“Where’s your teacher?” On the floor with her students!

Teaching both High School and Elementary in the same day opens your eyes to a lot of things. Teaching in your own room and teaching in a room you share with others opens your eyes even more.

My classrooms have always had more of a home-like vibe to them. There are comfy armchairs, couches, pillows and different types of tables. There is a choice for every student. Students quickly figure out what works best for them and become comfortable where they are. The classroom gets split into zones of learning – those working through something hands-on, those working on basic skills, those working with others, and those who just need a bit of quiet or independent space to work. It is a busy place but everyone finds their place.

I personally don’t have a desk. I hated my desk in my office and got rid of it to replace it with a large table and a couch so I can move based on my needs. I also generally end up in walking around the school with my phone or iPad (or sometimes my computer) to find a space that works for me at that time. What this means is my kids and I often end up sitting on the floor, on the couch or sometimes walking around the hall together when I have an EA to supervise the rest of the happenings in the class.

When I had my own homeroom/learning community, my students had slippers they could put on in case they didn’t want to wear shoes. They had blankets they could wrap up in to keep them warm and focused. Sometimes they would sit under tables or on tables (against the wall) to give them a place to focus that suited their needs. I simply met them where they were.

This year my high school kids moved into a room with desks because we needed more space with almost 30 of us. That feeling of comfort and choice is gone. I no longer feel like I have the same connection with them because I am always standing next to their desks.

My elementary kids no longer have any cozy furniture either because my classroom is being shared with another class and we were borrowing our furniture from another teacher. We still have zones in our classroom but we no longer have the same vibe. The learning is more formal. I miss it and they do too. Time to get back at least a little bit of comfort in the room.

The Un-Classroom – Leaving the Formal Setting Behind

Recently I had a chance to really reflect on my  physical classroom and the learning that happens in my classroom. Everything I like about how things are run in the classroom are the things that aren’t “mine” or aren’t a “classroom”. This will likely be the last time this blog post that I refer to it as “my classroom”

The class itself is a group of students, each with a different story, home, journey, and path.  Each one faces a different challenge: be it academic, social, family, and/or systemic. The thing that they all have in common is that they all have the ability to learn and be successful – they just need the tools and supports to do so. For me, the most important aspect is to know that it is my job as the teacher of the room to ensure that this is possible.

When I walked into the  classroom this summer to set up, the room was very traditional and structured as a classroom. There is a whiteboard, chalkboard, SMARTboard, shelves and cupboards, a TV and VCR, a supply closet. There was a teacher’s desk and a file cabinet as well. It was a stuffy and sterile room. This was the first thing that had to go.  I have a strong belief that individual desks create barriers in learning and force students into their own spaces. My first goal was to create a warm and welcoming space that would be conducive to creating and sustaining a community of learners with ties to their community and world. Through out the year, the desks have gone along with many of the chairs and in has come various tables different sizes, shapes and heights, pillows, a couch, comfortable lounge chairs, yoga balls, wobble stools,  and a yoga mat. Each student has choice in what will open it up for what will help them learn.  I have a student desk in the corner by the SMART board for my laptop dock and document camera – though I often squish onto the couch with the students to work alongside with them if they haven’t pulled me into a learning circle they have created on the floor. The students move the furniture around to support their needs as they learn.

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A recent classroom arrangement of the students to facilitate a Socratic Circle on a new classroom schedule

That is just the physical classroom. To quote a student describing our class to our deputy superintendent, “Our class isn’t run the way a normal class is. We do things differently around here”. That is quite true. Paper helps guide the general direction of our learning but our curiosity, exploration and passions ultimately drive our learning forward.  We look for ways to makes sense of what we are learning and why we are learning it. The point is to have an educational journey that meets the individual needs of everyone. One of the things I have tried to pass on to my students is the importance of growth based on reflection, feedback from our community and refinement of skills. We share responsibility for our learning by making the learning student-centered and striving for a deeper understanding of the knowledge and skills we are learning.

Many students come to school each day and this is their safe place to be. The lives of the students reflect the impact of their reality. The students live with and through mental health challenges, poverty, social exclusion, amongst many other challenges. They may not have supportive families, positive support systems or stable living environments to give them the same opportunities as others may have but each student who comes into the classroom has made the choice to be there that day. My job is to help them gain the skills, knowledge and values that will allow them to find success and thrive in our society.

As I wrote the last paragraph, I realize how important it is to have a well rounded and focused support team in place to give these students the greatest chance at success. I am also reminded that despite the fact I am teaching grade 5, these students face increasing challenges as their reality begins to solidify around them. A formal learning environment is not what students need. Students need to see value in themselves before they can see value in their learning. That is what my goal is – to educate the whole child and give them the best support system to allow them to develop the skills and knowledge they require.

In someways, there will always be a degree of formality that is expected of myself and our class – we are in the school system after all. However, if I can minimize the formality and give students the opportunity to show their knowledge, understanding and value of what they are learning in their own way while ensuring they are physically, emotional and mentally safe and comfortable – that is my goal.

