Monday, June 23, 2014

Lessons Learned from a Summer Workshop

Last week I attended a three day summer professional development workshop series hosted by the state. The theme was supposed to be Common Core State Standards, but I don't think I actually learned much new information about CCSS. In fact, I don't think I learned much that I didn't already know, but a big part of learning, I've always felt, is reinforcement of known concepts, and there was certainly plenty of that. I even reinforced some ideas that I probably wasn't supposed to be getting. But arguably the most important part of the series for me was that it helped to transition by brain from third grade mode to high school English mode, which needed to happen sooner or later.

First, when separated into content and age groups (so I was with more high school English teachers), I was pleasantly surprised to find myself among like-minded people, and that doesn't happen often. One of the first tasks we were given was to separate into three subgroups and rank a handful of classroom activities by how many Speaking and Listening standards they met. The slips of paper were passed out, and I was given small-group discussion (yay!), Socratic circles (eee!), and popcorn reading (oh...). Immediately I ordered them, 1 - Socratic circles, 2 - small group discussion, 3 - popcorn reading. Then I remembered that I actually had a task, and it was to order based on standards, not preconceived biases. Fine. But when I matched the standards to the activities, I found that they actually remained in this order. And when I combined my given activities with the others from my subgroup, they agreed with my judgement, keeping popcorn reading at the bottom. And when compared with the other subgroups, I found that they had all placed popcorn reading at the bottom, as well! Woah. No one had thought that popcorn reading was a useful or effective classroom activity. I was prepared to keep quiet  my dissenting opinion, shying away from hostility, unable to convince anyone because their minds were made up and unwilling to change because that's how it typically goes. I don't want to fight, and the majority of people will not listen to any reasoning that doesn't agree with their own opinions. But I didn't have to convince anyone. In fact, they all agreed unanimously with me before I even had a chance to defend my position!

And in fact, it was a common theme throughout the three days that students should be taught to listen respectfully to arguments contrary to their own beliefs for the sake of argument, finding flaws in their own reasoning or someone else's, calmly realizing when their reasoning isn't sound, justifying their ideas, and peacefully convincing others.

And did I mention the Socratic circles? Nary a presentation went by without Socratic something-or-other being mentioned. We even held a practice Socratic circle in one of the classes, just so that the presenter could be sure that we had experienced it and knew how beneficial an activity it was to students. Because she wanted us to know that the learning students do together in this manner is much more authentic than anything one could teach while standing in front of the classroom.


Maybe I've finally found where I'm meant to be. Aaah, the feelings of satisfaction and gratification, they wash over me.

(For what it's worth, I felt this way when I began to get into Montessori, but it all drained out of me the moment I stepped into the training center. This experience has been the opposite--I went with trepidation, assuming that these teachers were just the same as all the other public school teachers I'd met, but was then surprised to find the opposite.)

Why? What could have caused this? Is this how English teachers have been all along? I wouldn't know, since my education was primarily Elementary, and elementary teachers certainly didn't behave this way, giving students so much credit and acknowledgement. Or is it because of Common Core? Is this the way of thinking that one automatically adopts when forced to study these new standards? In adopting CCSS, did we actually convince teachers to teach students how to learn rather than memorize facts?

If this is the fault of CCSS, I've just decided that I love it even more than I did previously.

If this is how English teachers have always been... well, I'm glad I'm finally home.

Moving right along.

Another common theme that was frequently discussed during the seminar was something called Essential Question, a relatively new concept for me. There's a book that nearly all the presenters had and kept referencing. I may read it and explore it further, but briefly, from what I gathered last week, units of study, thematic units, are now based on a broad question that can be connected to many areas of life and are able to be deeply contemplated. Such questions could be, "What is a hero?" or "Who is responsible for public health?" Things that keep students thinking throughout the unit, changing their minds when presented with new information, and possibly ending up with an entirely different answer at the end than they began with. Essential questions can be designed to be used with one class or a whole school, though either way would be interesting to experience. If multiple teachers were on board, they could all bring something new to the discussion, making it that much more broad and deep, but that's not to say that a single teacher wouldn't be able to do a lot with it, too. More research is needed here. I put the book on my library list.

I have a lot of new references and notes, things to explore and look up, but it's all very messy at this point. There's not much I can make of it with the state that these notes are in currently, short of making another silly notes post, but those aren't actually very helpful to me, I've found. So I'll leave it as it is now, sift through slowly, explore as necessary, and report back with anything that require a full length article.

But I'll leave this particular post with the aforementioned reinforcement of a concept I wasn't supposed to be receiving.

