Sunday, December 31, 2017

I Stepped Back

Around this time of year, EduTwitter is flooded with end of year reflections, goal setting for the next year, and #OneWord blog posts. I even did one in 2015. I contemplated writing one for this year and went back and forth on it for a few weeks. As I sit here on New Year's Eve day, I suppose this serves as an end of year reflection post.

Students working together to create a new flip video
To be quite honest, I have not done anything "new" in my classroom this year. Many of my mainstays have remained constant, but analyzed to a higher degree and implemented better. Most notably, my ability to do flexible grouping in small group instruction has improved. I regularly switch up my math groups as we enter into new units, based on informal pretests. Right before we let out for winter break, I assessed all students' reading progress through Fountas and Pinnell and will make some changes to groups as we begin 2018. I've been fine tuning my flipped classroom videos instead of just recycling old ones, in addition to having students create videos for their classmates, which was something I never got around to last year.

Technology integration continues to be a focal point of my classroom, but with one major change: I am no longer 1:1 Chromebooks. I have to share a Windows laptop cart with another teacher. At first, I hated it, but now I am learning to embrace it, though I do still hate how slow the laptops are. It forces me to be more intentional in how I am using the technology, which is always a good thing.

I've used Breakout Edu boxes and digital games, a handful of HyperDocs, and other things I love using while teaching. I continue to connect with my students on a regular basis and truly love my class and all their unique qualities. The families are very supportive this year and engage through Remind frequently. Within the walls of my classroom, things are par the course, which is totally ok with me.

A major change has occurred outside the school building in my life. If you're a regular reader of Mr. B's Blog, you may have been disappointed to see that there was only one post published this school year. Technically speaking, that wasn't even a new post; it was a holdover that I just published late. Besides not blogging about education, I've also stopped tweeting about education. In November 2017, I opened a new Twitter account for educational tweets, but really don't use that one anymore.

However, I haven't stopped writing entirely - I just write about a different subject matter now, namely men's health and testicular cancer awareness. As you probably know, I was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago, underwent chemotherapy for three months, and was cleared in remission in March 2017. I've been sharing my journey at my testicular cancer awareness blog, A Ballsy Sense of Tumor. My original Twitter account was retooled to focus on testicular cancer awareness. As always, I highly encourage you to check out both the website and the Twitter.

Is this to say I am not passionate about education anymore? No. I certainly still have very strong feelings about education and what needs to improve about it, but I'm focusing my energy on what I can do in my own classroom with my own students in my school. Those kids deserve my 100% effort while I'm there and I will give them my best. Furthermore, I needed better balance in my life. Education was my day job and my night hobby. EduTwitter was turning into an echo chamber, with platitudes and more of the same, and losing its luster with me. I needed to make a change.

There are literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of teachers who are tweeting and blogging about education. I don't feel like the community needs another voice, least of all mine. This isn't a vie for headpats or attention. I know I have some cool ideas, but writing about it and endlessly promoting it isn't necessarily how I wanted to spend my time anymore.

While there are countless educational blogs, there is a huge lack of testicular cancer awareness sites. In writing about my experiences and raising awareness, I've found a passion that does not relate to my profession (although I do have a project in the works that blends the two, so stay tuned) and I feel it has improved me as a person to have separate interests. It makes me a more well-rounded person and a real individual.

If education is your job and also your hobby, I'm not disparaging you. If it works for you, that's awesome. This is what works for me. I'm also not saying that I won't be writing or tweeting about education ever again. I still have over half a school year to go, and some ideas are swirling around that I want to try out, and may write about when the mood strikes.

So this is probably a different kind of end of year post than the norm that is being shared on Twitter today, and I am well aware of the irony that I'm writing a post about not wanting to blog about education and then tweeting it out. For now (and the foreseeable future), I've made the decision to spend my non-working hours working on my own passion project and dedicating my time and energy into doing a different form of good.

When it comes to educational blogging and social media,

I stepped back.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When a Student's Parent Dies

This post was initially written in May/June 2017. I've sat on it since then to let the student appropriately grieve, but he's agreed that sharing it may help other students or teachers experiencing the same thing. 

I walked into the office on Monday morning and gave my customary greeting to the administrative assistant.

"Good morning, Mr. B. One of your student's mother called. His father passed away this weekend. He won't be in today."

Wow. Not what I was expecting to hear. My first thoughts went immediately to how my student would handle this. He doesn't live with or see his father often, but there is no denying that this boy loves his father like nothing else. When his dad comes for a visit, I hear about it for the week leading up and the week after. I knew this would be devastating news to him, as would be for any child.

