Sunday, March 19, 2017

Talkin' Bout My Numeration

"The power in the Number Talks comes from inspiring each child to think and make sense of the mathematics they are presented. They are never trying to figure out what the teacher wants. Rather they are totally engaged in their own sense making process."
- Kathy Richardson

This year in math, we have started each day with a number talk. I first learned about number talks last year when I was taking a Stanford online course about building mathematical mindsets with Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck. At their core, number talks are 10-15 minute experiences where students are presented with a math prompt and have to work out various solutions using only mental math. The teacher acts as a facilitator, never agreeing or disagreeing with any answers. 

To do number talks successfully, there are some norms we established. When a student has a solution to the problem, they place a thumb on their chest. If they have more than one answer, they put up additional fingers. This is done rather than raising hands so other students who take a little more time to answer don't feel overwhelmed when they see lots of hands in the air.

We also have signals for agreeing and disagreeing. If students agree with each other, they give the "hang ten/surfer dude" signal. This provides affirmation to the student who answered and shows we are a community of learners. On the other hand, if a student disagrees with an answer, they raise their hand. They are welcome to disagree at any point, as long as they do so respectfully and support their disagreement. 

In addition to the norms, we also have a variety of "frameworks" we use for number talks.

1. Which One Doesn't Belong: These are mostly based on the examples from wodb.ca. In this format, students are presented with four images. They may be numbers, objects, shapes, or anything else. Of the four, they need to decide which one does not belong and support their answers.

In the example to the right, students could say the bottom left doesn't belong because it has no numbers, the top right doesn't belong because it has no individual minute lines, or the bottom right is the outlier because it is not in the one o'clock range.

We did this particular one in the ninth day of school. One student who had not been participating in number talks regularly put his thumb up. When I called on him, he said, "The top left one doesn't belong because it is an acute angle and the rest are bigger." We had never touched on angles yet in the year, and it's a fifth grade standard. It floored me to see a usually disengaged child come up with a more advanced term. The other thing I like about WODB is that there are no right answers. As long as students can support their case, it's a valid thought.


2. Balance the Scale: In this scenario, I draw a rudimentary seesaw on the board. On one side, I put a box with a number in it and two empty boxes on the other side. If you can't see where this is going, students have to balance the scale by putting things in the empty boxes to equal the value of the filled box. As we progress, I add more filled boxes on the right and empty ones on the left to increase the level of challenge.

I tell the students they can use any operation and whole numbers, decimals, or fractions (even though we haven't started operations with decimals or fractions.) Students took risks and tried adding and subtracting decimals and fractions. Some were accurate, others were inaccurate but were caught by peers, and others were incorrect but no one (aside from me) caught it. However, it is important to me not to correct them because the number talk is not about being right or wrong.

3. I Notice/I Wonder: I don't have any picture of this particular one, but we did a number of them during our graphing unit. When using these with graphs, I would take two days to do each one. On the first day, I would show the students a graph, but axis labels, scale, and title would be covered. To the right, there was a T-Chart with "I Notice" and "I Wonder." Their Notices were things that they observed and Wonders were questions they had. On the first day, they usually Noticed things such as the varying bar heights, the labels were missing, and the trends. They Wondered about the labels and why different trends were happening. Many made predictions for what it could be.

On the second day, I fully uncovered the graph. Inevitably, nearly all of their Wonders from the prior day became Notices. I didn't show them this until we were all done, however. They noticed even more and then were able to articulate stronger Wonders now that they had all the information.

4. Addition/Subtraction Strategies: Apparently I dropped the ball on taking pictures of this style, too. I also need a better name for it. More or less, I project an addition or subtraction problem on the board. Students solve it using a variety of strategies, including the traditional algorithm, expanding into each place value, and rounding to different values and adding/subtracting back in at the end.

This is done all in their heads as I write what they said. I like it because it helps them to develop mental math and strong computation. I am excited to try it with multiplication and division and will start those soon.

5. Mystery Number: This one is by far the favorite one for students and me. I give the students clues for numbers one at a time. For example, it may start with "I am a six digit number." Students then generate a few options for this clue. We reveal the next clue ("My tenths and my tens are the same digit".) We go back to the original guesses and eliminate any options that no longer work. In the beginning, students only were thinking whole numbers so usually they would all be eliminated. They've since learned.