For a little bit of context, this seminar series was held in a large, suburban high school. For the first two days, attendees were organized into small groups of 10 to 20 adults, and we moved between classrooms as a group, watching and participating in different presentations, each about an hour long. There was to be a schedule of what group went where at what time, but there wasn't proper communication, and everyone was rather confused, like a pack of new freshmen. We ate breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria and had whole group assemblies in the assembly hall. It was all so very high school.

On top of that, many teachers from my previous school were there, and I... well, though I'm almost embarrassed to admit, but I avoided them. As much as I got along with the other high school English teachers, I didn't sit with them in the cafeteria or assembly hall, either. They had their own schools to sit with, and that was fine by me. No one else from my school was in attendance, and even if they were, I wouldn't have known them well enough to sit with them, probably. So I spent these times sitting by myself, avoiding eye contact with others, choking down the sub par food that was provided, flipping through notes I had taken, reading a book I had brought along--much the way that I spent my own high school (and even college) years.

The third day was to be a work day in which attendees could work with their school and create units or lessons based on what they had learned on the previous days. I was placed in a new group with other solos.

It was fine, really, I'm not bitter about anything, but for whatever reason, I just wasn't feeling it. It happens. We all have off days, and this was one of them for me. I'm not sure if I brought it on myself by having preconceived notions of not getting much out of this particular day or by deciding that I didn't like the way this particular activity was being carried out. I may have, or it may have been a coincidence. Whatever the reason, I wasn't much help to my group, nor did I have much to add in conversations. And I feel like that's not usually who I am. I would typically have had much to add to professional development conversations. One of the rules I tend to live by is, you get out of anything as much as you want to get out of it. I spent much of my school years trying to determine how the information I was presented with applied to my life directly, trying to pry everything I could from teachers and professors, taking ample notes, deciding what information was most pertinent to me, diving deep into concepts, exploring until the topic was exhausted but revisiting when I could apply the information in a new way. I took learning into my own hands and was regarded as a good student. But it doesn't matter what type of student I am or was, because everyone has off days, days where what's happening in the classroom just isn't beneficial to them. And this was that day for me.

I spent the morning quietly, trying to get by saying as little as possible without seeming completely awkward. We separated into subgroups, and mine had an alpha. Usually I feel comfortable in a leadership role, but today, since an alpha was already present, I felt more comfortable sitting back and letting her take over. I did as little work as possible, writing notes to myself as to seem busy.

At lunch, I ate quickly, then headed outside through a side door, not feeling brave enough to avoid eye contact with teachers from my old school any longer. I found a tree to sit down in the shade of and rested there for a long while, enjoying the solitude. Eventually I lay in the grass, using my book as a pillow. Sunlight flickered through the leaves, shining a kaleidoscopic pattern across my face, the summer breeze blew soft music through the blades of grass by my head, and all was peaceful. Time to resume was drawing near, but I couldn't find the motivation to go back inside. This is what my students feel like, my brain told me. I nibbled a patch of sweet grass, feeling young. Time came and passed, and I remained, my skin breathing in the warm air. I examined the empty windows of the school, writing poems idly in my mind, matching words and listening to them flow attractively. It is getting a little hot, I mused to myself. If I go back inside now, I wouldn't have to go straight back to class right away. I could just wander about the school a little until I felt ready. I hesitated, realizing. That's probably exactly what my students tell themselves, too.

I did go back in then, exploring the empty halls until I satisfied. I found my classroom an hour past time, my "classmates" still working away on the project they had been at before we left, though I was still unable to concentrate on what I was "supposed to" be working on. My brain had a new concept to play with, or rather an old concept to revisit.

Hadn't I decided long ago that if someone chooses not to participate, that's alright? There's no way to force him to learn, and forcing him to do an assignment just makes him frustrated. It's not the end of the world, and it's much more respectful to leave him to sit quietly, as long as he's not disturbing others. A cursory glance through the articles I've written tells me that I never actually wrote about it, though maybe I overlooked it. I remember the exact moment I first had this thought, watching a teacher fight in vein with a child, back when I was a para. Somehow in my first year of teaching, this memory must have left me. I was in survival mode the whole year, after all. Nowhere to go but up. Surely I can learn from my mistakes, and I vow now to give my students space when they need it, recognizing when they're having trouble connecting to an assignment and allowing them time to decompress when necessary.