 

Plants and Wellness in the Classroom

Today my students and I started a wellness project around caring for our basic needs and the needs of others. I was inspired by the note my student left me last week about how I created an atmosphere in the class where she felt like she belonged. This weekend when I was at teacher’s convention, I attended a session by Allan Kehler about mental health in the classroom. One of the biggest things that stuck with me as I left was that sometimes we need to put the curriculum aside and take care of the (emotional) needs of our students. I remembered reading somewhere that caring for plants in the classroom was a mood booster and taught students to care for other beings.

Originally I was very sure I was going to create a research project with a proposal out of this for Language Arts and Health but as the students interacted with the plants, I realized that they needed to just have fun and learn about the plant in their own way. Really, all they needed to know was how to care for the plant or what the plant needed to survive. The reaction of the students was priceless. They were so excited about the plants, the fact they got to name the plants and take care of the plants that they didn’t even care about the fact there was a piece of paper asking them to plan out what they wanted to learn and how they were going to do this.

One of the questions that most of the groups did answer at least was what they thought taking care of a plant will do. Between talking to the students and reading their papers, each one saw a different value to the project. Here are some of what they said:

  • I think that caring for a plant will make me want to come to school to see how it is doing and care for it because maybe my partner will not be here.
  • I think that caring for a plant will make me feel good
  • I think that caring for a plant will make me want to be early to school because it might need watering and my partner might not be at school to water it.
  • I think that caring for a plant will make it grow and make more of them so we can share them.
  • I think that caring for a plant will be so fun because I like plants and I like challenges. Plants are interesting in every way and I might learn what they eat and how they keep from dying.
  • I think that caring for a plant will give us information about the different plants and their natural habitats.
  • I think that caring for a plant will help me with responsibility.
  • I think that caring for a plant will be a little bit of a challenge because it can be a little tricky to remember when it is the next time to water the plant and when the last water of the plant was. I think it will be fun to raise a plant!
  • I think that caring for a plant will be a good way to help me relax when I am feeling stressed.
  • I think that caring for a plant will make our classroom cooler!

So what exactly is this project? Students were given a choice of plants to care for for the rest of the year. Students were then asked research the needs of of the plants and reflect on how caring for a plant might make them feel. The goal of this project is that students will be able to learn about caring for the needs of others as well as recognize the importance of caring for their own needs. We will explore what our needs are in comparison to those of the plant and reflect on the process and what they have taken away from this initiative.

And of course, here are some of the pictures from our morning!

Getting to Consensus

Something I take for granted from my time that I worked at Apple was the ability to build consensus. It was in our culture to compromise and support each other as colleagues. When I look at my students, I realized that I challenge my students continuously to work together as it is an important part of the skills they develop over the year but this year I decided to stopped and looked at how I was encouraging them to build consensus in their decisions.

Last year, I didn’t give my students much of a choice but to work together. They had to come together and agree on many things but I never intentionally gave them activities to learn to make decisions together. This year, I decided to start my students off with building a number of team building activities.

To start the year, we started with out expectations of each other, ourselves and our teacher. We talked about similarities and I guided them towards an list of things that we felt were important. This then shaped our class agreement. Later in the week, I had the students in Phys Ed doing a number of cooperative games where having a leader wouldn’t necessarily be the best option. They quickly learned that if they shared the responsibility, they were more successful in their task. At the end of the I put the students into “Tribes”. They needed to come up with a tribe name and a cheer. The point of this was much more to see how they came up with their idea. It gave me a lot of insight into who lead the conversations and how they worked together. These tribes are being used for classroom management – both for classroom tasks and as a reward system. They work together to fill their jar with marbles by working hard and completing their tasks.

There will be many more activities, group work and challenges but it is awesome to see each other supporting each other in their learning and in their classroom.

Loving our students on purpose

I flipped through a book called Loving our Kids on Purpose the other day. The title drew me in because I am always interested in the idea of being intentional with our actions with kids. While I don’t have any children as my own, the premise of the book struck close to me because it is all about building a heart connection with our children and teaching them to manage the freedom they’ve been given in their life. This was important lesson I learned this year with my students. I had to build a close connection with my students and I teach them to navigate their education and responsibility given to them.

I give my students a lot of freedom in my class. I shape my teaching around their ideas, curiosities, and needs. It is not about giving them what they want however. If that were the case, they would have skipped math class, drawn with Sharpie on each other, and taken a nap. It isn’t about saying “NO”. It’s about redirecting and teaching them, while respecting the unique individuals they are. It’s about helping them learn how to manage their freedom as learners and citizens of our classroom. It requires me to be attentive to my students and seize those teachable moments when they occur. My students did not choose me as their teacher but I chose to become a teacher. I needed to make a choice to love my students the way they deserved.

Building a culture of feedback in my classroom

Feedback is an important part of learning in my classroom. We go through many feedback loops on most tasks. Feedback helps us define the spirit and culture in our classroom. We use it to guide and encourage each other throughout our learning. Peer feedback is a tool for providing suggestions and encouragement to each other on specific tasks or in specific situations. It is not that to replace Teacher feedback, comments or grades. I’ve worked hard with the students to create a culture of fearless feedback culture in our class. I believe that everyone in the room is everyone else’s mentor and support. We use our best efforts to help each other become better at what we do. When each of us contributes our best ideas and efforts, we have a culture in which everyone regularly identifies and investigates how we can all improve and how we can work collaboratively to make improvements in our learning.

