Washington Elementary has been my school home for the last 7 of my 8 years teaching. I don’t think a more incredible teaching and learning experience could’ve been possible anywhere else these last 7 years. From the time I started here, part of me thought I might just stay forever. In this historical, almost century-old building, I’ve met some of the most amazing educators, mentors, friends, students, and parents who have forever impacted me.
This week I experienced my very last day at Washington, as I finished packing up and moving out of room 151 at the very end of the Kindergarten hallway. I’m following my heart and also taking a leap of faith to become a K-5 Intervention teacher for the upcoming school year at Baileywick Elementary. In this new role I am thrilled to continue working with students, push-in to classrooms of different grade levels, co-teach, support small groups, and collaborate with classroom teachers as well as a team of instructional specialists. This next step is so exciting, but that doesn’t make it easy to leave Washington. It has been difficult to process all the emotions that come with this transition: the best experiences are by far the hardest to say goodbye to.
It’s hard to put into words what Washington means to me. Here I have experienced the true beauty and meaning of diversity in our amazing student body, along with a staff that genuinely values our diverse school community. I have been surrounded by educators who have modeled leadership, given me incredible opportunities to grow, encouraged me, collaborated alongside me, and believed in me. I have formed strong relationships with so many students and families, and have had the privilege of staying in their lives as they grow up and even move onward to middle school. And as all the memories flood my mind, I am reminded that every memory and meaningful experience I’ve gained here involves people – people who have stayed and people who have gone. And there are many who were here before I was, some who I have been lucky to work with and others who I never had the chance of meeting, as well as those who will come after my time here has come to a close. But somehow even as people come and go, Washington GT Magnet Elementary remains and I think will always be one of the most special schools in the world! It’s been said many a time, but now I cling to knowing “once a wizard, always a wizard”!
THANK YOU to the educators, students, and families (pictured below or not) who have left a permanent imprint on my heart! I will never forget the people on 1000 Fayetteville Street, past and present, who have been part of my journey. Now onto my next chapter!
You know it’s been a while away from the blog when this post has been sitting in your drafts for months and it features only pictures of last year’s students! It’s been quiet on here for a while, not because I haven’t been “Learning with the Littles,” but because I have not been as intentional as I’d like in terms of reflecting on that learning. I figured now is a better time than ever to stop neglecting the important process of teacher reflection and resume/finally share this post that sheds light on where I am right now in my journey!
Not so recently, I highlighted the imperfections of a typical day in Kindergarten, both to reflect the reality of a day in the life, and to begin bringing new meaning to the word failure. That post can be found here. Growing up, failure was something I avoided at ALL costs. Granted, it has never stopped me from trying like it might have for some, but until recently, failure has never been something I’ve embraced. For a long time, I even struggled taking constructive criticism, because I felt like I had done a “bad job” or wasn’t “good.” I’m so thankful that failure never caused me to quit, but it DID affect my mindset negatively and cause me to dread any experience that could result in failure.
It breaks my heart to see how even Kindergarteners are already aware of failure, and many have developed fully negative connotations of the word. I really started to think about failure more when I read Hacking Project Based Learning. This idea stood out to me:
After reading this book, I went into the following school year ready to use the horrifying “f word”…failure…in my everyday language, but as a positive term. The Class Dojo growth mindset and perseverance videos have been the perfect outlet to integrate the word failure during morning meeting time. These videos help teach students the science behind exercising and growing our brains by doing challenging things, and how we can learn and grow from moments of failure by reflecting on our mistakes.
Our work around failure and attempt to bring the term new meaning was especially crucial in implementing my 3 Kenan Fellowship lessons during the previous school year. I created these science lessons in an attempt to bring a chemistry experience to Kindergartners. Some of the failure along the way has been on my end, and some on their end; but that is the beauty in learning alongside one another. Failure has led to learning for both them and me. Here are the 3 lessons I designed as a result of my fellowship, along with some of the fails along the way and how we responded to them:
Lesson One: Creating Adhesives and Testing Varying Force Among Samples
For this lesson, I created my own adhesive (wet glue) recipe that students would create batches of in table teams. It took lots of my own tests and tweaks for me to settle on the recipe we would implement in class. After the students learned some of the scientific vocabulary we’d be using and discovered real world examples of how adhesives impact our world, it was time for students to put my adhesive recipe into action! The day before they created, I modeled the process for them, making the wet glue and bonding different pairs of wooden craft sticks together with my own batch of adhesive just as they would do the following day.
When I came into school the next morning, NONE of my samples were bonded together anymore (*insert horrified emoji here*)!!!!!!! My mind all of a sudden went to the “worst” case scenario. I had volunteers coming today, all student ingredients pre-measured and ready, and students were SO amped up for the creation process……and what if THEY came in 24 hours after creating samples and none of THEIR samples had remained bonded?!?!?!!? In a Kindergartener’s world, that would lead to devastation and disappointment because the glue simply “didn’t work”!
But when I thought back to what scientists do everyday, this actually seemed like a perfect comparison of failure scientists encounter daily. Even at LORD Corporation, scientists were creating failed sample after sample to get to the “just-right” creation they wanted. So I now had an example of my own failure to share with students, and one that could result in one of two learning paths that we could take as scientists:
If the student samples were not bonded together the next day, I as a scientist, with the help of my students, needed to continue tweaking my adhesive recipe for us to try it again.
Maybe students would have more success with their samples than I did, meaning we would need to further analyze what variables had impacted different levels of bonding among mine and theirs when we had all used the same adhesive recipe.
This was a REAL science moment, not failure as we often think of it. No matter how it ended for students, I was confident that both students and I could learn together through whatever “fails” came our way. When I shared what had happened to my samples, and that the same could happen to theirs, they were fully on board and understood that we would reflect and try again if all of our samples came apart the next day.
Our adhesive samples are bonded and ready to cure! Ss were already starting to think about the variables that could give each adhesive sample different stengths. Ss recognized that they used a wooden substrate, while I had used a metal substrate @LORDCorporation#kindersCANpic.twitter.com/CMPuSaO3RZ
When testing day came, they were thrilled that most student samples stayed bonded the next day. We would determine the strength of the different tables’ wet glue batches by using a spring scale and measuring the force it took to pull the 2 bonded craft sticks apart. The whole goal was for students to see how different variables could cause different results of force, even when we all used the same adhesive recipe.
