Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How your toughest class can stretch you the most..

Last week I had the great fortune to fail, and fail miserably with a lesson.  It was during a 90 minute class at the end of the day that my epic failure occurred.
I was attempting to teach a lesson that had gone quite smoothly the rest of the day.  However, about 30 minutes into class and nothing was getting accomplished.  I was frustrated, the students were frustrated and it was just a melting pot of anxiety, disappointment and sheer annoyance for all.
Class ended and I was extremely upset.
 "What is wrong with this class?!" I thought.  All my other classes had completed the lesson, all my other classes did the work. "They are just lazy."  I was supposed to stay after and help some students, but instead I left in order to decompress and avoid taking out my frustrations on anyone else.

This was the best decision I made.  Like most of us, I just couldn't stop thinking about what a disaster that class had been.  Slowly I went back through the lesson and thought about what went on.  And then it hit me.  The kids weren't lazy, the lesson just plain sucked.  This year I went from teaching all co-teach classes, to teaching only one (7th).  Up until this day my students had been working with rote activities that required little autonomy.  So why on earth was I surprised that when I set this mixed level class free they flailed?  The answer is because I wasn't being true to my own pedagogy, but instead trying to fit myself into a box and with it the lesson and the entire class.  In doing so I failed to give the lesson and the class the consideration they deserved.
As I began looking back I realized that this year I have focused more on trying to prepare my students for the test as best as possible.  In doing so I tried to adopt the beliefs and strategies of others.  Some of these are founded on research and well thought out ideas, while others are founded on fear and archaic systems.
Why?  Nobody forced me, nobody threatened me.  However, like many of my fellow educators I live in a world where "the test" drives a lot of the thinking and doing. I became hungry for my students to succeed, for them to beat the very beast scratching at our doors. What a mistake.
Last year I tried a number of new things, and watched my students struggle beautifully as they worked through problems and built their own knowledge base.  But this year I started off on the opposite foot, and it was the worst mistake ever.
After that 7th period class I realized that I needed to be true to my own pedagogical beliefs.  As a trusted colleague once told me, "as long as your ideas are based on sound pedagogy, then the learning will occur".  She was right.  I have returned to my messy, mistake driven learning and things are as they once were.  7th period is still a toughie and requires an ample amount of attention and flexibility on my part.
But I now realize that they are my best class.  For had they not challenged me when all my other classes were just doing, then I would have never come to my afore mentioned realization.  I love them because they keep me grounded on what matters.  And what matters are my students and their learning.  The test will not go away, and there will be other failures (I hope).  But 7th period helped remind me why I teach in the first place, because it is challenging and it allows me to challenge others.  I am given the task of preparing them to thrive in the 21st century work force.  I am tasked with creating innovators and leaders.  I can't do that in a box.
So don't discount the class that holds your feet to the fire, because they just might save you from losing yourself.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Share: You just might keep someone in the Game

I have been meaning to share a post on teaching inference for some time now. Extra time seems as elusive as ever,but I am determined to start blogging on a regular basis.  More importantly, I am determined to start sharing ideas, questions and problems.

A few years ago my colleague and I were pouring over our student data.  We found that many of our students struggle to make high level inferences.  Fast forward three years later, and we notice this is a recurring problem.
Which reminds me of something else I want to speak on.  There is a common dialogue I hear among some educators when faced with this situation.
It goes a little something like this:
"Ugh..weren't they supposed to learn this in plug in any grade you like.  Why should I have to teach this?"

Let me repeat..this is among SOME and not ALL.  And, as an educator I get the frustration one feels when wanting to move forward rather than look back.  This situation often forces teachers to work with content or skills less familiar, it requires more work, and naturally leads to more stress. This creates the negative relationship most educators have with said situation.

The world of education is changing drastically, and so with it the student body.  Teachers much constantly work to close gaps, make new connections and rebuild fractured intellectual structures.
And so, this is why I want to share.   I hope I encourage some of you to share.  Also, please tell me how I can improve on lessons!!
I think we can help each other feel less intimidated by our jobs and the idea of teaching the old or unknown.  But, we can only do this if we make our task less daunting.  I see great educators come and go all the time.  Some leave forever because the job has just become too much.  So here is my first step at keeping my peers healthy and in the game.  I hope you can find a way to use this.

Now to the lesson: Created by myself and Shelby Acevedo
I am just going to outline it and tell you about the resources.  If you need any extra details please let me know.
Objective: Students will understand what an inference is.  Students will understand how to make and inference and will know the difference between "zooming in" and "zooming out".

Resources Needed: Zoom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhYblhdhQ1M
See the Ocean: http://www.amazon.com/See-Ocean-Estelle-Condra/dp/0977814300  This book is out of print but can still be purchased.  It is wonderful!

Step 1:  I begin the lesson by posting a picture from CNN's Week in Pictures.  This is a great place to find interesting pictures that really engage the students.  I pair it with the question "What has happened to this person or what is going on?"  The students are given 3-5 minutes to generate a response.  I then let them share. We discuss how they know what they know.  We leave it at that.

Step 2:  I put the kids in groups of about 4.  I tell them that they will be competing against each other in a challenge.  They are told to assign a scribe, and that they will have to work together quietly to figure something out.  Now, if you have an administrator that insists they all be "doing something" (which they are..thinking, practicing effective communication, analyzing images) then you can have them all write.  I like to focus on the thinking and discussing, so I assign one scribe.