I keep revealing more clues until the final clue is revealed. Each time, we will eliminate or carry over old guesses. At the end, sometimes I have prompted them into one correct answer, but often I leave it to multiple numbers would work.

This one really grows their brain, especially when they have six clues to use. They'll catch themselves before anyone can disagree, by saying something like "Oh wait, my tenths isn't the same as my tens. Change them both to a 3."

Another framework I want to try is "Would You Rather." I just saw this idea on Twitter the other day. It was something along the lines of "Would you rather take your little brother Trick-or-Treating for a flat $75 payment or $1 for every four houses." Students would then craft arguments based on their choice.

The number talk doesn't always have to explicitly connect to the lessons for the week. It's more about getting their minds into a mathematical mindset and developing strong number sense. It can be used to review old skills, reinforce current, or pre-assess upcoming topics. The students enjoy them and it's incredible to see the connections they make.

How could you use a number talk with your grade level? How could this concept be adapted to other subject areas?

Friday, February 10, 2017

Choose Your Own Adventure: Active Engagement Edition

"Life is either a great adventure or nothing."
-Helen Keller

One of my favorite genres to read as a student was a Choose Your Own Adventure book. In these books, you read a page and follow the directions at the bottom. Maybe you would have to choose to eject from a falling aircraft or chance a crash landing or perhaps you could shoot a laser beam at the alien or try to run away from it. Either way, I usually ended up dead, kind of like my experiences playing Oregon Trail. Luckily, you could always start over.

As I became a teacher, I found out you could do similar tasks with Google Forms and Slides, either through "Go to Page Based on Response" or linking to different slides, respectively. However, my issue with that was the same I had with the books: It's a passive experience. While the reader needed to make a choice, there was little active engagement beyond that.

Bringing it into 2017

While I was out being treated for cancer with chemotherapy, I wrote to my students every day. After a few weeks of this, both the students and I needed a change from back and forth conversation. I thought back to my obsession with Choose Your Own Adventures as a fourth grader and wanted to mimic this, but with more of an active role.

I realized I could use Slides, but give them the story piece-by-piece each day. This way, they were making a choice and also engaging with the story beyond a mouse click. Before they would get the next part of their story, they would need to make a choice AND defend it. This helped build argumentative skills and persuasive writing elements. The "Master Deck" of The Winter Expedition can be found here.

The students didn't disappoint. They crafted strong arguments for why they chose to pick up the ice pick instead of the flashlight (my favorite being, "With an ice pick, I can break things and breaking things is kind of my thing") or why they thought going towards a mysterious odor was better than a growling ("I could just cover up my nose to block the smell, but the growling might be a bear." Plot twist - the odor was a monster. Sorry, kid.)

While I was struggling to get 2-3 sentences in response to "How is your day?" I would get two paragraphs solidifying their choices. It definitely helped improved their writing skills, especially their skills of persuasion.

The final slide asked them for their feedback on the experience. Of my 28 students, about 25 of them preferred this activity to their normal writing to me, with many of them saying they enjoyed being put into the story and having to make a choice. Some even mentioned how they enjoyed having to defend their pathway.

I realize as a classroom teacher, it might seem overwhelming to have to paste in new parts of a story each day, but it could easily be done during part of a planning period, during lunch, or in the evening. In total, once it was set up, it only took about half an hour to read each response and paste in the next section. I'll trade half an hour a day for more active engagement in writing.

So how do you do this with your class?

I've developed this Doc for planning it all and this Slides template for designing each slide. (Clicking on those links will give you a force copy of each document.) Both templates have directions on what to do. I recommend starting with the Doc and then transferring to the Slides; that's how I laid it all out.

Once you are done with the "Master Slides," make a copy and delete all but the starting few slides. That's what your students will start with and you'll add to it from there. Attach this new Slidedeck onto Google Classroom as "Make a Copy for Each Student" so they each get their own deck to work on.

I also made this screen cast to explain it all, since I wasn't sure if the written directions were enough.

One student already started on making his own
versions on Google Docs
Try it out, tweak it, do whatever you see fit. The students will enjoy it and I will be challenging mine to develop their own CYOA stories to send to partners. If you have questions, feel free to reach out via Twitter, email, or the comments below.