So, ultimately, it was a beneficial third day, though the lesson I learned wasn't quite the expected one.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Work Period and the Menu System

My greatest accomplishment during my year teaching third grade was a system I developed and used for one quarter, a little over three months. Initially, it started as a contemplation of how I would run the ideal classroom if given the chance. Months after writing that linked article, those thoughts were still swimming around my head, begging for a chance to be let out. Well, no better time than the present, I decided. I worked at a private school, where it was more feasible to try something potentially radical than at a public school, so why not?

I started brainstorming how to make it possible. I rearranged our schedule, providing a two-hour work period in the morning, an hour shy of a traditional Montessori work period, but that's what I could give. (Click images to view the full screen.)

Then I wrote up new rules specifically for this work period:

1. You must work quietly enough not to disturb others.
2. If you are being disturbed, let that person know politely. If someone tells you that you are disturbing them, simply apologize and change the distracting behavior.
3. If you need help, ask someone around you.
4. You may work together with any number of peers, as long as you are on task.
5. Log everything in your Daily Schedule Keeping Notebook.
6. When you are finished with a workbook page, check your answers with your peers. If the answers don't match, find out why. Defend and justify your answer if you think it is correct, but listen politely to the other person. See if you can find a flaw in their reasoning.
7. Workbook pages must have 5 signatures of peers that agree with your reasoning.

And in January, we began.

The system itself is broken up into three main parts: the weekly menus of assignments, daily schedule keeping, and conferencing.

I started out with default menus--everything that we had been doing together in class. It looked a little something like this:

Math lessons, a story and fluency practice from our silly basal reader, grammar and spelling book pages, science (switched out with social studies every other week), daily reflection, and silent reading--everything that the students were used to doing, nothing new. We had spent five months doing these same sorts of assignments, the only difference was that now they had the option of when to do the assignments, in what order, and whom with. I passed out the menus every Monday, and it was expected that all assignments would be completed by Friday. I had some students that completed everything in class and others that needed to take some things home for homework. I let them know that either was acceptable, as long as everything got accomplished.

Meanwhile, I held small lessons (a schedule of which was posted on the board on Mondays), and the students were free to attend if they so wished. They could also skip it and just read the textbook.

My intention was to get the students used to the menu for a couple of weeks, then work with them during conferencing to tailor an individual menu for the following week based on their needs. This part never got off the ground, unfortunately, for a number of reasons. It was such a new idea for the students that they, having never experienced it before, didn't quite know what to do with it. When asked what individual projects they'd like to work on, they were at a loss. I came up with a few ideas, age-appropriate anatomy books to study for those who said their parents wanted them to become doctors, animal encyclopedias to flip through for those interested in animals, and art projects for those interested in art, all of which were accepted and at least attempted, but they rarely came up with ideas of their own accord. This being my first time with the system, too, I didn't have as many resources as I found I needed. On top of that, it was time consuming, and I was frequently strapped for time and stressed. So, for the most part, we just stuck with the default menus the whole quarter long.

The second part of the system is the daily schedule keeping. I had the students start a new spiral notebook, in which they were to record everything done during work period. Two examples:

Along with the date (which should either be at the top of the page, for those that started a new page each day, or beside the first assignment of the day, for those that filled up a page with multiple days), assignment (which should include page numbers or other identifying remarks), and time spent, I also asked students to record who they worked with and a short comment about the difficulty, mostly as a small, frequent exercise in reflective thinking.

Finally, the last component, daily and weekly conferencing.

At first, I tried to gamify it. My husband, a computer programmer and even bigger gamer than I am, had been trying to get me to add gamification features to my class since before I even signed the contract, and hearing about my system, took it upon himself to design a program, which we called Class Quest, to go with it. Unfortunately, he got busy with work and the program never got completed, but basically, it rewarded students for the work they did during the day (taking into consideration both effort and completion, of course). His designs differed in some ways to what I wanted, but here are a couple of concept designs I created for it:

Students' names in columns, their individual "experience points" below. When clicked privately on the teacher's computer, a pop-up would appear allowing for points and comments to be entered. Beside each student's name, a big "Contribute!" button that they could go to the front of the classroom and press on the SmartBoard, adding their exp to the class total and filling a large progress bar at the top of the screen. Under the progress bar, Current Total Experience and Points Needed to Next Level, clearly visible.

And when the progress bar filled completely, Level Up! A notice would appear signifying what achievement, or reward, was unlocked.

But since the program wasn't finished by January, I made the interface manually, black marker on poster board. I added the individual exp on sticky notes next to each student's name, wrote the class total exp, and marked it out with correction fluid to fill in the updated total on Fridays. I tried to give a rough estimation of filling in the progress bar accurately, but it soon became too much work and remained ignored, for the most part. Unfortunately, I never got a picture of the whole thing.