This student is one who has had displayed some challenging behavior in the beginning of the year. He came with a reputation, but I made it a goal to see him only in a positive light. Some days, he makes me want to tear my hair out, but I always know he is trying his best and we focus on that. On those days, he always shows genuine remorse for his choices and works to atone for them. He's made considerable growth, both academic and socially throughout the year.

I sent his mom a quick message on Remind, saying I was sorry to hear of their loss and that they were in my thoughts. She responded a few hours later thanking me for my message and that he would be back to school the next day. What's more, she said he spent the day studying for his upcoming end-of-year assessments. Getting him ready for those tests was the last thing on my mind.

The next morning, he slowly shuffles into the room. I wasn't sure what I was expecting. Normally, he comes in like a wrecking ball or perhaps more akin to Taz the Looney Toon. Today, he was quiet and I could tell his eyes were heavy with tears.

I decided to forgo the customary handshake and gave him a quick hug. I asked him how he was doing.

"I'm really sad."

Understatement of the century, I'm sure. I told him that today he could just take it easy. He started unpacking and began in on his morning work, which was a review sheet about capacity. It was a skill he was very confident on and it seemed to get his mind off of the news.

While the rest of my students worked on their morning work or ready their free read books, I sat with him and just let him talk when he wanted to. Asking for help on conversions with cups to quarts were interspersed with him gradually revealing more details about how he was feeling. Out of respect for his privacy and trust, I won't be sharing them here.

What I will share is that I had to step back and just listen to him as a student and a person. Yes, we had state assessments in two days, but that wasn't important. He had a lot to process and he just needed to talk about it. I am fortunate to have both of my parents still living, but lost my grandfather a few years ago. I used that to try to empathize with him, but I know it's not the same.

I broached the subject of sharing the news with the class. What did he want to do? Did he want others to know? Did he want to share? Did he want me to share? He said that he wanted to tell a few of his friends and I respected that. It wasn't my decision to make for him. The last thing I would want in that situation for a million questions and sympathetic looks from his friends. He also wanted to tell the school custodian, which is a staff member he has had a long-standing relationship with. I told him he could visit him whenever.

The school counselor, social worker, and principal came in to check on him throughout the day. The message was clear from all of them - we are here to support you.

During that day, I pretty much gave him free reign. If he wanted to work on his schoolwork, great. If he wanted to talk quietly to a friend, that was fine too. If he wanted to rest his head, I wasn't going to argue. He needed to have time to process his thoughts, but I think he also wanted a sense of normalcy in his day.

The next day, he was a little more animated, yet still somber. I was anticipating that he would be like this for a few days, or possibly for the rest of the school year. My job was to be there for him. First, his teacher has cancer, and now his father passes away. Not exactly fond memories of his fourth grade year, but I could help him by being a listening ear and not the teacher who was freaking out about the state test tomorrow.

We played a review game for the end of year history test, which involved playing cornhole. He asked if he could help me retrieve the beanbags once they were thrown. I could tell he wanted a specific job to do, so I told him I would happy to have his help. Again, he mixed in some of his thoughts and reflections while answering the review questions.

That's a big takeaway from this all. He needed time and space to talk things through and just have someone to listen to him. I had to respect that, whether it was me or a peer. The person always comes first and this was the pressing issue.

On the day he had returned to the classroom, he was signed up to write our classroom newsletter for that day. I asked him if he wanted to do it still and he said he did. When I took it from him at the end of the day to shift it to the next person, I noticed he had doodled on it and had written a small note. With his permission, I'm sharing it here:

Fast forward a few weeks later to the end of the school year. I always give out awards to every single students. Some are serious (Most Improved Reader), while others are silly (Duckface Extraordinaire). For this student, I wanted to give him "Resiliency King" for what he faced this year. I asked him if that would be ok with him, as he had still chosen not to share his father's passing with the entire class. He said that it was fine by him and I could share the news with the class. 

Our ceremony began and I got to his name. I told the story of what had happened and he interjected that he would like to speak. He got up and said, "It was a really tough time, but I want to thank my friends and Mr. B for helping me to get through it. Thank you all."

I don't cry much, but that got me on the verge of tears. It was his moment to shine and he was diverting the attention to others. I would not have expected that from him in the beginning of the year, and I am so proud of the young man he has become. 

Despite me leaving the school, he was the only student who consistently emailed me over the summer. I asked him one more time to his permission before posting this.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

My Take on Flipped Classroom

"The flipped classroom is not about the videos! It is about how you re-envision class time." 
-Jon Bergmann

I've done a flipped math classroom for the past two school years and absolutely love it. I also train other teachers on how to do it in their classrooms, and the above quote basically summarizes how I open sessions. 

