My students were beyond thrilled when I told them they could create online sites for our entire unit of inquiry this time around. After discussing our central idea, key concepts and transdisciplinary skills to give my students a general overview of what the unit of inquiry we were supposed to be learning about was supposed to be studying, I did the unthinkable for most students.
I gave the students a document with what would be on their report card for Unit 4...word for word. To the shock and amazement of my students, I pushed it even further. I told them they would be marking themselves and those would be the marks they get on their report card for the most part. Unless I saw something that was different then they did, I would use what they had given themselves. I don't know if I've ever seen my students so speechless. I've had them self-evaluate before but knowing they were completely in the driver's seat wasn't what they were used to.
I thought it was only fair they knew what they had to be 'assessed' on if they were creating the course. In order for them to succeed, they needed to be able to extract the big ideas or concepts that they would need to cover in their course. Essentially these would create their different lessons/sessions/levels. Each group was given a piece of chart paper and asked to think about what those big concepts might be. I suggested they read through their lines of inquiry, central idea and assessment sheet again to figure out what they should be focusing on. They could be as big or small as they felt necessary to be considered it's own lesson.
From there, we discussed as a class some of the bigger ones that popped out frequently on the different pages. We also discussed that some topics could be combined to create one lesson with more detail. After that discussion, students were given time to discuss which lessons they wanted as part of their course and circled them.
After that it was important for the students to order the lessons in a way that made logical sense. As a class, we discussed how you can't have a lesson about something more specific if you haven't had a general overview and that you had to be strategic in the way your order your course.
Whenever students take notes for research, I let them do it whichever way makes the most sense to them. This time around I wanted to add another strategy to their repertoire that they could choose from. In a Google Document, the student would make a table with the first row being the different lessons by the concept in the correct order from left to right. Then in the columns underneath each level, students could write down all of the questions they think they might need to find out to be successful. It was important to discuss with the students that they could come back to this list and add more questions to the chart at any time. Sometimes what you are reading while researching prompts you for another question and the students are encouraged to include it in the document. This method of recording information is not fixed and is able to be changed and modified at any time.
This year my focus has really been about student voice. In everything that I do in my classroom, I really want it to be about what the students want, not what I want. Because of this mentality, I have seen increased engagement and quality of work produced. When they choose how they do their work, they want to do better. It has fully changed our classroom dynamic for the better.
The end of our last unit was hard for me. It was our How We Organise Ourselves unit about food systems. The whole of Year 5 was going to have a celebration of learning through a food market where students created a food dish using what they had learnt throughout our unit to make informed decisions and create a recipe with a rationale.
I always share with my students the idea that I was thinking of and then ask "What do you think?" Normally, this turns into a major brainstorming session and what we are left with in the end is always better than I could come up with on my own. Needless to say, when the idea of the FoodFest was introduced to my students, this happened again.
However, the challenge that arose later was that we weren't just creating a market of my class' work and food, but rather all of Year 5 and therefore there had to be a consensus across all of the teachers to allow for consistency. Thus, I had to be flexible and go with the majority on some things even when I knew my students had a different vision.
While I understand that as a teacher you have to say no sometimes to your students, it is hard to say no when you are in agreement with them. So many of the details my students wanted to included in the setup of the food market such as including money, food rating on the spot, a different classroom setup and more, were not included in the final celebration.
The students still had a great morning celebrating with their parents, but in my mind, it wasn't the best celebration we had done to date. Why? Because the students hadn't had enough say in the final product and decisions were made that did not include them.
The funniest part was when the teachers joined together and reflected on the event and how we could change it, every single suggestion of improvement was identical to what my class had originally suggested, which of course was frustrating because I knew I could trust my students to have done it their way if we had of let them.
I actually went to my class the next day and had a discussion with my class about how their ideas really matter to me and I prefer when we do things their way. To which I got the response, "Of course Ms. Mac! When you tell us an idea, we just build and build and build on it until it's a super idea of awesomeness!" I couldn't agree more.
So as we begin our new unit, I have a very big focus on making sure my students do it in the way they ultimately think is best for them. And I have a sneaky suspicion they will remind me if I don't.
We all have those days where meetings run late and you went right to the schoolyard to pick up your students and perhaps you didn’t quite get the agenda on the board. Maybe the projector isn’t turned on, the homework isn’t up on the board and yet the students are still coming in at 9am whether you are ready or not.