Now it's your turn to make a choice:

Do you share this article through Twitter to your online PLN or email to a colleague in your school? Why did you make that choice?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Small Group Collaboration in Google Classroom Made Easy


Google Classroom has come a long way since it was first released. In my first year of teaching, I used Edmodo, but I was one of my district's early adopters of Classroom the following year when it debuted. In my opinion, Classroom has been superior to Edmodo in every way except for one.

I couldn't assign to individual students or small groups, which was one feature that I extremely enjoyed about Edmodo. If I wanted my students collaborating in a small group on Classroom, I would have to post an assignment with one Doc for each group and project a list of who was in what group. The whole class would have edit access to each group's Doc, which led to some problems (and also lessons on digital citizenship).

We've all been there; 25+ fourth graders on on shared Doc is just asking for trouble. Asking students to share Docs to each other is manageable in some cases when the usernames make sense, but some districts use a string of letters and numbers for each kid. Simply put, small group collaboration wasn't the easiest or most intuitive thing to do natively through Google Classroom.

That all changes today.

As part of a onslaught of features released in a new GSuite update, teachers can now assign assignments to individual students. This makes individualizing work much easier, but I began thinking. It's being touted as a differentiation method, but I see power in it as a collaboration tool. Could this be the solution to my "small group collaboration" struggles?

If you're good at reading blog titles, you already know the answer.

After tinkering around with the new "Assign to Individual Students" feature, I found that you could assign one Doc (or Sheet or Slides or whatever) to a group of students (let's call them Ben, Brett, John, and Josh) and set that file to "Students can edit." Ben, Brett, John, and Josh can now collaborate on that Doc, without anyone else being able to access their work. Ryan can't get on accidentally (or purposefully) to delete or modify their work, nor does Ryan even know it's been assigned to the gentlemen. Each student only sees their own work, and doesn't explicitly know who else got the same assignment, unless they are collaborating together.

The instructional implications of this are boundless. My students often write scripts for mini-skits together, and now each group can have their own meeting place. Do your students do collaborative research? They can work together without other groups disrupting them. Co-authoring a short story would be a breeze, and would making a presentation with a small group. Making collaborative math Slides would be as easy as pressing Assign. Think about how you want students collaborating in small groups - this can be a powerful tool to make that happen.

Below I've included a video tutorial of how to do this and also written out directions.

Video Directions:


Written Directions:
  1. Make a new Assignment in Google Classroom, just like you would for any other assignment. Title it, write a description, add a due date, etc. 
  2. Attach a Drive file (Doc/Sheets/Slides/etc).
  3. Just above the title, choose the drop down menu that says "All Students." Uncheck "All Students." Select the students you want to receive this file. 
  4. Change file permissions to "Students can edit."
  5. Press Assign. Your work here is done. Allow the students to take charge. 
How can you see this being used in your classroom?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

I Have Cancer: Telling My Students

After being out for so long, I was
happy to see I made the "Did You Know"
board!
I hadn’t seen my students in nearly two weeks and I wanted to get out of the house. I also knew I had to come clean to them about my surgery.

As I arrived to school, I met briefly with Brian and the school counselor, Laura. I asked them to both join me for morning meeting as I shared the news and to look over the letter I was planning to send to parents. They both said they could be there and that the letter looked good.

The students began trickling in at normal time. I was greeted with hugs and smiles. Carson, whose mother works in the building, was first. He came in to drop off his stuff and saw me. A second later, he ran out of the room to get the other “teacher kids.” When Sophia walked in, her face lit up and she rushed over to me. Many were surprised to see me with a cane, but this surprise would pale in comparison to what was to come.

The late bell rang and the video announcements rolled. Knowing that the transition would not be easy, I started in on morning meeting. I rattled off the normal, mundane things - expressing how happy I was to see them again, thankfully they earned good sub reports, and detailed the daily schedule. I shared that I would be a little slower in my movement but the cane was helpful. Brian and Laura walked in and took a seat. It was go time.

“So I wanted to tell you more about my surgery. The whole reason I had to have surgery is because I have cancer.” Somehow, being on the other side of those words didn’t make it any easier.

Instant tears from some. Bewildered looks from others. Awkward glances from most. I continued.