Step 3: Begin by going through the book page by page, and make sure you include the cover.
Ask them "What is this?"  I give them 1 minute to discuss and write an answer down.  Repeat over and over.  It is so fun to listen to the kids.

Step 4: Debrief with the students.  It is very important to talk about the process.  I like to go to a particular page (one with girl and play village, they always refer to her as Snow White). I explain that what they were doing was making an inference or analyzing something. I tell them it is the same thing we have been doing with texts.  I remind them that analysis is just breaking something down.  I then reference the warm-up and we discuss briefly.

We discuss how they immediately applied background knowledge, but that they were zooming in on the girl.  We then talk about zooming out and looking at the entire page and then making a guess at what is on it.  I tell them that they do the same thing when reading and analyzing a text.
And this is when they have their aha moment. Most are able to make the connection and realize that they often zoom in and focus on one thing without applying it to context when analyzing text.

  • The group who correctly identified the most pictures wins candy.  

The first year we taught this lesson, and then we then moved to See the Ocean.  The students read the story and were asked to find parts of the story where they could infer that the character was blind.  There are many hints.  Some students figure it out right away, but others don't get it till the end of the book.  However, the text is accessible and the students can focus on the skill more easily.  I seem to have deleted my old file, but it would have looked something like this..

Text Says: When she could talk, she asked endless questions about the ocean.  

“How old is it? How big? How deep? What’s the color? Why the waves?  Why the sound?”
Inference: The story says they travel to the ocean often, but Nellie still asks a lot of questions. In particular she asks "what color". This is weird and makes me thinks she can't see or something. If she can, why would she ask what color it is.
I think one year I had them identify and analyze 2, and then they had to get with a peer and take notes on theirs.
Ahh..wow. I really need to start recording like my colleague Del Villar.

Now I reference zooming in and zooming out with my students when we are revising and editing their writing. I even have students say "Ah..ya. I zoomed in.."
Keep up the good fight:)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

WebQuest: A useful tool in any classroom

Good morning!

I wanted to share a tool that I have found useful in the frontloading of information and the building of background knowledge.

My students come to me with varied levels of what most people consider traditional background knowledge.  I have students new to the country, some who have been in and out of school their entire lives, and some that have limited exposure to books and news.  I often find that this is one of the biggest barriers when it comes to my students' ability to read and understand a text.  As we all know, making connections via background knowledge is an integral part of the reading process.  Couple this with a student body that struggles to finish a short story, let alone a book and you have a recipe for confusion and frustration.

So, last year I decided I was going to teach a book.  I am usually a fan of short stories (my next blog post!), but I decided I wanted to teach Night.  We are fortunate enough to have a Holocaust museum here in the city, and I knew I could take some kids there.  So naturally, this book seemed like a no-brainer and I began tackling the lesson plan.  While sitting, staring and wondering how I was going to get my kids into the idea of reading, I remembered a Shakespeare WebQuest I used in class a few years back.  BAM...this is what I was going to do.  I began looking online for a Holocaust WebQuest, but I couldn't seem to find one that I thought would serve my needs. What is an educator to do then? Get creative!
I made my own using Google Sites..https://sites.google.com/a/springbranchisd.com/night-webquest/home.

Now to the actual point of my post.  What this site allowed me to do was address the needs of multiple learners.  While thinking about what to include and how to engage students, I decided to just try and hit all learning styles.  I made sure to include visual and audio.  I then collaborated with a colleague on how to best assess their learning along the way.  She suggested open-ended questions that required them to think deeply about what they read/heard/viewed.  While this all seems like a lot of work (and it was), it is sooo worth it.
I took the students to the lab and gave them the link.  I then instructed them that they needed to read the instructions and speak with a peer before asking me "what do I do?".  For the most part they could figure it out and began their journey.  I walked around monitoring students and was surprised at what I heard.  Students were gasping and actually talking about what they were seeing or hearing.  Some students were crying, while others felt compelled to tell me how angry they were.  This lesson quickly became one of few that will stay with me forever as a game changer (hopefully I experience more as I grow).  It seems like such a simple tool, but my students (some who truly had no knowledge of this historical event) taught me how powerful a well designed WebQuest can be.

  • This is not a lesson for those who do not want students to be frustrated by the way.  I believe that there is a level of functional frustration necessary to learning.  If we are to create critical thinkers and problem solvers, then we must let them struggle to some degree.  Because many of my students had little experience with tech, they sat for a bit working through the frustration.  In the end they figured out how to navigate the lesson and get their work done.  I think this is important to remember when giving students something new and a bit challenging.  
Skills addressed by the lesson:
21st Century learning skills:
Digital Literacy
Skilled Communication
Problem Solving
Collaborate with Others
Other Skills Addressed:
Engage in Meaningful Discourse
Build background knowledge

When it came time to read the book I felt that the students were equipped with some of the tools needed to help them digest and process the text at a more critical level.  I believe the WebQuest also worked on a psychological level to help them feel more confident in attacking the book.  There is a sense of helplessness one feels when they know they don't know.  And contrary to what some believe, our students are usually more keenly aware of this than we are.  
We read the book and it was glorious:)

I think a wonderful extension or entirely new activity would be to have students create a WebQuest after reading a specific text.  I love the idea of letting them create and demonstrate their knowledge. Thinking this might be in my next unit.....

Here is a helpful sight if you want a clearer explanation of what a WebQuest is: http://webquest.org/

Do you have any great WebQuest tools or ideas?  If so, please share away.  Together we can foster a new generation of learners:)