3 Ways to Organize & Maximize diyPD Time

When I finish reading articles that illustrate the sad statistics on absurdly high teacher workloads and burn-out rates, it makes me pause. I wonder whether all my reflections and recommendations about developing PLN‘s and diyPD are just a mirage for teachers trapped in such circumstances.

And perhaps they are. Which is why it is important to continue to spread awareness of such issues and to challenge policymakers to address them. But meanwhile, I find it equally important to share our strategies with other teachers that serve us even amid less-than-ideal circumstances.

On that note, here are 3 resources to better organize and maximize time for personal diyPD learning. I have found them to be enormously beneficial to keep me organized, and it’s especially my hope that they will help lessen the load for those teachers seeking to find scraps of time for personal professional learning!

RSS feed reader. Are all of your email subscriptions bogging down your email box? Try switching to an RSS feed reader. Chrome has some simple and free extensions that I’d recommend, like “RSS Feed Reader” if you want a simple menu bar icon that will give a drop-down menu of new posts; or “Feedly” if you want a more news-oriented layout that you can also sync to a phone app). You can then organize your content into folders to better select what/when you want to peruse specific topics. Remember that you can also subscribe to individual Youtube or Vimeo channels! 

Inbox. Speaking of email boxes, Inbox by Gmail is a fantastic way to lasso out-of-control email. Not only can it sort incoming emails into neat folders, but it’s an excellent task-managing, sanity-saving tool. See more reasons to give it a try: “Why Google Inbox Is an Organized Teacher’s Best Friend.”

OneTab. Seeking respite from the dozens of tabs I perpetually left open on our computer, my husband introduced me to this beautiful little Chrome extension. With one click, all those tabs collapse into an easy-to-organize list in a single tab. I love it because I can more easily see all the pages/titles I’d opened with less mess. And my husband loves it because it saves our computer speed. Win-win.

What are some of your favorite time-saving management tools when it comes to media use? Please share!

Featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

10 End Of Year Reflective Questions Every Teacher Should Ask

Amid surviving end-of-year testing, finalizing report cards, and sometimes, even packing up to swap classrooms, self-reflection can be the last thing on anyone’s mind. All the same, this time of year is a rich opportunity to do so; not only are the memories of this year fresh, but it’s also a great time to create a summer plan to help you better reach next year’s students (while you relax and recharge, of course)!

Below are 10 questions to help spark that honest reflection, along with resources that might help you get started in taking steps toward change.

Would I benefit by finding ways to rekindle my sense of fulfillment as a teacher? Is burn-out becoming your reality? Check out resources like the “Teacher Wellness” section of Edutopia to find inspiration to refocus your why as a teacher.

In what area(s) do I wish I could better reach my students? Choose a summer project based on just one item on your list. Want them to be better digital citizens? Try paving the way by connecting with other teachers on Twitter or Facebook groups (I recommend TTOG for a start). Hoping they’ll take more ownership over their learning process? Explore how you might improve your feedback methods. Wish you could make math more meaningful? Study inquiry and student-centered options, such as guided math.

Do I need to recalibrate my perspective on outside forces that I can’t directly control, such as standardized tests? By all means, please keep up the good fight against large-scale practices that diminish learning. But reserve the bulk of your energy on what is within the more immediate sphere of your control. As Edna Sackson shared on Twitter:

Am I selective enough about the practices that continue from year to year in my classroom? Take a look around your quiet, empty classroom. Leave no stone unturned as you inventory every item’s impact on authentic learning. For a personal example, check out, “What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program–Mountain Math/Language.”

How can I better shift the learning to be more about overarching concepts instead of a thousand individual Google-able facts? For another personal example, see, “What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order.”

Do I know the required curriculum well enough that I can stop worrying so much about whether I’m “covering” everything? In other words, can you see your role shifting from delivery-person to facilitator/connector? The former centers on a rigid agenda from the state, school, or you. The latter centers on individual students’ learning needs.

Do I give my students the opportunity for frequent and authentic reflection? Having a wrap-up is a simple yet often overlooked reflection strategy, and it’s a great place to start.

