Parents + Student-Directed Learning = ?

Originally posted on my personal blog empower2b.

So this week I was faced with the challenge of introducing the unfamiliar approach of student-directed learning to the families in my class. I knew many had heard about it through their children and was already getting many questions about it. I assured them that all would be answered and addressed at my Back To School Night presentation before the students were too far into the process of establishing their routines.

I know my class this year and their excited little selves were going home exclaiming things such as:

  • I don’t have to do any math if I don’t want to!
  • I get to do what I want, ALL of the time!
  • Ms. Mel TRUSTS ME to take responsibility for my learning, I am in charge!

Now I am not a parent but I KNOW that if I was and I was being told these things by my 4th grader I would be wondering what the hell was going on up there at the school! So I had to make a plan and address a few key points at Back To School Night that would reassure them that I have not devised a plan that would allow me to sit on Facebook (NB.I don’t even have an account) while the kids had free reign over their day!

STEP 1: What are the key takeaways that I wanted all parents to leave understanding at the end of my 30-minute presentation? This is what I decided were the priority…

  1. The purpose of student-directed learning.
  2. What SDL looks like in the classroom.
  3. How the curriculum requirements are met.
  4. SDL allows me to meet the individual needs of ALL of my students.
  5. SDL enables the students to gain a deep meaning of concepts.
  6. SDL is an authentic way for students to develop skills such as time management.

This is a lot of information to cover in a 30-minute presentation which also requires me to ensure that the parents “get to know me” and the different aspects of the school day. It was time to get creative!

STEP 2: Putting together the presentation.
Over the previous two years, I have presented on how I am creating a student-directed learning environment. These were my starting points of what I was going to put into the presentation. I included many photos of the students during the different stages of the week as well as some clips of the students explaining what their week looks like (last year this was a “Could” do activity for them to include in their portfolios and have come in useful for me as well!).

STEP 3: Creating a hook.

So we always teach the students to “hook their audience”, wouldn’t it be better if I tried to do the same thing? When thinking about explaining the purpose of SDL I took to Twitter to see what I could find that other people were doing and I saw that a teacher had asked their parents to fill out a graph where she was tracking the age the students in her class first started walking. What a fantastic idea (I wish I knew who it came from so I could site this great idea!)! I HAD FOUND MY HOOK!

STEP 4: Presenting to the parents

On the night of Back to School Night, I asked the parents when they arrived to put their child’s name on the graph. It was a great way of explaining to the parents about the value of differentiation. Why is it that we are ok with the students gaining skills as babies at different stages yet we want them to all be learning at the same pace and time when they get to school? The graph enabled them to see that their children all learned to walk, talk, and crawl at different stages.

I highlighted that by allowing the students to be directors of their learning in the classroom they will be able to schedule their tasks when it suits THEIR learning styles. If they find a task challenging they can schedule this at their prime learning time of the day (we have spent a lot of time discussing whether they are morning or afternoon people and how this affects their focus at these times). I also was able to show the parents the different structures in place that the students will be using to help them with the process.

Snip20180915_35Snip20180915_36

I then showed them some of the reflections from the students from last year, including a video of them that a group of students put together for their portfolios at the end of the year. The parents were able to see the ability I will have to offer a more individualized program for their students.

Snip20180915_37Snip20180915_38

Step 5: Parent Feedback

Following back to school night it has been exciting to hear from some parents who came along. Here is what two of them had to say…

“Thank you also for introducing your way of teaching and your ideas about it. I was really impressed and love the idea of being responsible for the students own learning. As a trainer for life balance and relaxation I  – of course – appreciate the idea to somehow adapt the schedule to one’s own biorhythm! It is a quite progressive idea and I LOVE IT and support it!!”

“Thank you for the great presentation you gave on Back to School night. I really appreciated hearing more about your approach and I am excited to follow … development of his schedule and learning this year.”

The most exciting part for me though was the feedback from my students the following day. They were so excited to have been talking with their parents about the different things that they have been doing in the classroom and the new understanding that they have of themselves as learners. This is the best result for me, to have the students connecting with their parents and sharing the learning journey with them.

Step 6: The future

I have invited parents to come in and be involved in the classroom and see how it all works. I believe that an “open door policy” is the best way for the parents to feel included and informed about how their students are learning. I look forward to seeing how the year progresses and am hopeful the parents will be with us for the journey…and now understand that their students are still doing math every day 😉

Advertisements

Let Students Teach

I laced up my shoes, grabbed my water bottle and took off running. I needed to get in some fast kilometers so I set my mind on that.  I took off on my usual route but needed more kilometers so I turned a corner, then another and another, my heart was racing, my legs were beginning to get tired. It was a good hard run. But at one point in the middle of my run I stopped. I turned around and realized I was lost. I was so busy concentrating on running hard that I had lost track of where I was going.

