I Tried … And Now I Wonder …

Yesterday, I had an epiphany. Our “worm feeding” wasn’t going as well as planned, and I was incredibly disappointed with the whole process. It was as I watched video recordings of the event, and thought back to many conversations that I’ve had before with a fellow Grade 1 teacher, Lori, that I realized the problem: it was me. I needed to get out of the way and let the students lead. I thought that I was giving the students control, but really, I was the one still taking charge, and they were just following me. I was determined to make a change.

I tried to think of how I could get started today. I knew that we were going to plant our seeds first thing this morning, and I knew nothing about planting in window boxes (minus what I read online). I thought that I could ask the students if they knew anything, and let them lead. It started off great! Two students had some experience with this type of planting, and they took charge. They even created our chart of responsibilities/tasks. But watching and listening, I don’t know if I was still “managing” too much.

As the lesson went on, and the learning evolved throughout the day, I kept questioning myself. Here are my wonders as I try to give the students more ownership over their learning:

  • If the students are the teachers, how do you ensure that they involve all of their peers in the learning?
  • What if I have many “leaders” in the classroom that are all competing for “airtime?” How do you help students honour all voices?
  • Does this system work for all students, and if not, how do you modify it to ensure success for all?
  • Do you ever have full class lessons? If so, what do they look like? When do they happen? What do the students do after these lessons?
  • I can see the increased need for documentation in this type of system. Guided reading is also so important for my students though because of their needs. I’ve tried more 1:1 reading and/or modified small group reading this week because of various student-driven classroom explorations, but I don’t find these new methods as effective. How can I go back to guided reading, but still capture the self-directed student learning?
  • The energy/excitement that comes from this student-driven learning is palpable. (Even though I didn’t make my changes until today, different activities this week resulted in me also noticing this.) Often this excitement leads to an increased noise level. Some students with self-regulation needs struggle in this louder environment. How do you help with the noise? What options are there to provide quieter areas for those students that need them? (I’m really trying to avoiding my shushing tendency … 🙂 )

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions. In my head, I can picture the student-driven classroom environment that I want to see, but sometimes I wonder if student needs make the “ideal” slightly different for everyone. What do you think?


8 thoughts on “I Tried … And Now I Wonder …

  1. Hi Aviva;
    I won’t pretend to have anything valuable to add, except that I value the learning I do from reading this blog so much, that I feel compelled to at least once in awhile, show you that I am out here learning.

    I think that you are a courageous educator, demonstrating your best practice, always looking for your next practice, and doing it in a transparent way for all of your colleagues, but also everyone inside and outside the system to see. I only wish more educators shared this practice. Imagine how much we could learn!

    My thinking is that you carefully observe what is happening and then reassess learning needs. What is the learning that is happening this way? Who is it working for? What will you need to do next to ensure others are having their learning needs met as well?

    You ARE allowing those with leadership strengths to grow in this environment and to model a number of different skills that you can’t really model in the same way for students, so I suspect that there is a lot more going on here than is immediately apparent.

    How amazing to honour these little people and let them take the lead because they already know so much. Just that in itself shows how important it is to learn!

    Keep sharing your learning! It has been so wonderful to follow these beautiful children this year.

    • Thank you so much, Donna! I really love the process of blogging (it definitely helps me think, and in beyond 140 characters 🙂 ). That being said, sometimes it’s hard to know if others are reading. It means a lot to me to hear that you are, but also to hear your insights. I love the questions that you share here. This reflection is important. Maybe it’s part of why I blogged on this topic tonight because I saw what was working and what wasn’t, and I was trying to make sense of where to go next. Lori shared some more as well, that also has me thinking. I want to try something tomorrow that has a little less full group instruction, and see what happens. I find that so much of this learning is try, reflect, make changes, and try again. I’m glad that my students are willing to be flexible as we keep trying to make things better.

      I also think that with any change, I need to give a little extra time for students to become accustomed to a slightly new routine. I saw some great leadership from students today (and I loved that). It was wonderful to overhear their thinking, and to even see them share with our principal what we were doing and why. Even as I continue to tweak, it’s good to get to see success as well. Thanks for reminding me of this!


  2. Well lost my response and I was on a roll…..will try and get it back!

    I don’t see my children as the teacher per say…….more like directors of their own learning! For the most part they are in charge…….I observe and document and look for ways to extend their learning and link to the curriculum or where they should naturally go next. My class is rarely in a large group situation and if we are it is all about sharing the learning a child has done.