My approach to those days - be honest. Earlier this month this exact same scenario and all I could hear for the first minute or so was “Ms. Mac, where’s the homework?” “Ms. Mac, what are we doing today?” “Ms. Mac, I don’t know what books I need today without the agenda!” So I did the only thing I knew to do. I told the class to sit down on the floor and I explained the situation.
“My meeting ran late so I didn’t have time to do x,y,z. It’s not the way I wanted to start the morning and I know things are a little less organized than we usually have them. We’re going to have to work on this together this morning and get things figured out. Have you ever had one of those mornings?”
Of course, they have! Everyone has. So we brainstormed what we needed to do, divided tasks and then got to work. There was no point in hiding the fact that the day was not off to its usual start. We all need to know how to get through the bumps and doing it together seems to be a better route in my mind.
I believe that when you are honest with your students they actually respect you more. When situations happen, we have to learn to deal with them and be flexible. There is no point hiding that the morning was off to a wonky start. There was no point pretending the day was something that it wasn’t.
The thing we sometimes forget is that a community exists best when they work together, support each other and trust each other. Some may say I’m too honest with my students but I share stories that happen me, pictures of my family, I talk to them about times I’ve experienced similar things to them and when something happens I can’t control, they know about it. Our students need to know we understand their perspective and they need to know the perspective we are coming from. If you are honest, you show who you are as a person to your students. I figure if I want them to do the same, I should be the one to take the step first. Once you start building trust, you build rapport and create an environment that feels safe for your students. Who doesn’t want that for them?
This year I started the program from the beginning of the school year. I believe this allowed me to help build the relationships with my students from day one. Overall, the students have been very responsive. It really has allowed a few of my students to blossom as writers. These students in particular really think about the feedback they are given and I can clearly see it being applied in the following email. This just emphasises the need for timely and specific feedback for students.
Many of the same writing areas of growth appeared and have allowed me to have a more targeted approach from the beginning of the year. The biggest one will always be quantity and quality writing. We have started our dialogue about how to create paragraphs that really give your readers a ‘juicy hamburger’ paragraph (detailed paragraph) instead of a ‘grilled cheese’ paragraph (a small paragraph with not much in it).
One student this year has asked to write a weekly letter by hand to improve her cursive handwriting. I have no problem with this and provided her with resources for handwriting as well. However, she still wanted me to email my response back so she could have one on Monday morning in her inbox like the rest of the students.
It’s important for my students to know the conversation isn’t just one way either. I always allow my students to ask me questions about whatever they want, and yes that sometimes means questions about who I am and my life. As long as they are appropriate, I have no problem answering them as I think it’s important for students to see you as a person just as they are. So far I’ve never had anything come my way I wouldn’t answer. Perhaps I’m just lucky to have such respectful students. I’ve always felt being honest with my students is essential if I expect the same from them so sharing about my holidays or relating to them with stories from my own life growing up or whatever the case may be is something I think is important for my students to see.
There was one weekend when I was away at a conference for a few days and into the weekend where I did not send individual responses to students. Instead, I sent a general email to the whole class. The students were understanding of it and I responded to many of the common questions asked throughout all of the emails that week. But the following week I was back to the individual emails again.
It is a time-consuming project on my end but I truly believe the value of it outweighs that. One thing I have done to help me combat spending so much time on email writing every weekend is to create a canned message template for each week. In doing so, each student hears about maybe something I did on the weekend, something that might be coming up to look forward to in class or another topic that pertains to all students. Then, I will respond individually to the content of their emails and provide feedback where necessary. It still means sending an email to every student but I’m not rewriting every single word in every email.
For one of my beginner ESL students, this has been a really positive experience this year. He always sends me his email in English (his native language is Japanese) because he wants to improve his English and he has! He went from a one or two sentence email to sometimes up to two paragraphs now. The other really interesting part is how he uses images and videos in his emails to help convey his messages to me. Without the use of technology, we would not have this ability.
I had a student who was very disruptive during class at the beginning of the year. We tried different strategies in class to help him be successful in whole class settings but I always found he was more successful when he was able to use the computer to communicate his thoughts. In his emails, he would always express how he didn’t want to call out but couldn’t help himself and how much he enjoyed the class. His emails provided me more insight into the student I saw in class. The dialogue created through this digital medium allowed us to reflect on what was happening in class and what we could do together to make the classroom environment work for him. I don’t believe these conversations wouldn’t have happened in class to the same effect as they have.
On holidays and summers, I still get emails from my students - not all, but some. It always surprises me who emails me too. Often it is some of the students who really didn’t like writing when they came to me. It makes me confident that the plan worked. It makes me confident that students want to have an audience for writing, that building relationships with students is important and that sometimes writing isn’t just about writing.