“The important thing for you to know is that this is curable. I will need chemotherapy, which is a form of medicine that will kill all the cancer. I need to do this so I get better. I don’t know how long I will be out, but you will be taken care of. Mr. Fitzgerald, Mrs. Hoover, the fourth grade team, and all your old teachers will support you. You have each other. I know it is not easy to hear that your teacher has cancer. I want to answer any questions you have.”

Hands shot up. Was I in pain right now? Yes, from my surgery, but not from cancer. How did I know something was wrong? I felt something wrong on my body and went to the doctor. How long will you be out? I don’t know. Will the chemo hurt? It might, but I can handle it. Would my hair fall out? It might, and that would make me sad, but I would survive. (Later, a student came up to stay that if I lost my hair, he would shave his. He has a buzz cut already, but the sentiment was cute.)

Laura reading The Can in Cancer
Many students already had experience with cancer from grandparents and other family members. In most cases, as with my own grandfather, cancer got the best of them. I reassured them that it most likely wouldn’t happen to me. They had their stories; I had mine. Blending stories and the straightforward facts seemed to be the best way to handle this.

A somber silence hung over the class. I gave them a moment to process.

“Right now some of you are angry. Maybe you’re sad or shocked or confused. You might be blocking it out. All of those are ok. When I found out, I went through all of those emotions. I want you to know that I am here for you. If you have questions today, ask. If they come to you tonight, have your parents message me whenever. I will answer questions you have whenever I can.”

A hand went up, “Where is your cancer?”

Crap. I wasn’t prepared for that. “It was in one part of my body and has spread to others.”

“Yeah, but where did it start?”

Brian stepped in to save me. “Some part of this cancer Mr. B wants to keep private. Your parents will be getting more information and can discuss further details with you.”

There were no more questions at that moment. I realized it was a good point to stop and try to transition to Virginia Studies. Operative word being try. We were starting a new unit about Jamestown, Halfheartedly, the students began on a Jamestown HyperDoc. I couldn’t blame them. Who can focus on the reasons for settlement when they just heard that news? After giving it an honest effort, it was time to take them to gym.

After gym class, we happened to have guidance. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Laura had planned to do a lesson on cyberbullying, but switched it to discussing more about cancer. She had brought a book called The Can in Cancer, which was a cute story about a boy who went through cancer. It helped the kids relate, and she then took the students to do something secret for me. (The next day, I’d find out that they had created inspirational posters to cover our classroom walls.)

"Can In Cancer" posters
The physical teaching of the day was ok. I had to teach from a chair for part of the day, which is not my usual style. The kids quickly became attuned to my pain attack face and would rush to grab me a chair. They wanted to help me stand up and bring me things. It’s really cute and awe-inspiring to see how students will look beyond themselves to help others in need.

To put it simply, I knew telling them would suck for both them and me, but I always preach honesty and openness to them. I couldn’t be a hypocrite. Although my students were filled with emotion that day, I was more or less devoid of it. Was I masking it? Maybe for their benefit. Had I still not fully processed this momentous thing had been thrust upon me? Most likely. Despite my uncertainty in my feelings, it was the right thing to do. Paired with my budding desire to become an advocate for under-discussed men’s health issues, I knew I had an opportunity to model open medical discussions for my students.
Maybe none of them would be touched by cancer beyond me, but at least they would have a good example for how to deal with trying times.

In early November 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage IIb Nonseminoma cancer, a form of testicular cancer that has spread to my lymph nodes. I had surgery to remove the original tumor, but it had already spread. Soon, I’ll be undergoing chemotherapy to eradicate the cancer. I am documenting my journey from discovery to being cancer-free on aballsysenseoftumor.com. I invite you to join me as I process and move through this. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Is Homework Really the Devil?

"I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework." 
-Lily Tomlin

For better or for worse, homework seems to be a highly polarizing issue in education. People seem to think it's either inherently horrible or it's an absolutely necessary element of school, regardless of actual value. Many arguments on Twitter quickly devolve into "Homework is bad and if you assign it, you're a bad teacher!" or "I had homework when I grew up and it taught me responsibility!"

Students demonstrating understanding of
prior night's video.
Yes, we all have heard the studies that "prove" homework is horrible and has little to no effect on achievement nor does it effectively teach responsibility. By and large, a lot of homework is meaningless, developmentally inappropriate, and just perpetuated for the mere sake of "it's part of school." But what if we stopped being so black and white about it and started analyzing how homework can be best leveraged for learning?