Is learning confined within the walls of our classroom? Once we started student blogging, the ability to connect globally with peers through Quadblogging blew our minds. Perhaps the summer project calling your name is to explore a platform that is age-appropriate and that complies with your school’s privacy guidelines.

Am I doing all the “heavy lifting?” Exhibit A: As George Couros recently suggested, you can either spend an age trying to find that “perfect Youtube video,” or you can challenge students to find it instead.

Are extrinsic rewards crowding out students’ intrinsic drive to learn? It’s ok to be afraid of rampant chaos. But don’t let that fear keep you from taking risks and giving students the chance to show you they can really bring to the table as learners. See “6 Thoughts on What’s Wrong with Compliance.”

5 Ways to Stop Using Your Interactive Whiteboard as–a Whiteboard

Remember when I shared that story of the diy interactive whiteboard last year? Remember how I commented that we only even used it for occasional game show activities, eventually ditching it altogether? 

That was a classic example of what happens when edtech exceeds innovation. In all honesty, our usage level probably matched our abysmal functionality level, but I have witnessed this phenomenon in multiple classrooms equipped with full-fledged and shiny interactive whiteboards. And in these classrooms, they might as well have been using bog standard whiteboards. Sure, students may now be coming up to click “turn the page” on a book, or to tap the apples to add them up in a basket, but is that really elevating the learning experience beyond the pre-interactive whiteboard era? I’ve shared the GIF below before, but it seems especially appropriate to revisit here:


This is where this list comes in. In my experience, teachers learning and sharing with teachers is the best way to refine our practices. And in this case, we can help one another access the innovation necessary to prevent that new tech from just assimilating into business-as-usual, and we can do so in just 4 steps:

  • Step 1: Identify areas in which learning is stagnating, or even being diminished.
  • Step 2: Be the provoker by asking how a practice/resource enhances and challenges the classroom learning.
  • Step 3: Write, search out, and/or share strategies like those listed below–in the teacher’s lounge, on your Facebook page, on your blog…
  • Step 4: Reflect & repeat.

And so, here are 5 ways to maximize that interactive whiteboard. Keep in mind that these are targeted toward practical whole-group circumstances. For instance, it may sound tech-savvy to have a student zoom through Google Earth in front of the class, but consider whether that might be better suited for independent or small-group exploration on devices.

1. Document formative assessments: We all know that formative assessments should be a frequent staple, but we also know how cumbersome that documentation can be. Put your interactive whiteboard to work by doing those group Visible Thinking routines on the board. The large Chalk Talk board? Saved for future discussion! That KWL chart? Imagine the layers of reflection as you can easily save and revisit it throughout the unit or even year.

2. Collectively reflect on methods. I’ll let two photos speak for themselves on this one:

via Making Good Humans
via Making Good Humans
via The Curious Kindergarten
via The Curious Kindergarten

3. Provocations: Starting a unit with some thought-provoking photos or videos? Allow students to annotate screen shots with their initial thinking, and then easily revisit at the end of the unit. 

4. Reading and Writing workshop: When it comes to unearthing the complex journey of literacy development, interactive whiteboards can be pure magic. Annotate a students’ writing sample (with their permission, of course). Highlight what individuals notice about a mentor text passage. Co-construct anchor charts of all shapes and sizes. And as you go, shrink them all down to printable a size, pinning them up as evidence, examples, and resources.

 

My old literacy bulletin boards

5. Expand the conversation: After utilizing any of the above, remember your option to share these moments with a broader audience. Ask your quadblogging buddies to add their own annotations to your class’. Post tricky questions to Twitter with the hashtag, #comments4kids. Invite your students to share their follow-up thinking on their own blogs

What are your favorite uses of your interactive whiteboard that match the innovation to the tech? Please share below!

featured image: DeathtoTheStockPhoto

10 Mixed Messages: Are You Confusing Your Students?

#1: “I want you to voice meaningful opinions and learn to articulately participate in group discussions, but you need to listen to me speak 90% of the time.”

Speaking and listening skills do not spontaneously happen; they take years of purposeful cultivation. When the teacher voice is the predominant one in the classroom, it takes away from opportunities for students’ voices to be heard, challenged, and refined.

#2: “You are competent, but you need to ask me before you use the restroom.”

