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.

INTRODUCING THE CAFE

THEN:
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.

NOW:
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.


DEVELOPING QUESTIONS

THEN:
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.

NOW:
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).

FAMILY INVOLVEMENT

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

NOW:
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
THEN:
Feedback for readers was non-existent.

NOW:
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]."
SIZE AND TIMING

THEN:
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.

NOW:
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.

CONCLUSIONS

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



Friday, June 9, 2017

Creating Their Own Adventures

"I'm still a kid inside, and adventure is adventure wherever you find it."
-Jim Dale

A personal favorite activity this year has been using Choose Your Own Adventure stories that go beyond the point and click variety. I first tried a method with Google Slides during my medical leave (detailed here) and then stepped it up to the next level by using Google Forms (explained here in my guest post on the EdTechTeam blog).

Getting started on the paper template
It's fun to make them and read their arguments, but ultimately students are still consuming the material more so than creating. I wanted to take it further - my students would build their own Choose Your Own Adventure story in Google Forms.

My students have never created any Google Forms and their exposure is limited to using the ones I've created for them. For this reason, I decided they would first map out their storylines on paper and then transfer it to the Google Form.

I provided them a template and gave minimal directions to them. Some students jumped right to it, while others struggled. I found many students couldn't grasp the divergent thinking associated with managing multiple storylines. Here are a few tips I found helpful in providing aid to these students:

Fixing the template. Yes, my desk is a disaster. 
  • Be intentional with your word choice. Sometimes I would say, "Finish this section with two choices." Some took this as "You can have pizza or chicken and the pizza can be cheese or pepperoni." Technically, this is two choices. I shifted to saying, "Give a choice with two options."
  • Physically pointing on the template was a giant help to some students. I would point at one column and say, "This can go here or here. What choices would make sense in your story?"
  • A few students found it helpful to list all of their choices options first, and then go back to fill in the details in the story. If they chose this, I encouraged them to put the options on the top of the grid for that template. 
  • Sometimes, students benefited from just starting over entirely. Keep plenty of extra copies on hand. 
  • Some students needed more guidance than others, and that's totally ok. While some grasped the branching immediately, others didn't. A few students wanted to just write a linear story, while others were making choices and neglecting other paths. I worked with them to understand it for the first few steps and gradually pulled back the scaffolds.
  • On my side of things, the template definitely needed work. The cool thing was I was able to modify the template as the students went along, incorporating their feedback immediately. For example, originally the template just had a bunch of boxes with designated sections it would correspond to on the Form. I realized more directions were needed. One of my students helped me make these changes, including typing more clear directions (such as, "Start with option 1 from section above" and "End with two options") and simple formatting. The final completed template can be accessed at this Force Copy link.
Transferring from paper to Form
Once students were done with their paper template, they moved onto the Google Form (accessible here at this Force Copy link). On the paper copy, each section had a marker on the top corner that said "S1, S2..." These corresponded to the sections on a Google Form. I had already linked the sections in the "Go to Page Based on Response" settings, so students didn't need to worry about that. (In the future, if students were more comfortable with Forms, I might teach them how to do this themselves.) Again, some tips for success:


  • First things first - it wasn't smooth sailing to start. Some students had a hard time figuring out what to put in what section of the Form. There were two camps, both of which ended up being successful:
    • "The Scrollers" who would put in a full storyline (visiting Section 1, then 4, then 18, etc) and then go back up to the top to do the next path
    • "The Straight Liners" who matched section numbers on the template directly to the sections on the Form
  • Students will delete sections, and the proper branching along with it. Generally speaking, they could figure out where to relink it by consulting the template, but they needed to learn how to do that first. Overall, they picked up on Forms very quickly, which is awesome because some adults struggle with it. 
  • They loved adding pictures and it led to a good conversation about copyright and using the images Google provides right in the search tool in Forms. 
  • Again, this template needed work on my part. Originally, the section titles said "Choice 1, Choice 2, End of Path 1, etc" since I just modified the template I used. I realized that I needed to match it to what their template said, so I replaced them with S1, S2, etc. This didn't help students who had already made a copy of the Form template, but helped other students after I made this change. 
    • One student made the suggestion to replace the S1 with "You chose..." as a way to make the story more cohesive. I really thought this was a good idea and many of the students went back to edit to reflect this idea. 
When they were all done, I had them submit their hyperlink, their name, and title of the story on a Google Form. I used the =HYPERLINK and =IMPORTRANGE formulas in Sheets to make a master list of all completed games for students to try each other's stories (viewable here).