Many students come and go in an internationally community and I still hear from some of them every now and again. I heard from ½ of the students who moved to another country at the start of this school year and left our school community. Sometimes students need that sense of comfort from their old life as they start a new one. I’ve always said to all my students, if you write me an email, I will respond. Sometimes that sense of security, as little as an email is, is what a child needs most.
The greatest success of these writing program is that is has had impacts much farther and more meaningful than just my students’ writing. It really is impacting who they are as a person as they grow. Each week I have the pleasure of reading about sleepovers, friends moving away, disagreements on the playground, celebrations at home, parents returning from business trips and more. Each week they open up their little lives to me with trust and respect and I do my best to do the same. It has become more than writing - it is a dialogue to build the foundation of relationships, skills and attitudes that go beyond what is reported on any report card. I can only hope that I can continue to be that source of support both inside and outside of the classroom this year.
I absolutely love this program with my students. Over the past year and a bit, I have learnt so much about my students through this initiative and it literally makes my day when I get the sweetest emails from them.
For the first few weeks of the first year of the program, I documented my weekly reflections. These are my thoughts from October - December from 2013 as the home writing program began to unfold.
Week 1 Reflection
Well, it’s out in the world now, let’s see how it goes. The students seemed pretty excited that they didn’t have to write on paper for the homework each week. By providing an example of what was expected in the email really allowed students to get a visual of what was intended.
I am glad I emailed the parents prior to the assignment – it can be difficult at times understanding the perspective of the email being sent and I could find myself in tricky situations potentially if a student emails content of concern so it’s good to be completely open about it first and educate the parents instead of trying to backpedal later. I even got a response from one parent being really supportive of the idea and excited to see what comes of this.
The first night I had a few students email me with their letters. It is interesting to see the range of emails. Some students are sticking specifically to the options, others are writing about their own topics. It is a quick glance at who chooses to be creative or follow the form. The range of work is quite wide from a sentence to a couple paragraphs. Hopefully, I can get all of my students writing at least a few paragraphs each week to me.
One thing that also happened today was that a student emailed me about an issue that took place last Friday (not as part of their homework). This was the first time I have received an email like this from a student. It is clear that this outlet can provide students with a comfortable environment that allows them to connect with a teacher without having to have difficult conversations face to face. While I still believe face to face interactions are important, it simply provides students with another avenue to communicate with me so that we can problems solve together.
One thing I learned today is that I should draft the email from the students as I receive them. This way I’m not writing to 20 students on Sunday night. It is a bit much to do it all in one go. Therefore, this week I will try drafting the emails as I receive them and still send them out on Monday morning. I’m going to let my students read their email from me first thing Monday morning once they get settled for the day.
Some of the most common areas of improvement for writing emails include :
Week 2 Reflection
Week 2 of the email writing. I emphasized to my students they should aim to write at least 3 good paragraphs to me if possible when we were reviewing our homework for the week. Hopefully, this will help them continue to develop the length of their writing.
Monday, October 7, 2013– Today was the first day my students got to read their emails from me. They were all very eager to read their responses from me. By the time I got home at night, I already had a few emails from students. Many responded to the questions I had asked them but the biggest thing I noticed was that the length of the emails had grown to almost double for most students compared to the first email they had sent.
Another thing I noticed was that I received questions about class work. I had 2 boys in my class email me to ask to meet with me tomorrow to review some of the work they were unsure of. All I thought was wow! Already my students are using this assignment not only as a vehicle to fulfill their weekly homework but also using it as an educational tool to reach out and get help. For these two particular boys, they both need extra help and rarely participate or ask questions in class. For me, this was a major success this week. These emails are truly opening up the lines of communication with my students and making them feel more comfortable reaching out for support.
I was discussing the project with a colleague tonight sharing some of my successes. I was also mentioning how labour intensive it was right now as it required me to write at least 20 long well thought out and grammatically correct emails for students each week. But how can you argue with the results? A little work could mean a lot of rewards and right now I am enjoying getting to know my students better and being able to help them personally, socially and academically.
Topics that have come up so far in the first 2 weeks:
Week 6 Reflection
I have one student in my class who has difficulty processing information. He works incredibly hard but his brain just doesn't allow him to make connections from taking in information to processing the information and doing a task with ease. I have been struggling to get him to write and often produce any form of work. Even with one on one instruction, he could spend an entire period and still only have a few sentences on a page. We have tried a variety of different strategies to help him communicate his ideas in whatever way he can but often, we still come up short... until this past week.
