Blocking The Echo Chamber

Danika Barker (@danikabarker) is a high school English teacher that I learn from regularly on Twitter and really respect a lot as an educator. She’s mentioned before that Twitter can almost be like an “echo chamber.” This is very true. Often we post tweets or share blog posts, and there’s numerous responses echoing how wonderful the ideas are that we shared. Yes, positive comments are always great to hear. They’re appreciated! That being said, I also appreciate the comments where people don’t agree with me. I appreciate those that question what I do, or those that share differing viewpoints. It’s through these other comments that I’m made to really reflect on what I do and why I do it, and this reflection is what makes me a better teacher.

Yesterday, I blogged about a change that I’m making to my literacy program. This change was inspired by Angie Harrison (@techieang), but I tweaked it to best meet the needs of my students. On Saturday night, I engaged in some online discussion about this change that I was making, and this conversation inspired me to blog about what I was doing. Truthfully, this was a hard blog post to write. I know that people having varying views on how to run literacy workstations, and I know that my views differ from some educators that I really admire and respect. I wasn’t sure that I wanted people to question my choices. But then I started to think: I know what I do and I know why I do it. I believe in the choices that I make, and I know that these choices are best for my students and their different needs. I respect others that I interact with online, and if people disagree with what I post, that’s okay too. I can either explain the rationale for what I do, or I can learn something new and change again. Either way, this is a win-win situation.

So I decided to publish my post, and as expected, not everyone saw things the way that I did. What was great though is that people commented on my post and shared their differing views. They weren’t mean or negative. They explained why they thought what they thought, and they encouraged me to share my thinking too. We were all having a grown-up conversation online, and from the ideas shared on this post, I’ve been thinking even more about what I plan on doing and how I can make my program even better for my students. What I liked best about our conversation was what Celina Brennan (@celinabrennan) shared in her comment:

We all teach for the students, so shouldn’t they be at the forefront of our conversation?

Thank you to my amazing PLN that blocked the echo chamber, shared their differing views, asked insightful questions, and really pushed me to think why I’m making the choices that I am and if these are the best choices to make. As Colin Harris (@digitalnative) said today, when referring to the learning that happened as a result of the discussion on yesterday’s blog post, I’m “learning at the speed of collaboration.” Wow! So insightful, and so true.

Just think, if it weren’t for Twitter, how else would I have an amazing teacher from British Columbia, an incredible educator from Washington State, a terrific teacher from Melbourne, Australia, an outstanding, independent educational consultant and worldwide leader in oral language literacy learning, and so many other fantastic educators and administrators even take notice or care what I’m doing in my classroom? Twitter’s allowed me to learn and share on a global scale. 

How’s Twitter impacted on your teaching and learning? I’d love to hear about your experiences as well!


How I’m Making This Work!

Last weekend, I blogged about my decision to change my Literacy Work Station/Centre rotation format based on a Skype call with Angie Harrison (@techieang). Since that Skype call and writing that blog post of mine, I’ve spent numerous hours trying to make this new system work for me (free choice independent work stations), and more importantly, for my students. There were many things that I had to consider:

  • I like the Daily 5, but I also wanted to add in some more higher level response options. I do a daily Writer’s Workshop in addition to this literacy work station/centre time, so I decided to take out Work on Writing, as basically all of my centre options include writing anyway. I may decide though to change this once the students try out these new centres.
  • I have two students with autism. Changing routines can be hard for them. I wanted to make this change a smooth one, and I wanted to ensure that it does not vary too much from the types of learning activities that they’re used to. That’s why I created the guide sheets of suggestions that I’ve laminated now and will put out for all of the students to see. They don’t need to only use these ideas, but these are suggestions of activities that relate closely to ones that we’ve already done before. This adds the familiarity piece that will help many of my students as they adjust to change. These sheets also provide options for those students that do not know what to do. I’m trying to build in here success for all.
  • I integrate science and social studies into my literacy block. This is incredibly important with a split class, and it is something that I want to continue to do. I decided to do this largely through my Listening to Reading centre. At this centre, I will have different stories — related to our current science or social studies topic — that students can listen to and then respond to. They can choose how they respond, but in this case, I’m going to pick what they have to hear. I may sometimes have a choice of a couple of different stories, but there’s a little less choice at this centre than at my other ones. We’ll see how this goes. I’m also going to put out the Nelson literacy books and poems that relate to our current science or social studies topic at the Read to Self and Read to Someone centres. Then the students can continue their learning in these content areas at the other centres too.
  • Due to a limited number of tools, I knew that I could not have all of my students choose Listening to Reading every day. I decided to use two of my iPod Touches — the ones without the camera — for this centre. With the splitters that I have, this means that I can have four students at this centre during each rotation. I then took some coloured dot stickers and put the number “1” on four bookmark cards and the number “2” on another four bookmark cards. The students that choose “1” will go to this centre first, and the students that choose “2” will go to this centre second. With different texts for Grade 1 and Grade 2 students, I may need to say that only Grade 1 students can choose the “1” cards and only Grade 2 students can choose the “2” cards. I’m still trying to figure this part out.
  • Right now, I have not limited the numbers at Read to Self or Read to Someone. I have enough reading materials for all students to choose this option in either time slot. I plan on doing two rotations a day. Students will have to get creative in terms of where they read in the classroom, but there are many quiet areas to do so, and I think that they can figure this out. If I find though that I need to limit the numbers each time, then I will make this change. It’s definitely a possibility.
  • I want this format to increase the amount of time that I have for guided reading groups. Not only do I want to be able to do two guided reading groups a day, but I also hope to take a few additional students for reading conferences during this time. Many of my students are at the same reading level and working on the same strategies. For my Grade 2 students, the majority of them are working on their written reading comprehension skills, which lines up to the DRA 2 that I administer two to three times a year. For students reading at a Level 28 or above, there’s a large written component as a follow-up to the reading, and this is the most difficult part for them. I spend many guided reading sessions working on these types of comprehension questions with them. Since I will now be pulling students from all groups for guided reading (by placing a guided reading card in their pocket chart), I can take groups of 5 or 6 students if I want, and work on this specific skill. Groups can constantly change as my strategy groupings change too. I currently change my guided reading groupings a bit, but not as much as I think that they should be changed. With the new ability to pull any student whenever I want, I can constantly mix the groups and give all of the students what they need to be successful.
  • I usually use a timer to let my students know that the centre time is over. I don’t want to be quite as restrictive with this new approach, but I want to help the students organize their time too. Based on feedback that I got on my last post, I think that I’ll use a timer to let the students know that they should be thinking about getting ready to rotate, but I won’t insist that they rotate right at that time. Students that need to finish up a centre first can do so, and then move on. Then students still have control over the rotation but with some teacher guidance as well. As students get used to the format and the approximate amount of time at each centre, they may not need the timer anymore. This is definitely something that can change throughout the process.
  • Even though this system is largely based on student choice, I want all students to visit all four choice centres every week. Since they have two rotations a day, they will get to visit many of the centres more than once. Most students will be able to organize their time on their own. Since students will be picking these centres as soon as they come in each morning, I’ll be available to help those that need it. Students will know that they can go to the centres more than once each week, so knowing that this is an option, may help them out if they are less eager to go to certain ones. Hopefully the numerous choices at each activity will appeal to the different learning styles and interests of the different students as well. I want students to be engaged as they’re learning!
  • I need to teach the students this new system, or at least give them a good chance to try it out. I told the students this week that we would be making this change, and I explained to them what this change means. I really want the new system in place for after the March Break. As a result, next week — the week before March Break — we are going to try it. We will go through together how it will work. Students can ask questions about the new system, experiment with it, and then we can make changes as needed. I’m sure that there will be at least some changes to make! I want students to own this system too. That’s why I often included the option of “using a tool of their choice.” I will ask the students to write down on post-it notes what other creative ideas they come up with, and then we can leave their suggestions with the laminated ones that I created. Students can then learn from each other as well as from me.