However during testing, I could still hear comments that showed me we had work to do on our mindset of failure:
“YES!!! Ours took more force to pull it apart! We won!”
“WE GOT TO 50 NEWTONS!!!!!!”
“Noooooo ours fell apart!!”
“UGH ours barely held together…only 5 Newtons to pull it apart!”
Those comments revealed a mindset that science was about winning and losing, not about learning and reflecting. It’s amazing how a learning experience is consumed by passing versus failing even in our youngest learners.
Lesson Two: 2D and 3D Wooden Structures Bonded with Varying Adhesives
See this post I mentioned earlier for a full list of imperfect moments from this particular lesson, that guided how I knew both I and my students needed to do some reflecting. It’s crazy how failure and imperfections can be embedded in such an amazing learning experience…or is it?
Lesson Three: The Culmination- Building Cargo Ships with Adhesives
Any STEM project is full of fails…and fails can easily become discouraging due to the mindset we so often maintain regarding failure. So last year, I created some unique steps to launching a product, from a combination of the engineering design process and LORD’s Stage Gate Business model. Rather than the traditional steps to create, test, and improve; I made the first of those steps “Create initial design,” in hopes that students would go ahead and expect failure, with the following step to “Test and tweak.” After my time at LORD, I saw that it’s the testing and tweaking that takes the most time, and that the initial creation hardly ever works. So when students also go into creation expecting to have to test and tweak, they aren’t as discouraged when their product doesn’t work at first.
Before students started to create their cargo ships, I asked them to be on the lookout for fails…any little thing that went wrong, didn’t work, or needed tweaking as they designed. We would post “fails” to a failure board in the classroom after the initial creation.
During the creation, students definitely experienced frustrations. It was so beneficial for them to see the struggles involved in genuine, challenging learning. So often, students think learning should feel easy and they want to give up when it isn’t. Granted, there were different levels of struggle among different groups of students, based on who had more or less adult support and what materials, adhesives, and design they had decided on. But they persevered amazingly! I even caught a picture of one big fail moment – multiple open wet glue bottles, a glue spill on the foam and table, and a tipped over stool. This fail photo may look like a mess from the outside, but I felt like Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus, embracing chaos and craziness that previously would have sent me over the edge. It’s like I had impacted my own mindset in efforts to impact theirs. We enjoyed sharing and posting fails on our own failure board after the lesson. Students were able to laugh them off and relay them with a positive mindset.
We reflected on what was easy and hard after the project. Failure shouldn’t just stop right after the fail- it’s what we DO with failure that matters. And journal reflection is a great way to think about and learn from challenges!
When testing time came, they took their fails with determination and perseverance…after all, we were in the “Test and Tweak” phase and there would be plenty of time to improve the ships and keep testing!
My students and I still have work to do on embracing failure, after all, we each have years of the opposite mindset in the making to counteract. I hope that in education, we can continue to bring new meaning to the word failure, because it could take decades to counteract the damage. It will also take the consistency of students hearing a common positive message about failure from year to year of their schooling. And as long as grades and testing data have such a strong emphasis, it will be hard to reverse the damage being done to the way our students think and learn, which is also the way that most of their parents were trained to think and learn in school. But for now, I will hold onto these special moments…AMAZING moments of failure, imperfection, mistakes, struggle…and hope that my students will continue to remember the learning and success that can result from these moments.
Students and parents, raise your hand if you jump up and down when you hear the words “group work”?! If you’re raising your hand, you are not the norm. For most, phrases like “group work” or “group projects” create anxiety, dread, and resent. But why??? Collaboration as a means of 21st century learning has been a buzz word since before I started teaching 4 and a half years ago, and for great reason! Collaborative learning is an authentic replication of work in the real world, a way for students to learn from one another and experience other perspectives, a way of appealing to the interpersonal intelligence for those whose are motivated to learn with others, and so much more. Sure, collaboration is challenging…no one every said that putting a bunch of different ideas in the mix made it easier to come to an agreement. But collaborative learning should be seen as an engaging and worthwhile challenge for both those participating (students) and watching from afar (parents). I’ve noticed parents requesting more worksheets over collaborative learning, and heard of parents not choosing particular schools because of a focus on collaborative work. So why do the people being affected by collaborative learning often dislike it so much? They are the ones who should be benefiting!
In shifting from the role of a student myself to a teacher, I’ve gradually noticed a shift in my own perspective on collaboration as a means of learning. As a student, I generally didn’t care for it. As the stereotypical student overachiever, working in groups generally resulted in me attempting to micromanage the whole project as if it were my own individual project, or if that didn’t work, resulted in me stressing over whether others would follow through with their parts or negatively affect my grade. In both types of scenarios, grades were the focus and learning was stifled for me and/or other group members. Additionally, these types of activities were more about dividing the large project into smaller “sub-projects,” so each group member usually ended up working independently rather than collaboratively. But my shift to the role of teacher has opened my eyes to the value that collaboration can genuinely have on both social-emotional and content-specific learning. So what exactly are the problems students are experiencing in this dreaded type of collaborative learning, and what can we teachers do about it?
1. Teamwork vs. Collaboration
First things first, let’s be clear on the definitions of terms. Many “group projects” are not collaborative in nature, but activities requiring teamwork.
Teamwork is when everyone takes on a smaller piece of the larger project; and when each of those small pieces are put together, the larger project is complete. There is definitely a time and place for teamwork, whether students each take on a specific job in the work or complete a certain section of the work. Yes, in the real world, this is a realistic model for work completion. But the goal of these activities should not necessarily be to teach the concept of working together, or collaboration. When taking part in teamwork, people work more so individually.
Collaboration, on the other hand, is when a group creates something together from the ground up. The team creates the idea collectively, and all members pitch in however possible to put the idea into action. These collaborative activities are the ones that genuinely teach students how to work effectively with others, appreciate perspectives different from their own, and respond to different ideas and opinions.
2. Grades vs. Reflection
In either situation, whether teamwork or collaboration, the emphasis should be on reflection to become better rather than on grades.
Grades often squelch learning, particularly collaborative learning, which is already a challenge without tying a grade to it. Placing a grade on collaborative activities creates a pressure that causes the learners involved increased frustration and resentment. When disagreements arise, now the goal has shifted from “How can we effectively come to an agreement?” to “If we don’t hurry up and come to an agreement, we won’t get a good grade,” or “If these people don’t listen to my idea we’re gonna fail.” Grades have the potential to teach ineffective collaboration and add frustration to an already challenging process.