We interviewed Connie Hamilton and Starr Sackstein on the EduRoadTrip to discuss their new book Hacking Homework: 10 Strategies That Inspire Learning Outside the Classroom. (As an aside here, I contributed to the book. I'd recommend picking up a copy - page 107 alone is worth it!) The custom of the EduRoadTrip is to ask guests for a bumper sticker - a memorable takeaway from their episode.

Starr spoke up and said, "We're not anti-homework. We're anti-stupid homework."

Homework must be relevant and meaningful. In my classroom, I do assign some homework in reading, math, and reviewing history. I always give a digital and physical choice for each. I keep it to a minimum and allow the students some choice in what they do. 

The value of reading outside of school
Image Source: blog.maketaketeach.com/ 
In reading, the students must read at least 25 minutes a night. This could include reading a good book, visiting ReadTheory.org, or having a parent read aloud to them. I absolutely insist that students are reading every night. Reading will make a difference in life. If students walk out of my classroom not being able to recall who won the battle of Yorktown or how to multiply by hand, there is Google and calculators, respectively. However, if they can't read, they can't use those resources.

What I don't do is force a reading log. I don't understand the value of reading logs.  The main argument is it's "proof" that the students read. It's really just proof that students can write down numbers and parents can initial (or as I often did in my middle and high school years, students can forge their parents' initials.) How about just asking students what they read the prior evening? A rich discussion outweighs a log that gets thrown away.

In math, we do a flipped classroom. Each night, students watch a video to frontload them with the information they are expected to master, according to the state. I create the videos with my iPad and ExplainEverything, so I can tailor it to my students' interests and my teaching strategies. The key benefit to this flipped classroom is that the student can self-individualize. Watch the video once and you got it? Great. Need to watch it three times? That's great too. Viewed it 10 times and still want to keep at it? More power to you, but we can work on it in class more.

Practicing learning how to take notes for a
flipped video
If a student can't or doesn't view a video at home, I give the student a choice; watch it during class or do it at home the next evening. Either one is fine by me, but inevitably students choose to double up and do it at home. Why? They say they rather work in class on stations and they can focus better at home. 

For history, my students have a variety of methods to review: classic study guides, online Jeopardy, or Quizlet flashcards. I use the study to teach study tips because like it or not, studying will be a part of their life later on. I noticed numerous students saying they could "never study the whole study guide" in an evening so I took some time to lead some mini lessons on chunking it down, self-monitoring, and having someone else to check their understanding. 

What you'll notice is there are no worksheets being sent home to be completed. If a student doesn't understand it in school, why would they understand at home? If a student gets it in school, why should they waste time at home practicing what they know?

I want to make homework purposeful, engaging, and in smaller amounts than the norm. I'm a big fan of students using their time at home to be kids with their families (which doesn't include little Johnny sitting playing Call of Duty in the family room while Mom updates her Facebook in the office.) I want families to spend time together, and it's even better if that involves learning together, as I shared in my earlier post Forming Family Foundations. I also know that students these days are incredibly busy, with sports, music, Scouts, and other extracurricular activities. If students spend 7 hours in school, another 2-3 at sports, an hour or two for traveling and eating, when do they get to just have unstructured play time?

I do not have children of my own, so I can't approach this from a father point of view, and I know my outlook will change if I do have children. The fact of the matter is they are kids (yes, even high schoolers) and we need to give them time to be kids at home. It's also important to note that this is what has worked in my classroom and I have modified it to be responsive to family needs along the way. Homework will look vastly different for everyone.

So next time someone starts ranting about homework, engage them in discussion. Shift the conversation from demonizing homework to discussing how the homework experience can be improved. It's not a black and white issue, and it won't be going away. It's not enough to simply not assign homework in your own class.

We can do better by our kids, so how will you make an impact on a larger community?

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Teachers Don't Have All The Answers

Author’s Note: This post is cross-posted on Justin Birckbichler’s and Mari Venturino’s blogs.

