Sunday, July 24, 2016

Genius Hour: An Update

"We've managed to screw up the world, but the minds that will fix this are sitting in our classrooms"
- James Sanders

This past year was my second year exploring genius hour. Because I was able to start it from the beginning of the year, I was able to fit two rounds of genius hour into our year. The first round ran much like the set up from year one; students independently researched something they were passionate about and presented their projects to the class.

Mark French visiting and learning about their problems
I learned something new from each of their presentations and began getting ready to implement another round of the same thing. I then had a thought - why do more of the same? Genius hour is about helping students grow into passionate and voracious learners and I wanted to try something different. 

The students were paired up and presented with a challenge: investigate a problem in the world and develop a solution. I asked them to think big - I didn't want problems like "they don't serve ice cream in the cafeteria" or "I don't have a PS4." The rose to the occasion, choosing topics including bullying, littering, world hunger, homelessness, truancy, endangered species, epidemic diseases, and smoking. Not a short order to research and solve, especially for fourth graders. 

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive. Some of these topics could become very controversial, but there wasn't a single time this became an issue. The students honed in on their chosen problems and I saw many shocked faces when they learned something new. To help them provide some structure, I suggested a basic framework: research facts about the problem to consolidate into an easily understood summary, propose a meaningful solution, and provide a step-by-step framework to implement this solution.

Many of them found a number of good and interesting facts, and some found some conflicting facts. Occasionally, we found it was a simple mistake on the students' parts (typing billion instead of million,) but sometimes different websites gave different information. We would discuss how to choose the best information, including providing a range of data.

A presentation on endangered species
One thing I noticed was that their slide design skills sometimes need work. Some students were spot on: good amount of slides, limited words, compelling pictures (some students found the magic of gifs,) and even some text animation. Other presentations were too long or overcrowded with text. This is a skill that adults struggle with (myself included,) but it's such a valuable skill for life. In the future, we'll take more time to discuss what makes good slide design and develop general guidelines to follow, in addition to continued work on public speaking and presenting.

Many of their solutions revolved around raising awareness or money for their problems. The littering group wanted to put up more signs and recycling bins, the smoking group wanted to teach others how to stand up against smoking, the disease groups suggested more research and funding for vaccines, and many groups wanted to raise money to donate to help endangered species, the homeless, or other groups. While none of these ideas could be designated as moonshot solutions, they were mostly realistic and could be brought to fruition by the students (with help from adults.) You can check out their projects in these videos: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.

Brookhouser sharing about problem solving
Going forward, I want to build upon this idea. I do not want to begin with a round of studying something they are passionate about; I want to jump right into problem solving. After getting a second chance to learn from one of my Google Certified Innovator coaches Kevin Brookhouser at the North Carolina GAFE Summit, I want to shift genius hour into 20time. As he describes it, his students investigate a "wicked problem" for an entire year to understand and overcome it. I want my students' 20time projects to last an entire year (rather than a few weeks) and to solve their "wicked problems." I love the idea of a bad idea factory, which sometimes good ideas can stem from. I also want a concrete item or event to come out of this project, rather than just ideas for change. I want students to feel empowered and to be change agents, even in fourth grade. Kevin's got a great book called The 20Time Project, which I am extremely excited to dive into, and you can check it out here.

Is this too much to expect from fourth graders? Some may say so, but I don't agree. I believe if students are held to high standards, they will rise to meet them. They will obviously need support from parents and me, but I know they can do it. You can expect updates on this project throughout the year and I am extremely excited for what the students create to solve their "wicked problems!"

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Digging A Hole, Building The Bridge, and Making Changes

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.” 
- Erin Morgenstern

Classroom discussions at morning meeting
Storytelling shapes my teaching. I teach metric conversions through telling a story about my cousin Meg (plot twist - her name isn't even Meg) calling my great grandmother, Millie ("Meg, Call Millie"), explain the purpose of an anemometer by regaling my class with my mom's reaction to my various speeding tickets commendations for excellence in high speed driving and, and countless other tales. But each of these are more or less a one-off story. It teaches the concept, we refer to it to help establish retention, and then we move on.