Reflection helps learners think back on the experience in an honest way. Without the pressure of grades, students can feel freedom to be realistic about their learning and collaborative efforts in a given activity. When reflecting honestly, students can acknowledge mistakes they might have made during the process, in efforts to learn from those mistakes and become better for next time. In fact, reflection (over grades) might help learners see the positive, rather than the negative and failure, in mistakes.
3. Culminating Projects vs. Learning
Collaborative learning often takes place at the end of a unit, as a summative project reflecting what students learned (to give a grade), rather than as PART of the learning process.
Culminating projects involving collaboration usually remove learning from the experience. Often, collaborative projects are simply supposed to reflect what members of the group have learned for a final grade. Similar to the idea of projects versus project-based learning, a culminating project may as well be the word “test,” again creating added pressure to an already challenging skill.
Learninghappens throughout a unit, not at the end. Collaboration is a great, engaging way to teach new content, while also building students’ collaborative skillset. A collaborative type of activity should more often happen along the way as students learn, not always at the end of the unit. If it could just be approached as part of the learning process, rather than a final “show what you know” group project, it might not be so intimidating and stressful.
In closing, if collaboration isn’t challenging students in a motivating way, something is wrong. So let’s reflect on our teaching practices, so that we can do something about it!
Kindergarten is a lot like herding cats. I had never actually heard that expression until I became a Kindergarten teacher, and it is the perfect visual to reflect what our classes may look like at times, particularly at first.
And for that reason, every time that a new Kindergarten year circles back around, I find myself unsure of how to get started. So much growth occurs during the school year, that it’s hard to even remember what those little 5 year olds are like in the beginning, entering the formal school setting for the first time. It seems like every year I have to physically stop myself from planning a full-out writing activity for the first day/week…wait, we’re still learning letters and sounds! And I just never quite account for the amount of time it will truly take to complete activities…everything takes double the time to get through between expectation reviews, new routines to explain, thorough modeling needed, and transitions. They grow so much during the Kindergarten year that they make you forget just how much structuring it took first quarter to bring the chaos to a controlled and productive level. What makes it even more challenging: while students need to learn the structures, routines, and expectations of the classroom in order to actually function in school and activities, the curriculum doesn’t wait.
So how do I begin, teaching students how to go to school while jumping into the “real” learning right away?
While this problem may be magnified on the Kindergarten level due to their young age and newness to school, I know that this is something that teachers of all grade levels encounter: starting over with a new class, a year younger than the class you just finished with. Shout-out to my friend Aubrey Diorio for getting me pumped for the new school year with her recent post on new school year must do’s, and for inspiring this reflection. While Aubrey’s post gives awesome examples of specific, beginning of school must do’s to set your class up for success (go read it!!!), my post more specifically tackles how to actually dive into and structure the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, just looking back at last year’s lesson plans isn’t always enough: those plans may not account for how routines and expectations were taught and embedded throughout the day, and for things you want to do better or differently for the upcoming year. Each year, it feels like I am re-learning how to structure the beginning of year chaos; but after some time reflecting, I have outlined some of my tips, priorities, and strategies for starting a new school year, or in a Kindergarten teacher’s case…”herding those cats,” as smoothly and effectively as possible.
1. Make lists
Before the kids arrive, I have found it helpful to make lists. Not just a list for the thousand things I have to do to get the room ready, but a list, broken into categories, to outline expectations, routines, activities, flexible seating expectations, and protocols students need to learn to get the classroom up and running. My list is categorized into 3 sections: expectations (embodying all behavioral expectations, flexible seating expectations, routines, protocols, and day-to-day skills needed), centers (both beginning of year literacy/STEAM and initial Daily 5 literacy centers), and technology (apps, systems, and activities for beginning of year). Your list may be more broad or more specific than that. In essence, this is a “Planning To Do List”…what your students need to learn in order to learn in your classroom for the year. Don’t just make the list, but try to prioritize it. For example, students can’t get through the first day of school without carpet time and work time, so expectations for sitting on the carpet, using supplies, and using flexible seating should be taught day 1. This is a list that I print off, cross items off of, and pull un-taught items from to put into my weekly lesson plans. And in the world of Kindergarten, these are lists I pull from throughout the entire first quarter. Time to spare? Teach something else from “the list.”
2. Build a strong foundation
All students need a strong foundation to learn the expectations and routines of their new classroom, but Kindergarten takes this one to another level! Using my running list of all the new “school things,” daily expectations, and routines students need to learn, I will teach, practice, and reinforce new skills daily. Sometimes I act out the procedure, sometimes peers act it out, sometimes students illustrate a picture of themselves following the expectation, sometimes we search for examples and non-examples in literature, sometimes we make “do’s” and “don’ts” anchor charts. And while expectations are embedded into all areas, some aspects taught are more behavioral and some are more like classroom systems or routines for certain parts of the day. Our first writing project is all about behavioral expectations, as students practice their illustrating skills to reflect themselves showing given school expectations. Regardless of what foundational concept is being taught, there is SO much to learn in this department for Kinders that I’m usually building the foundation throughout first quarter, and of course throughout the year as things become more challenging.
3. Take the time to fill in gaps
Sometimes a routine or procedure has already been taught, but each day we complete it, there are issues. Whether it’s a flexible seating or classroom library procedure, it’s easy to become frustrated when it was taught but isn’t being followed. I used to keep the mindset that it has been taught, I just reviewed it impatiently, and it will be a waste of our time to go back and fully re-teach; but at a BT meeting a couple years ago, the mentors in the room reminded me that it was never a waste of time to strengthen a routine in the classroom. At the time, I had been feeling so pressured to keep up with the curriculum that I had undermined the importance of filling in those gaps. Filling in the foundational gaps students may have missed not only brings sanity to you, it brings clarity to them and helps the classroom run more efficiently in the long-run. So rather than become frustrated with myself or them, I’m learning to take the time to fully re-teach the expectation in a new way.
4. Make modifications
Certain groups handle things differently than others, and some groups aren’t ready for certain routines others may have handled easily right away. There’s no shame in modifications for success! Some years, I have had to make a special beginning of year classroom library, because the large sticker system library was too overwhelming for most students for the first quarter or two. Students still had books to access, so they could still complete tasks, but without as many choices and without as structured of an organizational system. Another example- last year, my class needed assigned numbers to line-up on for greater structure. We still got where we needed to go, but we modified how.