Angie, I’m so glad that you shared this video of yours during the Skype call. Seeing your choice board really helped me figure out how I could use one as well. Now there’s just the nervous/excited feeling that comes when I am about to try something new. Here’s to hoping that it works!

How do you organize your literacy block time? How much “student choice” is incorporated into your centre approach? I would love to hear your ideas as well!


Trying Again!

Earlier this week, I blogged about a math lesson that didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I was not happy with my questioning skills, and I felt that I talked way more than I needed to talk. I asked people for some suggestions on what I could do differently the next time, and as always, my wonderful PLN came through with many fantastic ideas!

Yesterday morning, Kelly McCrory, the school’s math facilitator, came by before school started. Kelly has shared numerous math lesson ideas with me this year, and she has been a great person to talk to and reflect with after different math activities. I sent Kelly the link to my blog post from earlier this week, and Kelly came to me with an idea. In a Grade 3 class, she did an activity where students were given a Venn Diagram and a photocopied page of different shapes. Students determined their sorting rules and wrote them on the back of the Venn Diagram (with sticky notes). Then they sorted the shapes accordingly. Other students walked around the classroom, looked at the different Venn Diagrams, and had to work together to determine the sorting rules. Since I wanted my students to realize that the same shapes could be sorted under numerous categories, she thought that a similar activity might work in my classroom. We decided to use one oval instead of a Venn Diagram: students would put all the shapes that met the sorting rule into the oval, and all of the other shapes around the oval. Maybe with an activity like this one, the focus could be on more student talk and less teacher talk.

Today, I gave it a try. It was great to walk around the classroom as the children were working. There was so much “math talk.” Students were discussing the properties of the different shapes. They were trying to decide how to sort shapes that they couldn’t even identify by name. They were problem solving and working cooperatively.

Sorting Shapes

The best part though came when the students were going on their “gallery walk” around the classroom. One child had a very difficult sorting rule. He used connections to the number 4 to sort his shapes. Many students looked at his shape sort and went onto another one, but some students stayed at this one to discuss what they noticed:

In my last blog post,  Heather suggested that I continue to videotape my discussions with students, as she thought that hearing and reflecting on these discussions would help. I’m so glad that I listened to her advice. Unlike with my last videotaped lesson, this time I did talk less. I gave more wait time between questions, and I tried to let the students talk through their thinking. I guided a bit at the end, and maybe I still guided too much, but I think that the students eventually got to the solution on their own. From the ideas that they wrote down on the sticky note, the class was able to enter into a conversation around this more complex sorting rule, and we were able to explore numbers as well as shapes. This was a far more successful lesson!

Thank you so much (again) to Kelly for helping me “try again” with your activity idea! Thank you as well to all of the educators that shared your great advice with me in response to my last blog post. I was thinking about what you said as I did this lesson today. All of you help guide me as I strive to become a better math teacher, and ultimately, a better teacher!

I told my students today that I did this activity because I wasn’t happy with the questions that I asked during our last shape discussion. I admitted that I made a mistake, and I tried to show the students the importance of “trying again.” Have you ever done this before? What were the results? I would love to hear your stories too!


Just stop talking!

As many of you know, I continue to focus on math problem solving in class, and over the year, I think that I’ve become a much better teacher as a result. Today really got me thinking though. This morning, I had a prep, and I happened to be working out in the Grade 1/2 pod. While I was out there, a volunteer was working in the pod with a Grade 1 student in another class. The student was building with three-dimensional solids. I was listening to the conversation between the volunteer and the student. They were discussing the number of blocks in the tower, and why the student chose certain blocks. Instead of questioning the student about her choice, the volunteer was telling the student why she picked these three-dimensional solids and why she didn’t choose other ones. I kept thinking to myself, why not ask her? What questions would help elicit the best response? As the outsider watching the interaction between the student and the volunteer, I could hear it all, reflect on it all, and think of other approaches. I was feeling good. Fast forward five hours though, and things changed!

