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.

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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!

Remember when you were amazing

I have had a great deal of fun on chats and in working with teachers over the last little while reminiscing over some of the greatest things they have done in the classroom. We don’t often take the time to reflect back on our ‘best work,’ but many of us have exceptional ideas that we have come up with during our careers that have been ‘shelved’ for whatever reason.  Maybe it didn’t fly with the class we had, or maybe it was time consuming and we put something more expedient in its place; whatever the reason, I challenge you to go through that shelf of dreams and resurrect some of the greatness that has been you in the past.  I have done this lately, and have a big one coming up in the next week, and I can tell you that it makes a big difference to the passion you show in the classroom.  These are the ideas that strengthen us as teachers, that give us purpose and let us dream a little. Often the ‘shelved projects’ involve collaboration, outside experts or help, organization, special supplies and preparation, and because they require that little bit more, they are memorable for our students!

I know this is the time of the year when we are tired, struggling, and need that little ‘something’ to get through to the end.  Maybe we can find that little bit extra in a project we put away.  It has worked for me this week, will it work for you?  Take a moment to talk about one of these projects in the comments, I will share some of them out on Twitter and maybe we can support other teachers in need of a boost in the final stretch!

Have a great night!

Building a budget iPad cart for education

I was asked at one of my recent sessions if I could write a ‘how to’ for the iPad carts that I collaborated on building for 10 classrooms in my current school.  I am going to do that, but before I get to the ‘how,’ let me tell you the ‘why.’

When we were working toward going 1-1 with school-owned devices in our school, we realized that the process would be a drawn out one if we couldn’t cut some costs.  Retail cases, high-priced charging stations, and expensive management options were not in the cards for us. So we opted to get creative. It took some research, some elbow grease and some innovation, but we were able to come up with some very effective solutions for outfitting our devices, allowing us to get more iPads into more student hands sooner.  So, in the spirit of maximizing the little money we have in education fro these kinds of purchases, here is the process, and the pictures to help you build your own iPad mini cart!

*this cart MAY work for regular iPads as well depending how well you space the levels of the racks, but I have not tested it.

Our first goal was to find something to contain a class set of iPads.  Prior to going 1-1 in classes, we had provided 5 iPads per classroom and were using a power bar in a drawer to secure them in each room.  Clearly this was going to have to change when adding 20+ more devices.  So we looked at what could store that many iPads in one place.  One of my colleagues found a cart that fit the bill…from IKEA

The Raskog Cart was the right size to fit about 30 iPad Minis side by side on the three levels, and was available to us at only $60 per cart.  We needed some other accessories, but it was a good start.

Raskog Kitchen Cart from IKEA ($60)

Next we needed some way to keep all the iPads in the proper location on the cart. Thanks again to IKEA we found some dish racks that suited our purpose. (BOHOLMEN $9) When our local IKEA ran out we sourced some others from Amazon ($10) as well. We needed three of these racks for each cart, one on each level.

Boholmen dish rack from IKEA ($9)

 

Bamboo Wood Plate Holder from Amazon.ca

Power management was a major concern with these carts. We wanted to ensure that they would not be drawing too much power, and that we were not ‘daisy chaining’ power bars (plugging one into another.)  We had to find another way to power all these devices that would fit into fire code.  So, after some research we found these nifty devices:

Antec 4-Port USB Charging Station ($30) at memoryexpress.com

Each of these 4-port USB Charging Stations can charge 4 iPad Minis using one outlet plug. It took some research to find this particular charger because most USB hubs do not charge devices, even if they are powered.  With these hubs, they are strictly meant for charging, not syncing, so they fit the bill for a classroom cart.

With no more than 28 students in each of our elementary classrooms, we could use a 7 port power bar ($20) and 7 USB hubs to power all of our iPads.  If you needed more iPads on the cart, you could source larger power bars as well.

All that was left was to run wire and use an extraordinary amount of cable ties to keep it all in place.

 

I started by securing the racks in place, and then laying an iPad in the first slot to  measure how far out the charging cable needed to be, leaving a little play for students so they would not have to ‘pull’ the cord.

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Find the right spot for the cables, and a convenient length for each, then cable tie them into place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A view from the bottom, showing how each cable is tied to the mesh frame.  I then cable tied all the cords to one side of the cart leading down.  Note that the USB cables must be fed all the way from the bottom, unless you want them to have to travel down the outside of the cart to the Antec hubs.

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Lead the cables to the side and secure them to the inside of the cart leading down, Your cords will be different lengths at the bottom, but that’s ok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once all your cables are leading through to the bottom, find the most convenient USB plug to put them in, wrap and tie down excess cord. Mine didn’t look pretty, but the key is that no cords will be hanging down and left to drag on the ground or get caught on anything.  Don’t spare the cable ties, get EVERY cord.