Many activities, both at the beginning and throughout the year, are structured into student stations. I have found student learning stations (or centers) to be effective for many reasons: they provide a variety of activities, they can be easily differentiated for ability and interest, they promote a small group learning structure, and they allow for a teacher (and/or instructional assistant) to lead stations that require greater student support and allow for less independence. In the beginning of the year, we ease our way into stations, with the eventual goal of implementing literacy centers in the Daily 5 structure. Beginning of year stations, implemented for a portion of our literacy block (but we also do math stations throughout the year!!), integrate different STEAM, reading, and writing elements. While keeping up with the curriculum, I try to implement as many themes for play (and creativity) as possible, since play sadly diminishes little by little throughout the year. I plan for 2 teacher-led (usually literacy and art), and 3 independent stations for students to rotate through. To go into a little more depth on some of the subjects and station activities we implement on the Kindergarten level-
Writing: We often work on self-portraits, illustrations to tell a story, and sketches to sequence events of a story. While sketching, we think in shapes; and while illustrating, we practice coloring neatly and using colors that make sense.
Reading: If a teacher directed station, we often work on parts of a book, print concepts, and reading behaviors at this point in the year. Students can all use any classroom library books of their choice with these open-ended tasks! As time progresses during the quarter, students begin to learn and implement an independent read to self time, either telling the story using the pictures in the book or using sticky notes to search for given items (sight words, colors, literacy concepts, punctuation, letters) in text.
Art: Students can create name art in different ways: crumbled tissue paper balls, miscellaneous craft materials, foam squares, newspaper cutting, etc. Students also create art that goes with read-clouds we read, which helps them build their fine motor skills and learn to follow multi-step directions.
Tech: Students play with an app that has been newly introduced. While keeping it open-ended, it is helpful to give students challenges, for example: try to use the typing feature, camera feature, and drawing feature in your creation. After students have explored the app and can make connections to it and its features, I phase into some collaborative tech activities that begin to integrate curriculum and prepare for the ways they will use different creation-based apps in Daily 5 literacy centers. Implementing a tech station is also an opportunity for students to practice logging into their Google Drive accounts with our brand new Chromebooks.
Imaginative play: Students can participate in a free choice play center, like blocks, housekeeping, legos, or doll house.
Engineering/Makerspace: We have many “building tubs” in our classroom that enhance student fine motor and also give opportunities for imaginative play. These tubs often start the year without constraints, promoting free play. This year, I plan to start adding in more structure as students get comfortable, giving a specific category or challenge for students to create around. Students can also create using the makerspace.
6. Introduce permanent structures gradually
For students to take part in these stations, there is a lot of modeling and direction-giving that happens so that they can be successful independently. Young students struggle so much to actively listen for long periods on the carpet, so this can make simultaneously introducing more permanent, long-term routines and activities a challenge. It takes long enough to master the open-ended station structure described above, but by the end of first quarter, students also have to be ready to jump into our more permanent Daily 5 centers. It takes strategy to prepare students for the long-term, while promoting success in the short-term as well. To do this, I make time for 15-minute mini-lessons throughout first quarter, to teach the literacy centers (read to self, word work options, tech options, and work on writing options) that students will need to independently access as we make the transition.
Again, making a list helps. I’ve written down all of the centers students will have to jump into 2nd quarter, and that’s what you’ll want to break into mini-lessons. In the mini-lesson, I usually model completing the center myself, then complete it again with a partner to model the collaborative aspect, and finally have students repeat the directions back to me. Then, that particular center that has been taught may slowly make its way into our beginning of year stations, so that students see it again soon and get practice completing it independently. Tech is a little bit different, as young Kindergarten students need plenty of time to play with an app, with some specific challenges of features to try, before integrating a subject area right away. So modeling tech may start as modeling creating a “for fun” project, rather than giving students a task aligned with the curriculum right away. Implementing mini-lessons has helped me make a smooth transition from beginning of year centers to permanent centers.
7. Longer morning meetings
Morning meeting is a great way to integrate so many of the foundational skills students need: expectations, social skills, team building, and growth mindset. This year, I want to plan my morning meetings even more intentionally and do a better job sticking to my daily structure I’ve outlined:
These themes follow a daily handshake and greeting that students give each other around the circle. First quarter, a longer morning meeting not only helps better build that foundation and classroom community, it also gives an opportunity to explicitly teach social skills. Students also, of course, need time to actually learn morning meeting routines (that handshake feels like it takes hours to get through at first!). And morning meeting is a time to review things that are and aren’t working in the classroom, so it is a great time to re-teach expectations needing review and for students to bring expectation suggestions and questions to the table. Last year, students suggested early on that I tape the floor to indicate where to put away flexible seating items after an activity.
8. 4C activities
Going along with the social skills foundation that students need, it is important to get students collaborating, communicating, thinking critically, and creating right away. While keeping up with the curriculum and teaching it effectively creates curriculum experts, we want well-rounded experts with 21st century foundational skills! Each of the 4Cs can be taught through one larger 4C activity, or through individual 4C activities highlighting each C. It is helpful to integrate literacy as these skills are introduced. Last year, Chris Tuttell and Janet Pride led our school in some PD, introducing us to 4 different texts that go along with and help teach each of the 4Cs. Along with each text, there are plenty of individual activities that highlight and have students practice each of the Cs. Last year, I instead ended up using one text to introduce a STEM challenge to students, and highlighted a different C that went with each day of our work as I added to our anchor chart. I later used the 4 texts mentioned above to reinforce the 4 Cs throughout the year. Regardless of how the 4Cs are introduced and practiced, it is helpful to define the 4Cs individually, so that students begin understanding and using the language. There are many ways to jump in, but the main takeaways: introduce each C, define each C, have students practice each C, and use literature as a springboard.
Taking the time to reflect on my beginning of year organization strategies for diving in with a new class has allowed me to more clearly define the structures I’ve informally adopted. Maybe this structure has given others some thoughts or ideas to ponder or tweak to make your own, or maybe you have some of your own tips to share in the comments below! I love the beginning of school and tend to want to rush right into the fun learning and excitement, but I and my students also thrive in a structured, organized environment. We teachers have to be strategic in order to dive right in WHILE building the foundation up! Even though I’ve worked most of my summer away and feel like I’ve hardly had a chance to blink since the last school year, I am ready and SO excited to get started with my 18-19 class of Kindergarteners!!!
