Monday, December 21, 2015

12 Steps to #GeniusHour

From HaikuDeck

Over the last year at #Cantiague we have made a concerted effort to meaningfully integrate the Genius Hour experience throughout our building. We were looking for a way to continue to amplify student voice and act on their input and feedback. As Genius Hour slowly trickled into the classrooms at the beginning of last year, the feedback was incredibly positive and the children wanted more of it. They were excited, passionate and they were owning their learning. 

The other thing that happened as a result of the genius hour movement at #Cantiague was that the children were no longer just learning to please their teachers; instead, they were learning because it mattered to them and they were passionate about the subject matter!

From Edutopia

With that in mind, our amazing second grade team decided to refine the process last year to better meet the needs of the children and be more "faithful" to the Genius Hour experience. Nancy, Carly, Adam and Carolyn are the guest authors of this post that offers 12 steps to implementing the #GeniusHour experience in any school and any grade level!

Genius Hour Experience (#Cantiague Second Grade Style)

Last year, we launched our Genius Hour experience in second grade.  After the first “go around” we reflected on our experience.  We realized what we loved, but also what we wanted to make better.  This year is off to a great start!  Here is what Genius Hour looks like in our room the second time around...  

1.  We started our first session by discussing our passions.  We gave each child a piece of paper with 2 dots. We asked them to draw something from those two dots that they love.  Students wrote the topic of their drawing/idea on an index card. Each student filed the index card in their Genius Hour index card box.  Some topics included beaches, nature, American Girl Dolls, hockey etc.

2. In our next session, we gave each child a piece of paper with a squiggly line and challenged them to turn that line into something they love or feel passionate about, completely different from the last session.  Students drew cars, Pandas, Hawaii, diamonds etc. Just like the last session, students wrote this new topic on a different colored index card and filed it in their Genius Hour box.

3. In the next session, we revisited their drawings and cards. We asked them to make a decision about which topic they would like to stick with for this round of Genius Hour.  They spent some time thinking and deciding. Students selected the card they chose to further research.  We collected this card.

4. In the next session, we gave back their topic index cards and asked students to brainstorm what he/she already knows about this topic, in the “K” section of KWL.  They had to really think about everything they knew and jot it down. 

5. Next session, we asked students to generate questions he/she has on their topic of choice. It was a great lesson to show students that we may still have questions on things we already love. They wrote down everything they are curious about or want to know more about! We also explained that “good” questions are not yes or no question; it needs to be something that you can find lots of information on. 

6. After that, each child needed to reflect on all their questions and pick the 5 they wanted to take through the process of researching.  We spent a lot of time focusing on the kinds of questions they should ask.

7. In our next session, students wrote down their five questions (one on each index cards) and teachers stapled their topic card on top, followed by the five index cards into a booklet. Students filed this booklet into their Genius Hour box.

8. Before the next Genius Hour, we sent a note home to each family with their child’s topic and asked parents to help us prepare students by sending in materials that their children can use for researching. We also encouraged the kids to check out books for the library on their topic. We asked for things like books, magazines, websites, articles, apps, or anything else that would help his/her child learn more on this passion topic.

9. After that, the kids were ready to start their research in class.  Students were provided with several sessions to find answers to their questions.  Some students realized that the materials they brought in were either very helpful or not helpful at all for the questions he/she have on their topic. Students were given opportunities to look for other materials in school or at home before the next Genius Hour session.  At this point, most students have completed their research and are ready for the next step! 

10. Future sessions: From there, we will give children the opportunity to pick how they would like to present their information and findings.  Last year, we had students make books, scrap books, dioramas, posters, video presentations, PowerPoints, Sock Puppet, and Show Me presentations.  This year, we have so many more ideas on ways for the students to present.  QR codes, Google Slides, new Apps, coding, and so many other cool ways to present findings.  We tell the kids…..The Sky is the Limit!

11. Finally, we will allow time for each child to share their passion project with the class.  This is such a wonderful opportunity for the students to build confidence and feel proud of all their hard work.  We can’t wait to see how it all turns out this year! Stay tuned on Twitter to see the final presentations! 

12. Have fun... Genius Hour is another way to amplify student voice and empower our learners to take ownership of their learning by incorporating their passions and interests as described in the following graphic...