Our E-portfolios our a big part of my class as it promotes self-reflection, showcases their work and can be shared with parents, friends and our community. As you might have imagined, this would be a task that would become difficult for the child mentioned above. In the first unit, all of the pieces he inserted required me sitting next to him talking him through it step by step until he finished. While he is still very tech savvy, the processing all of the steps becomes too much at some point and the task wouldn't get finished.
I had a meeting with the parent and we were just discussing the child's overall ability when he mentioned he had an Instagram account he was always on outside of school. As I walked out of the meeting, I thought to myself "Why not let him do what he enjoys doing? Why not give him the platform that works best for him?"
So off I went barging into the tech office with this idea of using Instagram for his E-portfolio now. Unfortunately, Instagram is blocked on our server I found out but using an alternate program that essentially mimics this idea was our next option - Blogger.
When I talked to the student he was interested in 'trialling' this special idea I had that only he could help me with. So together, we set up a blog and linked it to an iPod. The idea was simple - take pictures as you work throughout the day and write a comment about it. This was to be his modified portfolio. If the idea was to reflect on his work, perhaps this was a way he would be able to connect what he was already doing outside of school with Instagram to what he did inside the classroom.
Instantly we saw results! This past week we had only 3 days of teaching, and he already has 7 posts. Not bad for someone who only had 3 posts total of reflection for the current section of his portfolio. Not only did he capture moments of his work, he made others capture him in action too so he could include that. The boy who had struggle putting together a single sentence on paper now was able to put at least a sentence or two together for each picture he posted.
What else improved? He self image. When he knew he could succeed, he wanted to do more. A single sentence and picture was enough.
So I guess now I ask myself - how are we differentiating our e-portfolios to meet our student's needs? How do we ensure they can reflect on a work that is meaningful to them? I am wondering how other students will feel after a while and if they will want to take on this model as well? I wonder how my student's writing will progress moving forward.
It seems so simple. Taking a picture, posting it to the internet and making a comment but yet to me, this has been one of the biggest successes for me all year. We are trialling this idea for the next month with him and I am so excited to see where he takes it. In three days, he has transformed in the classroom and as a writer both digitally and on paper. I am incredibly proud of his progress and the best part is - he is too!
First Week Back Reflections
This past Wednesday was the first day of school for students. As always, there was a sleepless night of excitement gearing up to that first moment in the classroom. The unsure feeling of what will happen, the curiosity of what my class will be like, the nerves that I will forget something important or that I will totally flop in my new role as a coordinator. But once the whistle blows and the students line up, the mind goes blank and a sigh of relief comes over me and so begins another year.
While it might be a big statement to say, this was the best first day of school I've had to date. Rather best first week of school with my students. I love my new little class full of characters. There is a range of abilities, nationalities, experiences, and perspectives and somehow they just all seem to mesh as we transfer our way to the classroom. It's amazing how quickly you can develop culture and routine but yet still have a sense of excitement the permeates throughout the room.
For the first time, I felt like I channeled the teacher I always wanted to be on the first day of school. Perhaps it was because for the first time as I teacher I wasn't battle nerves of my own at a new school - the benefit of returning to the same school and year group for a second round.
In they came, bags away, task ready to go on the board, on with the music and off we went. The day just went seamlessly. The cheesy get to know you games I usually dislike provided a time to just laugh and talk - really just appreciate the students and learn about them. It has been about building a community built on mutual respect, collaboration and honesty.
I've started reading a book to my students entitled 'Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing' by Judy Blume. My students already won't let me put it down. Peter and Fudge have captured their hearts. Though I did love my students' faces when I said I had sketchbooks for them so they could draw as I read and there were pillows to help make them more comfortable. They first looked at me like I was crazy that I was going to let them actually draw and then disbelief when I told them to get comfy and relax. It is was interesting to peer out and see the different things that the students had chosen to draw. When given the option to choose whatever they wanted to draw, many of them still drew about what was happening in the story. I saw a few story maps and some symbols to represent the events, I saw character sketches and settings being drawn. It sometimes amazes me that when given the choice, students really do want to learn academic things, just in non-traditional ways.
