Is Your Planbook Holding Your Students Hostage?

(Originally posted at CompetencyWorks.org, May 12 2015)

In a traditional classroom, the calendar and the teacher’s planbook are essential tools. They drive the pace, the resources, the instruction, and the assessment in a classroom on a day to day basis.

With small adjustments for snow days, these planbooks become archives of the curriculum and pace of instruction within a particular classroom. They can be used year in and year out. For some, this means that instruction doesn’t change unless the curriculum does.

In the SBSC (Standards Based, Student Centered) environment, students aren’t held hostage to the planbook. They can move ahead when content comes easily or take the time necessary to master more difficult tasks. This means teachers have to have larger amounts of content and resources available from the beginning.

At first glance, this seems like it requires more work from teachers. Truthfully, it does. The payoff comes in that it provides a way for teachers to better see the big picture of the connections between standards in their class and what they need to provide for each student. It also showcases the necessity to provide sound foundational skills in order to help students reach proficiency on more complex goals.

The process of designing proficiency-based learning begins with a focus on a broad learning goal. This goal, the standard, needs to be “unpacked” in order to determine two things:

  1. The ultimate learning goal (What will students end up knowing or doing?)
  2. The skills students need to have in order to achieve the learning goal

Not all standards are created equal. It is crucial that teachers have a clear understanding of the scope of the standard and are able to scaffold learning activities so students can reach overall proficiency. This means teachers will need to use any means available to determine students’ prior knowledge as they design learning activities.

How to do this? By using the data that is in front of them. This might be data from standardized test scores that indicate reading and numeracy skills. It might be data from special education testing that indicates strengths and weaknesses in student processing skills. (Very often the same modifications and teaching strategies that help special ed students will be beneficial for everyone.) Depending on the time of year, it could be data they have collected about student work ethic and successes to date. Unit pre-tests will provide information on prior knowledge, but when they are used as the starting point for planning, they leave you scrambling if you guessed wrong about where students “should” be.

Teachers also need to have the necessary pedagogical knowledge about their content area. The SBSC model allows you to provide content across a larger swath of the spectrum so you can fill holes in foundational knowledge. A strong understanding of the appropriate scaffold for your standard is crucial and can’t be overlooked.

It’s important to understand that the goal of scaffolding is not just to provide information in an organized fashion. It’s more than “learn this, then this, then this.” The scaffold provides a way to offer information to students in such a way that it encourages strengthening of foundational skills in order to support more complex learning. It involves frequent informal assessment opportunities for both students and teachers—meaning that students have the opportunity to try out their new skills as they work toward proficiency. This differs greatly from what many of us experienced in our traditional classrooms. The end of the unit test was a bad place to figure out that a student hadn’t mastered the content, yet it often was the only time a student knew that things were worse than they thought.

Done well, scaffolding also creates an environment where increased independence in thinking and autonomy in learning becomes available. This allows for students to customize the ways they choose to apply the knowledge they’ve attained and use it to create new connections.

Quality scaffolding will require a firm knowledge of differentiation, and here’s where you have a little heavy lifting to do as a teacher. In a self-paced environment, providing content at a variety of levels and media forms can pay dividends in saved time. Some of these will be in digital form, and some will be classroom resources or manipulatives.

In the past, teachers would use their daily lesson plan to create learning opportunities for their students. There were fewer activities, and all students completed all assignments regardless of whether they already knew the content. Teachers knew the goal but might do planning day to day, causing students to wait for teachers in order to access new content.

In an SBSC classroom, a unit overview will serve you much better. The unit plan needs to be based directly from the standards to be learned. Your plan will need to cover foundational knowledge as well as that content and those skills necessary to reach proficiency. A sample overview might look like this:

Foundational Knowledge

Skills for Proficiency

You’ll find that your unit plans become dynamic documents. You will add to them as you find new resources, create new (or improve old) supplemental materials, and create better assessments. Don’t panic about making it perfect. Start where you are and begin to build. You’ll find it becomes a “cafeteria plan” for learning, providing students the elements they need to build a path to understanding.

