Where to go from here?

Angie Harrison (@techieang)

Yesterday afternoon during our PD (Professional Development) Day inservice, we listened to Angie Harrison (@techieang) talk about her writing program. Angie is a Grade 3 teacher in the York Region District School Board, and she agreed to Skype in and talk to a superintendent, a consultant, a principal, and a group of Grade 1 and 2 teachers in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Through Twitter, I’ve known Angie for a while now, but every time I talk to her, I’m inspired to try something new.

Like Angie, I run a separate Writer’s Workshop time in addition to my daily literacy block. Unlike her though, I assign the activities for the daily literacy work station rotation. I love how she lets students choose where they’re going to go to each day, and in what order they’re going to do the various work stations. She gives them control over planning their time, and after experiences like the one I had on the 100th day of school, I can definitely imagine the tremendous benefit in doing so. How do I make this work then?

I’m thinking of making the change after the March Break. I can then continue to build independence in the next three weeks, and slowly start giving the students more control over their choices of activities. I love how Angie has the students share what they’ve learned after the work station time, so that they are accountable for their learning. This is also a fantastic way to get students to provide descriptive feedback to other students. They can say specifically what they like and offer suggestions of next steps. Since this is a school goal, I definitely see value in doing this.

Now that the students have been exposed to many different types of read to self, read with someone, word work, work on writing, and listening to reading activities, they can certainly choose how they share their learning. I integrate lots of science and social studies into my literacy work stations, so I’m going to need to ensure that students still work with this content at the different work stations. I’m thinking of creating a list of options for each work station. Then students have ideas to guide them in their learning.

How do I help the students manage their time at the individual work stations though? How do I prepare my students with autism for the change in our literacy centre routine? What strategies have you used for students with autism to ensure that you balance both choice and structure? I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Angie, thank you for inspiring me to make this change in my classroom to even better help my students become more independent, self-sufficient learners!


Tweeting Surprises

Today is Valentine’s Day, and as one of our literacy activities today, my students contributed to two Twitter chats: #cluesofwhatilove and #vd100.

Students shared clues and/or information about things that mattered to them. These were two very open-ended Twitter chats, and it was interesting to see what the students shared and how they replied to tweets.

It amazed me though that these two chats could lead to two big surprises. The first one came when two Grade 2 students approached me. They wanted to write about someone that they loved, and they asked if they could write about one of the students in this class. Below is a video I recorded of these two students explaining why they wanted to tweet about this other student:

I love how this Twitter writing activity became a character education activity too. My students genuinely care about the other students in the classroom and the school, and they want the world to know that all of these children matter to them. What a great message for Valentine’s Day and every day of the year!

Then came the second surprise, and my realization that tweeting is a text form and one that all students can understand. I walked over to the desktop computer where one of my students, who also happens to have autism, was writing about a food that she loves called, “ice.” She explained why she loves this food and then she went to add the hashtag. I thought that she was going to use #vd100, but this is what she did instead:

She meant to use 2012, but she accidentally pressed the “3” instead of the “2.” The point doesn’t change though. Thanks to George Couros (@gcouros) and his post about Twitter Hashtags In The Classroom, my students have been hosting and participating in weekly Twitter chats. They have all come to understand the terminology of Twitter, and understand the purpose in using hashtags. This child knew that sorting her work by “favourite foods” was more appropriate it than sorting it by “things that she loves.” She made a choice for the audience that she wants to have for her work, and this choice will also impact on the replies that she gets to her tweet. As a writer and a tweeter, she made an informed choice, and this choice occurred because of her knowledge of the writing form.

Twitter is one of many tools that I use as part of my writing program. I think that there’s tremendous value in using this tool, and I saw this even more today. Why do you use Twitter with your students? What value do you see for using this tool as part of your writing program? I’d love to know your thoughts!


Students CAN Decide!

Yesterday was the 100th day of school, and after having our day of exploring “100,” I had a new found appreciation for the Full Day, Early Learning Kindergarten Program and the “emergent curriculum.” As many of you know, I taught Kindergarten for eight years before moving to Grade 1 and then Grades 1 and 2. I loved teaching Kindergarten. I ran a very structured Kindergarten program though, and I had many concerns about a play-based model. Don’t get me wrong here. I was, and still am not, a teacher that uses a lot of worksheets. I believe in the benefits of rich tasks, collaboration with others, and open-ended activities that encourage students to investigate and explore. I like structure though. My concern with the newest Kindergarten Program model is that if teachers don’t enforce that students go to certain activities, will they ever go to them? Will students choose to read and write if they don’t have to? Will they get enough variety in math exploration if they are not told to go to various centres and complete certain activities? I had my doubts, but yesterday, my impression changed.