I entered the Structural Adhesive Department of LORD Corporation’s Process Development Center early Monday morning, the first day of my Kenan Fellows externship. Mistake number one: wearing a dress and sandals, not exactly “lab attire.” But that didn’t matter, because I was quickly overwhelmed with the buzzing excitement of the real world. As teachers, we prepare our students for the real world every single day, and hopefully we are providing ample opportunities for our students to interact with authentic, real world situations and materials…but as teachers, we rarely get the chance to be in the real world.
As I toured the facilities, my excitement for this special opportunity grew and my eyes were opened to the true value of the Kenan Fellowship program. There should be thousands of innovative opportunities like this, to broaden our educator perspectives and to remind of us of why we do what we do. Inside the labs were chemists and chemical engineers, working to create adhesives that both strengthen and increase the aesthetics of cars. My mentor John Lean described some of the new types of adhesives they were working on for electric car batteries, along with showing me the hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment used to test LORD’s adhesives. One machine even crash tests the strength of their adhesives to mimic that of a car crash…woah.
My mind churned with ideas I could bring back to my kinders…big picture ideas that would help them see the value in science and how it solves problems and affects our daily lives. At this point, I still had no clue what I would be doing in the labs during my 3 weeks, yet I already had the beginnings of ideas for what my students might explore or create. I met with my mentor at the end of my first day to discuss my project, which would relate to my project for my students. Starting with the end in mind, I asked him what he sees as a need in preparing students for STEM careers like LORD. He began describing the impact that many variables play in affecting different outcomes of the same process, and then handed me a large notebook of process mapping information, accompanied by the actual process I would be experimenting with. I would be completing the same process repeatedly, bonding 2 metal coupons with the same adhesive, and after a day taken to cure for each batch, I would use an Instron machine to measure the force required to pull the coupons apart. He explained that while I might follow the same steps each time, there are different variables that will affect different outcomes in the force measurement each time. I was tasked with creating a process map to outline the steps, and then identifying any variables (room temperature, dispersion of adhesive, coverage of substrate, amount of glass beads, size of static mixer, etc.) that could possibly influence different outcomes in the process. The ultimate goal of my experimentation was to control the outside variables as much as possible in order to obtain similar results each time. Ready….GO!
My first thought: Kindergarteners? Variables? Process mapping? Hmmm…this should be interesting.
My second thought: Me? Dispensing adhesive? Bonding metal? Process mapping? Measuring force?
My third thought: There must be value in this process…what is it, and how can I share it with my students?
And when I thought back to how LORD affects the daily lives and safety of people with their products, I realized why it was so important that a process be as controlled as possible so that it can produce the consistently proven results it was designed to produce – results that end up in people’s cars. And that moment was when my head started spinning with ways I could not only keep the big picture ideas I had started with in mind, but blend those ideas with this new important aspect that my experience was already beginning to teach me.
Now you might be wondering how I’m so comfortable using the lingo and terms above, maybe not…but if I had read this post before I began my externship, I would most definitely be wondering. The open-ended experience of creating a process map for my task, with nothing to go off of other than an abstract formula and example of the process mapping for making scrambled eggs (and Google), is what got me to this point of comfort with the terminology and steps of the process. And the best part – creating the process map gave me a genuine appreciation for how a challenge, without prior modeling or an outline of steps to follow for completion, can engage and grow someone. It also effectively prepared me for the chemical research and experimentation I began this past week. No one gave chemical engineers a guide to the adhesives they would create: they used their background knowledge and resources to problem-solve through trial and error, making mistakes along the way as I have. And it’s not often that I’m on the learning side of a challenge, but I am LOVING it! THANK YOU, KENAN FELLOWS PROGRAM!!!!
You can try the same process over & over, but many variables can influence a different outcome each time. That matters when you create products that affect people’s lives & safety! @LORDCorporation thx for teaching me lessons thru hands-on experience that I can bring to my Ss! pic.twitter.com/1akgMLVJd2
When I was offered this externship, I really wasn’t sure how I would get the job done. The description sounded so cool but also so out of my element, which is part of what drew me to it, but also what made it a little intimidating. But it has also taught me about myself and how I should never be scared to take on something that seems “not me.” Just because I have to wear a lab coat and safety glasses and am tasked with chemical research does not mean I can’t do it! The stigmas embedded in the words science and chemistry are probably what have held me back from diving all in for many years, and I know I’m not alone in that – there are many other teachers and students who feel that same way. Using a bunch of big words and conducting random experiments can seem confusing and meaningless…science is not. Now science can be complex, but with a growth mindset, those complex things can be learned when there is meaning and purpose behind them. This experience in the real world is just what I needed to continue transforming my view of science, and I am so excited to present science to my students from the new perspective I am learning this summer! Stay tuned to see how my project for Kindergarteners develops!
It is hard to believe that my 4th year of teaching is coming to a close. Being completely transparent, this year has challenged me in ways I have never experienced, both resulting from professional growth opportunities that I have voluntarily taken on and from the quality and quantity of needs among the students in my class. There have been glimpses of joy and rewarding moments that have of course made the year worthwhile, but I have also experienced my fair share of difficulty in a variety of ways. Even though I know it is my job to meet my learners where they are, it has felt discouraging at times to modify and even totally change routines and activities that have worked for past years. With many years ahead of me in my career and only a few behind me, I predict that there will be many “types” of school years, each unique in growing my practice and building the educator stamina that I have been building since year 1.
I have been aching to introduce my class to my brand new cart of 7 Chromebooks, devices recently rolled out to WCPSS classrooms at the end of this school year. But for several weeks, the feelings of a challenging and overwhelming school year, combined with continuous end of year literacy and math testing, prevented me from jumping right in with those devices. But with 6 days left of school and a newfound inspiration to take a risk, I decided to go for it. All year, I had planned to facilitate the creation of digital portfolios for each student in my room, and I was determined not to let that goal slip away. Student digital portfolios are a new push in the district, as a means of student housing of and reflection on work over time. The Kindergarten team and school leaders at my school believe that this should start for students at the beginning of their school experience in Kindergarten. So here is how I used our new Chromebook devices to make this happen on the Kindergarten level!