No longer do all students have to do all assignments. In the SBSC classroom, teachers can customize based on student need. By looking at the foundational knowledge students need and comparing it to what you know they already have, teachers can personalize learning to help move students ahead.

A caveat: Make sure your resources provide opportunities for students to create their own understanding. “Packet-based learning,” where you just take the handouts you had in the planbook and put them in folders so students can access them at will, is NOT a best practice when it comes to standards-based teaching and learning. Tossing out content and then asking for it back in a similar form does not show understanding—it shows memorization.

Teaching is always a work in process, and the move to standards-based learning is no different. Try resources out, adjust plans, confer with students about what works and what doesn’t—but keep the standards out in front.

 

March Madness: 4 Time Management Tools for Students

time-92897_1280Time moves differently for students than it does for teachers. Once March gets here teachers clearly see how little time is left for students to make up all that work they have left undone in the name of working at their own pace. Students, on the other hand, view the spring as an eternity within which to get work done. Relax, they say, we got this.

If we are honest we can understand their thinking.  More than once you may have asked yourself, “How did I spend an hour on Facebook? I just sat down!” If this has happened to you you’ll understand how your students can insist that they are not wasting an entire class period fiddling with Spotify.

How can you hold them accountable without eating up precious teaching time? Whoever has that answer is sitting on a goldmine. In the absence of a magical fix, here are some ways you can use technology to help students see the scope of the work ahead of them and create a way to get it done…or at least some of it.

Reminders: Students in middle school and high school are rarely separated from their phones. Capitalize on this by having them enter assignments and deadlines into a reminder or notification app on their phone or laptop to keep them organized. Getting them to click “snooze” rather than delete will make the notification continue to appear at regular intervals. In some cases, the reminders can be synched across devices.

Calendar features – It’s not the use of the calendar that’s important- we all know that if students were of a mind to check a calendar, they wouldn’t be behind in their work. It’s what the calendar can with their entries that brings value. Google Calendar will send text or email alerts to students when an event is ready to happen. Again, leverage the power of the phone. iCal will send a message with or without a sound, send an email, or open a file that needs to be worked on.

Daily goal/exit ticket– One of the most often used excuses for lack of work completion is “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” Using a daily goal helps students organize their time. Start with small, do-able pieces that are easy to assess- they did the work or they didn’t. Keeping track of the goals digitally in the form of an exit ticket will help hold students accountable- and keep the goal from being a perennial.

 

Rescue Time– This tool, available for computer and Android devices, logs time spent online and categorizes it by productivity level. Even the free version is customizeable so teachers and students can differentiate it by student. RescueTime logs only active time- browser tabs that are open but not being used are not recorded. Students can access an up to date log regularly during the day to monitor the amount of time spent on different tasks. It’s eye opening and takes the excuses out of the mix.

Through a New Lens: Negotiating Release

This article was originally posted at Competencyworks.org on January. It talks about the need to assess our student’s ability to be self directed learners- specifically when it comes to technology. It contains a tool that teachers can use to assess the level of self-direction and the skills that need to be taught in their individual classrooms. Read on:

http://www.competencyworks.org/insights-into-implementation/classroom-practice/negotiating-release/

Wee Tweets: Second Graders Join the Twittersphere

Walk into Jill Ouellette’s second grade class and ask how many writers there are. Every hand enthusiastically shoots skyward. 16 self proclaimed adventurers and explorers who come up with ideas while reading, playing with legos, riding their bikes. They tell me they have millions of ideas-and my question to them was this: Who knows about all your ideas?

Their answers were strikingly similar. Mostly it was their parents, sometimes a lucky grandparent or a friend. Never anyone out of their small social circles. I thought them ripe for expansion.