    Sharing time is the main reason we meet and all voices are honoured as every single child presents or shares every single demonstration of learning. Sharing takes up big chunks of time but this I guess is where my children are “teaching”. If I stand at the front and do a lesson I know I have the middle of the road kids with me (always the ones who don’t need the lesson), the bright kids are in daydream land and the struggling students are lost before I even start. When children are sharing they can droan on and on reading some 30 page book they have created and the audience is captivated. I usually have a plan or a goal for most sharing pieces. I try and get the kid to highlight the strategy or learning that I think the others would benefit from learning. If I worked with them at all on what they are sharing I usually get them to tell the class what we learned together. From one child learning how to make uppercase letters on the computer to another child discovering “doubles” as a strategy this is all “shared” from a student who has discovered it. I try and do a lot of documenting as vocabulary is the key to learning and tells me so much about how much the child has learned. The other part of sharing is revisiting the blog posts that have been created. When we revisit the blog a child has another chance to explain his/her thinking and it is neat to see how this changes as the child becomes more confident about what he or she has learned. The initial sharing of the learning changes when it is revisited on the blog as the child learns from the peers he/she is presenting to the first time around. Some blogs are revisited over and over and over.

    My teaching style this year that I am finding successful for most kids I would call play-based, inquiry based self initiated learning. I rarely assign a task to the students. Sometimes there are real cool inquires going on the take off and other times we are playing and exploring and extending our learning in other ways. This style is difficult and does not work for ASD type students and many of my over the top bright students also find self-directed learning hard. Both of these types of students find it extremely difficult to formulate questions. If they do formulate questions when given lots of support these questions usually are impossible to answer (How many pieces of corn are in our community?) Once questions are formulated students with the above characteristics find going through a learning process, even when scaffolded, very very difficult. Even though my whole class is based on formulating questions, discovering answers and demonstrating learning in any way you choose, these kids really truly struggle. The really bright children if given a question and pointed in the direction of what resources to look at will come up with a product but most often it is copied from a source. My ASD type kids need very closed activities with a specific task and steps to do it. The literal thinking seems to me to interfere with going through the learning process. I differentiate for kids in my class like I have always done…….just seems to be the opposite kids that need the differentiation. My average and struggling students thrive in this environment compared to ever before, hands down!

    We rarely meet for group lessons any more. We meet for sharing, revisiting the blog or story time 10 minutes or so before first break. We meet right after first break for about 20 minutes or so for more of the same. The story at this time is related to one of the inquiries going on or one of the overall ideas we focus on as a class (linked to science, social studies) or it is just a read aloud with focus on reading strategies and such. We spend lots of time revisiting documentation on the blog. The children love reading what each other said and this has become our “Shared Reading” pretty much. All of my lessons have become mini-lessons taught in the moment to the child or group of children that need it. As I work over their shoulders supporting or scaffolding or asking questions or documenting I noticed something I can do and it is done in a minute or two. I find this very effective. The lesson surfaces as a group lesson when the sharing times and blog revsiting happens. Sometimes I noticed something a group of children have in common that needs developing and I will sit down with that group for 5/10 minutes with that focus but never after the Guided Exploration period as started as interrupting learning means the children never get back to where they were. I do use the Fontus and Pinell (Spelling) Continuum of Learning and I keep a binder of what skills are developmentally appropriate for first grade age kids and I often refer to it and sometimes I will notice I haven’t really seen a child touch on a particular skill (Say plurals) so I would do a mini lesson………….but before that I would try and find a way to pull out the lesson from another child’s work so it is linked to something meaningful. I find this doesn’t have to happen to much as there is so much learning at all different levels that we are exposed to all different things at different times.
    I can’t answer the guided reading ? as I don’t see value in it the way I have done it previously. I read with my low low kids every morning first thing (other kids come in and chit chat with each other, plan their day looking at class visual schedule etc) and they take that same book home that night–always material at their independent level as these are kids that struggle and I don’t want parents stressing them out more. My kids that came to me below level I also read with almost every day first thing at independent level and they took that book home. These kids were also supported ‘over the shoulder” during Guided Exploration and buddy reading is popular too while exploring resources to support an interest. My on level kids and above kids it is all “over the shoulder” with materials they choose to support their learning. I find more value and find myself working with more kids being on the floor for my entire day. I can’t imagine going back to the guided reading table while my kids are on the floor. Guided exploration in my room is crazy busy and being Grade One lots of kids still need me to access resources with them at their reading level and if I wasn’t on the floor to meet the needs of the kids I know I wouldn’t get what I do out of them. It is true I am not reading entire books with many of my students but the time I do spend with them I can cover just as much as I did in Guided Reading. We talk strategies, decoding, comprehension etc. It is just in a different format. I do DRA on all my below level kids quite regularly and always type out the whole process and going back and reading each month tells me alot. This year my two really really low kids continue to struggle but all my other below kids starting are 14 right now so I anticipate 16 no problem by September. This is my second year doing it this way and I really have a grasp on it now I think.

    The room is loud to start with (part of this I think is from the large numbers in FDK). But……..once I have a good handle on things and my guided exploration times open up to really large chunks of time the noise almost goes away as they get so involved. I have to say now that my kids are on the floor from 8:30-10:10 and again from 11:30-12:50 the noise levels have decreased as they have such huge chunks of time to get into things……….earlier in the year I had more transitions and this caused chaos and noise for sure!