Testing and making edits
This was the really cool part. I saw students paired up doing each other's Forms and giving feedback as they traveled through the story paths. The "player" caught mistakes like incorrect title formatting, misspellings, unclear paths, improperly linked choices, or other things and the "builder" would open their copy to edit for changes. It essentially removed me from the feedback loop, and I am 100% ok with that. Peer feedback is crucial and critical to growing as a creator. 

How long did this all take? When all is said and done, students had a maximum of two and a half mornings to work on it, or roughly four to five hours. We're at the end of our school year and had some end-of-year assessments and projects to finish. Rather than defaulting to the "Free Read" when they were done, this was the "Fast Finisher" work. It's a really good idea for this because once a few students are done, they have more to explore on by completing other's adventures. In my class of 29, if everyone created a Form with 16 possible outcomes, there would be a total of 464 different variations before students completed all of them.

This was just the first experience and I know further iteration is needed. Next year, I plan to delve into this more and earlier in the year. I think it can be a really incredible for experience for the students and get them thinking in different ways. I definitely saw students being pushed and strive to improve their craft, which is awesome when you consider we were at the end of the school year.

How can you implement this in your classroom? What modifications would you make?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

TV Game Shows + Summer Fun + Education = Epic Review Games

"By playing games you can artificially speed up your learning curve to develop the right kind of thought processes." 
-Nate Silver

It's the end of the year for many of us. It's a time to review old learning, but kids are probably sick of the same old pony tricks. I recently wrote about four of my favorite review games for Kids Discover to play with my students, including Scavenger Hunt, Scoot, Basketball, and BoardRush. This past week, we played two more that I wasn't able to include in that post. Looking for two games that combine physical activity, collaboration, competition, cost-benefit analysis, review and fun? Read on for two ideas to use in your classroom.

Survivor 


I've been playing Survivor with my students for years, in both math and history. It's a favorite for both them and me, but I only bring it out once or twice a year. Why? It's a time-intensive game, with a number of rules, that works best as a culmination of an entire curriculum rather than a unit. It's almost important to note that it's a learning tool - overdoing anything will kill it for kids.

It's partially based on the CBS game show, but this game has many more layers to it and no chances for immunity. Under the rules we've developed, players start with 10 "lives." When we play this in history, I give them printed pieces of paper labeled Charters to reinforce the impact of the charters to the Jamestown settlement. They're also put into different groups, based on influential famous Virginians.

They we delve into the rules:
  • A question will be asked and each team needs to discuss and send their answer to me. (I've used whiteboards for this, but recently I've been using The Answer Pad to have them send me their answers digitally.) 
  • Teams that get the answer correct gets to steal 2 Charters from another team. They can take them both from the same team or split them up and they get to add the charters to their total. 
  • Before they take away Charters, they will get to increase the number by throwing a ball into a small white basket within a larger green basket. (We also have used a cornhole set since it was left in my room from the following game.) 
    • If they land in the green basket, they can take 3 Charters total. 
    • If they make it into the white basket, they can take 4 Charters total.
It's amazing watching them strategize with other teams and form alliances to start knocking out other teams. The most recent time we played, one team was knocked out about four times by the end of the game. (This led to some feelings of sadness from the team that kept getting eliminated, but I reminded them that it was just a game and they could have chance for revenge later.) If a team is knocked out, they have an opportunity to rejoin the game by getting an answer correct and tossing the ball. If they make it into the white basket, they earn 5 Charters back.