The mantra of Breakout EDU is “It’s time for something different.” Breakout EDU is an immersive game-based platform that adapts the escape room concepts of problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration into an educational format. Players have to solve riddles to unlock a locked box. As we have shared in this post from Ditch That Textbook blog, we are thrilled to have the chance to live this motto as the Breakout EDU Digital team (in which we adapt the mechanics of Breakout EDU into a digital format). As we have evolved, iterated, and learned from that initial article, two situations have been brought to our attention time and time again. In this post and a follow up, we will examine these points and provide our response to them.

image source
With a Breakout EDU game using the box, setup instructions are provided. It gives the lock combinations, printable materials, and the paths the students follow to solve the riddles. You need these in order to facilitate the game. With the Breakout EDU Digital games, none of this is provided - everything is ready to go as soon as you enter the game.


Multiple times a week, we receive emails, tweets, Facebook messages, and other assorted communication from teachers asking for an answer key to the Digital games. When we receive these messages, we provide additional prompts and hints, but refuse to provide answer keys.


Why do we do this? Is it because we are evil and want you to suffer? Absolutely not - this is our contribution to the Breakout EDU mantra. For the bulk of the history of education, teachers have been viewed as the keepers of knowledge or the sage on the stage. In our opinion, this has gone on far too long. With the advent of the digital age, students have access to limitless amounts of information. Our roles as teachers need to change.


The “hidden curriculum” of soft skills is just as critical as the content we are mandated to teach. Words like rigor, growth mindset, resilience, and productive struggle thrown around as skills that students need to be successful in life, yet how often do we model this for our students? By not having access to an answer key, you are provided with a perfect opportunity to experience what a student feels when they first encounter a tough trigonometry problem. You're faced with a choice - put in effort to stretch your abilities to their fullest extent and grow your brain or email us for an answer (which is akin to flipping to the back of the textbook for the key.) Which would you prefer your students to do? Why do we not hold ourselves to that same standard?


You don't have to struggle alone - share your plight with your students. Challenge them to help you complete the puzzles. Students see things differently than adults; something that has stumped us for hours takes a matter of seconds for them. Imagine their moment of glorious success. They solved something their teacher couldn't.


But it's deeper than that. You were vulnerable with them. You shared your struggle. You modeled resiliency and a refuse to give up. You showed them that it's ok to ask for help; that it's ok to admit you don't always have all the answers. This is a bond that can't be forged by playing a video about famous figure who overcame adversity to reach success. They'll be more likely to let down their guard and ask you for help - and you'll understand their feelings even better.


By now you're thinking that this is easy for us to say - we have all the answers to the games. However, we've played other's games and been through this productive struggle.


And it's not just us who feel this way. For every few requests for answers, there’s one praising this dedication to doing something differently. We'll close with our favorite, which comes from Dr. Donovan DeBoer, superintendent of Parker School District in South Dakota:


One of my “mantras” has always been:  “The one that does the doing, does the learning.”  So when I was ever so close to our first teacher in-service days, and [Breakout EDU Digital] was one of the items I wanted to show my staff, I was very torn when I sent that dreaded, “I need help email.”  However, in true educator fashion, [Justin and Mari] did not oblige my begging of “cheats” to complete the task.  Instead, I was sent a very subtle hint and encouragement to complete the task.  

It was a great lesson for me as a leader of young people, and adults. It helped solidify my belief that if you want to learn, you have to do. 
Dr. DeBoer's faculty and students

It also proved to me how important collaboration is for our students.  I needed help, I didn’t necessarily want the answers, but I needed another brain (or 32). As I introduced the activity to my staff, I was short one lock code.  In the essence of time, we worked in groups on the digital breakout “Stranded on the Island.”  As time passed I witnessed adults, veteran teachers, cheer with excitement when they found a new clue, or figured out a code, and hide their answers to allow for others to feel the same thing when they found things on their own.   

Few more hours went by, in-service over, but I was still plugging away. I had to complete this thing.  That’s when the magic happened - one of my football coaches sent me a text. He had solicited a friend from hours away, that started working on it as well, and we finally cracked the mystery lock.   

The power of collaboration is real.  Shared suffering in the task, and then the jubilation we share in the accomplishment.  Two heads are better than one, and three better than two. Students need that time together, to share, to bounce ideas off one another, to enjoy the struggle together.   