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 8.12.26 PMThis year for me was like that run. I started out the year wanting to better meet the needs of each of my students. So I set off on the hard run of carefully tracking each students progress in reading, writing and math.  I wanted them to own that data so I created goal setting books for each student with rubrics, checklists and weekly goal setting sheets. I would regularly assess students  conference with them and give them feedback  They would then use this information to set weekly Math, Reading and Writing goals.   Then I would have workshops and activities available to them to teach them whatever it was they were focusing on.  I created detailed updates for parents so they could further support their child at home. It seemed great at first.  Everything was very personalized. It was hard work. I was running hard.  But I was lost.

When I stopped to take a drink of water and reflect. I realized what this whole system was like for my students. No matter how hard they worked, there was always some new problem I could find for them. There was always something else they didn’t understand that I needed them to learn.  I owned the learning.

I was teaching in the old school hospital model.  I was treating my students like patients. “Here is your diagnosis. I have identified all of your problems. Here is your prescription.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 9.53.33 PM

I realized I needed to make some major changes to how I was teaching.  I will get in to more of the changes in other posts but one of my most important changes was pretty simple in practice but profound in mindsets. It involved shifting the focus from all of the things students couldn’t do to what they could.   I needed to build on their strengths. So I started asking students to teach.

At that time my students were beginning a unit inquiring into Heritage. They had each chosen a site that they thought should be preserved and were making scale models of those sites. Students could choose to make models in any form they liked. Some students were interested in using Tinkercad and Sketchup to create a scale model on the computer and then 3D print it.  A few of my students had been working with these programs at home and during I-time (Genius Hour) so they volunteered to lead a workshop to teach interested students.  It went brilliantly. The very next week 4th graders from other classes requested the same workshop, so my students taught it to them.  A week after that my 4th graders were leading the workshops to interested teachers. The surprising thing about it, was it wasn’t just my typically outgoing students leading the workshop.  One of my most shy, quiet students was leading the workshop as well. You could literally witness his self confidence grow before your eyes.  After his workshop he reflected on his experience, -4th grade student I wanted all of my students to have that sort of opportunity so I opened up workshops to all subjects. First I started with Math topics and this was  an easy starting point. It was simple to have students sign up to lead workshops in concepts that were a review but students wanted more support in. They were also very interested in workshops in areas they needed help with in order to complete a project they were working on. Some examples of workshops my students have led are:

    • How to calculate ratio
  • How to find the least common multiple
  • How to model multiplication with arrays
  • How to use estimation to solve division problems
  • How to sew
  • How to create a website using Wix
  • How to write music
  • How to draw action figures
  • How to write a great introduction to your story
  • How to write good transitions for your narrative.
  • What happens to your muscles when you exercise?
  • Why do we sometimes double a consonant in the base word when we add a suffix?

There are many things I have loved about having students lead workshops but one of my favorites is the role reversal.  The students get to experience being both the teacher and student with their classmates and that builds a beautiful classroom culture of shared ownership of our learning.  One example of that happened last week when one of my students patiently taught another student a Math concept she was stuck on.  The very next day that same student became the teacher and she patiently explained a Science concept to her teacher from the day before.  These types of experiences completely shatter any notion students had that only some students were “smart.” Everyone in the class is seen as capable. Students are often seen high fiving each other as they learn a new concept or sitting side by side helping each other work through something they are stuck on. One student explained,

I have seen many benefits to having students lead workshops. Attributes and Attitudes students have developed from this process:

  • Empathy for other students and the teacher.
  • Risk Taking
  • Growth Mindset
  • Shared Responsibility of learning
  • Motivation
  • Metacognition

This is still very much a work in progress. I have been learning from my mistakes as I go.  Some of the questions I have fumbled through have been:

How do I schedule this?

  • At first I just wrote workshop topics on the white board and had students sign up.
  • Then I moved to nicer looking erasable sheets that students would sign up for on a Monday but this presented a logistical nightmare as I would try to quickly schedule the workshops on Monday morning for workshops occurring that same day.
  • I have moved to a digital system where I list some possible workshop options for Math  and Literacy  on a Google Doc and share that doc with students on a Friday. Students can sign up for workshops they are interested in attending or leading and or they can add a new topic they would like to attend or lead. Over the weekend I assign times for each of those workshops and share it with the students on Monday so that they can set  goals and create their weekly schedule.

How do I manage student behavior?

  • There is some sad part of me that giggles when my students are leading a workshop and turn to me in exasperation “Ms. Mindy, they signed up for the workshop but they aren’t listening. Teaching is hard.”  Generally the more opportunities students have had to lead workshops the better they behave when they attend workshops.

One of my students explained the experience well when they said,

How do I know if they have learned the concept if it wasn’t me leading the workshop?

  • I check in with participants after the workshop to quickly see if they understand. I also require them to show evidence that they have achieved their learning goal by documenting it on their blog.  The blogging part is a work in progress. Some students forget to take a picture of their work or don’t have much to show.

    Student’s blog reflection on his Math goal for last week.

How do I ensure quality teaching?

  • I touch base with the leaders ahead of time. Sometimes they are leading a lesson I taught them the week before in a teacher led workshops. Other times it is a brand new workshop. In that case we discuss  how they will teach it and what materials they will need.

One participant reflected on what it is like to attend a student led workshop.

How do I get all students involved?