Daily conferencing went something like this: during the final hour of the day, I called students to my desk individually, and they would bring their Daily Schedule Keeping notebook and anything they had worked on, such as workbooks or journals. They told me about their work, and experience points were awarded for each item. I wanted desperately for the points to seem as automatic as possible, not at all arbitrary or up to my discretion, but that's a difficult impression to create, especially not having a finished-looking product like what Class Quest to support me. Each assignment, entry, or homework was worth 10 exp. Well, that was the idea, anyway. I had a difficult time, personally, allowing points to be distributed freely, as I was still trying to determine what my role was.

Reading and fluency practice were easy enough assignments, and I felt like I could trust that students had done them appropriately. When those were written down, they automatically counted for points. Science and social studies journals, reflection journals, and story analyses were all graded at the end of the week, so I took the stance that effort on those counted for experience points while accuracy counted for grades. They counted for automatic points, as well.

Workbooks, on the other hand, were a different matter. Where the science and social studies textbooks could be read for the information needed to answer the questions at the end of the lesson, our math and grammar curricula weren't designed that way. They were meant to be completed only after having been through the lesson with an instructor who was following the teacher's manual. The grammar workbook had a small blurb of minimal instructions to be followed on each page, but not really enough information for a third grader to understand the point that was trying to be made with the given practice. The math workbook had no explanation whatsoever to aid in solution of the problems. They were not meant for my Menu system.

I could have made math and grammar lessons mandatory. I could have video recorded them for individuals or small groups to watch at their leisure, a la the flipped classroom. But I didn't. My desire for the system to inherently work made me blind to this flaw, and I maintained that students who wanted to do assignments properly would eventually learn to come to the lesson. I had failed to consider the human nature, the inclination towards easy mode. My students did the best they could on their assignments with the knowledge that they had and could easily gather, though that often meant guessing. But they were intelligent guessers. They considered problems they had encountered previously and attempted to solve new problems likewise. Unfortunately, math (and grammar, too, to some extent, considering that the majority of my class was bilingual, if not ESOL) is a broad subject involving many skills that third graders just haven't had exposure to. And how were they to get that exposure if not from coming to lessons, since no textbook of information was available to read? I had tried to plan for the option of using other students' knowledge as a resource by requiring signatures of agreement on workbook pages, but even that wasn't enough. Their requests for signatures rarely crossed gender boundaries, and strong-willed students were often able to convince weaker-willed or unsure students of incorrect answers. Proper resources just weren't made available.

Thus, I felt the need to check workbooks for accuracy. I deducted experience points for missed question, scolding that if the child is confused, it should be taken as evidence that they need to come to the lessons. I knew subconsciously at the time that I was going about it in the wrong way, and it's especially difficult in retrospect. Guilt is definitely not an emotion a teacher should inspire in her children.

Daily conferencing was the most stressful time of the day, but refusing to acknowledge the aforementioned was only partially to blame. That hour always felt like a race against the clock. I never felt like I had enough time to spend with each student, even though there were only 14. Four-ish minutes to devote to an individual, allow them to express honest feelings about the material they're learning, assess how they're doing, and giving points that may or may not be arbitrarily distributed? We often ran late for dismissal. But what was I to do? My husband recommended splitting the class in half, only conferencing with each student every other day. I suppose it was worth a chance, but I was skeptical and never got around to trying it.

Weekly conferencing wasn't much better. Because I didn't have the program to rely on, we had to find another work-around--I turned on the SmartBoard on Fridays and opened a calculator, allowing the students to see the numbers as they were added. I stayed silent during this process, but there were always a couple of students standing behind me watching. Therefore, when someone sitting at their desk inquired whose points were currently being added, there was readily someone to supply the answer. I had mixed feelings about the connotations implied in knowing how many experience points each classmate had earned, but it would have been apparent on my version of Class Quest, too. Somehow I must have overlooked that. My indecision was my decision, and I never asked those students to sit down.

Not to mention how doing all the work with the calculator myself removed the feeling of contribution from the whole ordeal. That's not how it was intended. If they got the feeling that they were contributing to some sort of cause, I'm sure it must have been latent.

But it was always very exciting when we earned enough experience points to level up. After a moment of cheering came the question of what achievement had been unlocked. Again, because the program wasn't completed, that left me to verbally announce the reward. Class Quest would have declared the achievement automatically, in a seemingly unambiguous manner. In truth, I would have set the awards and exp needed for the next level personally, so it wouldn't have been any different, but just the fact that I had to announce them myself probably seemed at least a little suspicious to some. Weekly conferencing days were frustrating ones.