I wanted to share some ways to help develop a culture of feedback in their classroom.

1. Start with an activity to find out what they know about feedback. Some questions I asked my students at the beginning of the year in a brainstorm were:

  • What is Feedback?
  • When would we use feedback?
  • Why would we use feedback?

2. Next we moved into looking at Specific vs General feedback as well as Negative vs. Positive feedback.

Specific feedback provides details on what and how a person can improve what the feedback is about. If it is about a task, it points out exactly what the feedback is about and gives detailed reasons for the feedback. It also gives suggestions on how to improve that specific task.

General feedback is often seen as the feel good fuzzies and has little reason as to why it is being given. I think of it like someone sharing candy with me.

Not all feedback has to be positive but it must be constructive. Feedback is designed to motivate and help people not confuse or discourage people.

All feedback falls on a grid of Negative (or constructive) to Positive and Specific to General. I found this chart online and my kids really liked it.

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We then tried to come up with examples of each type of feedback. Here are some samples of student feedback.

Positive Specific – I really like how you used the transition words that we learned in class like ” until” and “finally”. They helped put things in order. 

 

Constructive Specific – When talking about the characters, use their names so that people who aren’t reading the book can tell them apart. That would help your summary make more sense.

 

Positive General –  I really like how much detail you put in your summary. 

 

Negative General – You didn’t write very much.

At first my students struggled with constructive specific feedback. They were very good at the warm fuzzies but it has taken a lot of work for students to be specific. The kids aren’t familiar with the vocabulary as I never really stressed it but I think they could categorize their feedback on this grid if I gave it to them. This was mostly due to the fact I was trying not to overwhelm them as all of this was very new to them.

3. We reflected a while later on how we knew when to use feedback. The kids really struggled with this so we did an activity identifying when and how to give feedback. I gave them a bunch of situations and we realized that feedback can come in many forms. The students prefer giving feedback at specific times and they have found leaving sticky notes on the work the best way to do so as. They do not like comments in Google Docs as much so I tend to print things off for them to use sticky notes if it is typed.

If your students are struggling with this, here are some steps you could use:

  1. Ask how to best give feedback – sticky notes, a conversation, ect.
  2. Share your perspective on the work but try to understand where they may be coming from. Ask for clarification on the person’s work if needed.
  3. Thank them for sharing their work with you
  4. Follow up with them. See if they need any clarification or if they would like more feedback. (My students have to write their name on the sticky notes so that the receiver can ask for clarification)

You may want to do an activity on giving feedback such as printing off writing samples and writing specifically the criteria you are looking for on the board. This will focus the students on one specific thing to look for.

The next thing to work on is how to receive feedback. My students took things very personally at first. They struggled to realize that constructive feedback (or helpful feedback) was there to help them.  I continuously had to tell them to remember feedback is an opportunity to learn from your peers and for them to use it as a chance to improve their work. I also had to ask them to remember how it feels to give feedback and be supportive of the student who gave feedback. It can be really challenging and make the students uncomfortable to give feedback initially. In the beginning, I had the students thank the person for their feedback and reflect on how they might be able to use the feedback. Now they are more comfortable leaving and receiving feedback. I still thank all the students for participating in the giving process.

If you are doing verbal feedback remind students to be present with the person they are getting the feedback from and remember how it feels to give feedback so they should be supportive. They should still thank the person for their feedback and share how they might be able to use the feedback they received.

The biggest thing for my students was the need to realize that the person who is giving feedback was trying to help so them. I needed to teach them to assume positive intent and that if something doesn’t make sense, talk to the person and ask for clarification. This could relate to misunderstanding in the work or feedback.

The next thing I’d like to try is having the students provide with examples.

My next steps with my students will be a reflection or discussion about how they respond to feedback. My plan is to use the following prompts:

  • Am I a good Getter?
  • How do you respond to critical feedback?
  • How do you respond to positive feedback?
  • Describe an experience where you would be uncomfortable to learn something new
  • What is one thing you could do to improve on how you receive feedback?

This is not a quick process. You have to have a very positive classroom environment for this to work. You have to build trust between your students and in the process. The students are quick to accept feedback from myself as a teacher but I see that they are still a bit hesitant with student feedback. I am starting to see improvements. This process is probably one of the things that the kids struggle with talking about to others. This is partially my fault for not pushing them to be very cognizant of the process and vocabulary that goes into it.

When you take this on, make sure you are consistent and continuously engage your students in doing so. I let it go a little bit in December and I found that when we came back to it in mid January, they struggled with specifics. There was improvement last week, when we did it again. We’re going to revisit the whole process again after teacher’s convention as a refresher.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions, experiences to share or feedback for me! I always appreciate hearing about other people’s journeys in feedback.

 

 

Edit: This resource was shared with me on Twitter to help students get started with feedback and reflection. Hopefully it will help! Tips for providing Effective Feedback