1. Practice logging in right away first quarter.
Yes, there is QR code option for younger elementary students to log into their Google account (a very long, time consuming process), and yes, that makes it faster. But in the long run, if students have been logging in the same way since Kindergarten, they will be faster in 3rd grade rather than having to learn “the long way” then. My team has learned the value in this over the past few years working alongside our ITF Chris Tuttell, and we have learned and evolved in our practice of working with Kinders in Google over the years. This was the first year we started the logging in process right away first quarter, and it has paid off! And now that we have our Chromebooks, several steps of this process (computer login + going into Chrome + entering web address) are eliminated and will allow us to move even more quickly next year!
Google, here we come! Ts learn from past yrs- Ss work in small groups, and only log-in to computer/practice moving/clicking mouse day 1! pic.twitter.com/8nT1teDlG6
These kinders have logged into their google drives! Next steps: create our K folder, add content/projects to our folders, and take home information for logging in and working in drive at home! #kindersCANpic.twitter.com/ELKNliw003
Digital portfolios are really just a reflection on favorite pieces of work from the year, including work done in Google Drives. As the group prepared to create their Sites, they completed work in their Google Drives that would be linked to their sites, such as an animal picture and shape replication in Google Draw and an all about me Google Slide.
3. Advance student leaders in the digital portfolio process.
We have used upper grade student mentors while logging in and working in Google over the years, and I highly recommend this with younger students. With ambitions of having students create digital portfolios on Google Sites to link work from throughout the year, we started with a small cohort of K students from a couple of classrooms. This had 2 benefits: we could provide greater support to a small group of students as they created, and then these students could be tech leaders to assist the whole group in creating theirs.
With my own uncertainty about how to structure the use of 7 Chromebooks for 21 students, coupled with never having used a Chromebook myself, I decided that our after school program with 5 Kinders in my room would be the perfect setting to try them out! Starting small gave me the comfort I needed to go big!
Look at these kinders independently logging in and using our brand new Chrome books during the after school program! Searched around our campus for signs of spring and made a Google Draw to represent our findings! We ❤️our new devices @WCPSS !!!#kindersCANpic.twitter.com/1iW8KTJEdH
5. Create and add work to sites in small groups, with student tech helpers.
After reviewing Chromebook etiquette and procedures for taking out and putting away, students were put into 3 groups of 7. Student leaders who had already made Google Sites portfolios were strategically dispersed into each group. Groups of 7 rotated to 3 learning centers, one of which being Google Site creation on the Chromebooks. In this first step, students created a Site through their Google Drive, using the New Google Sites option. They worked specifically on the home page, typing their name and site title, customizing colors and background images, and linking in an all about me Google Slide. Next, we will add a Kindergarten page and link in more work!
Thx to 7 new chrome books, station-based rotations, amazing S tech leaders, and the growth mindset and intrinsic motivation each learner displayed today, every S in my class now has a Google Sites digital portfolio up & running!More than ever I am reminded that #kindersCANpic.twitter.com/TGPh7I96eV
After a tough school year, and with only 6 days left with this group of students, this was just the joy that I and they needed. Having 21 Kindergarten students successfully get their sites up and running reminded me of my strong belief in the capability of young learners. Each year brings a new set of challenges, talents, needs, gifts, and unpredictable circumstances. But I am reminded to embrace change and challenged to find the structures and modifications so that each year, #kindersCAN continue to do amazing things.
Opportunity context plays a large role in a person’s confidence, and therefore, learning. I was lucky to grow up in an environment where all influences encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Not only was I taught to go after my dreams, I was told that I would reach them if I put my mind to it with practice and determination. I could be anything I wanted to be with the right amount of studying and schooling. I never had to question what I was capable of because of the mindset instilled in me since birth.
As early as Kindergarten, it is clear who comes in with a work ethic to persist through challenges, who is learning that practice leads to growth, and who already believes that “you either have smarts or you don’t.” Growth versus fixed mindsets within students not only affect their overall confidence, the type of mindset a child carries also affects his or her level of academic achievement. Students who don’t believe they can grow come in believing they will not be successful, and their mindset causes the outcome to be a “self-fulfilling prophecy”- what they believe about themselves comes true. For many students entering Kindergarten, school is a foreign concept. Not only is picking up a pencil a new thing for some, but following multi-step directions, asking for help, and independently taking responsibility for personal items are all brand new concepts. It takes practice for many students to adapt when they have not been to school at all, did not receive quality preschool with valuable Kindergarten preparation, or did not go for the length of time of their peers. Children are aware of this gap, and many of those who have not had as much school and academic exposure seem to believe that they will always struggle. Many are scared to try new things…like tracing the letters in their name or raising their hand to respond to a question. They see others doing it with such confidence and believe “they just don’t have it.”
Here are some quotes, some amidst tears and hyperventilation, that I have heard this year reflecting a fixed mindset:
“I can’t do it.”
“This is too hard.”
“I’m scared…I can’t….”
“But I don’t know how.”
“Oh I wasn’t raising my hand…I wouldn’t know that answer.”
“I’m always gonna have bad days and everyone else is always gonna have good days.” (referring to behavior)
This fixed mindset in students becomes a problem. And Kindergarten is the pivotal age to begin addressing this issue of mindset, as the achievement and opportunity gap begins dividing students from the first day of K on. Their beliefs about themselves are holding them back from where they could be. Research shows that when we practice a skill, our brain gets stronger and more proficient with that skill; and the more we get into the habit of absorbing new information and taking part in the struggle of the learning process, the better we get at new skills and at learning in general. Contrary to what was believed for many years, there aren’t “math” people or “word” people…we can all be any kind of people we want if we practice and persist through challenges.
This year more than years past, it was clear that I needed to teach students about the science behind their brains. Many students weren’t going to do much growing until they believed they COULD grow. So here are some ways that we are learning about and practicing a growth mindset on a weekly basis:
–Morning Meeting: Morning meeting is a time to come together as a class each morning, greet one another, share out, and focus our day for a successful start. Morning meeting has provided a lot of outlets for focusing on growth mindset. We have used this time to learn about a growth mindset, and that intelligence is not fixed. Additionally, when sharing out, students often respond to mindset prompts and share with others what they are proud of, something that is a challenge for them, something they can’t do YET, etc. We also use morning meeting to reflect on growth and show new student work compared to previous student work, giving students visual evidence that their brain has grown.
