Saturday, October 25, 2014

Live from Nola

Ecet2, live from New Orleans. My first live, on site blog post.  I am currently taking an active role in a fascinating session about the art of blogging. 
Our presenters by their own admission are active bloggers but on different levels. One has a strong writing background and blogs often,(a former sports writer) while the other blogs occasionally, mostly for the opportunity to connect with his students.   
Our audience is very diverse, some have been actively blogging for awhile, some started recently and others came to find out how to get started.  The main idea shared early on and often was that blogging was an opportunity for sharing one's voice or telling their story. As educators, blogging is not only a great vehicle in which to share our voice but is also a great vehiicle that can be used to enable our students to  share theirs.

Throughout the session the participants shared various reflections on  a vehicle called in an effort to develop a better understanding of how the process worked. While admittedly the blogging process pushes one beyond their comfort zone it is a risk that people appeared willing to take.  The connection was made to the comedy Seinfeld about everyone having something to say and while it may appear to be about nothing on the surface, most likely it will have value to someone. Translation, "there is an audience out there for everyone."
 The conclusion of the session left me with a great challenge in that we were being asked to create a post on the fly which is something that I usually don't embrace but... when in Rome!

Monday, October 20, 2014

"Tell Me Your Story"

Create more opportunities to engage and empower my students.  

Install a balance of learning that includes both consumption and creation. 

Build a culture of learning that enables students to cultivate relationships with both their peers and their teacher. 

These goals, set prior to the start of this school year were the result of a passionate and inspired student centered vision.  Each and every day there is a collective effort towards achieving the realization of this vision. While a work in progress and not without challenges, I am happy with the success that we have achieved thus far within our classroom community.  The students are being stretched, they are embracing challenges and they are producing a body of work that reflects a quality effort, passion and pride.

Our first unit this year focused on the Five Themes of Geography.  The students learned the identity of the themes, how to distinguish one from the other and most importantly how to connect the themes to their lives.   There were multiple opportunities for collaboration with peers as students consumed and unpacked various new terms and concepts.  Varied formative assessments  were completed on a daily basis. The students reflected a firm understanding of the concepts and they successfully demonstrated an ability to connect the themes to their own lives. Upon reflection I was pleased with their level of understanding but I wanted something more.  I wanted to empower them to learn more. I wanted to engage them in a process that would allow them to create a product revealing their personal connections to the themes and demonstrating their knowledge of those themes. Thus the idea for Telling Your Story was born.


After careful consideration a document was produced to assist the students in the creation process. Essentially I wanted to learn more about my students and their lives in Robbinsville; therefore the idea of Telling Your Story was developed. With all project opportunities I strongly believe that the best student work occurs when they have choices and options in all phases of development. This project which would mark their initial effort would include multiple options to choose from.  My experience has always indicated that when students make their own choices.Their voice and passion always resonates the most clearly.

When the day arrived to introduce the project to my students, we read through the assignment together carefully, answering all questions and clarifying all concerns.  The initial introduction of the project took place in one of my inclusion classes. Both my co- teacher and I prepared a written narrative, "Telling Our Stories" as sixth grade students and of our connections with the five themes of geography. This was intended to model our expectations and hopefully strengthen our connection with our students.   Following the completion of the introduction the students were provided with two and a half class periods to assist them in completing their efforts. Four additional days were allocated at home to assist in the completion of the assignment.


During the initial phase of production the students carefully chose the option that enabled them to best Tell Their Story or they developed a  unique option that was best suited to their strengths.  Although the projects were of an individual nature, a culture developed within the classroom community that allowed students to ask questions of each other, to provide assistance during the development process. Furthermore opportunities were created that allowed for collaboration and constructive feedback. While observing the process as it unfolded, helping students triage their concerns and helping to facilitate the overall process for individual students, I was not sure what to expect in terms of the final results.  Students required redirection from time to time and adjustments were required to make sure that the students were applying what they had learned correctly. After two and half days most made significant progress in class but all still had quite a ways to go before bringing the journey to an end. I wasn't sure how they were going to get there but I knew I couldn't wait to see the results once they did.


The day finally arrived for the students to present their finished products to me and their peers.  The audience and the presenters were equally enthusiastic to share and learn from each other.  The hope that I had initially was that the students would reinforce their understanding of the Five Themes of Geography and in the process a passion for their own lives would be ignited.  They did not disappoint!  One thing that was heard loud and clear was that my students love being kids and they love the opportunities that they have to enjoy their lives. For some that meant vacationing in Greece or Costa Rica, for others it meant riding their bikes in their neighborhoods , or taking trips to Maggie Moos, a local ice cream shop. Some told tales of surfing, playing soccer, lacrosse, softball or they even wrote and sang songs telling their story. Throughout the presentations the students were excited to share their passions and the audience clearly enjoyed learning of the diverse cultures that were being presented. I observed joy on the faces of my students as they shared a piece of their lives with their peers and the pride they took in their work was clearly in evidence by the quality of their work.   I would be remiss if I failed to comment on how impressed I was with abilities of my students to successfully manipulate the technology that they used to complete the assignment. Images were effectively used to support the written text. Animation was used to enhance the visual quality of the presentation. Even hyperlinks were used to impressively create an interactive presentation that allowed for audience participation. While I wasn't sure what to expect at the conclusion of the production process, I was beyond thrilled with the results.