The technology with a flipped classroom is easy and can be learned in literally five minutes or less. I personally use Explain Everything on my iPad to create the videos, upload them to YouTube, and have a playlist of all videos embedded on a Google Site with a Sheet detailing which videos my students are to watch. That's the extent of the technology involved, and you can easily replicate that in your classroom.

However, there's much more to it than just making videos and assigning them for students to watch at home. (You can do an in-class flip, but I've done an out of class flip and it's worked beautifully for my students. Do what you feel is best for yours.)

The Buy In

Practicing a flip in class
When talking with administrators, have a plan. Mentioning the technology is important, so they know you have given thought to the logistics, but I lead with the why. Math standards get more rigorous every year, with content added constantly. It's hard to properly introduce new material, provide time for guided and independent practice, and assess all in the timeframe of a school day. Illustrating the benefits will help the admin to accept this idea, and it's great to back it up with data.

After getting the go ahead from my administrator, I next discuss it with the parents. Ideally, I do this at a formal Back-to-School night, but the information is always available on my classroom website, too. When introducing it, I explain what's expected of students at home (explained more in "The  'Homework'" section) and the benefits to both the student and the parents. Benefits to parents include that they can be consistent with what methods are being taught in school, there's less frustration involved (saying, "Go watch your flip video" is less likely to cause a fight than "Go do your worksheet"), and it empowers the parents to have a modeled practice of how to do math. Nine times out of ten, when I have a parent who says they were "hate math," it's because they are fearful that they can't do the math their child can do. A flipped classroom also helps tremendously with communication between the teacher and the parent. The parent can tell you specifically where the student is getting stuck rather than "He doesn't understand decimals."

Be prepared for some pushback from parents and/or admin. It's something new and they may not fully grasp it. Be open and flexible. I generally ask for ongoing feedback about flipped classroom to the parents in my classroom and they seem to appreciate that. Prepare to overcome some challenges, and you may be pleasantly surprised if none occur. 

Finally, after talking with the adults involved, I lay it out to my students. This is usually the easiest step. I tell them their math homework for the year is going to be to watch YouTube. Once the cheering dies down, I add that it's math-related, which is slightly less exciting for them. However, I then shift into why it's going to be helpful for them. I play up the fact that they can learn at their own pace by rewinding certain parts, pausing, and even rewatching the whole video multiple times over. I share how I nor anyone else in the class will know if they understood it after one watch or sixteen views, which saves them some dignity if they are a student who has traditionally struggled in front of their peers for years on end. The flipside is also true - if they get it after one viewing, they don't need to rewatch it and be bored to tears. Buy-in from the students is usually the easiest to gain, especially if they know you're doing it in their best interests. 

The "Homework"

Like I said, I do an out-of-class flip. I check with parents for access to Internet and devices and I've found that they always have some access. Just in case, I do have backup plans ready (they do it in class during a math rotation or direct them to a public library).

At home, the students watch the videos. I produce all the videos myself, because I can tie it into my students' interests and the methods I'm teaching in class. My videos aren't super awesome, but they reflect my personality and teaching style that my students get in class. I keep them under 10 minutes so if a student needs to view it numerous times, I'm respecting their time. Rewatching a 20 minute video quickly turns into over an hour of work.

Sometimes, students create videos during class and then I assign them to the class for homework. I'll expand on this in a later post.  

The videos all follow a "I do, we do, you do" structure. I introduce and model the concept, and then give them another problem and ask them to pause the video. Once they've solved it, they unpause and I magically finish it out. The videos conclude with a "Bring Back to School" problem, which has no provided answer. This is what I'll be checking in the morning and help me create my groups. 

Practicing taking notes
While the students watch the video, they take notes. I don't provide outlines or fill-in-the-blanks because I want them to write down what they feel is important. The rule of thumb I tell them is if I write it on my screen, it should be on their paper. They know not to try to write down everything I say, because Mr. B talks a lot and goes off on tangents. 

We practice taking notes as a class for at least three weeks before they're doing it completely independently at home. Each week, we shift from in class practice to more at home, and I find this scaffolding really helps. 

What if a kid doesn't do his video? This is the most common question I get when doing a training session. If this happens, I ask them if they didn't do it at all or forgot to bring in their notes. If it's the latter, I ask them to bring the notes the following day. If it's the former, I give them a choice: do it during math rotations or do double tonight. Generally, most students choose to double up and it's a rare occurrence for repeat offenders.

The Instructional Shifts

When my students come into our classroom, I check their notes for the "Bring Back to School" problem. This is my first indication of their grasp of the prior night's video. However, it could be their siblings' or parents' work. I also usually have them solve a problem about the prior night's objective, either on paper, a whiteboard, or Google Form.

