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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Using Social Media to Differentiate

I've been feeling guilty - all of my favourite teacher bloggers have been taking advantage of their time off and have been updating their blogs.  I've had a hard time getting off the couch!  On Christmas Eve I came down with a strep throat and am just starting to feel like myself today.  Since I've had nothing to do but lie around, I have been enjoying all of those blog posts!

One such post was by Royan Lee "The Power of Introverts~ Spicy Links."  Royan shared on his blog Susan Cain's TED talk "The Power of Introverts" along with links to his interview with her on her website.  Susan also has her new book out now - "Quiet: The Power of Introverts".

As we all know, one of the hallmarks of 21st Century Learning is collaboration.  Cooperative learning is everywhere.  Students collaborate on projects, discuss texts they've read to hash out meaning, co-write text, peer-edit, etc.  Susan Cain reminds us that it is not always the loudest or most vocal, however, that has the best ideas.  Most teachers realize this, and we often torture (and I don't think "torture" is an exaggeration) our introverted students begging them to share their ideas, because we know the rest of the class would benefit from their insight.  (Then we give them a level 2 for Oral Communication- which if we really were evaluating based on the Curriculum expectations we'd realize that Oral Communication is so much more than being able to speak publicly- but I digress.)

Royan's answer to this issue is Social Media. (I've been following his blog since I saw Lisa Donahue at Reading for the Love of It last February, and she mentioned him- one of the best things I ever did for my teaching practice!)

I found out how right Royan is when I began using Blended Learning this year.  Blended Learning incorporates a combination of face-to-face with on-line instruction.  We use the Ministry's Learning Management System the Desire 2 Learn (D2L).  Using the D2L has allowed me to use "Office Hours"- time when my students can contact me via the D2L outside of the regular school day.  Most of my students have taken advantage of this feature, but I find it is my shy students who use this feature most regularly.  One student explained that she has "so many questions" but is uncomfortable asking them out loud in class.  The D2L makes it easy for her to ask questions.

We have also been using the Discussion tool.  This tool has given those quiet thoughtful students an equal opportunity to have their voices heard.  Introverted students often like to think before they speak.  The fast pace of a group discussion doesn't allow for that.  They also aren't pushy enough to interrupt those extroverted students who know exactly how to have their voices heard.  Using the Discussion tool solves both of these issues - they can take as much time as they need to think before they "speak" and everyone has to "hear" them.

Social Media allows us to use cooperative learning while still considering the individual needs of our students. For some of my students, having to "write" their ideas into a Discussion Forum is painful; writing ANYTHING is painful.  The Discussion Forum on the D2L also allows students to compose their messages as an audio file.  Now that is differentiation!

I'm going to order my copy of Susan Cain's book today!

Monday, 10 December 2012

To Re-read or Not to Re-Read, THAT is the Question!

We recently completed our first set of Literature Circles.  Actually, I don't really like the term "Literature Circles" because it is so closely linked with those "roles" that teachers love to squeeze children into.  You know what I mean:  Word Solver, Vocablulary Enricher, Illustrator, Summarizer, Questioner, etc.  I first ran into these roles while I was still a Primary teacher.  My son was in the Sixth Grade, and he was in a Literature Circle.  He was sitting in front of the computer with his novel on his lap.  He was getting pretty upset, just staring at the screen.  I asked him what the problem was and he said, "I'm the Vocabulary Enricher for this chapter, so I have to find a word in here that I don't know, look it up, and explain it to my group.  But I know all of the words already, so I don't know what to do!"  I suggested that he find an interesting word to share, and not worry about whether or not he already knew what the word meant.  But he was of the belief that this particular chapter had nary an interesting word in the entire text!  Then he said "Next week will be even worse! I will be the Illustrator, and I HATE drawing!". 

At that point my daughter, who was in Grade Twelve at the time, came down the stairs and said, "You know Jordan, teachers kill everything good about reading".  I made a vow then and there that I would never make students do something with a text that I wouldn't want to do myself.

Now that said, I had dinner with my friend Terri the other night, and she told me how she explains to her students that when we read for pleasure we don't study the text, but when we are reading in school, we are learning, so we need to study the text.  So there are some things we do in school that we would not do when reading during our free time.  I think she has a point, but I also think that sometimes what we make students do with their novels just becomes busy work. 

That is why I like the Reciprocal Teaching so much.  It just has four simple objectives to focus on, and the goal is for all of the students in the group to do all of the tasks.  So I thought that I was being pretty reasonable with my own students when two different conversations enlightened me.  First, I have a group that is reading "Who is Frances Rain ?" by Margaret Buffie.  This is a group of strong readers, all girls, who are loving their novel and their reading group (I tend to call them "Book Club Groups" because I am in a Book Club and I love my Book Club).  I gave them their template for the Reciprocal Teaching, and they GROANED out loud.  I asked what the problem was, and they said they hate filling in the sheet, that they just want to talk about the book.  I explained that the sheet helps them to stay on topic and not go off on tangents.  They agreed that it did help them stay on topic and go deeper into the book.  BUT, they said, they don't need to write anything down, they just need the anchor chart that is up on the wall.  So, I agreed, they didn't have to have a written product. 

I spoke to our Literacy Coach, Teresa, about this afterward because this compromise made me feel like perhaps we weren't doing it "right".  But she assured me that this was in fact a good thing, ultimately, the goal of Reciprocal Teaching is to promote rich and meaningful conversation and reflection. But in the back of my mind I was still wondering- how do we keep them accountable?

The next day, I asked the students to describe one of the main characters in their novels, and I was floored by the depth of the responses I got from this particular group, so I guess she was right. 