Along the way, I throw in different challenges (called Hardships to tie in with our history theme) and bonuses (also called bribes to the King). Some challenges include having to give up charters to a specific team based on the team's namesake (such as all players depositing one Charter into Maggie Walker's bank to reinforce that she was the first African American woman bank president) or losing charters entirely to me (to help show the impact of the King of England taking unfair taxes from the colonists). For some bonuses, I ask additional questions to earn more charters or extra tosses, or have them engage in a bidding war for different sabotages, such as blindfolding other teams or buying all of the other teams chances to shoot. The highest amount of charters offered to me wins.

At the end, we have one final speed round, in which teams can earn two additional points per question. I usually take first correct response for the point, and often award ties. Playing The Final Countdown or Eye of the Tiger isn't required, but highly recommended. 

Cutthroat Cornhole


Cornhole is possibly my favorite summertime game, tailed closely by Kan Jam. The other day when I was pulling my car into the garage after work, I saw my set and began wondering how I could bring it into the classroom. Later that evening, I was discussing Cutthroat Kitchen on Food Network with Katie Kraushaar (since I apparently am obsessed with game shows) and Cutthroat Cornhole was born.

The premise is simple - we play cornhole in class and answer review questions. However, that's too basic. Five questions are given per round. For each correct answer, each team earns a point. The students are grouped in four teams (Black 1/2 and Yellow 1/2, based on the colors of my beanbags). At the end of the round, teams get to choose what they want to do with their points:
  • Bank the points for use in a later round
  • Spend 1 point to throw a bag (per bag)
  • Spend 2 points to make other team throw with non-dominant hand
  • Spend 3 points to block one bag from the other team
  • Spend 4 points to make other team wear blindfold for all their throws
  • Spend 5 points to take two steps forward to throw (per bag)
The points from the question answering do not count for overall scoring. The only points that count are the points scored in cornhole, and we follow the "cancellation" rules of cornhole. Black 1/2 are working together against Yellow 1/2.

Note the blindfold. Heads up!
I was sure that my students would start spending their points immediately. However, for the first three rounds, not a single bag was thrown. Eventually, some teams ventured to spend their points on some standard throws. 

Finally, one team purchased a blindfold and then the real sabotages began. Pro tip: make sure everyone is looking before a blindfolded kid throws a beanbag, and don't be afraid to guide them to the right direction. We had one kid take a beanbag to the face since she wasn't watching the throw, but she was unharmed overall. 

In the final round, one team had saved something ridiculous like forty points. They spent them all in one fell swoop, effectively buying every sabotage and advantage. Unfortunately, the school day ended before we could watch that carnage unfold. 

Final Thoughts

While we know that time is precious and we don’t want to waste a moment of instructional time, it’s also important to infuse learning with physical movement. The investment in activity will surely pay off in heightened engagement and an increase in achievement. Students have an allotted time for Physical Education classes, but 45 minutes once or twice a week isn’t going to cut it, especially with the CDC recommendation that children and adolescents get a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity every single day.

It's also important to note that these games do not have a prize for the winning team, aside from bragging rights. To me, playing a review game in class is reward alone, and I don't believe that everyone needs a prize for every single little thing. I rather my students be engaged because they want to demonstrate their knowledge and have fun playing a game rather than working towards some sort of extrinsic motivation.

These games may sound a bit complex, but the kids genuinely love them and it's worth it. I'm happy to answer any questions you have about them. Try them out for yourself and let me know in the comments below what modifications you make for your own students. 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

"Send Home Sheets" with GSuite and Autocrat

Due to being a 1:1 Chromebook classroom and my general feelings on the importance of technology integration, my students take many of their assessments (or "opportunities [to show our learning]" as we call them in class) with Google Forms. This is great because it cuts down on the amount of paper I need to print (and the time spent copying, handing out, collecting, etc etc.)