  • Some students won’t volunteer to lead workshops unless you ask them. I look for any opportunity to ask them. For example I might lead a workshop one week then tell my participants “I notice you really understand the concept.   Would you be willing to lead a workshop next week on it?”  Or I might notice a kid writes excellent introductions so during a writing conference I ask if they would lead a workshop on that.  In some cases I just say, “Hey you have so much to offer the class, I would love for you to lead a workshop.  Do you have any that you would be interested in leading?”

How do I manage the time this takes?

  • To be honest it doesn’t take much time to set the workshops up. But I needed to find a system that would work within the framework of my classroom. Start small. I started with the one workshop. Then open it up as you are ready.

It is still a hard run and I don’t always know my way but at least now I know I am on the right path because my students are running hard with me.

Accept a piece of homework, even if it’s 10 years late.

This post was originally posted in my blog Ser y Estar.

I started teaching when I was 22 years old. I used to teach EFL in Mexico, and many times, as I was getting my class ready, I was asked if I knew were the teacher was. I moved from teaching EFL at language institutes to teaching Foreign Language/Language B/Language Acquisition and later on Language and Literature at a bilingual school in 2002. At that time, I also collaborated in a Cultural Radio Station, and was doing theater. This is the first time I ever write about my journey in a blog entry.

I used to teach in High School, and was one of the youngest teachers at the school where I used to teach. I used to think that being young was what helped me connect with students. Then I started thinking that being involved in the radio and in theater and always having something to talk about is what helped me bond with them. But it was later when I stared developing the pleasure of listening to my students’ stories and dreams when I think I started shaping the form of the teacher I am now.

It was 2006; at school, discussing the book “Memoirs of a Geisha” and making comparisons with the movie was a ‘hot topic’ with my students, especially when I introduced them to a telenovela that was popular when I was a child: Oyuki’s Sin, a Mexican Telenovela based in a Japanese context- those were the days of real creativity. The best part of our discussion emerged from looking into “what may happen when a foreign context (Japan) was used to give life to a story whose characters were very Mexican?” I don’t think I was even aware of the word ‘inquiry’ at that time, let alone interdisciplinary learning, but it just felt so right to do things that weren’t necessarily just about ‘language’ in a traditional conception.

Thus, we started talking about how we could use one of our favorite stories originally written in Spanish and use Japan (since we were talking about a lot) as a context. The objective was to write a theater proposal for a group of potential sponsors, in the hope that they would agree to finance our play. The exchange of ideas was great; students were speaking without my constant reminders. It was noisy, but it was meaningful. Questions navigated the waves of energy in the classroom: What colors would we use? What language would characters use? How could we choose the best names for our characters?

I invited a few Art teachers and a few others from the school of Marketing to serve as the potential sponsors, and my students presented their projects to them. Needless to say, my students were petrified, but they knew what they had to say so well, that once they felt how their ideas impacted their audience, they gained confidence and managed to get the fictional aid they were aiming for. I was proud of them, but I was partially unhappy for one of my students was not able to present. He had not finished his proposal and decided not to go to school that day.

I had read descriptions of this student had and seen illustrations of how he envisioned his stage (See below). When I checked my email and saw his apologies for not being in school and asking me if he could submit this task later, I could not say no. We had invested so much thinking and energy in making this happen that everyone deserved to show their work. Sadly, due to work of his father, they had to leave the city a few weeks later. I had not yet received “his homework”. I left Mexico in 2007, and I never saw what this student of mine could have produced.

Screen Shot 2018-04-24 at 9.15.27 PM

The incomplete homework I received via email in 2006.

I had resisted joining Facebook, but gave in when I found it practical to help me connect with my friends and family in Mexico. I soon started connecting with past students of mine too. Obviously, I connected with this student I have been talking about as well. We never discussed that homework again. Our passion for music, cinema, and literature remained the main topic of our conversations.

Then all of a sudden, a few months ago, as I was reminiscing on my experience doing theater, and as he shared how he has taken the short films he’s made to films like San Sebastian and even Cannes, that legendary homework came up and he said: “I actually have to show you something; it’s not red; it’s not Japanese… But there is a Japanese face, and it has a Japanese title (Tomoki= Wise Tree)”. A deadline that was not missed, and a late submission have never been more welcome. He had done this 2 years ago, and I was seeing how his life experience had transformed what he did with paper and paint into a beautiful universe of light, movement and image.

I had to wait 11 years for that incomplete moment to come to a closure, and the wait has been so worthy. As I reflect on what I value in my journey as an educator, relationships always comes as a high-ranking value (maybe the highest). I believe that a lot of the ideas I come up with and the journeys I design make sense and HAPPEN because they are designed for the students I have at that moment, they are never replicas of something I did before.

In 2006 I used my blog to write about my theater journey. However, here is one of my very first blog entries about education. I remember that I started to write a reflection about one of the female characters in the play I was participating in and could not conclude it. I changed the content of the blog and wrote a note of appreciation for my students. In retrospective, I think that the day I wrote the blog post linked above was that day when I realized I wanted to be the educational version of Peter Pan: I wanted to stay a learner… I wanted to stay curious and full of possibilities at heart… Rebel at heart.