One of the outcomes that I am striving to achieve this year, is to create more authentic learning experiences for all of the stakeholders within our learning culture.  In order to achieve this I believe that reflection on the quality of instruction and the  learning experiences must take place on a daily basis. Ultimately this will lead to my own professional growth as well as growth for my students.

After the final presentation took place, I commended my students on their efforts in preparation and production and for their courage in sharing their products with their peers. I then discussed with them the importance of reflection and we all agreed that it was necessary in order to improve or grow.  I then asked them to participate in a two part written reflection activity. The first part included three questions that were designed to help them find a deeper understanding of their strengths and the areas that they could improve upon. The second part included more questions.  This set designed to gain feedback on how the overall project might be adjusted, to produce even greater results as they applied to student learning.

After completing the written activity students were asked to move about the class and share at least two things that they felt comfortable sharing with others about both their own performance and project design.  As I observed the process unfold I was quite impressed by the courage that students demonstrated in sharing their thoughts with each other after they had critically self assessed. The final piece of reflection was for the collective group to share with me what they felt comfortable sharing about their own reflections and then to give me feedback about the project design. Again I learned a great deal about their courage as they critically assessed their own abilities and provided me with constructive feedback as well.

The Story Ends for Now

Over the course of  the past several days I have watched and listened to so many students stories and the following things have been made abundantly clear; my students are passionate about their lives, they enjoy sharing their life experiences with others, they take pride in their work, they understand the five themes of geography and can connect them to their lives, they understand how to utilize technology to enhance their presentations, and most importantly they are courageous and willing to take risks in order to achieve something memorable. Mission Accomplished!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"A New Journey Commences"

 "Morning will come, it has no choice."
                       Marty Rubin

Every year my students arrive with a great deal of enthusiasm. However the enthusiasm is tempered somewhat by the knowledge that there will many changes that will require their attention and adaptation.  Just months ago they were securely nestled into their fairly self contained fifth grade environment.  Now upon arriving in sixth grade they are faced with the challenging reality of having to change classroom environments at least eight times a day. Additionally they will navigate a nine period schedule that requires them to implement new organizational strategies.  The need to adapt to this change, as well as others, with a sense of immediacy, can create a varied level of stress and anxiety for them. One of the ways to minimize this, is by developing a community and a culture that inspires a love of learning and creates a safe haven where this can occur.

Creating a community that promotes a sense of belonging for my students has been a priority throughout the early part of this school year. The existing seating configuration has enabled the building of peer relationships and provided valuable early collaborative experiences.  Currently, we are studying the Five Themes of Geography. One of the five themes of geography that we are examining has particular appropriateness when considering the circumstances currently confronting my sixth grade students. The theme Human  Environment Interaction is one that focuses on how humans depend on their environment, how humans modify their environment and how humans adapt to their environment.  The consideration given to "depend", "modify", and "adapt" as it applies to my current group of students can strongly influence the quality of their learning experiences throughout the year.


My students depend on their classroom community to provide a culture that inspires them. They depend on a culture that creates opportunities for collaboration with their peers. They depend on a culture that helps them continue to build their love for learning. They depend on a culture that allows for the free movement of ideas and the respect of others when sharing those ideas. The growth of my students depends on their ability to cultivate a culture of learning and take full advantage of all of the resources that have been provided within their classroom community. One of the many things that my students can depend on this year is that many modifications will be made within their instructional experience.


The manner that our classroom community is modified depends on whether we are creating learning opportunities that require consumption or creation. If the daily experience is geared to the consumption of ideas and information, there may be a great deal of peer to peer collaboration.   The students will work collectively to unpack the knowledge that they have just acquired.  Furthermore, if consumption is the goal, than interactive discussions may be occurring to facilitate and support any learning that is taking place.  On other occasions our students will be given the chance to create. This will occur on a collective or individual  basis.  When these situations arise, the students will be empowered to act independently and engage in various activities that require them to adapt to a variety of changing circumstances. The success of the sixth grade student requires the understanding that modifications will occur and that they are capable of adapting when they do.


