In some classrooms, the last day before a holiday recess tends to be a time to host a class party, watch holiday videos, or do crafts. We look at this day as our last chance before a prolonged break to spend some meaningful time with students. We want our students to go into their time off with energy and excitement around learning. Today was a day full of celebration, fun, and excitement, and it packed an academic punch.  We hosted our informational museum exhibits, and the students had great experiences. Children went to work setting up their displays and materials to get ready to TEACH other students. Our second graders taught first graders all about:

  • What dogs need to live
  • How volcanoes erupt
  • Different types of tornados
  • What different baby animals eat
  • Different planets in the solar system
  • What tigers eat
  • All about baby pandas
  • How whales use their bodies to survive 
  • Different types of clouds
  • Different things dinosaurs eat
  • What damage a hurricane causes

As you read through this list you get a little glimpse of who these students are and what they really care about. The topics all belonged to them, and how they presented it to their first grade students was completely their decisions. It can be done, kids really can take control over their own learning. When we allow it we will always be amazed because we will know them even better.  We want to make the most of every single moment in school and we want it to be joyful. 

We love @Twitter because any day we can hear @VickiVintonTMAP & @KellyGToGo is a good day.

We walked our students out to the buses as holiday music played throughout the gymnasium. We will be off for two weeks. It is important to us that we keep our blog connected to students, so we will be back on January 6, 2020! In the meantime, you can find us hidden away in a corner of Panera writing. We are deep into revisions with our book, WIRE for Agency Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning. We hope you have a happy and healthy holiday. Please take some time out to renew and gear up for all the great learning ahead in 2020!

Jill’s class is currently celebrating a reading unit of study where they learned how to grow personal knowledge about a topic.  One intention Jill had going into the unit was to share control of the learning with her students. Another intention was to create experiences where her students could work with more independence.There were a few little tweaks to traditional practices that made this possible:

  • Instead of assigning, or limiting choices for topics, allow students free choice. Let them decide what they will study. 
  • Instead of controlling every aspect of the unit, allow students  to take ownership of their work throughout the unit.  
  • Instead of being fixed with potential products for the unit, allow creativity to bloom and take full advantage of the high levels of students’ motivation.  

Jill decided to embrace the plethora of opportunities that choice, ownership, and flexibility affords. All of which, made students’ learning more meaningful, relevant, and fun.  Here is a description of how we did it.

Getting Setup to Learn: We let students tour the library and gather books on a topic they’re interested in. They made their own text set. The work focused on finding  support for the books they chose that are outside their instructional band. If you try this, you may make recommendations of books to include in the text sets afterwards, “Look what I found, would this go with your topic? I was thinking about you when I saw this book.” 

Intentional Reading: Then it was time to read and explore the books. Students were able to make decisions as to what books remained in their text sets or what books were removed.  

Collaborative Work: Children invited other students to share their text sets. Some text sets started to be merged, or expanded to include each others. So for example Aine was reading books about pandas, and her friend Olivia was reading books about mammals. They decided to work together on a piece about animal babies. Chris was reading about sharks, and La’Nyah was reading about sea creatures and then they decided to work collaboratively. 

Creating an Action Plan: Culminated into museum pieces. They are getting ready to teach visitors about their topics. There is an option to work independently or collaboratively with a partner. They firm up their text sets combining and discarding texts to make their text sets reflect their topics they’re going to teach about. 

Planning for Transfer: Now they mark up their text sets to pull the information that they plan on teaching. Then they have a choice as to how they will share: a speech, a poster, book, sign, did they want to act it out, do a dance, create a physical model or structure, or if they thought of something different that’s ok too. This is the time of year when teachers will tell you, “Students’ energy is off the charts!” We certainly agree!  Many students are very excited to spend this special time with their families and friends.The result is that many children are often restless and unfocused. However, this is not the case this week in Jill’s class. Children are engaged, and intentional because they are happy in their work.  Meaningful work, is a very gratifying thing for us all. 

Anything we do with kids, it is our mission to embed it in authentic learning.  We want these experiences to mirror what they will do in real life. We don’t write to a prompt, we don’t read for other people’s interests, we don’t solve problems in isolation.  Instead, we write to get our work out into the world, we read to fuel our curiosity or meet our own internal needs. We often share what we read, because in the real world reading is usually a social endeavor. When we solve problems they are typically connected to some sort of real life difficulty.  Usually we don’t even solve them all on our own, we collaborate to gain more insights and perspective.

The problem with school is that sometimes if we’re not careful we forget reality when it comes to learning. We try to teach sophisticated thinking without the benefit of meaning making or lived experience. Deep learning stems from authenticity, and requires some practical or social benefit to the learner. They can’t learn deeply just because they want to please us. We’ve said this in prior posts (and our blog isn’t even that long yet) but it’s not about us, it’s about them. So how do you get to authentic deep learning? It’s all around you. It’s waiting in the library, when your typing an email, when you are walking down the hallway to lunch. Children are attempting to make meaning all day long and they want to share it with you. There are teachable moments everywhere you look, we just need to keep our minds open.