I have to admit that what follows is NOT my original idea. I was inspired by Kristin Ziemke, a second grade teacher from Chicago who was a speaker at this year’s Leveraging Learning Institute in Auburn, Maine. Kristin spoke about how she used Twitter to help fan her student’s interest in writing and sharing their ideas. She gave examples of their skills when they started and their skills as they became more experienced. I was totally convinced that this was a great idea.

What I didn’t have was a classroom of my own to try it in so I had to hijack one. This is where Jill came in. Jill’s new to our school but not new to teaching.  She’s had experience in technology rich classrooms. She doesn’t cringe when she sees me coming – in fact, when I approached her with the idea, she jumped on it. It helps that she’s in her twenties and familiar with Twitter.

I started by having a chat with the students. I asked them to tell me the story of their classroom. I didn’t frame it much. I wanted to hear their words. That’s the first and probably the most important thing in using Twitter or any sort of microblogging. The students need to know that it is THEIR ideas that are important. This is not a formal assessment.

I shared Kristin’s feed (@OurKidsTeach) so students that are not familiar with Twitter can see what it’s all about. I said we’d be reading, seeing, and listening to the story of her students’ classroom. We picked apart the timeline so students had an understanding that they could share via photo, text, or video. We looked at all the different ways this classroom shared information. They had things they wondered about. They had impromptu book reviews. They had photos of artwork and classroom show and tell items. There was no “theme” other than ideas that went through the students heads.

What’s the benefit to having these early writers tweet? Here’s just a few:

  • students show their engagement with content in a personal way
  • students learn to share ideas more freely. Punctuation and spelling will follow
  • students get an authentic audience for their writing
  • ideas spark more ideas
  • students learn the concept of digital citizenship and digital footprint early on. I touched briefly on what they would want to include in their classroom story and what they would want to leave out. They were spot on, even at 7! It also provided a great way to begin addressing online safety. We decided as a class that initials would be a great way to identify each student safely.

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The second graders were excited to start. As with anything, practice is important so I had come equipped with paper tweets. I asked them what part of their classroom story they’d like to share, and how they’d like to represent it. Could they draw a picture, they asked? Of course. Did spelling count? Not a bit, I said. Get your ideas down and post them for others to see.

Talk about 100% participation. Some wrote quick notes and brought them over to me. No spell checking, no “take it back and fix this” in this exercise. I took each tweet and posted it on a “feed” on the wall as it was finished. Some students took great care in drawing a picture to represent their idea (multimodal learning works well!) The responses were varied, ranging from “How do you build a spaceship” to “I love Fun Friday.” Students were very interested in reading the ideas of others. Conversation broke out all over the room.

The next step was to hand out laminated Tweets. These are their “real” everyday Tweets and can be written on with dry erase markers. I made them to fit on 11X17 paper to make writing easier for little hands. (Blank Tweet templates are available here. Please feel free to share them). Jill allowed them to put them anywhere in the room as long as they were easily visible. Students wrote and hung their first official tweets and it was time for me to leave.

I checked back with Jill a week later. She said they were still excited about tweeting and were updating them regularly. She created a classroom account. You can follow it at @missoulette88 to see their progress. Here’s one that one of her students posted after a lesson on fractions- visual proof of the connection the student made with the content.

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Note: It’s important to get parental buy-in for this process. Draft a letter explaining the purpose of this tool and the process students will use when posting. (Most teachers do the posting.) Be sure to have a signed media release on hand prior to posting any photos or videos of students.

 

 

Branding Your Classroom: What’s Your Story?

twtMy colleagues are probably getting a little tired of me touting the power of Twitter as a tool for developing a personal learning network. I won’t be swayed, of course, but I may be shushed just a bit…but only because I’ve come across an even better idea for how to leverage social media in the classroom.

I’m a bit of a podcast freak and I’ve just discovered Talks with Teachers, produced by Brian Sztabnik. Brian publishes regular interviews with some of the most interesting educators in the country. The podcast promotes itself as a resource for K-12 ELA teachers but truthfully it has something to offer everyone.