In true game fashion, I had planned for the initial levels to be easily attainable and give small rewards, but become more difficult to achieve, giving better payout as time went on. Apparently I didn't convey this sufficiently, because there were constant complaints that the levels took too long to reach and that the achievements weren't desirable. I don't recall all of the rewards they unlocked, though the first was Extra Recess Time. I thought that surely this would be a nice reward, but apparently not everyone felt the same. Towards the end of February, when a riot nearly broke out at the concept of unlocking a Healthy Food Party, I decided to suspend the Level system. For the remainder of the quarter, we continued daily conferencing as before, though no experience points were awarded. (For the record, everyone enjoyed the Healthy Food Party, as they had enjoyed the other unlockables. It was as though they dismissed the concepts outright, assuming that they weren't good enough before even considering them as viable options.)

There was an easy fix for this problem, to be fair. My husband's concept of Class Quest was much more in depth than what I designed. It was incredibly detailed, based off of Star Trek Online, a game he was playing frequently at the time, and it ran more on currencies than experience points and leveling up. (I guess my personal gaming history of mostly RPGs made conceptualizing game design limited to RPG qualities, when perhaps the model of a strategy game like STO is more suited to the classroom.) There were currency points for class work, as in my design, but also points for behavior, attitude, attendance, and so forth, and it offered multiple unlockables simultaneously, each requiring a different amount of the various currencies. The idea was for the class to work together to decide which reward to attempt to unlock, though each student would still be able to contribute their points as they saw fit. Juggling all of the different currencies would definitely have been too much for me to handle in my first play through of this class game, considering how much I struggled with only one point system, but having the rewards known before they were unlocked would have benefit my students. If there's only one take away to be had from this experience in gamification, it's this: students do not appreciate hidden or surprise achievements. (Though honestly, I guess I knew that, having attended a couple of gamification panels at PAX that I guess I didn't think enough of to write about or even remember when it mattered. Now that I'm thinking about it, they also told me that requirements for unlocking achievements need to be known, as well. Must remember for future reference!) However, my husband just recently discovered a website similar to his design of Class Quest that takes his ideas even farther and even incorporates some aspects of table top role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, turning the instructor into a Dungeon Master. How neat! I'll definitely have to explore it more and see if it's something I can use next year with my high schoolers. It's name is even similar to what we had thought up--Class Craft. Anyway...

Now for the most difficult part to relay.

At the end of March, third quarter report cards were released, and many of my students' grades had fallen. It was to be expected. This was a brand new experience for these students. They had never been exposed to anything but a traditional classroom setting with a traditional teacher who held their hands and all but spoon-fed them answers. Alright, that may be a bit of a biased exaggeration, but honestly, it was a new, experimental system, and I was asking the students to learn in a way they weren't accustomed to. It's understandable that they should take some time to adapt. It didn't mean that they weren't learning. What's more, I assumed that they were learning more valuable lessons than that which basic curricula could teach, like taking responsibility for one's own learning, prioritizing, self-pacing, pride in doing one's work, and contributing to a community. However, I must not have articulated this well enough, either.

One parent, whose daughter had been a straight A student, was so upset, she came in to speak with the principal, wanting removing the menu system altogether. And when I sat down with them, I somehow could convince neither of them of the benefits of the system. I failed as an effective communicator. I was required to teach whole class for the remainder of the year.

The worst part, I think, is that the project was ended abruptly, exactly in the middle, which the worst possible time. My students had just begun to see the results of their actions. They were just beginning to see that their actions had direct consequences. I had intended to teach my students that if they want to learn, they are able to take it upon themselves to do so. I intended to teach them perseverance over time and the value of learning new skills, including thinking in new, unfamiliar ways. Instead, I fear that the only thing they've learned is that if something proves difficult, if you complain to the right people, they can get you out of it. That's definitely not the skill I wanted to get across, and I'm incredibly saddened by it. I guess it's just another way that the world works, and I have no doubt that they will grow up to use that information to their advantage as adults. This could be even worse to consider, but what can you do? It's the world doing what the world does, and it's just unfortunate that I got caught up in it and wasn't persuasive enough to change it. Maybe the lessons that I, myself, learned in the process will make a difference to another batch of students.

So I bit my tongue and did as I was told, because it was the only thing I could do. Most of the remainder of the school year was taken up with standardized testing, anyway. And if it's any consolation, when I had to tell parents during parent-teacher conferences that the program had to be canceled, a number of them were genuinely saddened. They saw the benefit in an innovative system, and it was frustrating to them that there was nothing they could do either.