This helps me group the students. If a few students misunderstanding a specific element of long division, I can work with them on that rather than the spray and pray mentality of giving everyone the same instruction. I can really focus on what the students need to best address their learning.

That's the power of the flipped classroom. I rarely introduce a new concept in a whole group lesson, since the video is the whole group lesson. Instead, we're using our math time for number talks and math stations. In our 90-minute math block, we're able to do a fifteen minute number talk, and three 25-minute rounds for math stations. These stations include meeting with me, hands on work, collaboration with peers, and technology based stations. Some stations are standardized, with the ability for the student to self-adjust based on their perceived level of difficulty, while others are individualized specifically for that student.

The bottom line is that with a flipped classroom, class time is no longer used for passive learning - it's all active while they're in the classroom.

The Results

We always need to look at the validity of using new instructional methods beyond "it's cool and shiny and the kids will love it." Not much research exists on flipped classroom yet, but I have two years worth of data to support it. In both years, my students experienced large gains in their end-of-year state exams (comparing third to fourth grade), both in average score and class pass rate. My first year of flipping saw about a 20% increase in passing, while both years have seen a 30 point gain. 

While data is great for admin, it's just as important to check in with parents and students to see what they felt. I'll close with a sampling of their responses.

Parent responses:
  • Flipped videos have made a huge different to my child, he struggles with reading but is much better at math. The flipped videos allows him to do math without the struggle of reading, he can view a video for as many times as he would like. 
  • An added benefit is that I can watch the video and help him, I have realized that I actually remember more then I thought from my days in math class.
  • Taking notes is a skill that he is developing as he is watching and he is not surprised by what will asked of him the next day. The videos are short and not overwhelming and it makes it way more fun to do it on the computer.
Student responses:
  • I think it is a lot more fun instead of taking home a worksheet you get to watch and video and it makes learning easier.
  • It is fun because he includes things we like.
  • I like flip notes because you cannot use the excuse of you lost your worksheet.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Hot Off the Press: Student-Created Newsletters

"A magazine or a newspaper is a shop. Each is an experiment and represents a new focus, a new ratio between commerce and intellect."
-John Jay Chapman

Authentic experience is an important element in teaching students to become good writers. In schools, many writing prompts and assignments lack meaning to students and aren't applicable to real life.

Another problem in education is keeping parents informed of what's going on in the classroom. We design awesome learning experiences, but students may still go home saying “We did nothing today.”

This year, I killed those two birds with one stone* - a student-created newsletter.

Click to enlarge - Note the level of detail in Monday
Each day, a student writes a one page summary of our day. I start at my first student and work my way down the class list alphabetically. By the end of the year, each student produces around six daily reports. Some choose to work on it bit by bit throughout the day, while others do it all at the end of the day during read aloud.

We don't have a fancy template - just a single piece of loose leaf notebook paper. Originally, I had no maximum limit, but then one student wrote four pages - front and back. After that, I implemented the "one front of page max" policy. This helped tremendously, since it forces the students to write the most important points down without too much flowery, overly descriptive, verbose, repetitive, unnecessary, and irrelevant wordy expressions of written language. (Do you see what I did there?) Identifying main points that belong in a concise summary is one of the reading standards my students struggle with, so this is a good way to give them extra and real practice by flipping it to generating a summary.

Having them write without a rubric or outline to follow also helps me to glean what the students found most valuable and engaging in class. They may quickly detail the standard math centers, but different learning experiences might be explained in more depth. If I thought something was going to be mind-blowingly cool, and it doesn't even net a sentence in the summary, I usually examine why that is. The one direction I do give was to write as if the reader had no idea what they were reading about. If we're playing Cutthroat Cornhole in class, they need to explain what the game is so the readers know what it is.

Once I have a week's worth of daily summaries, I type them into a Google Form. I don't correct any errors or add any details. I want their parents to see exactly what they wrote, so it prompts discussions at home. I work with a student's mother and she said that their family would use other students' writing to help guide him in what he should write when it was his turn. It makes them more accountable as a writer, as it is solely reflects them.

From the Google Form, Autocrat (which I set up in the beginning of the year) generates it into an actual newsletter. I didn't have to use Autocrat, but it saved me a bunch of time instead of making a copy of a template, typing, formatting, so on and so forth. I use a three column table - a column each for the day, the summary, and the author's initials. Using a table is helpful so it resizes itself automatically.

I also had Autocrat tags on the page for the date. A newsletter spanned from Friday to Thursday, so I can type them on Friday morning and not rush to get it done at the end of the day on Friday. The footer also includes my contact information, so the parents have an immediately visible reminder of how to get ahold of me, while the header has our classroom motto ("we don't make excuses, we make changes") as a constant reminder of what we stand for in our classroom.