I chose two podcasts this week. The Power of Branding with Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo told the story of two administrators who used student interest in Twitter to build a visible digital “brand” that gave insight into what their schools were like and what they had to offer from a student perspective. Over time their tweets gave the community a public view of their school from the student stakeholders themselves. My thought was that this could provide great advertisements for schools as we move into situations where we may be vying for pools of students with expanded school choice options.

I followed that podcast with an episode by one of my favorite bloggers and presenters, Vicki “Cool Cat Teacher” Davis. She talked about using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to record those aha moments in the classroom- connections students make- or just documentation of what happens on a regular basis.

She took it a step further and suggested the use of Storify to create a weekly newsletter for parents and community members based on the week’s tweets and social media entries. I tried it- it’s easy! Here’s a sample of a quick one (10 minutes, I promise) based on our Hour of Code in early December:

There are several take-aways here:

  • Using social media in this way gives students an introduction to blogging… and blogging enables students to connect with content on a personal and authentic level.
  • It’s the epitome of student voice.
  • Learning becomes transparent.
  • Allowing students to create the newsletter adds choice to their voice.
  • Your classroom suddenly has a story that’s being actively told.

Like it or not, your classroom is already “branded.” Is it the one you want? If not, how can you change your practice to change the story that can be told?

Research Cheats for Struggling Students

research cheats
The purists in the crowd may take great umbrage with this post, but I’m willing to risk their wrath. I have to meet kids where they are- and where many of them are is struggling when it comes to research.

I’ve vetted this Research Cheat Code sheet with small groups of students and it’s worked well. It contains four tools that work well together. These tools are also helpful for any student in the “pre-search” process. They are:

1. Google Advanced Search – allows students to search by reading level.

2. Using CMD F (keyboard shortcut) to search for keywords in a document to aid in scanning for relevant information.

3. TLDR– “Too Long, Didn’t Read” is a summarizing tool that gives options for short, medium or long versions of articles. There is a “summary” section that students should bypass as it often omits critical information. CMD F will also work in TLDR to aid in scanning.

4. Google Similar Pages– Provides students a list of similar sites, cutting out the junk that Google often packs into the search results.

Please note- TLDR and Google Similar Pages are Chrome extensions. Students need to use Chrome in order to use them.

This Research Cheats handout can be kept handy to help students out.

Research Cheat Codes

Backchannel Chat in Action

Moe Beaulieu is a risk taker. She’s a relatively new teacher who has her students on her radar. She’s not afraid to try to meet them where they live. When I popped into her English I classroom  this week she was talking with them about expectations, the realities of teacher pace, and the upcoming documentary they’d be watching.

I had come down to try to talk to one of her students but I saw an opening and, as I am apt to do, walked right on through. I talked to her about using Today’s Meet, a backchannel chat tool, as a way to provide her students a venue for asking questions and making connections during the documentary. I showed it to her very briefly, spoke with the student, and left.

At our staff meeting today Moe said she’d used it- and was stunned at the conversation that went on during the documentary. Not all students chose to post to  the backchannel but those that did made interesting comments, asked clarifying questions, and raised points of view that might not have been shared had students just watched the video. Those that didn’t post still had access to the ideas and questions (and answers) in the chat. She’s given me permission to share the transcript of the chat with you. You’ll find a link to it at the end of this post.

Moe was smart. She didn’t try to use backchannel as a way to make sure everyone was paying attention. She didn’t threaten them with it as an assessment tool. She simply used it as a way for students to deepen their understanding of the topic via collaboration.

The transcript is a glimpse into her students’ thinking as they were learning. It provided a way for students to have a voice when speaking out loud would be distracting. It’s available for viewing after the documentary, providing jumping off points for discussion, debate, and further research. Moe could also use it to determine overall class understanding of the film.

You’ll need some context before reading the transcipt. These students were working on a learning target about conflicting viewpoints and evidence. They watched Lost for Life,  a film about young adults who made poor decisions as teenagers and are now in jail serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Click here to access the Today’s Meet Transcript.

How could this work in your classroom?