Last week, I noticed that some students were confusing shapes and didn’t understand that certain shapes could be classified under more than one category. I decided to do a mini-lesson on this today. First, we defined quadrilateral, and then students drew various quadrilaterals. We looked at the similarities and differences between these shapes. The hope was that students would begin to observe the overlap between various shapes. Since we were using the SMART Board, I used the recording feature to record both the drawings and the discussion. (Please note that external speakers will help you hear the conversation.)

Listening back on this discussion, I couldn’t be more disappointed in myself. Here I was this morning thinking that the volunteer should be asking questions instead of telling the answers, and here I was this afternoon, telling way too many of the answers myself. I wasn’t taking the time to question enough. Instead of letting the students draw their own conclusions, I was making the conclusions for the students. In retrospect, I just had to, “stop talking.” Why does that seem so hard to do? What strategies can I use to question more and talk less? Please help me out here! As a school we’re working on descriptive feedback, and I’m asking for others to please give me some so that I can do even more for my students.


Communicating WITH Parents

This is my eleventh year teaching, and for all 11 years, I’ve really believed in the home/school connection. I think that students benefit more when we work together. Making this home/school connection work though has taken time.

When I started teaching, I communicated to parents. I sent out newsletters. I wrote notes in agendas. I even emailed out classroom updates. I was the one doing all of the talking though. I never discouraged parents from replying, but I also didn’t invite them to reply. Parents knew what was happening in the classroom, and in my mind, this was communicating with parents.

My impression has changed over the years though. I don’t want to be the one doing all of the “talking” anymore. I want parents to share what they think. I want them to feel like they have a voice in the classroom, and I want students to know that we’re all working together here. Even my classroom website has changed. I’ve added a Questions and Comments link through Chatango. Now we can talk in an open forum, as well as in a closed one through email exchanges and phone conversations.

Click On The Photograph To Visit This Section Of The Website

Talking with Aaron Puley (@bloggucation) has also changed the way that I communicate with parents. Aaron is our Board’s Consultant of Parent and Student Engagement. He’s helped me see things through an equity lens. Yes, I’m fortunate. All of the parents that I work with have email and web access, but this doesn’t mean that they prefer online communication. That’s why I phone parents regularly too. I try to call all of the parents in my class every couple of weeks. Usually I phone with some information to share, but I also answer questions, discuss what’s happening in the classroom, and encourage parents to share their thoughts and ideas as well. It only takes a couple of hours to make these phone calls, but the connections that I’ve formed with parents are priceless!

Blogging has also been a great way to communicate with parents. More and more parents are commenting on student blog posts, and even commenting on my professional blog posts. Blogging has been a great way to open up the classroom walls and let parents see what the students are doing in class each day. They hear and see our video recordings. They read my reflections, and my students’ reflections too. They know what we’re working on in class, and they know how I’m presenting this material to students as well. They can follow-up with what’s happening in the classroom with what they do at home, and reviewing this content, really helps the students understand it well.

Twitter has also helped me communicate with parents. In the past couple of years, I’ve had some parents that love to tweet. They share what their children are doing at home through Twitter. They ask questions through Twitter. They even reply to my tweets. Twitter’s given us another way to share.

It really is all about choice. Let parents choose how they want to communicate. In my experience, giving parents choices, but also letting them know that you want to communicate with them, has made a tremendous difference. In the Faculty of Education, a professor told me that, “Parents give us the best that they have.” We need to work together to do what’s best for each of their “bests” that make up our classroom. So how do you communicate with parents? Why do you choose the methods that you do? I’d love to hear your thoughts!