From TeachThought

So, are you ready for the Genius Hour experience? If so, try the steps above and share any feedback with us on how we can enhance or refine the experience!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

11 Things Paul Taught Me About School

Today Paul turns 11 years old! That's right... it has been exactly 11 years since that first time I met him and held him in my arms! He changed my world in an instant - Paul defined unconditional love for me and taught me what it feels like to be willing to give your life for someone else. It is hard to believe that this funny, opinionated and brave young man once fit into the palm of my hand. But, here he is, in middle school. He has his own passions and interests, his own circle of friends and his own strong set of beliefs... he thinks a meal isn't complete if there isn't a dipping sauce or something fried, he thinks Justin Bieber is overrated and he thinks the less sleep, the better. 

The list can go on and on about his likes and dislikes but the thing that stands out the most to me is his opinion about school. I think the word HATE might be too strong but let's just say that he is not the biggest fan. Paul has been making an argument for 2 months of school and 10 months off for the last couple of years; he is the kid who dreads Sunday nights because Monday means school; he is the kid who counts down the days to the next break; he is the kid who remembers nothing about his school day except for what he ate at lunch and what he did in gym; he is the kid who only looks forward to school because it's a chance to socialize with all of his friends; and of course, he is the kid who would like to do away with HW! Does his disdain for school upset me a little bit? Yes because I love being an educator and am inspired each day at Cantiague by our kids, staff and families! But, do I understand why he dislikes school? Yes. Did I view school in the same way at his age? YES! Do I wish I could change things for Paul, when it comes to his school experience? Yes! Ugh... school is a touchy subject in our home!

Fortunately, when I push past the negativity, I realize that Paul loves a lot of things about school (even if he doesn't admit it) and that over the years, Paul has given me tremendous insight into school, teaching and learning. In fact, Paul has taught me a LOT about school. 

So, in honor of Paul's 11th birthday, here are 11 things I have learned about school from my most epic son...

1) Kids want to know what the point is of the work they are doing in school. They need to be able to answer the following questions as it relates to their learning... What are you learning? Why are you learning it? (Thank you Joe for sharing these questions with me). Learning and teaching shouldn't be shrouded in mystery! We need to be explicit and clear with our kids. Paul will often say... "Dad, I am not sure what the point of school is!"

2) Whatever is being taught in school should matter to kids and help empower them with some type of knowledge that will contribute positively to their lives. Knowledge is power but only if our kids understand the value of said knowledge. Paul is developing a whole skill set outside of school that he sees as more valuable than what he is learning school - that has to change!

3) Something changes around 3rd grade... and the change isn't necessarily good. Paul said school was fun up until that point but then something changed and school became more about busy work and "getting through the curriculum" (his words). Learning and fun used to be synonymous but by fourth grade they became two separate and not necessarily equal things within school!

4) Kids want to feel loved, valued, safe and respected within the context of their schools and that comes as a result of investing time in healthy and positive relationships. The teachers who Paul qualifies as his "favorites" are the ones who took the time to get to know him as a person... not just as a learner! 

5) Our kids come to school with a lot of knowledge, experiences and abilities - let's access those and give our children opportunities to be lead learners in school each and every day. Our kids are not empty vessels to be filled with information... they are forever evolving, growing and learning - let's capitalize on that reality. Paul always talks about the experiences in school when he got to share his passions and interests with classmates because his teachers saw them as valuable. 

6) Kids need time to socialize in school because they learn a lot through these interactions. Paul often talks about conversations he had with friends and what he took away from these exchanges. He also shared how much he loves sitting in groups because if he doesn't understand something, he can ask a classmate. Socialization isn't only about discussing the latest Minecraft update but it's also an opportunity to learn from peers. So, no more desks and rows - let kids sit together so they can learn.

7) Kids, even in MS and HS, love lunch and even some recess! Our children need unstructured time to talk, laugh, play, decompress and have fun! Paul may not recall much from his school day but he can always give me a play by play of lunch and recess. So, NO MORE silent lunches! NO MORE taking away recess as a consequence (unless something happened at recess)! Let kids talk (maybe even loudly) and have fun!  