However, with students completing their assessments completely on their Chromebooks (including receiving their score, feedback, and some immediate remediation), parents and families don't get to see their child's results like if they had a paper/pencil assessment and thus can't work with their students to help them improve. I do check and send home their written work for math assessments, but many history and language arts assessments are completely digital. If we truly want parents working with their students at home, we need to be sure that they can see where the students have made mistakes, along with the questions and correct answers.

One of my favorite Google Sheets Add-ons is Autocrat. It's a powerful tool that essentially allows you to create a mail merged Doc from a Form/Sheet.

For a brief bit of background knowledge on Autocrat, it operates with tags that appear like this: <<response>>. (I sometimes call the tag arrows "carrots.") You create a Doc template with <<tags>> in place of things you want inserted from the Form/Sheet. For example, if I wanted to ask a question about what a student thought the capital of Virginia was, I would put <<Virginia capital>> or something similar on the template Doc, and when I run Autocrat, it would fill it in with their response (which would hopefully be Richmond!) This can be set up to run automatically, and once you get the hang of it, it's incredibly easy to use. I'll admit that Autocrat isn't the easiest thing to explain in a blog post, but the video tutorial will make more sense.

Using Autocrat, you can make a Google Doc that inputs each student's responses from a Google Form assessment, along with the question and correct response, which I call a "Send Home Sheet." You can then print them or have them automatically emailed to parents for them to review and help begin remediating. Watch this video to see exactly how to do it.


When all is said and done, it takes roughly 5 minutes to set that all up. Copying and pasting from the response sheet saves lots of time in the "mapping tags" step, and keeps the formatting in nice and even columns.

Part of the benefit of doing assessments on Google Forms is the elimination of paper. This method seems to directly conflict with that, but in the long run, it's still less paper. My students recently completed an assessment that was 23 questions. If each question (and all four to five answer choices) were printed, it would have been 7 pages.

However, but using some clever formatting on the "Send Home Sheet," it ended up being 1 page front-to-back (lots of the saved room came from not having to print all the answer choices and the fact that a three column format is more efficient than one question per row). For my class of 29 students, I was able to print all of their "Send Home Sheets" in less than 30 pages versus the over 200 pages it would have required to print paper-based assessments. If you opted to send the results directly to email, no paper would have been used at all. (Personally, I use a Drive app called PDF Mergy to combine all 29 "Send Home Sheets" into one PDF and print that.)

Furthermore, by using the Quiz feature on Google Forms or Flubaroo, I didn't have to do any of the grading by hand. I'm a big fan of letting technology do as much of my rote tasks as possible so I can focus on using the assessment results to work on remediation.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, some parents aren't ready to accept that they might not see their student's work. This is a valid feeling, because if they want to help (and we need them to play a vital role in their child's education), they need to see where the gaps are. "Send Home Sheets" allow the best of all worlds - less paper waste, more time for the teacher to work on more important tasks, and gives the parents something tangible to review.

Give it a whirl in your class and let me know in the comments below how it works out for you!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Setting the Stage for Student-Led Morning Meetings

"Everyone has highs and lows that they have to learn from, but every morning I start off with a good head on my shoulders, saying to myself, 'It's going to be a good day!'."
-Lindsay Lohan*

One tenant of our classroom routine has always been morning meeting. While I was doing my student teaching, my cooperating teacher introduced the idea to me. She said that she found giving them an overview of the day helped put their minds at ease and allowed them to focus on their work instead of wondering what was coming next. When I got my own class, I decided to continue with this concept. In years one and two, morning meetings were short - a brief overview of the day, followed by a reminder of the classroom expectations. 

I changed things up in year three. I added some elements to make it into a more holistic experience. We still begin with the daily schedule, but then follow it with a page from Kid President's Guide to Being Awesome. This book was a gift to me from Greg Bagby and holds many snippets of wisdom that kids can relate to. After the page is read, the students reflect and do a "turn and talk" to discuss what they thought. Some volunteers also share their ideas with the whole class.