But then I met with a second Book Club group.  This group was reading "Frindle" by Andrew Clements.  This group seemed to be doing a great job with their Reciprocal Teaching, and they were now finished the book.  I pulled the group over for some guided instruction.  I decided to ask them some discussion questions about the book.  It just so happened that the student who had been recording their responses onto their Reciprocal Teaching form each time they met was absent on this particular day.  I asked my first question:  "Why does Nick call the pen a 'frindle'?"  Not one student could give me a reasonable answer.  I quickly realized that the only person who had understood the story at all was the student who had diligently filled in the sheets! 

I decided that I was going to have the students re-read Frindle because it is such a great story and I felt they need to "get it".  I told them that we would re-read it together in a guided reading format.  They looked at me askance.  They were horrified.  Read the same book TWICE!?!

I asked some of my friends what their opinions were.  It seemed 50% felt we should re-read it, and 50% thought I should cut my losses and move on.  But I decided in the end to let the children decide.  They felt they had read the book and they did not want to go back.  (For them, it was an accomplishment to have finished it, and suggesting they re-read it was a slight). 

We decided to keep moving forward.  They were each given a copy of "Mieko and the Fifth Treasure".   This time, I am meeting daily with this group, (if I can swing it, we even meet twice on some days), they don't read this novel independently at all because I want to make sure that they are using all of the reading strategies and understanding the text thoroughly - nuances and all.  I am using guided instruction with the Reciprocal Teaching format. They are doing a great job with it and are really enjoying the story.  I guess you could say they just need more scaffolding than some of the other groups. 

At first I was really upset by this apparent failure.  I actually had trouble sleeping last week, waking up at three-thirty in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep, trying to figure out how I can help these kids.  I really have to get better at looking failure in the face, accepting it, and then getting back on the horse and trying again.  After all, it's what I want my students to do.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Bump It UP!

This year, in our school, we are all using "Bump It Up Walls".  I confess, at first I was skeptical, but our principal was convinced it would make a difference, so I thought I would give it a try. 

If you've read my "Math Journal" post, you will know that I've been using "Interactive Math Journals" this year for the first time.  I got the idea from Runde's Room.  Well, I was finding a rather large range of quality from one student's work to another.  I decided that I would try my first "Bump It Up Wall" with samples from our Math Journals. 

I chose five samples of student work to photocopy, and I made five copies of each selection.  The students worked in groups of four or five with each group having all five selections.  As a group, they had to determine what made the sample good, and what the student could do to improve his/her work.  (The students whose work was selected remained anonymous).  Then as a class, we went through each sample with the groups sharing what they felt the students did well, and what they could do next time to improve their work. 

We posted these samples on our "Bump It Up Wall" with large sticky notes that stated what was done well, and what the student could do to bump up their work.  After we completed this activity, we re-wrote our Success Criteria for our Math Journals (we realized that we had increased our standards from our previous criteria). 

Note that the Success Criteria are written in student-friendly language. 

I liked this activity because it was the students who decided what made a quality journal entry.  They decided what should be included and how a journal entry should look. 

After we had completed our Success Criteria, the students each went back to their most recent journal entry, and they gave themselves feedback on what they needed to do in their next entry to make it even better than their last. 

For our next entry, I asked the students to do a procedural text on how to use a protractor.  They were also asked to explain why it is an important skill to know how to measure angles.  How could they use this skill in the "real-world"?  I could not believe the overall improvement in their work.  I think the Bump It Up Wall, or at least the activity that led to its creation, made a huge impact on the quality of their work. 

Here is a sample:

I will definitely do this activity again.  Our next "Bump It Up Wall" will be used for Reading Response activities, stay tuned...

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Artistic Symmetry

My favourite teacher-blogger, Jen Runde, said in her most recent post that she is feeling over-whelmed these days.  So I think it is okay for me to confess- I feel so very OVER-WHELMED!  There is so much I want to do with these children and so little time!  My friend Helena, also a Grade Six teacher, said to me once that she feels she needs two years to teach Grade Six.  That is so very true!  She also wisely said to me once that teaching is like being in a really good restaurant.  There are so many great selections on the menu, but unfortunately, you can't choose them all. 

I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I loved Rafe Esquith's book, "Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire".   It feels exactly like that is what I am doing.  I'm trying so hard to meet the needs of everyone, and they each need something so different!  I'm trying to close gaps and ensure that each child is reaching their potential.  It's not easy, and time is my enemy.

But we have been having lots of fun along the way.  In Science we have been building series and parallel circuits.  Every time a light bulb burns brighter or starts to dim, I hear those wonderful "oohs" and "aahs" that suggest learning is taking place.  In our Board, we have a wonderful software program called "Edison" on our student desktops.  Using the software, students can "build" circuits.  I put the students into groups and then I create different work stations; some work with the Edison software, some work with our Desire 2 Learn learning management platform from the Ministry's Blended Learning program (which is really awesome), some use the Electronic Brain Box kit that I booked out of our Board's Resource Centre, while others are working with a kit I put together with mini-light bulbs, battery holders, switches, and wires with alligator clips.  I think teaching Science is my favourite thing to do. (If you work in the same Board as I do, and you want to know more about these resources for your Electricty Unit, please don't hesitate to contact me!)

Although they are loving Science, my students are still adamant that their favourite subject is Art. It is when we are doing Art that they shine most of all- they are such a creative group of children.  My student-teacher found an activity on Pinterest that she wanted to do with them.  It went well with our Geometry Unit at the time because the students used their name to create symmetrical designs.  Here are some samples:

What I love best of all about this Art activity is that while each individual piece is beautiful and unique on its own, they are most beautiful when you put them all together- each one a very necessary part of the whole- just like my students!