Beginning in sixth grade, social relationships begin to take on primary significance for my students.  Finding time for friends and for their studies in a balanced manner is a challenge that most find difficulty adapting to. With the advent of digital technologies this challenge has been magnified exponentially for students within the past decade. Furthermore, the academic landscape of the sixth graders day has changed drastically and navigating through it successfully can be quite challenging early on. My students have four content area teachers and as many as four cycle teachers. Their success requires them to familiarize themselves with the teaching style of these teachers as well as meet their expectations. Additionally the workload has increased and learning to manage their academics and a  possible extra curricular schedule, creates its own set of challenges. The life of a sixth grader provides them with many challenges to endure and in which to adapt. The more effectively that educators, students and parents partner at this stage of development , the more successful the student will become and the easier they will find it to adapt to sixth grade.

The arrival in sixth grade every fall for  my students really is " A Whole New World " for them.  As I build relationships with them and their parents it is important to remember that there are things that they need to "depend" upon to help them achieve success.  Essentially their environment will be "modified" greatly and they will be confronted with new circumstances that will necessitate their ability to "adapt".  A conscious effort to be mindful of the stressful challenges that transition can create and a guiding hand to assist with adaptation, will greatly strengthen their ability to succeed. This success that they achieve will lead to a consistent increase in confidence that will ultimately give them the necessary courage to take risks and grow as learners.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"Celebrating the Success of September"!

"Positive relationships between teachers and their students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction."
   ~Robert Marzano~

Throughout the summer months, I contemplated the type of learning community and culture that I wanted to develop with my students for the upcoming school year.  One thing was clear as the vision for the culture was developing, relationships and their cultivation were going to be the foundation of our community. These relationships would not only be teacher to student but equally as important they would be peer to peer. The goal was to build a learning community where easy collaborative experiences could take place along with effective communication practices. Thus the seating configuration was changed dramatically and instead of rows which inhibited collaboration, tables were created with students sitting in close proximity to one another, ultimately promoting collaboration.  Before students could establish relationships with each other though, I felt it was important that they establish an identity of their own that reflected their "mindset".

One of the first activities that was designed to empower students and foster their identities was the creation of personal motto statements. All students and teachers that play a significant role in our social studies classes  were asked to develop an original motto or research one that resonated with them and adopt it as their own. Once they selected their motto they were asked to mount it on  a piece of paper, 8.5 X 14.5 and prepare to present them to the class. The hope was that with each presentation we could learn what was inside of each others heads and hearts. As the presentations unfolded we learned a great deal about each others values, commitments, and passions.The various mottos left all members of our learning community feeling significantly inspired. Once collected, the motto statements were proudly displayed throughout our classroom for all to see on a daily basis. Upon their arrival on Back to School Night the parents had the opportunity to view the impressive compilation of student work, amassed as a result of the efforts of their children.

On Back to School Night my goal was to leave our parents with an understanding that I was committed to establishing a strong relationship with them and their children. That I was passionate and inspired about my role as an educator. That through confidence and success, all of our students would develop a life long love for learning. That empathy exists in my heart, and that we all want the same thing for our children. That academic and social growth, leading to productive and contributing members of our society is the ultimate goal. Furthermore we discussed the importance of empowering and engaging their children in instructional practices that will enhance their interests and stoke their passions. Although it was my 20th Back to School night my new families were meeting an educator that has been re-energized and whose passion for education has been reignited exponentially. As the night came to a close I felt satisfied that I had successfully communicated my message. I looked forward to the following day when their children would allow their peers and I to become better acquainted with them as a result of the presentation of their "culture boxes."

The "culture box" presentations required all of the students to collect five artifacts related to their personal and private lives.  Once collected the artifacts were then placed in a container in preparation for their presentations. This relationship building experience did not disappoint as the students presented with a collective sense of pride in relation to their family histories, their ethnic backgrounds, their religious affiliations and their interests.  Each presentation left their peers in the audience with a sense of curiosity and a desire to learn more about each other. The culture boxes presented by the teachers also led to the establishment of a stronger connection with the students as they were able to develop a deeper understanding of their teachers' backgrounds and interests.  One of the greatest consequences of the activity is that it allowed our students to understand that while cultures can be studied from both an ancient and modern perspective, they can also be quite personal.

The student and parent surveys, the day one getting to know you interviews, the mottos, Back to School Night,  the culture boxes, and the daily opportunities to engage collaboratively have allowed us to make significant strides in building relationships with all of the stake holders of our learning community. The enthusiasm and overall passion for learning that I have witnessed thus far and the warm welcome that was conveyed by our parents on Back to School Night has truly made this a " September to Remember". There have been many reasons to "Celebrate the Success of September."  I look forward to continuing the building of a culture and a community in the upcoming months, where the interests of my students are always at the forefront.

(Teach to Change Lives Image posted by Wade Stanford on Twitter 8/23/14)