8) Sometimes just using technology in place of a worksheet is totally fine because the device itself makes the activity more fun. Yes, we want meaningful technology integration (check out the SAMR model if you must) that pushes our children to further develop 21st century skills but sometimes, the device in itself is enough. Paul raves about the school days where he has access to technology, even if it is not in the most meaningful way.

9) Worksheets with "fill in the blanks" or an infinite number of math problems are not fun and are generally not necessary. Our children can show us their understandings in so many other ways and often times, all worksheets do is decontextualize the learning and reduce it to mindless guessing. Our kids deserve better - let's push them to access their critical thinking skills with less worksheets and more open ended activities. Granted, sometimes Paul prefers a worksheet because they are easy and don't challenge him to think but that is not ok - our kids deserve more!

10) Opportunities to innovate, create and pursue passions within school need to be the norm, not the exception. We have to build the curriculum around these ways of thinking - not try and force them into the curriculum we have so carefully planned in advance. We need to give our students (and teachers) the space to collaboratively solve problems and create their ideal learning environment - these are at the core of a space that values and appreciates innovation (thank you George for helping me develop my innovator's mindset). 

11) HW stinks... it is that simple and it is the one thing I have heard consistently from Paul. HW is meaningless, useless, and doesn't necessarily help our kids learn anything better. In fact HW takes up time when our kids just want to unwind after school, spend time with family and friends and pursue their personal passions!

Of course, Paul has taught me a lot more about life over the last 11 years but these are the lessons about school that stood out. These lessons are the ones that guide my daily work as an educator and often inspire me to create an amazing space for kids here at Cantiague. I share this list in the hopes that other educators will join me on this journey where student voice is heard and changing the narrative of public education is the goal! 

Will you join me?  

Monday, December 7, 2015

Let It Go

Gradual Release of Responsibility For Learning...

One of the things that I have been reflecting on over the last couple of weeks as I have been doing formal classroom observations at Cantiague is this notion of the gradual release of responsibility for learning from teacher to student. This is the method that the reading and writing workshop models are built upon where the teacher slowly relinquishes control of the learning from her/himself to the students. Although we focus heavily on this philosophy when talking about literacy instruction it is clear to me that it is an instructional model that could apply to any and all content areas... math, social studies, science, engineering, etc. From my perspective, this approach to instruction validates the importance of the teaching while keeping the emphasis on the learning... both student and teacher learning.  

What does it look like?

Here are a couple of graphics that helped me visualize and better understand what that might look like in a classroom...

From Xenia Public Schools

Modeling To Start...

At the core, the philosophy is based on this idea that the teacher possess some level of expertise and thus begins the lesson with modeling or direct instruction. The lesson generally comes as a result of data that has been collected in previous lessons or a unit that has been planned with outcomes carefully considered. This is where the expert (usually the teacher but even a student can teach the lesson) models for the novice.... it mirrors an apprenticeship. This portion of the model should be short and direct - really no more than 10 to 15 minutes. Mantra for this portion... "I, the teacher, shows you, the students."

Guiding The Learners... 

The learning experience then shifts to guided practice where the children begin to explore the concept that was just taught by the teacher but the teacher now does the work with the students. This could be done independently or in partnerships or even small groups. Typically the guided practice portion of the model unfolds with the teacher in close proximity so they can monitor student progress. Proximity really matters throughout instruction so keeping the children close together allows for constant informal assessment and data collection. So, for example the children might stay on the rug for this portion of the lesson. This portion of the model should be no more than 10 minutes - it's a quick guided practice. Mantra for this portion... "I, the teacher, and you, the students, do this together. "

Empowering The Learners... 

The final component to this instructional model involves the students doing the work independently so the teacher can assess whether or not the strategy or skill or concept has been mastered and which students need more scaffolding, support or are ready for the next step. This is a prime opportunity for the teacher to either pull a small group or conduct 1:1 conferences to informally assess the progress of the group and begin planning for future instruction. This portion of the model could be anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the content, routines and independence of the children. Solidifying routines during this portion of the model will help maximize the teacher's time so they can have contact with as many children as possible and support the children's journey towards independence. Mantra for this portion..."You, the student, do the work while I, the teacher, assess and support."

Let It Go... 

I share this overview as a reminder for how any and all instructional periods could look from reading workshop to genius hour because our goal should always be to move towards student independence and always keep the focus on the learning! In the end, it behooves us to LET IT GO and empower our students to own their learning!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Is Our Culture?

