aspect of learning, however, our school systems seem to be stuck in the past. “Our institutions…are largely based on the assumption that learning is an individual process, that it has a beginning and an end, that it is best separated from the rest of our activities…” (Illeris, 2008, p. 209). How do we move our methodologies into the current research framework when our institutions support the opposite? How can we help our students in their learning process, when our classroom designs and assessment procedures dictate an individualistic ideology?

I think movements are beginning within Alberta to support the current learning sciences theory. Teachers are not only looking at ways to transform their classrooms and become facilitators of teaching, but are also beginning to change the way in their own professional development. Edcamps are a prime examples of this, as they are a grassroots created PD experience for teachers. Edcamps refer to “a revolutionary idea that allows teachers to come together to collaborate on ways to inspire each other with new, refreshing ideas they can implement in their individual classrooms” (Kalesse, 2014, p. 20). I attended my first edcamp this year and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Not only did it allow for choice in learning, but it provided opportunities for collaboration, moments to share your learning with other professionals, and motivated me to learn more. However, I was left to wonder two thoughts: Why do we lack opportunities for this type of teacher professional development, and why are we limited in creating these types of learning opportunities for our students?

References:
Davis, B., Sumara, D. & D’Amour, L. (2012). Understanding school districts as learning systems: Some lessons from three cases of complex transformation. Journal of Educational Change, 13(3), 373-399. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com.ezproxy.lib.ucalgary.ca/article/10.1007%2Fs10833-012-9183-4

Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge. Retrieved from http://site.ebrary.com/lib/alltitles/docDetail.action?docID=10296951

Kalesse, R. (2014). Teachers lead the way at edcamps: participant-driven “unconferences” restore the power of professional development. Reading Today, 31(5), 20-21.

Sawyer, R. K. (2009). Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research. Paris, FR: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/40805146.pdf

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?

#edtechchat

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Tonight, I participated in my first #edtechchat. These twitter chats have always frightened me as they are fast-paced, a continuous stream of messages to read and catch up on, and the whole idea of not knowing what is going on and feeling overwhelmed has consistently turned me away from trying them out. I guess you could say it was all in my head. If I expect my students to experiment with new technologies, shouldn’t I model that for them as well? Sometimes you just have to jump in and enjoy the feeling of being uncomfortable. Much to my surprise, after a few minutes of typing away, the nerves went away and I was able to enjoy the ample information being shared. The chat focused on how technology effects writing, with a focus on blogging and other writing platforms, and student collaboration. Here’s a little sample of some of the discussion that took place.

All of this discussion had me thinking about blogging and the purpose of it. In October, I created a classroom blog for my students. I started it as a way for students to share their learning with each other and their parents, like an online journal really. However, now I am wondering if that is good enough? Instead should it be a platform for collaboration? A way for students to connect with others around the globe? Shouldn’t they have the opportunity to blog in a non-academic forum as well?

As professionals, I believe that we constantly need to evaluate and reflect on our practice, and be challenged on our current beliefs and ways. For me this happened tonight, and now is my chance to reconsider the purpose of student blogging.

(For more information on twitter edchats available, check out this link)