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You can see the attached power bar, 7 plugs leading to hubs, and many wires charging happy devices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what the final product looks like in my classroom.

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The finished cart, with all the iPad minis tucked in for the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is compact, portable (the carts have wheels) and costs…$320 versus the thousands you could spend on a manufactured cart.  As I said earlier it takes some work, but ultimately we had much more money to spend on devices for students by using some ingenuity.  Another consideration we discussed was security, but our classroom doors remain locked in off times at our school, and during the summer months, these carts can easily be transferred to a secure location in the building.  At this time we are comfortable with that, but I know this may not be the case for all schools.  If security is a concern, you may wish to look at locking mesh bags as a security measure.

Let me know if you have questions, or found this useful.  I receive questions about our project all the time, and I am happy to respond as I can.

Collaborative Novel Writing Presentations for MPTC

This is the presentation that I gave today for the MPTC Div II and III.  Collaborative ideas for all three sessions are in this post as well, so find your sessions ideas and get writing, due date is Friday March 14th.  If you have questions or concerns, please email me!

Class Novel for Division II & III

From the High School session this morning:

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From the Division III session this afternoon:

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From the Division II session this afternoon:

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Writing a Collaborative Class Novel GETCA

Here are the story details we came up with from the “Writing a Collaborative Class Novel” session today.  Remember, I will create our final compilation if we can get at least 5 stories together and submitted.

 

Our Talisman

Rook from a chess set

-metaphorical barrier or something that frees you
-made of wood
-chipped corner
-purple
-once owned by a great man
-under the chip, other colours of paint
Characters
Rottweiler 
-nervous
-talks, has a history with
-found the piece in the park
-missing a piece of his ear
Benedict
A great man
-has a stutter
-world champion chess player
-leads a solitary life, antisocial
Mildred
80 year old Ex-con
Tattoo that says ‘checkmate’ with a yellow king and a purple rook
Evelyn
7 year old girl who likes to paint
Rex King
Jazz musician
One legged
Dying of cirrhosis of the the liver
Settings and overall story lines are up to you, we discussed some initial plot lines in the session.  The only requirements for your story is that it involve the Talisman and at least one of our characters. Due date is Friday March 7th.
Happy Writing!

If they think it, learning will come…

If they think it, they will learn

If they think it, they will learn

I love speaking at teachers’ conventions because it gives us as professionals some time to have deep meaningful discussions about our practice and the time to reflect and process those discussions without having to run off and teach a class afterward.  One of the sessions I am presenting this year (writing a collaborative novel) inspires some great discussion around the use of time in our classrooms.  Teachers are often hesitant to start big collaborative projects because there is so much that can go awry with the processes and results.  We feel it is better to dole out learning in small, digestible chunks and ensure that students eat each piece.  What we miss in this perspective is that it does not give students the comprehensive picture of the discipline they are learning.  Inspiration is the driver for learning, and if we can inspire our students, they learn with hardly a lesson from us.

I would rather inspire students to drive their own learning than to be docile and ‘receive’ their learning from me.  I want curiosity, spark, innovation, passion in learning, as I’m sure we all do.  However, that kind of learning is messy and takes time, time that we often assume we cannot take.  When I was on the fence about project-based learning, about our ability to write a novel as a class and the time it would take, I thought how can I reach all of those outcomes I have to reach spending this much time on one section of the curriculum.  Yet when I sat down with a plan to make it happen, and I saw the students engaged in the work, it was easy to check off sections of the outcomes, because they dove further than I could have hoped, they involved themselves as I wouldn’t as an adult.  Our students, when inspired, will make a project a 24-hour a day obsession and give you everything they have.

If we can inspire them. 

That ‘direct teaching’ part? It still exists in a project-based classroom. Here’s the difference; instead of me sitting down to ‘teach a lesson’ and keep passive students engaged, students want the information because it helps them progress in their projects. It’s a wonderful shift for students and inspired by inspiring them to think, instead of forcing them to ‘learn.’  They are asking me to support them in finding information, solving problems; and I get to be a learner too!

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Dealing with mobile devices in the classroom

Trapped in PhoneI had a great conversation with a teacher at one of my sessions a couple of weeks back.  It was in the middle of my iPad Oddities session, and I had made a comment on the need to have expectations for effective mobile device use in the classroom.  When I told the group of educators that I had no problem with students using personal devices at certain times during class, this teacher wanted clarification.  For him, turning off a personal device was a matter of respect for the classroom, and what he was teaching.  It’s a scenario that I hear about often when I am doing these talks, and so I took a few minutes to distinguish for him, and the group, an important distinction we are making when we ask students to turn off cell phones; and why it may not be in our best interests.