Something I didn't always do the best last year was utilise timing to my benefit. I always felt like I was cramming in a bit too much into my lessons instead of just letting them be as they were without rushing. This year, I'm trying to channel the 'less can be more meaningful' mentality. But what I've loved more is what I do with those extra 2-3 minutes here or there now. I have a box of brain teasers, math problems, comparisons and word puzzles. I love stumping the little minds until one of them gets the eureka moment and explains it to the rest of them. We've been doing a few math warm-up type activities for just a minute or two to get their brains thinking and answering each others inquiry questions from our parking lot. Maybe I'm just feeling more relaxed and comfortable in my role as a teacher, maybe it's a different class but I am loving the physical and mental calmness I have when I am teaching now that I've just 'am' the teacher rather trying to 'be' the teacher.
One of my favourite things I did was a simple digital scavenger hunt. I gave students a list of clues they had to interpret and a list of people to identify, an iPod, a pencil and off they went. Some might say it was risky to let an entire class run wild (though we did all agree to a walking rule) around the school on only the third day in with technology in hand. But the students were so respectful, they came up with their rules of agreement for the activity and were open to the few extras I had to add in. And they loved it! The best was having them come back with the smiles on their faces feeling accomplished. Then came the challenge of part two - continue to take pictures based on a day in the life of a Year 5 student until the rest of the teams came back. I almost think this part was more successful than the first part. The kids had so much fun being silly creating freeze frames of what they thought Year 5 was to be ( an interesting perspective in and of itself.)
Once the students were back, we had an interesting discussion about how people perceived the clues in different ways and that we all have a different perspective on how things are or should be. The slideshow of the pictures made the students giggle and have become the perfect addition to my new class site.
An unexpected twist to my day was when a few of my students became curious of my smaller than normal door that led outside at the opposite end of the room. When I asked what they thought was out there, we got a range of answers but a little man seemed to be the one I decided to go with. And so, there I sat creating this elaborate background story about how I had met the little man once and only once before. My students decided to write him a letter asking the many questions they had. It was even better when they found his 'note' the following day after a few minutes of being in class. This is how Master Charles was born. I'm thinking Master Charles' letters might come in an ongoing manner. He has a lot of potential. Though I really didn't think they'd latch on to the idea of the story from the start. Now I just have to make this continue in a real way for them.
We've made this class ours - from the essential agreements, to adding our faces to the walls, building our positive post, attitude slogan posters and much more. No longer is it a room I was preparing for the students but a play we will now call home for the next 37 weeks of school.
As a relatively new teacher still (just about to start my third year), I make mistakes every single day... and lots of them! Yet one of the things you'll often hear me say is "Tomorrow I will be a better teacher".
Each day you walk into your classroom you are opening up yourself to the possibility of learning something new. In the past two years of teaching, I have grown as a teacher ten fold and pushed myself beyond what I knew I was capable of as a teacher. I am constantly being a risk-taker in my classroom and it is something I hope I instil in my students as well. In my classroom, it is okay to fail and make mistakes providing you take away valuable learning from it and apply it to future experiences.
My first year of teaching I taught Grade 1 in a PYP candidate school in Beijing, which was also my first international placement. I had a wonderful Head of Primary who encouraged me to try new things in my classroom and see how they went. Sometimes they worked, other times they didn't - but always I took away valuable insight that could be directly put back into my daily practice. Knowing that I had that freedom and support really pushed me to not be afraid of the unknown in my classroom.
This past year, I was lucky enough to work at a school in Singapore that has grown very dear to my heart. Though some might think that moving to Singapore would be an easy transition, I found the learning curve steep, especially with the high expectations I often placed on myself. I was jumping up to Year 5 (Grade 4) with a 1-to-1 laptop programme in my class in a fully accredited PYP school. Coming from a school in Beijing with limited access to technology, my school in Singapore provided me with unlimited possibilities. Again, I was supported by individuals who knew a tremendous amount about the world of education technology but yet still let me explore, find my own way and ask questions. I had to really try to find my feet and figure out who I wanted to be as an educator and within our school community.
Now that I am continuing in my second year at the same school and grade, I have the opportunity to improve upon what I executed last year and tweak, change, modify all of the many things I would have done differently. Not having to worry about moving and establishing myself in a new city and country, learning the curriculum, technology equipment and school culture will all me to focus more on just simply teaching and improving at a job that I am very passionate about.
It seems to be the case always that the stumbles in life are where the most meaningful learning occurs and I know this year will be nothing different. I already am excited for the possibilities that lie ahead and the new mistakes I will learn from.
This year I have decided to document some of those good days, mistakes, growth and experiences in and surrounding my classroom in the form of this blog. Reflection is one of the best methods I find for improving my own teaching practice and hope this documented form of reflection will help me continue to better myself for the betterment of my students. I hope you will learn with me through this blog, share your own thoughts and 'tomorrow be a better teacher'.