Teaching children to be literate is a complex undertaking. It requires hours of study, observational work, critical analysis, and ongoing practice. That is the truth, and Jill and I are just teachers working in a school. Sure, we are engaged, we are educational writers, and we are in constant search of ways to better our practices. Since we really are educators working in public schools, we know full well that when it comes to teaching nothing remains static.

We prefer to stay out of the fray of political pundits who advocate for reform. Jill and I both know that when it comes to teaching children how to read, how to write, there is a process. Teaching into a process requires many different approaches. Some children need to increase their volume, others need specific skill work, while others could benefit from short term strategy use. Learning how to be a strong teacher requires a lot of time. So, we would much rather put our energy into learning more about instructional practice than participating in divisive discourse that feels tribal and unproductive. However, after Jill and I read a recent NY Times Opinion piece, we thought we would lend some practical wisdom.  

We agree that phonics instruction and language learning are important; however, it is our experience that they are not the only two pieces for comprehension. Readers make meaning from what they already know and using their unique perspectives. There is not only one way to learn.  This is why Balanced Literacy works. It is a flexible framework that accommodates students’ needs in a variety of settings. This approach underscores the thinking that when teachers draw from a wide repertoire of strategies, they will be more responsive.

Join us Thursday at 8:30 pm est to chat about Balanced Literacy on #G2Great

Time Is on My Side

Time is not a teacher’s friend. It can be an unwelcome guest that comes to the classroom with lots of baggage. Teachers worry about time slipping away. We fret about lessons taking too long. If a student is taking too much time to share we may even start to sweat. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a single moment to spare, it is never a wrong time to listen to children.  Perhaps the most important way we take back our power over time is when we decide to be fully present and in the moment with students. We lean in with genuine interest, we show them that we are totally “all in” and ask, “Tell me about yourself. What do you enjoy? What would you say you are really good at?” These are generous questions that are implicitly positive. 

In many ways a teacher is like a biographer. We are writing narratives for our students to inhabit. Narratives where our students are the heros. As we watch our students day-in-day-out we are learning about who they are. We are telling them their stories back to them with enthusiasm and sincerity. “Wow! Did you notice what you just did? You said you liked to draw pictures, and now it’s completely clear to me! You are an illustrator.” That observation becomes another page in their book. Pages that are filling up as the year progresses and students grow more confident.

Meet J.C.

JC used to play soccer, but he didn’t like it because sometimes he didn’t understand what the coach was saying. Now, he really likes Karate and also wants to try basketball. The thing he likes best about school, is writing. He likes that he can write his own stories about anything he wants. He also enjoys  being an illustrator. He thinks drawing pictures is a lot of fun. He wants to tell his stories and have people read his books.

It takes time for students to grow into their identity. They are trying things on and learning about themselves along the way. JC sees himself as a writer and illustrator. That is very important to acknowledge before any academic work can begin. This is an entry point for us to build upon to nurture his sense of self, his identity.  It is our job as teachers to take the time to listen to our students, to honor what they say and to celebrate how they see themselves. Maybe we really misunderstand time. Maybe we should just unpack its bags and invite it to stay knowing it is well spent anytime we sit side-by-side with a child to honor who they are for this brief moment that is now.

Being is Believing

What belief systems have you built up around your students? This is an important question because belief systems are very powerful things. It is our beliefs that slant our perspective and sway the action we take. Our belief systems for students are built around trust. We trust them to show us the way into their learning process.

Student Centered learning is where we want to be.

Children have a more flexible view of the world and are open to more possibilities that might stay hidden to adults. They see the world with beginner’s eyes. So what does that look like in day-to-day instruction? How do we take advantage of their unique view of things? We trust them to set their own learning goals. Your students have a sense of who they are and what they need that is independent of our assessments of them. By trusting our students to self-select their goals we are handing over the big work of learning to them. Genuine student ownership necessitates shared control. This is the part where some teachers might say, “Wait, what? That sounds risky, not sure if that will work for me.” The thing is it’s not about us; it’s about them. It’s our students’ learning process and their learning can only come to life when it holds meaning and relevance. 

The insights we garner from students’ self-selected goals give  us an opening to see the world of learning as they do. Elliot understands something about “How to Draw” books. Typically they do have a lot of steps! He is also a rule follower and that adds an interesting layer as we think about his goal. He likes order, he wants his book to look like a realistic drawing book – that’s important to him. Whereas Jose is all about action. His how-to book needs to capture the excitement of “moving people” to hook his audience. Two boys working in the same UOS with very different goals. As we observe these boys we are learning more about who they are, what is really important, and how to best meet their needs. In other words, this is (authentic) differentiated instruction made easier because students are leading the way.