There's a section on the newsletter of "Important Information From Mr. B" for assessment dates (and ways to prepare), special events (such as Readers Cafe), upcoming units of study, or other exciting information. Instead of sending numerous Remind messages throughout the week, I tell the parents to look at the newsletter. This forces them to look at the newsletter and hopefully appreciate their students' hard work.

A physical copy goes home with each student and it's also posted on our classroom website under the Classroom News page. This way, parents have no excuse to not see it! In the future, I think I'll include a higher-level math task related to our current unit or a discussion prompt related to our class read aloud after the "Important Information" section (if there's extra room) to help promote discussion at home.

A student-created newsletter is easily adapted for any subject area or grade level. It'll empower your students to be mini-journalists, keep your parents in the loop, and give you an inside look at what your students feel is valuable in your classroom.

As for me, volume two of the Mr. B’s Agents of SHIELD Classroom Newsletter will be hitting the stands in September. I didn't win a Pulitzer last year, but I'm holding out for one this year!

*Author's Note: If you've ever genuinely killed two birds with one stone, you have earned all of my respect.

Friday, June 23, 2017

10 Things I Learned By Working for VIPKID

"Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going."
‒Rita Mae Brown

Cat was a word and Conner was in the room
For the past two weeks, I have been working with an online ESL company called VIPKID (pronounced V-I-P Kid rather than VipKid like I originally thought).

Basically, what I do is teach English to students in China through an online platform, similar to the Google Hangout interface complete with an interactive whiteboard system. I wasn't sure what to expect when I signed up for it, but the following are ten things I have learned. If you're excited to get started, you can skip this post and sign up here.

1. It is truly a plug-and-play experience.

After the interview process, which I'll elaborate on later, the whole experience became much easier and meaningful. All of the lessons are already developed, so there is no prep involved on your end. I use the VIPKID app to review the lessons and prior student feedback to get myself mentally prepared. The biggest prep work involves thinking about what props to use in the lesson. A full class session runs 25 minutes, which means you need to be pretty spot on with your pacing (each slideshow is about 25-30 slides long). Once class is over, I immediately leave some feedback for the parents about what their child did and my desire to see the student again, and review for the next class. In total, I'm about to get this all done before my next class begins.

2. Props do not have to break the bank.

When I was prepping for my interview process, I saw that the demo videos had a ton of props and I began to worry if it was going to be worth the money if I was spending money on props left and right. Truth be told, I have spent a grand total of $1 on props (a pig in a rocket ship that I found in the clearance section in Walmart). I have Simpsons action figures that I can use to teach about family, for clothing, for he/she/they pronouns, and many other concepts. That pig becomes my "it" pronoun, the prop for the verb "launch", and a piglet in the animal life stages lesson. Look around your house for your kids' toysvip or your classroom. I'm sure you already have tons you can use. I did buy a $15 headset/microphone combo, but iPhone headphones also work. I also made a set of alphabet flashcards on regular index cards.

Homer Simpson, father extraordinaire 
3. The lesson topics vary widely, which helps keep it interesting.

In researching the company, I thought I would just be teaching letter sounds and phonics all the time, but that's been a small part of my work. On a given day, I might be teaching about the phonics of A, B, C, D to one student, about insects to another, and about the moon landing to a third kid. It keeps it fresh to me.  This is a big difference from teaching fourth grade. Every year I teach the same content to a different group of kids, often teaching the same mini-lesson to multiple groups of students in different ways. This variety of lessons exposes me to a wide range of discussion topics, which is fun.

4. Teaching from the comfort of your own home is awesome.

My teaching "uniform" consists of a polo and pajama pants/shorts. I couldn't get away with that in a regular school, but the kids only see you from the waist up. Some people go crazy in decorating the background, but I just do it in my office in the house. It's great to have a 30 second commute from my bed to work. Everything I need is right there and I find myself getting into a flow.

5. You set your own hours.

Originally, I thought I had seen somewhere online that you were required to do a minimum of 15 classes for the company a week. However, there is no minimum. This week, I am doing about thirty classes, but next week I'm only doing six since I will be traveling for most of the week. When I get married later in July and go on our honeymoon, I just won't set the times to "Available." There is no penalty for not being available, but there are some penalties if you say you're available and then change your mind once you are booked. In my case, I am working from 6 am - 10 am everyday (China time is 12 hours ahead of me on the east coast), and plan to do 6 am to 8 am (the time I spent commuting the past two years) when the school year starts. I like that it's in the morning because it gets me up and moving so I don't waste my time sleeping. You can also do evening times, but I'm choosing not to so I have time to relax in summer.