More importantly, we have to have the patience to let learners learn.  They need to make mistakes, they need to learn from them, they need to talk it out with other people to learn the other side of communication not talked about “listening” to one another.  Then the “magic,” can happen.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Going Fourth Into a New Adventure

"Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty."
-Jacob Bronowski


Just as I like to close each year with a reflection, I like to begin each year with goal setting. These posts are more for me to get my goals out on paper and to hold me accountable to a larger audience. So, if you’re reading this, check in with me on Twitter or email and ask me how I’m doing.

In addition to starting my fourth new school year, I am also starting at a new school in a new district (still in fourth grade!) Over the summer, I left my old district for a variety of reasons and joined my new one. After two weeks of teacher days, I am even more confident that I made the right choice. Stafford County Public Schools embraces the 4C skills (while also adding Citizenship and Wellness for a C5W framework,) promotes innovation, and supports a holistic and realistic view of teaching beyond testing. I got a chance to meet my new class during Open House this past week and I’m thrilled to spend the next year prepping my Agents of SHIELD for their future.


Without further ado, here are my goals for 2016-17:


  1. Student-led learning - Last year, my primary goal was to develop a student-led classroom, based on Learn Like a PIRATE by Paul Solarz. On the whole, it was a success, but I might have started too strong too fast. It did force the students to step up and take ownership of their learning at an accelerated rate, but more scaffolding may have been necessary. At the end of the year, I worked more purposely with groups and students worked independently with each other. I want to refine this so we hit the group running and keep up with it. I have a very different population of students this year and I already know they will do a fantastic job with it.
  2. 20Time - As I shared in a prior post, I have been constantly tweaking and adjusting Genius Hour in my classroom. This year, I want to do a major pivot. I want to have the students focus on one problem and develop a solution. I have completed reading The 20Time Project by Kevin Brookhouser and want to scale his ideas to elementary. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure exactly what this will look like. My schedule has larger chunks of time in it that will allow for uninterrupted time, but I do not know when it will be. Will it be a set day or will it be fluid? I want to start with the Bad Idea Factory and then move into brainstorming from there. I want to empower my students to be change agents from an early age.
  3. Instruction/Assessment Practices - I want to explore more purposeful usage of flipped classroom. Last year, I flipped my classroom for math and saw dramatic gains in students’ academic growth. (Side note - I really need to write a reflection post on my flipped classroom experiences.) I want to continue this, but it may look different. Some students may do the in class flip depending on their access and home, but I want to use the information I gather from observing flipping in a more intentional way. In general, I want to use small groups in both reading and math more purposefully. After three years of doing small group, I am finally coming to terms that I don’t need to meet with every differentiated group the same amount of time. I can meet with some groups more than others; as long as I am meeting each student’s individual needs. To further this, I want to refine my assessment practices. I am currently reading The Truth About Testing by James Popham and it has an interesting idea on pre/post testing. I am still trying to wrap my head around it, but I think it will allow me to be more purposeful in my instruction and quantifying growth.
  4. Growth Mindset - Although this has a tendency to be a buzzword when not used correctly, I am still including it as a goal. Our staff read Mindset by Carol Dweck this summer. My principal says that “it’s not a theme; it’s a practice.” I dabbled into growth mindset last year after taking an online course through Stanford and witnessed incredible things from my students. That was only for half the year and I was amazed. This year, I am starting with growth mindset on Day 1 and will continue all year. We’ll make an anchor chart and reinforce it, but I know it will make a difference.
  5. Vlogging - This goal is more for me than within the classroom walls. I did some vlogging during my Google Innovator experience and enjoyed it. This year, I want to vlog weekly as a powerful reflection tool. I’m not entirely sure what it will look like, but my general idea is a one video per week. This would include video snippets from the day, daily reflections, and other thoughts. These would all be strung together and posted on YouTube. I started a site (vlog.justinbirckbichler.com) to post all of these, but as I said, I’m not sure what it’ll look like or anything else. It’ll be brand new and I am looking forward to it.


As you may have noticed, I am not looking to redefine or implement a lot of new things this year. I think you can be good at many things or great at a few things. If I had to choose one word to define this next year, it would be REFINE. I want to refine my teaching and provide the best for my students. As the year goes on, I’m sure I’ll discover new ideas and I’ll add those in, but these five goals will be my guiding light for the year. I’m looking forward to a brand new fresh start and cannot wait to see what my students achieve this year.