What choices do your students have each day?

I was thinking today about the choices we give students.  When I look at my classroom through the eyes of a student, what would I see in terms of my personal choice? How many times during the day could I offer my unique perspectives, an answer that isn’t exactly what the teacher wants? Some days I think it could be very challenging in school to just have no opinions. Yet, so many of our students experience this very thing on a daily basis; moving from class to class with only notes to write, questions to answer and results to find.

My hope is that you looked at the title of this post and could easily list off the ways your students are able to take charge of their learning, how they can make their learning count in every minute of your class.  If you aren’t there yet, maybe there are some ways to integrate student choice into your learning environment.

Create an independent choice project

As a high school English teacher, I often felt constrained by the requirements of curriculum to teach and follow certain texts.  Not a great deal of choice right? What I found is that there was more there than I had considered.  Not only could I vary how a student approached the text, but I could also vary the required outcome.  So though I as the teacher may have wanted a certain learning outcome associated with each project, sometimes the students were better at choosing what was important about each project for themselves.  As long as they knew the overall outcomes for the course, flexibility in the response was a worthwhile expression of their autonomy.  Often it meant that they would complete assignments that they didn’t want to in order to get to do what they had a strong desire to work on.

Make choice part of the process

Even if there isn’t an immediate method to create choice in the content of the project; solicit initial thoughts, beliefs and feedback in the  introduction, feedback loops or review of an assignment.  Often there are ways to give students choice in their manner of responding to their learning, if we take the time to do it.  Think about the things that seem most resistant to giving students choice, those items that require direct instruction or monitoring perhaps. Even giving the students a moment to speak about what they feel about that learning process can be beneficial.  As an adult learner, I know that time to reflect on my learning with someone else is often as useful to keeping me involved in the learning as if I were doing the steering of the learning myself. Better yet if that feedback is collected and has some impact in the learning process.

Making choices allows us to feel a little more in control of our learning process, and can ultimately be the difference between what a student “Had to do,” at school versus what they “Got to do.” I’m always hopeful as a teacher and a parent that the latter perspective is the one that the students in my life are able to experience.

Don’t be Afraid of Change

Change is hard. In education, it can be downright terrifying.  As teachers, we pride ourselves on routine and having the answers for everything.  Often, a focus on routine means sticking to very specific types of teaching, assignments and assessments.  This can certainly make teaching more expedient and manageable, but I would argue that by introducing change, we often have the opportunity to make education better.  We give students a chance to experience different ways, new experiences, and some of that ever-vaulted creativity we are looking to instill in burgeoning minds.

I have changed enough in my practice and worked with enough teachers to know that you can’t change everything right away, nor should you.  Many of our practices are good, and are rooted in excellent pedagogy.  So start with something you’ve never been 100% sold on, something that doesn’t feel excellent when you teach it.  When I first did this, I found that I was so excited to get rid of the part of the course I felt was weak, the excitement got me halfway through the work it took to redesign it.

But what to do with it? That’s another challenge that teachers face when dealing with the unknown.  While there are enough theories and ideas out there to make your head spin, I would suggest picking something one of your peers is doing or has already done.  There is strength in experience, and you can always learn more about new techniques, but having someone who has already ‘walked the walk’ will give you a place to turn when inevitable challenges arise.  If you are having trouble with ideas or there is no one around to help, visit my contact page and drop me a line. Supporting teachers is what I do, and I am always willing to support as I can.  If you really have no inkling of how you’d like to change, check out Twitter, or some my previous posts such as: Creating a Buzz in your Classroom, Project-Based Learning: Writing a Classroom Novel. Also, if there is a post on a topic you are interested in that you would like to request, please do so through the contact page!  There will be more ideas and inspiration forthcoming!

Learning Commons; a seriously exciting shift in education

I spent my day today touring around and discussing learning commons’ in both Rocky View and in Calgary, and I have to say, it has been some time since I have been as excited about a project as I am about our school’s transition to a full-fledged learning commons.

Due to space considerations, our traditional library lost it’s conventional ‘home’ in the school two years ago (I am now teaching in that space) and at the time it was a hard feature of our school to let go of.  Our librarian worked exceptionally hard to transition the books and other physical attributes of the library throughout the school, and met with success with this reimagining of how books could be shared and used.  It was a commendable effort, and truth be told, there are many features of the learning commons around our school right now, including the open sharing of learning tools, reading and literacy resources, interconnectedness of classrooms and production of 21st century learning artifacts using embedded and transferrable technology.  However, since the inception of our broad learning commons, the one thing that has been missing is that ‘home’ of the program, that sense of place.  Our librarian has a desk, yet in the true spirit of the learning commons, the truly adaptable learning space that is tailored to student learning simply was not available.

What we saw today was the way other schools have answered the call of transitioning spaces to meet the changing needs of students for learning.  Some of the changes were subtle, (such as slips of paper that teachers send with students working independently to notify the librarian what task they will be working on) and some were profound (using the Metis system to sort books as an alternative to the Dewey decimal system) but one thing that struck me was how carefully all schools have considered the transition to be made to the new learning commons structure.  While I have done some extensive reading on this topic lately, I wanted to share a few ideas I noticed doing walkthroughs today:

  • exceptional and thoughtful use of space, highlighted by specific furniture choices and configurations
  • easy to transition spaces, and the ability to configure several groups in one space
  • independence of students and adults with students in the use of the space and resources
  • resources that were ‘common’ material (including digital tools) that could be moved within and out of the space
  • open spaces and the desire for more natural light
  • thought and attention given to curricular connections and ease of access to highly linked materials
  • development of the library commons culture, and a desire by administration to support it as a hub of the school.
  • thoughtful use of technology including limiting use to one specific task at a time
  • creative solutions to issues regarding space and resources; a can-do attitude
  • the use of specific technologies to simplify processes for students (a touch-screen monitor instead of mouse for checking out books)
  • engaging activities to draw students and classes in
  • projects that inspire collaboration

I’m not sure what our final learning commons is going to look like, but I am certainly excited to be on this journey and to be part of the team.  What a great opportunity to support learning and help create something spectacular for our students!

iPad Oddities: Finding iPad/iOS apps

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In my iPad Oddities session today I was asked about resources for finding effective iPad apps and apps that are on sale.  So I have decided to put together some of the best resources around the ‘net to locate apps that a teacher may want to use in the classroom.  Obviously, any list such as this cannot be exhaustive and certainly is subject to change, but these are sites I use to research apps for apps I may want to use.

Apps Gone Free – This app will give you leads on apps that have gone from paid to free on the app store. There are hundreds or thousands of these apps daily, and Apps Gone Free aggregates them and gives you leads on the ones that will likely have value to you.

App Shopper – Another sale app aggregator.  Based on your options, App Shopper will bring you sale apps and apps that are free.  I like the fact that App Shopper allows you to choose the options you want and brings you a very personalized app selection

Teachers With Apps – This website features reviews of apps that are added on a regular basis.  I like the layout of this site, and that they give direct iTunes links with each review.  It is an effective, organized site.

iEAR.org – While this site hasn’t been updated in some time, it was a very effective site and still has great reviews to offer of apps that were listed before they stopped publishing.  I like the layout of this site, and the fact that they categorized by level and subject matter.  All reviews are written by teachers for teachers.

Listly App Review Site – This Listly post links to a Google Doc that is managed by Lisa Johnson. It is a comprehensive list of sites for finding educational apps, a fantastic resource for teachers.

If this isn’t enough, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter and I’ll search out whatever you’re looking for!