6. The money is a good source of extra income.

Obviously, the reason people do extra jobs is to get extra money. First things first, it's not a scam or an MLM company (so you won't be stuck with a ton of extra inventory to try to sell to your friends). You're hired as an independent contractor, paid monthly, and will get a 1099 for taxes at the end of the fiscal year. The money at VIPKID is pretty nice, especially when you consider you don't have to plan, grade, communicate with administration or families, or most of the "extras" involved in classroom teaching. You can make between $7-9 per 25-minute class, along with incentives. (So if they offer you $8 per class, you'll really be making $16 an hour, before incentives.) For example, they give you an extra $1 per finished class and then an additional $1 for every class if you complete over 45 classes in a month. 45 classes in a month sounds daunting, but that's really only about 2 classes every weekday. As of the writing of this post, I have made over $300 in about two weeks, with only teaching a few classes every morning. You also get paid if a kid doesn't show up to a lesson (which is how I had the time to write this post).

7. The most challenging part is interview process, but it's doable.

The interview process is probably the most daunting experience. When I did it, I had to do an interview with a person in their Chinese call center, in which I had to teach a ten-minute lesson to a grown woman who was acting like she was five. I really hate doing that. Stick me in front of a real child and I'll show you what I can do. I then had to repeat this process two more times (with 25-minute lessons) to two more full grown people. All in all, I completed the whole process in 48 hours. Along the way, they give you feedback to help improve during the lessons and beyond. That being said, none of my classes have been as hard as the interview process was. Imagine that - real kids are easier to work with than play-acted kids. They have changed the interview process slightly since I was hired, so feel free to reach out for extra info.

You'll use lots of gestures
8. It's an immersion program, so you don't need to know Chinese.

Inevitably, when I tell someone that I'm teaching English to Chinese kids, they say, "Wow! I didn't know you knew Chinese!" Spoiler alert - I don't. VIPKID is an immersion program, so you solely speak English the whole time. One of the only requirements is that you're a native English speaker, so if you can speak English, you can do this job. Using props, pictures, repetition, and gestures help to cement the English words in their mind.

9. Teaching online is way different than teaching in real life.

Fourth graders need a lot of explicit direction, lest it turn into a Lord of the Flies situation. In my normal classroom. I give detailed instructions (unless it's a more creative project or something I want them to figure out on their own), review it, and write it up on the board. Not so much with VIPKID. You want to remove all incidental language. "I want you to circle the letter A and say the sound" becomes "Circle A," while holding your hand to your ear. You'll also use a ton of gestures (called TPR - Total Physical Response). While I'm an expressive person, it's hard to make sure I'm remembering to do this always. I try to remember that the lower level the student, the higher my TPR needs to be.

10. The Chinese kids truly want to learn and make your job easy. 

I've been very fortunate. As of this writing, I've taught about 35 students. 33 of them have been stellar, while 2 have had minor behavior incidents that were easily righted. There is a star system built into the classroom to help reward the kids and I also have a superhero sticker chart to give additional rewards. However, I find I don't need to use these as bribes. They really want to learn and always give it their all. They also show such respect and often will thank me when I give them a star. Many of them can extend beyond their lesson. In a recent lesson about insects, we had a discussion about bee stings and how they're not a fun time. Look for these little moments - they are what make it worth it. It's also really cool to learn firsthand about a different culture from the comfort of my own home.

Interested in becoming a VIPKID teacher?

So does this sound like something you'd like to do over the summer or in the mornings/evenings during the school year? I really have yet to see a major downside from working with them. The only requirements are that you are a native English speaker, hold a Bachelor's degree, and have classroom teaching experience. If you'd like to sign up, you can do so here with my referral link. If you have any further questions, feel free to email me or ask me in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

One Four the Books

"Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted."
-Vladimir Lenin*

I'm a sucker for puns. My "goals" post for my fourth year of teaching in 2016-17 was called "Going Fourth Into a New Adventure" and now I'm laying down "One Four the Books." Go ahead, you may groan. I'll wait four it. At least I had the four-sight to warn you.

Last day on top, first day on bottom
Be-four (last pun, I promise) we reflect, let's recap my goals for this year:
  • Continue with student-led learning
  • Amp up 20Time
  • Improve my instruction/assessment practices
  • Model growth mindset and help develop it in students
  • Vlog daily
My "One Word" for 2016-17 was REFINE. However, in mid-October, that word changed to CANCER

I had (and beat) cancer this year. I was out of the classroom for three months, which made many of these goals hard to meet. To be honest, I fell short on nearly all of these goals. I did not amp up 20Time. It basically was an independent research project again. I started daily vlogging, until October when my life basically fell apart. I tried to get back into it after returning to work, but never found my flow. 