Cell Phones as Extensions of Self

Today’s students see their devices much differently than any generation previous. No longer are they items of convenience for many of them, they serve as items of personal extension and connection.  So rather than being ‘relieved’ to turn off a device, as many of us might be, they feel cut off from their world.  Though the merits of this can be debated, the truth is that not having a device on and near them may be as much or more of a distraction to some of our students than having them on and actively used.  Our students want to be tapped in, and will worry about that connection when it is not present.

It also heavily concerns me whenever I have to put myself into conflict with a student. I abhor doing it, as my job as a teacher is to inspire and champion students.  As such I don’t want to create forced compliance within the classroom, I want to have processes that are natural and make sense to everyone in the room. Also, simplicity in this process works wonders with students who need reminders from time to time.

Developing Etiquette 

My discussion partner mentioned that students have a responsibility to learn etiquette in social situations about the use of mobile devices, which I agree with.  However, the difference may be that we need to instruct students on when to use devices instead of not using them.  I likened the scenario to the session I was speaking in.  Individuals were focused, attentive, and certainly not being rude as far as I was concerned.  In fact, it was a very engaged group, yet I know many of them were using their devices in many ways around the room.  It was up to them to decide if a given text message was important enough to draw them away from what was happening in the session, and I would hazard a guess that many of the attendees were still arriving at the learning they expected even with all the ‘distraction.’

This is not to say that students should have full reign with their devices, far from it in fact. What we need to understand is that just because their ‘off’ switch and impulse control may not be fully developed, doesn’t mean they are not engaged.  I spent many years at the back of the classroom drawing in a notebook long before mobile devices were an issue in schools, and no one thought to take away my paper and pencil.  I had teachers who would ask why I felt the need to draw and try to engage me in drawing things focused on what we were learning so it was a rehearsal of the message.  Perhaps this is the better way to look at these devices in the classroom. How can we use our students’ constant connection for benefit instead of distraction? We also must remember that we need to strike a balance with this.  There is a difference between a presentation on iPads in the classroom and learning how to deploy your parachute during a skydive.  We have the right to require specific attention at some times, but we may find that gaining attention for those times comes easier if we meet our students halfway during times when the requirement isn’t as heavy.

What works?

I don’t propose to have all the answers on this issue, but I have had success with a rather simple process. Whether using school-owned or personal devices, students are to leave them face-down in front of them on their desk (I usually say top right.) I discuss with students the very issues I have already raised in this post, then tell them that they are allowed to use their phones in a reasonable manner, as long as they are engaged in the classroom.  So, if their phone buzzes (not rings since it is on vibrate), they can pick it up, reply quickly and put it back down.  As long as it isn’t pervasive, there is nothing wrong with that.  Conversations are best left to other times, but just as many of us would in a meeting, PD session or many other circumstances, a quick text shouldn’t be an issue. I also ask out of courtesy that they use the devices above their desks.  In this way, they self-monitor better as well because there is no hiding what they are doing.  It makes a big difference when the use is a little less private to how much they are willing to engage in it.

Overall my goal is a happy classroom climate where we can all get to the exciting job of learning. I know I will never get 100% ‘compliance’ with cell phone use, but if that’s not what you’re shooting for then a functional and positive classroom simply becomes a nice place for everyone to work.

Thanks for reading!
Derek

Writing a Collaborative Classroom Novel: A Presentation

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 10.39.22 AMAs with my other recent posts, this is a presentation given for a local teacher’s convention in Alberta, this one for the Calgary Teachers. My presentation on Scribd can be found here:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/207208600/Writing-a-Collaborative-Class-Novel

This presentation is focused on working together in the classroom to meet our goals for young writers by having them consider and write long-length fiction. This process is highly effective in allowing students to understand the craft of the writer and overall structure of extended fiction.  We collaborated in the session on a truncated process like the one that may be used in class. Forthcoming will be a series of stories based on the following details we created.  Check back to find an updated post including the stories and final product.

Ralph 

  • sage like elderly man
  • long beard
  • isolated hermit
Gertrude
  • elderly woman
  • cantankerous
  • separated from Ralph in separate huts same forest
Sally
  • young hero
  • poor bumbling girl
  • simple,plain
  • pure heart
Bruno
  • conniving Uncle to Sally
  • dark
  • eyepatch
  • bald, goatee
  • local mayor
Little
  • Sally’s friend/pet
  • miniature talking ox
  • ridable by Sally
Talisman (object of power or interest)
  • golden orb
  • size of an apple
 Settings
  • Forest with huts
  • Town (medieval) Wexlin
  • tavern
  • main square or plaza
  • town hall
  • market
 Our connecting message (theme)
  • collaboration to accomplish a goal