We recently wrote about the need to abolish “Can I go to the bathroom?” There will always be specific exceptions for unique situations, but if we want our students to believe that we consider them to be competent and trustworthy, we should make trust the rule, not the exception.

#3: “It’s ok to fail and make mistakes, but remember you’re going to be graded on this!”

Nothing quite like holding a weighty grade over someone’s head to keep them from wanting to take risks with their learning!

#4: “I want you to learn to be a critical thinker and problem solver, but I will give you all instructions for completing tasks!”

How often do we let them struggle? How often do purposefully teach the fixed vs. growth mindset to help them learn to persevere and problem-solve? (check out this wonderful example of supporting students as they learned to examine their own fixed vs. growth mindsets).

#5: “We are part of a shared learning environment, but every lesson, transition, and conversation starts and ends with me.”

We may tell our students that this is a shared learning environment, but are you really sharing it? Giving up control over every aspect of the learning can be a struggle, but it’s an important step toward creating a truly student-centered classroom.

#6: “I want you to discover and act upon your passions, but covering this curriculum is our biggest priority.”

Of course the curriculum is generally set, but does that mean it must be the be-all-and-end-all in your learning environment? What if we let students take the lead with inquiry and project-based learning, while we pull overarching concepts (as opposed to content) and help them connect the dots?

#7: “I believe you can have a true voice in the world, but you’ll need to wait until you’re an adult before you can safely interact with individuals online.”

We want our students to be positive, contributing citizens of their communities; why do we hold back from teaching them to be positive, contributing digital citizens of the global community?

#8: “I want you to make authentic connections to this learning, but you need to memorize this because it will be on the test.”

If your answer to “why do we have to learn this” doesn’t reach beyond the test, it’s unlikely students are going to be making any personal connections any time soon. We can and should evaluate our students’ progress and learning, but it should be in the form of more natural feedback to their learning pursuits, rather than grading memorized content.

#9: “I want you to dream of possibilities, but the moment I give the quiet signal, you must immediately stop and pay attention to me.”

That isn’t to say you shouldn’t have a quiet signal. However, there are ways we can respect students’ thinking time, ie. giving them plenty of time to begin with, setting a timer, giving them notice before the transition, etc.

#10: What are other mixed messages you’ve seen? What can we do to change it? Please share in the comments!

featured image: Jon Wiley

An Open Letter: To Pinterest, from a Teacher

First, I want to thank you. I’ve loved your many ideas for organizing my pantry, throwing my five year-old’s princess party, and introducing the blue-Dawn-and-vinegar trick to my shower.  Not to mention the hilarious memes and marshmallow treats.

Your resourcefulness has carried over into my classroom through the years, too:

Like the sponge of glue,

glue

the hand sanitizer bathroom passes,

pass

the visually-appealing display of learning objectives,

objectives

oh, and that fantastic example of comma use that had my whole class giggling.

commas

And of course, you know you’re my go-to for holiday art crafts and kid-made decorations.

 

ornaments

But I have to tell you, I’m worried. I’m worried about those ultra popular pins that circulate because they have all the glitz and appearance of learning, but that really promote something…else.

Like micromanagement,

ticket

compliance,

bbbfd9ad4c4b14cba518ffc0c92d3710

or perfectionism–

9984dc650cd83745344fb0ae41333706

–all with an adorable flair.

ce000719df218ed149bb7ce737f4f372

Of course, you and I both know that truly inspiring, learning-based pins are out there. Why, I recently came across a whole slew of fabulous self-assessments to help students become more metacognitively aware. But as I searched out those pins, I waded through what felt like an endless supply of teacher-centered fluff.

I must say, I’m not blaming you. After all, I’m the one who sometimes gets mesmerized by all things color-coded and lovely. But “it’s not you, it’s me” aside, now that I’ve identified the problem, I can move forward. I can reflect. I can ask why. I can rethink even some of the most commonly accepted practices. And I can guide my future curative efforts with questions based on what matters most, including:

  • Will this help me better understand and reach my students?
  • Will this enhance student ownership over learning?
  • Will this encourage the 4 C’s (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, or creativity)?
  • Will this help me personalize student learning?
  • Will this help me pursue greater challenges as a professional?
  • Will this help my students better understand their own thinking and learning processes? (metacognition)
  • Will this help all my students to better access resources in and out of the classroom?
  • Will this help my students investigate concepts?
  • Is this centered more on empowering student-directed learning, or on getting students to sit still and listen?
  • Is this trying to solve a problem that I could actually just open up to my students for discussion instead?
  • Will this help my students grow as leaders?
  • Will this help my students build an authentic audience and/or community?
  • Will this help me reinforce my core values as a professional?