However, there are three parables I constantly refer to, especially during morning meeting, in one on one conversations, or in small group work. They shape the dynamic of the classroom and help bolster the students with senses of support, independence, and resiliency. 

"How Are You Going to Get Yourself Out of the Hole?"

photo credit
This story involves a lot of body movement in it. I pantomime digging a hole. "If you dig down to your ankles, you can easily step out. If you get to your waist, it's a little harder, but it's still doable. You get to your shoulders, well... you'll be climbing. If you get in over your head, hopefully someone is there to help."

The students enjoy seeing me act all of this out. Then I reveal - "Think about this in terms of school. If you choose not to work on something in class, you may need to finish it at home. If you don't do it then, you may have to try to do it during class. It can build up." The metaphor soon turns real. I ask them to apply it to how concepts over time will only get worse if they don't work to become better. Being up to your waist at the end of fourth grade can quickly become over your head at the beginning of fifth if the hole isn't filled in over the summer.

In education nowadays, we have a tendency to not let students fail or experience struggle. Jess Lahey wrote an excellent book about this called The Gift of Failure, which I reviewed in a post last year. We need to let the students struggle and see that things can build up. Give them a shovel and ownership of their hole. They will figure it out.

But make sure they know you will always be there at the top of the hole, reaching down to help them. Kids are not perfect (nor are adults) and they need modeling and guidance. I am always very open and honest with my students when I have dug myself into a hole and how I am working to get out of it. Students will still need to work to get to reach your hand from the side of the hole and to fill in their hole, but they need to know their support system is there to help.

"You Can Only Build a Bridge Halfway"

photo credit
To begin this, I asked the students to think of our classroom as a series of islands. 

Me: "How do you get from one island from another?" 
Class: "You can swim or sail a boat!" 
Me: "True, but you're ruining my metaphor here. You can also build a bridge."

I then go on to say that to build a bridge, each side much build half and meet in the middle or else it will collapse. (To be completely transparent here, I started this story without really knowing if it's true. After a little research, I found out that the arch of the Sydney Harbor Bridge was built from both sides. It may be done for the reason I said, but I'm not an engineer!) 

The moral here is that education needs to be a two way street (or bridge.) Many teachers do a fantastic job of teaching students in an engaging, interactive, and differentiated way, but the students need to have the same level of effort in their desire to learn and work ethic. We need to be equal partners in education or it will all fall apart. Students need to be taught what this means to have strong work ethic and building a bridge. Mini lessons on character and resiliency are a must and we need to be models for this with our students, colleagues, and parents. Furthermore, students should build bridges with each other, whether it be in academics or social skills. It needs to be an equal partnership. What would a classroom community of interconnected islands look like for you?

"We Don't Make Excuses, We Make Changes"

My keynote - note the title
The final story is perhaps the most important one to me. Not only is this our classroom motto, this is my mantra for life. (Even to the extent that I titled my keynote based on this phrase.) After my second year of teaching, I was full of excuses and complaints. I was highly negative and blamed others. I realized this was a waste of time. What could I change to make it better?

This is a message that I feel my students (and many adults) can benefit from. What changes can you make to improve a situation? In the classroom, I constantly challenged my students with this. Rather than saying what another student had done, what could they have done differently?

Role playing, modeling, and concrete examples in read alouds help to reinforce this concept. I often share examples from my own life, especially the time I put off getting my car inspected because "I didn't have time" but then had to get it out of impound for more time and money. Obviously, some situations and circumstances didn't fit this mantra perfectly, but often times I could help the students take ownership of their life and learning by reminding them of our class motto.

All of the stories figured largely into my classroom. Not a single day went by where we didn't mention digging a hole, building a bridge, or making changes. We ended our morning meeting every day by repeating our class motto (video below). Students are our partners in education and need to be held accountable. They are literally our future and need to learn how to be a good person, in addition to all the academic content we're mandated to teach. We need to support them in this character building process, and by living these virtues and mantras, my students became capable, dynamic, and independent young citizens.