    I have truly learned to love this style of teaching that I began three or four years ago (and thought at the time was wonky) and can’t imagine going back to the way I used to do things………………if only I knew then what I know now but I guess a lot of this brain research is brand new so I look ahead and not backwards………….

    • Thanks for such a detailed comment, Lori! You’ve definitely given me a lot to think about. As I wrote the post, I struggled with using the term “teachers” for the students, but I didn’t know what other word to use. I like the term “director.” As I read through your comment and think about my own classroom situation, I think that I see where some of the issues lie. My student needs are definitely different, and with a large number of ESL students, I find that I’m trying to build some schema (and language) during the mini-lessons. There are definitely areas that I find really need to be addressed for all of my students. That being said, like you, my carpet times are short (but I think that the focus of them may be different than yours). I find these times split more between a mini-lesson and sharing times. (I do try to only make full class mini-lessons for topics that are beneficial to the full class. The other ones are addressed more 1:1 and in small groups.) Withdrawal for learning resource support, ESL support, and LLI, also impact on the flow of the block for some students, and this sometimes has me rethinking about how times are split up.

      I do find that like you, the noise level goes down the longer that the students work together, but I also find that “play-based learning” seems louder than “inquiry-based learning.” Maybe it’s dependent on the types of resources that the students are accessing. Looking through the vermicomposter together generated more noise than looking through books together. Now, it’s not that vermicomposter isn’t also inquiry, but sometimes I wonder if there’s a play-based/inquiry-based combination.

      I think that our student make-up makes the guided reading question a little different in both of our circumstances. I have a low and middle group that really need to get seen every day, and a higher group that can do better in this “over-the-shoulder” type of reading environment. The funny thing is though that as much as they like this 1:1 time, they almost always ask for guided reading. They’re disappointed when this routine changes. Maybe it’s because what we started with. It’s hard to know.

      I definitely like more student choice and student direction. I love spending more time listening to students. I’m still figuring out how to balance this with the guided groups that my students still need. Maybe this again comes down to different students, different needs, and modified approaches (even if still under the same big umbrella). I think I need to sleep on this … Here’s to tomorrow and trying again!

      Thanks for giving me more to consider. I always enjoy our conversations! (Now if only I could get you to start a blog of your own. 🙂 )

  3. I was thinking Maybe your lower class sizes make for better large group mini-lessons? My 19 always attend school and I have such varied students that finding something that meets the needs of all students is almost impossible.

    What are your other kids doing while your guided reading? How much time do you spend in the day at the guided reading? Can the “pull out” be done in class? The ell teacher or others would be an extra pair of hands supporting the oral language development that is so important. You could do the guided reading while the pull out teacher is on the floor. If other kids from other classes are included invite them in too! This might be different for some teachers but would work and be beneficial for all students. Just a thought!

    • Thanks for the reply, Lori! The smaller numbers may definitely be a factor. Usually I have around 10 students at school, so my big group is actually a small one. I do like the in-class service model. I have done this before, and it can work really well. Our school is using Dibels right, and this seems to be impacting our the pull out support. I think that this withdrawal system has always been done here before. I’m not sure what people would think about supporting in class. Maybe something to talk about for next year. Now you have me thinking.

      As for when I do guided reading, this is when the students do like a hybrid Writer’s Workshop, reading, inquiry time. They are very independent and support each other a lot. When I have my group of 4 or 5 though, and other 4 or 5 students are withdrawn, there really are only a couple of students left. This makes a difference too.

      As for time spent doing guided reading, I spend about 15 minutes with my neediest group, 10-15 minutes with my middle group, and about 10 minutes with my strongest group (the last one varies a bit, as this group I sometimes will support using the “over the shoulder” method you discussed).

      Thanks for giving me more to think about!

  4. As always, your reflective post got me thinking. I was particularly interested in your question about whether you needed to do more guided reading with your particular mix of students. I think that we often get stuck in those kinds of questions, especially when the “should I” is in relation to a research-based strategy that we know has worked in the past. What if you looked at it from another direction? What reading needs does this group of students have that I don’t feel I am meeting? How could I meet those needs? I find that this change of perspective sometimes helps us figure out whether it is the learning need we are trying to address or whether it is our “good teacher” compliance needs. I’ve even seen teachers reframe the question in this way and realize that the students needed something different to meet their needs but that “something” wasn’t even the activity from the original question!

    • Thanks for the comment, Sharon! I really like your questions! These students are reading way below grade level, and I’m also trying to support them in developing phonemic awareness skills (as connected with our school’s use of Dibels). Often these students also need a little more guidance in writing to help with building independence. With the “over the shoulder” method, I find that their independent practice is not as strong, and I’m not spending as much time reading with them as I’d like. The guided reading group gives them more support, and then leads to better independence later, so I can also spend more 1:1 and small group time with my other students. It’s a delicate balance. Having tried both approaches, I definitely find that the guided reading option meets most of my students’ needs more, but now it’s a matter of how to blend this with the more student-directed learning approach. So much to think about …


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