So thanks for everything, and I look forward to richer pins to come on my education board!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Beginner’s Guide to Maker-ize An Elementary Classroom

When most penny-pinching, time-crunched, and exhausted teachers hear about lofty ideas like the MakerSpace movement in education, they are likely to dismiss it as another passing and impractical fad. However, the more we investigate, the more convinced we are that there are practical–and profoundly meaningful–ways for teachers to implement its ideals, even in an elementary school classroom.

Benefits of Maker Spaces

“Makerspaces come in all shapes and sizes, but they all serve as a gathering point for tools, projects, mentors and expertise. A collection of tools does not define a Makerspace. Rather, we define it by what it enables: making.” (MakerSpace Playbook)

They cultivate creativity. For students who already love doing, they will love this outlet to get their hands on a myriad of resources. For students who feel that they are lacking in creativity, they will have an opportunity to rekindle their inborn wonder and curiosity.

(Remember Caine’s Arcade? This video goes on to show the resulting movement, all from a bit of cardboard)

They provide an opportunity for students to take the lead. How much of our students’ time involves them being directed in what answers to give, what products to create, and even what art to design (and when)? A MakerSpace gives them the opportunity to learn how to pursue their own ideas and possibilities, and on their time-table.

They make for a much more productive fast-finisher. Have you ever had a parent report to you that their child is bored?  Get a MakerSpace zone going in your classroom, and watch what happens to that boredom.

They develop essential characteristics. In this ever-evolving global landscape, we must focus on giving our students practical tools that will serve them in the long-term. Critical thinking, problem solving, and intrinsic motivation–these are just a few attributes that are encouraged in a MakerSpace’s atmosphere of tinkering, iterating, and exploring.

They canCreate a physical laboratory for inquiry-based learning

MakerSpaces are designed to make students wonder, question, and experiment as they work to make sense of the world around them.

4 Realistic Tips to Maker-ize Your Room

#1: Start with designating a small space for your makers. A full-blown high school makerspace can cost over $30,000, complete with 10 different modules, including a workspace and tools area, and zones for woodworking, metalworking, electronics, textiles, computers, digital fabrication, 3D printing, laser cutting and more. Instead of getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of such a vision, simply pull elements that would be practical for your students and classroom. Put up a Wonder shelf in the back of your room. Mount a pegboard to display all the tools. Get creative with a workbench for multi-use storage and workspace, such as putting casters on a dresser.

#2: Look at existing resources. Add casters, table tops, and plexiglass to your student desks  for flexible workspaces & collaboration (Third Teacher + redesign).

  • Look at other teachers’ strategies for starting simply, such as this teacher’s list of top 5 materials to provide.
  • Ask for donations of cardboard, remnant fabric, playdough, and scrap wood. Look for tools you can borrow from home, like your hot glue gun, miter box, & travel sewing set. Recycle juice bottles and egg cartons. Make your space a poster child for “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” in the best possible ways!  

#3: Plan for Guidelines. As open-ended as a MakerSpace can and should be, be sure to consider basic boundaries and safety:

  • Create, display, and discuss posters that outline appropriate and safe use.
  • Support the growth mindset, being particularly mindful of embracing risk-taking, perseverance, and failing. We love this FAIL sheet as a guide to help students reflect upon and learn from their failures.
  • Decide when your MakerSpace will be open. Before or after school? Open lunch? Fast finishers? Family nights?
  • Consider designing open-ended projects/challenges for your students (top projects for beginners), especially those who would appreciate a little more structure.  For whole-class project-based learning that is actually graded, consider creating rubrics to offer more support.
  • Think about the conversations you’ll have with your students when they get stuck, overconfident, or frustrated. Gayle Allen and Lisa Yokana share great insight on student/teacher discussions during each stage of making.