Student-led learning and my instructional/assessment practices did improve, but not to the degree I wanted them to. I started strong with growth mindset and it remained a theme throughout the whole year. I would say that is the only goal I fully met that I had set for myself.

I didn't get to try too many new things either. Among the few new ideas were some new review games, continual tweaking of Choose Your Own Adventure experiences (read about first method, second iteration, and student-created versions here,) using Autocrat for communicating digital assessment results home, an emphasis on number talks, revamping Reader's Cafe, and some other ideas I never wrote about. Maybe it seems like a lot of new things, but to me, I feel like I could have tried something more.  

Am I disappointed? Maybe a little. Those were important goals to me back in September, but new opportunities arose from facing cancer (not something you'd expect to hear from a cancer survivor). I got to model resiliency, grit, and a real-life example of growth mindset. I had a perfect example of sharing vulnerability and honesty with my students. They're now prepared to realize that cancer is not always a death sentence.

It helped me build strong relationships with my students, stronger than they would have been without having time solely dedicated to writing back and forth to them every day as I went through chemo treatments. In this post on Dave Burgess's blog, I share about how I learned new things about my students and their lives. I wasn't concerned with their academic growth at that time; I wanted to get to know them deeper as young people. When I returned, I was able to keep these bonds going, but not to the depth I could do then.

My end-of-year evaluation from my principal said, "Mr. Birckbichler had a school year that would best be characterized as one he will never forget," which is certainly an understatement. I'm honestly not sure how I feel about this year. My state test score pass rates were the best I've ever had, and their growth from third to fourth grade was similar in regards to other years. Pass rates have never been important to me, but it's always worth noting that according to the state, I was proficient in my teaching. Growth has always been the metric in which I measure myself in, and I'm pleased to see that I met that goal this year. 

One thing I did much better was achieving balance between personal and professional life. Cancer taught me many lessons and chief among them was to focus on my personal life before teaching. If I'm not taking care of me, I can't take care of them. I made a conscious decision to not work on school work after school. I went in an hour earlier than normal, and once I left the building, it stayed there until morning. Occasionally, on a Sunday, I would work on lesson ideas, but only if it was something that truly inspired me.

Towards the beginning of my diagnosis, I made the decision let go of many side projects I had been working on, such as the EduRoadTrip podcast, Breakout EDU Digital, and others, to focus on my health. After finishing chemo and being found in remission, I decided to make that choice permanent. While these were fun projects and I enjoyed working on them, they took up a great deal of time - time I could better spend focusing on my personal life or my students. If it wasn't something that had a direct benefit to my classroom or to my own life, I let it go. While this may come off as a selfish statement, I think teachers (especially those on Twitter) have a huge tendency to overcommit themselves to projects that ultimately won't have a meaningful impact. These were my first steps in a concrete plan to be less busy. 

Next year, I'll be teaching fourth grade again, but at a new school. While this is two classroom changes two years in a row, it's important for me to be closer to home. My school was amazingly supportive of my medical leave and I am forever grateful for that. However, part of my goal with buying a house was to have a shorter commute, but I ended up with a longer one (curse you, I-95). My new school next year is 8 minutes from my house, and I passed it every day on my way to chemo. It seemed like a sign I needed to be there. 

I know I referenced cancer multiple times in this post, but it really defined my year and will continue to have a large impact on my life going forward. I try to keep my identity as a cancer survivor on a separate blog (A Ballsy Sense of Tumor, which I highly recommend reading and sharing with the men in your life) but for a reflection post, I couldn't ignore the elephant in the room. It had a large impact on me, and changed my outlook a great deal.

So what's the plan for year five? I have no idea as of this writing. My wedding is in less than a month, followed by a honeymoon to Hawaii for some much needed relaxation time (even though I missed three months of work, it certainly wasn't relaxing). I just had another set of scans and I'm still cancer-free. Next year is far from my mind. I know I will make the commitment to maintain a balance and set goals, but right now, I am perfectly happy to embrace the end of the year and the start of summer, just as my four-fathers would have wanted (ok, I lied and this is the last bad pun).

*Bad guy, good quote

Friday, June 16, 2017

Revisiting Reader's Cafe

“Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably."
-C.S. Lewis

Two years ago, my class hosted a Reader's Cafe. You can read the full blog post here (and you really should or you might be lost in this post), but to summarize, my students chose and practiced reading three books, wrote varying levels of comprehension questions for each books, selected and rehearsed the jobs of host, waiter, chef, and busperson, and ran the Cafe for the whole school.