–Class Dojo Videos: This is where the bulk of growth mindset instruction took place and how students learned about the secret behind their brains. Even if your school does not use Class Dojo, these videos can be located on youtube as well. These videos have given us the language (matched with visuals) to talk about how our learning can change, rather than our learning being fixed. The first video showed us Mojo’s (the main character) original thinking: that you’re either good at something (like math), or you aren’t. His thinking isn’t resolved until the 2nd video. After watching the first video, I took a vote to see who believed that “smarts” are either something you have or you don’t; and who believed you could get better with practice. Only 2 students originally believed you could get better with practice.. A couple weeks later, I took the vote again, and everyone unanimously believed practice helps you improve and learning is not fixed. Below is the first of the five growth mindset videos, and the first of three perseverance videos.
–Language: The videos we have watched and conversations happening in our morning meeting have transformed our overall language. Now you might hear an “I can’t do it…YET.” And if that yet doesn’t make it to the end of the phrase, you can bet the people sitting near that student will chime in with a YET to remind their friend of a growth mindset. Another phrase we love and have adopted from the Class Dojo videos is to “take the challenge,” rather than run away or give up. That has really taken the place of “this is too hard,” as students are now inspired to “take the challenge” and get better at whatever skill they are practicing. A fellow K teacher on my team, Claire Morrison, does an amazing job instilling a growth mindset in her students! She has also adopted similar language with her students through the Class Dojo videos, and they took the phrase to the next level and made it their class motto (see below). It is hanging in the front of the room signed by all the students in her class. Also, check out her anchor chart (see right) on transforming language to reflect a growth mindset! This anchor chart is our next step during Morning Meeting this week…thanks, Claire!
Earlier this yr a S said "Look Ms. Morrison, I took the challenge!" & it has since become our class motto. We talk often about the power of 'yet' & these awesome kinders wanted to pledge to challenge themselves to always try their best! #wetakethechallenge#kindersCANpic.twitter.com/QnvdGUYbfZ
–Focus on practice: We talk about practice all the time now. Students are seeing that the learning activities we take part in throughout the day ARE practice that help us learn. Tasks are no longer scary, they are practice. And students are less scared to take risks, because they know that trying it is how you learn. This has been a big mindset shift. A couple of students have used the phrase “practice makes perfect,” and are usually now stopped by other students who remind them, “there’s no such thing as perfect…we can always get better!” Once recently, a student got an answer wrong, and another student giggled. One student got very defensive for her peer who had gotten the answer wrong, and said “It’s not funny! He is learning, and you have to try it to learn!” In another instance, a couple of students were questioned by another student for having to complete their work at a teacher’s table for extra support, an outsider listening in again jumped to their defense, saying “They may not have had as much practice as you before…sitting with the teacher helps them get better practice to learn!” As a group, our language has transformed, and when we go back to “old language,” you can see how other students jump to the defense.
–Activities where learning isn’t easy: Various 4C/STEM activities have helped us practice using a growth mindset. These activities really show students what taking on a challenge feels like. And we have seen, just like in our videos, that just because you take on a challenge does not mean you’ll get it figured out in the snap of a finger. You have to persist through the challenge even when it continues to be difficult, or even when you sometimes fall into “the dip.” We are finding that learning can feel like a struggle, and not to run away from the struggle.
–Reflection: After these challenging STEM activities, it is always important to reflect on the activities and on student mindset. We ask what was easy, what was hard, and next steps. Students are now identifying times when they went into “the dip,” or when they really had to show perseverance to get through a challenge, or how they still need a little more practice to master a skill. Reflection is also what we do in our Morning Meeting, when sharing personal experiences or responding to Mojo’s experiences in the video clips we watch. We reflect orally often, and at this point in the year, have also started reflecting using self-assessment exit tickets after a lesson. We’re seeing how reflection helps us identify areas of struggle so that we can improve.
Taking some time out of the day to teach growth mindset has been critical to my students’ learning this year. You can see through the above example descriptions the new and improved ways students are talking about and approaching learning. Growth mindset, in essence, embodies the #kindersCAN movement – a belief in the capabilities of our youngest learners, and consequently, a belief in all learners and ourselves.
During my first year of teaching (around 3 years ago), growth mindset was a big district push, and I learned a lot about it; but this is the first time I have shared about it with my students, and the outcome has been amazing: students are learning how to think of themselves as learners, but also learning character strengths that will bring them success in life. I believe that growth mindset is a springboard for overall confidence which, in many senses, is vital to a person’s success. Confidence- a belief in oneself- is what makes someone unstoppable, and confidence starts building from birth on. Often, confidence makes the difference between thinking you have value or not, being able to effectively defend yourself or not, creating aspirations you want to live up to or not, turning that tassel or not, going to college or not, following your dreams or not, maybe even taking a path no one else in your family took or not. It is easy to take confidence for granted when it was instilled in you since birth, but more than any other content I learned in school, I recognize that confidence is what got me where I am now. Growing up, I didn’t realize how privileged I was to always know in my mind that I would be successful if I put my mind to it (aka confidence)….and to never worry about whether taking a risk could result in complete failure, or whether I’d have to defend a questionable choice I made, or whether I’d be capable of making it through school. I always had confidence I could do it all, and it is vital to remember that not everyone’s experiences instill that level of confidence! Building up confidence in learners from day one is really more important than anything else they could learn; and it is part of what many groups or students need in order to be on an equitable playing field with their peers. So before assuming students “can’t do it,” help them believe that they can; give them the right level of instruction, tools, and opportunities for practice; have them reflect on what they can do when they have a growth mindset; and work with them to build confidence that pours into all the areas of their lives. That’s one of the best ways we can ensure equity and genuinely change lives in this profession.
I became a teacher to make a difference in our world and the people living in it. Make a difference…we’ve heard the phrase a million times, but my “why” has deep meaning for our society: the world needs change, and who better to serve as active agents for change, than those who work directly with the future adults of our world? I get to work with the young citizens of our country when they are just 5 and 6 years old, for 10 consecutive months of their lives, seeing them for more hours in the day than their parents even get to see them. And even though I may only work with an average of 20 students each year, I can use my voice to help impact education at my school, in my district, and abroad, through the tools we have access to in this day in age.
When I picture myself making a difference, I envision a class of Kindergarteners with no more tattling, because they’ve learned to work out their differences without my help. I envision a group of students who can build and create to display their thinking, because they aren’t one-dimensional students who need paper/pencil every time. I envision students who collaboratively put their different strengths together to solve a problem, rather than preferring to work alone because it’s easier. I envision students pursuing their personal passions, even if no one student’s learning path looks the same as another, to become experts in what matters to them. These are ways I envision myself making a difference…creating group after group of prepared and thoughtful citizens, who will eventually become the adults and leaders in our society.