#4: Gradually Invest. As tempting as it may be to try and dive in with one show-stopping gadget, you are better off letting your students gradually acclimate to their MakerSpace, learning and deciding together its growth and direction. Consider these ideas:

  • Make it a point to learn about your students’ interests. Would they love more electronics? How about a few Lego sets? Perhaps a sewing machine? Prioritize your MakerSpace growth based on those interests.
  • Look to teacher funding resources like Donors Choose to help your students’ dreams happen. Start small with fascinating tools like a Makey Makey, and perhaps eventually build to bigger ticket items, like a Printrbot 3D printer.

Other resources to launch your MakerSpace:

Featured Image: DeathtoTheStockPhoto.com

What Happened When We Ditched Our Boxed Spiral Review Program (Mountain Math/Language)

I used to love Mountain Math and Mountain Language.  The spiral review. The simplicity of swapping laminated cards each week. The security of knowing my students were practicing concepts that could show up at the end of year tests.

ML in my classroom

During Independent Study time, students would grab a fresh answer sheet and try their hand at weekly examples of 20 grammar concepts (ie, parts of speech, dictionary guide words, spelling corrections, syllables), and about 22 math concepts.

However, the summer after my second year of teaching, I began to doubt. Was it worth the sizable chunk of time spent every week? Did it help struggling students to improve? Did it help not-struggling students to grow? Were there better ways to help them with retention? Most importantly, what was the big-picture program design more about: students becoming better readers, writers, and mathematicians, or standardized test drill?

As a fifth grade team, we reflected, and came to realize that while it did have some merits, the program was an opportunity cost for better things. We scrapped it cold turkey and worked together toward more purpose, more thoughtfulness, more curative effort, and more reflection.

What Changed in Language Arts

Wrap-Ups:

I was already committed by that point to wrap-ups for most lessons, but I became even more acutely aware of their necessity. Wrap-ups became a golden time for connection-making and conclusion-recording.  I began to be more mindful in helping my students highlight specific concepts that occurred naturally in our lessons.

Bulletin boards:

With the extra space, I got a second large bulletin board installed on my wall, and designated one for reading workshop and one for writing workshop. As we shared our connections and defined new concepts (especially during wrap-ups), we would record and display them on our bulletin board throughout each unit.  Not only did this serve as a helpful visual reminder as we built upon unit concepts, but the connections to grammar ideas became more organic–which resulted in greater student ownership and retention.
my literacy bulletin boards

Independent Study Shift:

Our school’s practice of dedicating about an hour of independent language arts study time underwent a gradual transformation over the next few years as we worked to identify better ways for students to practice language arts while teachers met with small reading groups.  Eventually, we realized that students could learn how to prioritize that time themselves, if only we gave them the tools to do so.  And so we adopted the Daily Five, which helped us lay out a better structure in teaching students to make purposeful choices for how they spend their time.  Choices included read to self, read with someone, word work, work on writing, and listen to reading. I loved the shift in the mentality even more than the shift in the program selection.

Mini, teacher-designed Grammar Practice:

We started to design and select our own mini-grammar practices wherever we noticed students could use extra practice. When I went on extended parental leave, this was still an imperfect process, but I was excited about the direction and potential for growth.

What Changed in Math

Because we did not rely as heavily on the Mountain Math program, things did not shift quite as dramatically in that subject. Our most tangible change was implementing mini formative assessment quizzes. This involved creating small, two to four question quizzes each day based on the previous day’s study, often throwing in one bonus review question.  As a result, we became more deeply and continually aware of the class’ understanding, and became better equipped to course-correct as needed.

What Changed in Me

In the end, this was a story about shifting ownership–both for my students and for me.  I became more aware my students’ needs because I did not just rely on a program to “cover” concepts. I became more confident in my students’ abilities to choose what mattered most for their own learning–especially as I searched out meaningful tools to help them learn how. The bar was definitely raised for us all, but I have found it to be one of the most worthwhile changes in my teaching career so far.

If you’re interested in other ways to challenge the status quo, check out our post, “What Happened When I Stopped Teaching History in Chronological Order.” 

Featured Image: Domiriel