A Faculty Discussion...

We recently had a transformational afternoon at #Cantiague thanks to an important conversation during our Faculty Enhancement Opportunity (it's our term for a Faculty Meeting because no one wants to go to a meeting... but that is a whole other post) about our school culture. Although we have had many discussions about our collective vision for the school, conversations about the things we stand for as non-negotiables and talks about the things we believe in philosophically, we have never directly reflected on the culture of our school. What is our culture? What makes Cantiague, Cantiague? What feelings and emotions are evoked when thinking about Cantiague? These, and many more, were the questions that helped frame our discussion about culture.  

What is Culture?

From my perspective, culture is rarely a tangible "thing" but it is made up of those things you feel... sometimes things you see, hear and can even touch but ultimately, culture is about feelings and emotions. You get a sense of a school's culture from the parking lot and the exterior of the building - a dimly lit exterior versus a brightly lit exterior tells you something about culture. You get an even better sense of a school's culture from the way you are greeted by the Main Office team - a warm smile and greeting versus no one looking up to acknowledge your presence tells you a lot about the culture. And your understanding of the school's culture is solidified after you spend about 30 minutes with the principal - someone who has positive, healthy and compassionate relationships with all members of the community versus someone who doesn't leave the office and complains about the staff tells you a whole LOT about the culture of a school. 

"A school’s culture can be defined as the traditions, beliefs,
policies, and norms within a school that can be shaped,
enhanced, and maintained through the school’s principal and

teacher-leaders." (Short & Greer, 1997). Although I do agree that traditions, beliefs and norms impact a school's culture, we have to be careful about not letting traditions, beliefs and norms become code for... "This is the way we have always done things..." and an excuse for not embracing innovation and evolution as part of a school's culture. I see culture as a living thing that is constantly evolving and going through iterations - not in a rapid way but over time, the culture of a building can be changed, can be nurtured, can evolve - for better or worse. 

Culture is not a fixed thing or entity. I think if culture had a mindset it would be a growth mindset or innovator's mindset. I think culture is result of the feelings and emotions that are experienced within a school and we know those evolve over time based on what is going on within a school community. Unless they don't change. And then, they won't evolve. In that case, the culture of a school will be fixed. Culture will be so entrenched in tradition that there will be no change. Culture will be stagnant. I would argue that in that case, culture would also be negative. 

The culture of school can look quite different depending on the school but the one common denominator in every school that always impacts the culture, in positive or negative ways, is the principal. 

School Culture: Perpetuated by the Principal

Yes, a school's culture evokes emotions and feelings in people within and outside of the organization and it is my belief that the principal has the biggest impact on a school's culture. The principal doesn't necessarily single-handily create the school's culture but that one person has the greatest impact on the way a school's culture feels. Yes, the actions of many make up the culture of a school (students, staff and families) but the tone and leadership style of one (the principal) will dramatically impact (positively or negatively) the trajectory of the school's culture. A horrible manager will perpetuate a negative culture. A confident, informed and compassionate instructional leader will perpetuate a positive culture. Either way, the principal directly impacts the culture of a school.

So Now What?

Regardless of how you define culture or whether or not you agree with my belief that the building principal has the greatest impact on culture, the fact remains that a school's culture is something we must be aware of and must attend to for the sake of our entire community. We must know how people feel and what they think when they are in our schools. We must know how our kids feel. We must know how our teachers feel. We must know how our families feel. We must know how members of the community feel because those feelings and emotions will tell us a LOT about our school's culture.  

That was my starting point recently during our F.E.O. (Faculty Enhancement Opportunity) at Cantiague. I thought I had a pretty good handle on our school's culture but then it occurred to me that we had never discussed it as a team - how do the rest of the adults in our building define the culture of our school? So, I posed the question to our staff and asked them to work in groups of 2 to 4 to define our school's culture in 3 words or less. They were then asked to work collaboratively in a Google Slides presentation to share their words and this was intentional because a group of 4th graders taught our staff how to use Google Slides at an F.E.O. earlier in the month and I wanted to reinforce the resource. 

This is what our #Cantiague staff came up with...  

So, now I challenge each of you to go back to your schools and ask the question... What is Our Culture?