We didn't get to host a Cafe last year, due to state testing lasting until the last week of school, but this year we had two weeks between the end of testing and the end of the year. Rather than filling this with movies, kickball games, and other time wasters, we decided to host the Cafe. This year, we made some changes from the original plan. The basic structure and jobs stayed the same, but these changes helped to improve the experience.


I introduced the Cafe model to my class with a written slideshow and verbally explaining it. I didn't have many pictures from when I first did it with my student teaching class, so I had no real visuals to show them.

Introducing it this year was significantly easier than last time. I showed them the recap video that we made after the 2015 Cafe and fielded questions afterwards. We still followed the same steps in preparing - choosing books and writing questions first, practice reading the books, explain and pick jobs, and rehearse the whole thing.


Students developed comprehension questions, including a mix of literal and inferential questions for each book - one before reading, two during, and one after. They then typed these questions into a Google Doc, which led to a number of formatting issues.

Students still developed questions, but this year, I used Autocrat to generate the question charts and menus. Students typed their book titles, authors, and questions into a Google Form, and Autocrat used the info to generate the question charts (and even the menus).


Eight families attended the 2015 Cafe and had very little interaction beyond that.

This year, we had much more support from the families. 26 of 29 students had a family member visit, which was a huge uptick from the eight families who came last time. The parents also got more involved this year. They offered to donate money for food and supplies. One of their parents works in the building and saw that I chose gold as my theme color for this year (I had some leftover supplies from my little sister's Gold Award ceremony). When I came in the next morning, I was greeted with 30 gold streamers, a bag of gold confetti, six star balloons, and four balloons that spelled out READ. I placed these balloons in the hall, which helped hype up the whole school.

Feedback for readers was non-existent.

The biggest change in the Cafe didn't come from my own work - it came from a student. The Friday before we were to begin presenting to various classes for some practice rounds, a student came to me with an idea. He asked, "Mr. B, wouldn't it be cool if our customers had a way to review our reading so we knew what to improve?" I love student agency in their learning. I said to him, "I like it. Work up a prototype and let's talk on Monday."

Once I had explained what a prototype was, he was up for the challenge. Come Monday morning, he walked in with a sketch. He wanted customers to evaluate the readers on overall performance, fluency, and expression (which aligned to the oral reading goals for this project). We worked together to polish it and considered logistics. He decided that each reader would give one feedback slip to the people he was reading to and they would agree on their assessment. This student also developed an evaluation slip for the teacher to complete with their class when they returned, with more of a focus on our performance in the Cafe. Of the teachers who responded, we ended up with 15 positive reviews for the hosts, 13 positive reviews for the waiters, 14 positive reviews for the buspeople, and 11 positive reviews for the chefs.

This student generally steps back and is shy in class. He lets others take the lead, even though he is capable. It was so incredible to see him take charge and truly make something his own and then present it to the whole class. His mom even noticed a change in him:
"I really enjoyed the Readers Café experience. It was so awesome to see how much [Student] has grown. I am very proud of him in many ways and I attribute a huge part of his growth to your teaching style and support. He seemed to just blossom upon your return [from medical leave]."

My former school had roughly 500 students, in about 25 classes. We were able to fit all of our rotations in two and a half days, with five minute transition times between classes. These times soon became chaotic as we waited on different classes. Both the hosts and the waiters dismissed the customers, which was overkill.

This school is over 900 and over 35 classes in total. We had to modify our timing and increase to three full days to accommodate nearly double the amount of customers. Rather than having a 5 minute rotation time, my students had 30 seconds. This actually was a huge blessing. Students had no time to get off task between rounds and helped the whole experience flow much more smoothly. Additionally, the hosts would help get the next class ready as the waiters did the dismissing. This helped give everyone something to do, as the chefs would be refilling the food and the buspeople finished washing and drying dishes.


This year's Cafe was even more successful than the 2015 one. The feedback slip really helped to tie it all together. Our final tallies are below, along with the promo video we produced afterwards. I look forward to continually tweaking the Cafe model to be even better in the future. I'd like to hand over the logistics (timing, amount of food to buy, etc) of the Cafe to the students, which would add a level of math integration to it. On Twitter, I saw someone had adapted it for a Math Cafe model and I am interested in that. Perhaps I'll do a Math Cafe before winter break and continue with Reader's Cafe at the end of the year. Stay tuned to find out!

Final 2017 Numbers:
787 students
39 family members 
32 visiting classes
7 boxes of Goldfish
2 bags of animal crackers
3 bags of pretzels
4 boxes of Cheez-Its