After that, we have time for open sharing. This might sound like wasted time, but think of how many times a kid can't concentrate on a math lesson because he wants to share about something he built on Minecraft. This five minutes in the beginning of the day helps save hours of time throughout the week.

Sometimes, this sharing time becomes a very deep experience for the students. This is the time I chose to share my cancer diagnosis with the class, but an even more powerful example comes from when one of my students decided to share about her disability. She led a great discussion about why her bones formed the way they did and how it impacts her life. It was her choice to do this and helped the class understand her better. 

Following sharing time, I say the first part of our classroom motto ("We don't make excuses,") and the class finishes with "We make changes." The students are then dismissed to their table groups to begin working for the day. In total, morning meetings last from 5 to 15 minutes, but can run longer if the sharing time becomes something especially meaningful.

Mid-way through year three, I wanted to make it a student-led experience. We had already done student-led conferences so I knew they were capable of being leaders to their parents. Being a leader in front of all your peers is another valuable skill and this was a perfect opportunity to do so. 

Since we had been doing Mr. B-led morning meetings in the same routine for a few months, the students knew what to do. My lesson plans are posted on the classroom website, so they can read the schedule to the class. We've worked on having the students share the specific activities we are going to be doing ("Today, we'll be playing Quizlet live to review the American Revolution") versus "We have VA Studies today" (of course we do, we have it every day!)

Each day, the next page of Kid President is read and discussed, and the student places the bookmark on the next page for the following day's reading. Some leaders choose to have a turn and talk, while others call on volunteers to share thoughts. It's a great way to throw in some extra fluency and public speaking practice for the morning meeting leader. 


Last year, I had a student who had difficulty decoding words on the fly due to a reading disability. Knowing that he was sensitive to this, we figured out which day he was going to be the morning meeting leader and photocopied that page from the book. He and I rehearsed during lunch and he practiced at home with his parents. When it came time to read from the book, he did so with flying colors and no one was the wiser. Those little tweaks are needed to make sure each student feels successful in their leading experience. 

The class decided that we would limit sharing to four sharings per morning meeting. As the students in the audience share, the leader is tasked with responding to the comment either with more questions or something to acknowledge the thought (beyond "okay"). This helps to build a stronger sense of community and conversational skills. It makes the person who shared feel valued and respected. 

After sharing time, there is a time in which I get to speak to the class. I share anything that may have been missed from the lesson plans, remind them of upcoming important dates, or reinforce any improvements that need to be done. I try to keep my part short, because I want the focus to be on the leader instead of me. 

I also provide specific feedback to the leader, highlighting things they did well during morning meeting and what they could improve upon for their next cycle. (We just go in reverse alphabetical order, so each student will get numerous opportunities each year. Now, I start student-led morning meetings within two-three weeks in the beginning of the year after I have led some morning meetings so they understand the routine.)

One thing I would love to see improve (and welcome suggestions on) is getting the students to share "real" things. It's great to hear that Johnny had soccer practice, but after hearing it twelve times, it loses its luster. I want my students sharing momentous accomplishments and what challenges they face, either individually or as a class. It's hard to prompt them into doing that without making it feel forced or fake. Let me know in the comments below how you accomplish this in your class.

Since transitioning to a student-led experience, I've seen students flourish in this role. It ensures every student gets many opportunities to be the leader and helps them to overcome any "stage fright" they may encounter. They clearly take my feedback to heart, because students do a much better job of sharing detailed lessons and responding to sharing comments than they did in the beginning of the year. 

We have roughly 36 days left in the school year, which means each student my class will be able to be a morning meeting leader at least one more time. I'm looking forward to their personal best from each and every one. 

*I don't really think Ms. Lohan is a good role model for education, but this quote works pretty well here. 

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?