Since it was our 100th day of school, I decided to set-up different literacy and math centres related to the number 100. In the morning, I broke students into groups, and I had them go to the various centres. Each centre had lots of choice incorporated in both tool and final product, but the students did not “choose” where to go. In the afternoon, I let the children decide. I had four open-ended math activities all based on counting to 100, as well as on our new math topic of shapes and symmetry. Since I also had a scheduled small group Skype with a teaching candidate from the University of Regina for part of the afternoon, I didn’t want to be moving students around between centres, so I told them that the choice was up to them. Before the second nutrition break, I spent 5 minutes quickly introducing the four centres, and then I explained that the students could go where they wanted to go. They could move between the centres at their own pace. They could choose to work alone or in a group, and they could borrow any of the digital cameras or iPod Touches to videotape their thinking and exploration. The only rule: they needed to be working.

It was incredible what happened. Below are numerous videos that students recorded as well as ones that I recorded:

Without explicit instruction from me, or even the timer going off that I tend to use so much, the students are engaging in meaningful math and literacy dialogue with others. They’re working together to solve problems. They’re explaining their thinking. They’re taking risks, and learning from their mistakes. These students might only be in Grades 1 and 2, but they’re still directing their own learning. It makes you think that if the same is true for Kindergarten students what independent, self-motivated students we could all have in our classrooms.

I know that it takes time to get to this point. Since September, I’ve been modelling the types of discussions I hope to hear. Students have had many structured opportunities to have these discussions. They know that they can play and explore and still learn, and with many opportunities to do so, they know various ways to share their learning with me. Yesterday taught me the importance of giving students even more of this “choice time,” and I definitely will do so now.

What are your thoughts on this? How do you get students to a point where they can have control over their own learning? I would love to hear what you think!


Makes You Reconsider The Possibilities

This year, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in a Virtual Mentorship Program with Dean Shareski (@shareski) and two of his wonderful Faculty of Education students at the University of Regina. In my eleven years of teaching, I’ve been the associate teacher for many Faculty of Education students, but this virtual option is a very new one for me. In the middle of January, I took part in an Elluminate session with Dean and his students, and after the session, two students contacted me about being their Virtual Mentor.

One of the students has a Primary/Junior background, but the second student, and the one that my students interacted with yesterday, has a high school background. Her interest is in math though, and she heard about my own personal math goals, and wanted to participate in the math portion of my classroom program. Wow! I give this student, Sara, a lot of credit for applying what she’s done in the high school setting to a young, elementary setting.

Yesterday was the 100th day of school, so Sara and I decided to have her Skype into the classroom for a special math challenge. Sara met my whole class, and then she worked with a group of three, as they completed one of my many math challenges for the day. The students used the document camera and the screensharing option on Skype to show Sara their work. Their challenge: make a shape picture using 100 shapes that is also symmetrical. Below are some videos of Sara and the students as they work together, problem solve, and discuss their thinking. You can also hear me in the background, as I chime in with some questions to further the discussion:

This experience really made me think. Do student teachers really need to be in the classroom to teach the students? Can they work virtually with other teachers and students, as everyone learns together? With this experience, Sara had a chance to interact on her own with a small group. She also had a chance to listen to the questions that I ask the students. The two of us could work together with the small group. Watching these videos and seeing the children in action in the classroom, I noticed that these students responded to Sara just as they would if she was standing beside them. Classroom management can happen through a computer and from miles away.

What are your thoughts on the virtual student teaching experience? Could it work for more than a couple of lessons? Would it be successful regardless of grade? I’d love to hear what you think!

As for seeing what my students thought, have a look at the chat that they had with Sara after the Skype call. The top “thank you” is from Sara, and the other ones are from my Grade 2’s:

I think it’s fair to say this was an awesome learning experience for everyone. What do you think?


Challenge Me!

Today something happened that has never happened before, and that I never really expected would happen in a Grade 1/2 classroom: a student challenged me and caused all of us to look at things differently. Please don’t get me wrong. There was nothing disrespectful about what this student did. She merely stated that she didn’t agree with what the rest of us thought was correct, and her willingness to stand up and explain her thinking, helped all of us evaluate things differently too.

This was our second day learning about “symmetry,” and students worked in partners to explore symmetry. Some drew symmetrical pictures, others used shapes or tanagrams to make symmetrical pictures, and still others used blocks to create a variety of symmetrical designs. For our math congress, we looked at two of the symmetrical pictures that students made using various shapes. These students took photographs of their pictures, and we uploaded them into the Notebook software, so that the children could use the recording feature to discuss their learning. Below is the video of this discussion. Please note that in the first symmetrical picture, the students explained that they ran out of the correct red trapezoids, so they used the other two trapezoids instead. We were all willing to use our imaginations a bit. 🙂

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After the video was done, I thought that our discussion was done, but I was wrong. One student raised her hand, and shared these insights:

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All of a sudden, all of the students started to look at the picture differently. They picked up on the problems. They applied what they learned about symmetry to critique, in a good way, what this student had done. Best of all, even the person that made the shape picture, explained what he would do differently the next time. Wow! The power of self-reflection!

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A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been open to students questioning what we already decided was correct. It would have bothered me that a student saw something that I didn’t see. Not any more though! As I continue to explore problem solving in math, I also realize that this learning model is about more than just getting the answer. It’s about getting students to think, to question, to explain, and to reflect. Why did it take me this long to change the way that I teach math?

Have you ever had an experience like this before? What happened? I would love to hear your stories too!