These are the thoughts and visions that led me to get my degree in Elementary Education, but these are also the thoughts and visions that temporarily came to a screeching halt when I was thrown out on my own during my first year of teaching. In our district, state, and nation, there is a large emphasis on the curriculum standards, particularly CORE standards (English Language Arts and Math), that students are expected to master by the end of each year. In elementary schools throughout the state of North Carolina, we have even transitioned to Standards Based Grading, where students are given a 1, 2, or 3 in each particular curriculum standard. I became a teacher to make a difference in our world and the people living in it, but without even realizing it, my focus had shifted to standards, standards, and more standards. As a first year teacher, and really as a teacher with any level of experience, the amount of “standards” that need to be taught and assessed each quarter seems astronomical; so naturally, this becomes the focus, and for me, it overshadowed the whole reason I became a teacher. At this point in my career, teaching the standards became like checking off a mandatory checklist that drove all my instruction. When teaching becomes centered around checking off boxes, our lessons lose relevance for the learners; and for me, I lost sight of the big picture, my why.
Teachers can’t get rid of the curriculum we’re expected to teach; in fact, we do need a curriculum to guide us and to ensure that our students are getting similar experiences, are being held to a set of common, high expectations, and are learning content skills that will help them be successful in the real world. But finally I realized…there are effective teachers out there finding a way to get it ALL in, not just the standards, but the real-life, 21st century learning skills also. After a year of building a comfort level with the curriculum and taking baby steps in 21st teaching and learning, I was ready to bring back my “why,” and more than before, make a real and true difference in the lives of students. Teaching the whole child isn’t simply about training a book-smart society, it’s about teaching the standards AND MORE.
Things are Looking Up
I am honored to be a part of the Instructional Leadership Team for my school, where we hear directly from our district, take part in learning about components of our district’s vision, and discuss as a team how we will tie these components into our school’s personal plan for improvement. It has been so refreshing to be a part of our district’s movement to #becomebetter for students, and to understand our new emphasis on both the standards and the 4Cs (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity). The 4Cs really are the foundation of relevant, 21st century learning…the 4Cs line up with all those visions I mentioned above. And even our district is now saying that these 2 things are linked together, so when I’m teaching the standards, I should be having the students learn and practice the standards by communicating and collaborating with one another, thinking critically, and coming up with creative solutions and ways of displaying their learning. When digging into our district’s vision, there is a new emphasis on teaching the WHOLE child…this is music to my ears! Teaching effective life skills is no longer something I feel like I have to creatively sneak into my day; I am actually being asked to align my why with the standards I am expected to teach.
Standards AND 4Cs
So how are we doing it in Kindergarten? Now that we’re starting to get over the first month of K beginning of the year hump, we used a fun project as a springboard for introducing the 4Cs as our foundation for the school year. This is a project that Linnea Gibson introduced me to and co-taught with me during my first year of teaching, but doing it again year 4 has allowed me to really link the standards and 4Cs, make it my own, and be even more intentional with the goals and learning I want students to walk away with. We worked with the story Spookley for about 2 weeks, thinking critically about the key ideas and details from the text (standard RLK.1). Students responded to the text in writing by completing the picture and illustrating a scene from the story (standard WK.3). We compared the story Spookley, a fictional story about a square pumpkin, to a nonfiction story about how pumpkins grow and change (standard RLK.5).
It is easy to see how we linked this story to our reading and writing standards over these weeks, but to culminate our unit with the book, we focused in on a key detail from the story: the problem with the fence in the pumpkin patch. The fence broke, and many pumpkins rolled out of the fence into the ocean during a storm. Spookley helped save the day by using his square shape to block the crack in the fence. Our job was to create a new solution to the story: using a chosen material, students were put into groups to collaboratively build a fence with their material. Students were asked to build a strong fence that would not break when the storm came and shook up the pumpkins.
Before making an official plan, we focused on communication and critical thinking. Students first chose the material they wanted to use. Then in their group, they took turns thinking critically about and communicating their individual ideas for the fence, and responding/giving feedback to the ideas that were shared.
Shout out to my teammate Claire Morrison for taking the risk to jump in and try this project with her students too (during her first year of teaching)! This open-ended element of the project is something I would have been so scared to try my first year…how would Kindergarten students have productive and effective conversations without an adult present to facilitate each group? But with a structured protocol and role play modeling beforehand, they CAN! You just have to let them try it, even if it seems like organized chaos!
To make their official plans, we focused on collaboration and creativity. Students each took on a job in designing the plan they had communicated about the day before, and made their own creative, collaborative plan. I also completed our 4C anchor chart shown below.
Shoutout to another teammate, Kelsey Clarke, for intentionally integrating the 4 Cs with her kinders on this project also!
After breaking the large task into smaller daily sub-tasks, with explicit modeling and instruction on the 4 Cs, each group successfully built their fences! We tested them with pumpkins, I shook up their fence for a storm, and every fence was strong enough to hold the pumpkins inside!
It could’ve been easy to skip the fence building part of the project. We had already checked off standards RLK.1, RLK.5, and WK.3…why do anything else with the story? But if I chose to skip out on opportunities like this culminating Spookley project all year long, I would deprive my students of practicing and building on the skills they will need to be valuable and effective citizens in society. If all I did was teach the standards, I would be creating one-dimensional learners, who may or may not even be interested in learning the standards without the relevance the 4 Cs bring. Most of us did not sign up for education to teach standards, but to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. If we don’t bring relevance to how students are learning, practicing, and problem-solving through the curriculum, our learners will not be empowered, and we will NOT make a difference in the way our society functions. The WCPSS district is encouraging us to link the standards and the 4 Cs together, so those of us in this district don’t even have an excuse to deprive students of this connection that brings relevance to the curriculum. Educators, let’s not forget our why….let’s communicate with one another; collaborate to think of projects like these; and think critically about how to get it all in; so that we can help create a multi-dimensional, well-rounded group of problem finders and solvers that help make our world a better place.
Every year is a chance to become better! When I first started teaching, I was surprised that I wasn’t the only one in the building there before August, already setting up, cleaning out, and preparing for a new class. Being a brand new teacher, it was obvious why I was there: I had a new classroom to de-junk; new management systems and procedures to create; new tools, programs, and protocols to learn; and a million things to wrap my head around. But as I enter into my 4th year of teaching, I’m starting to see why all teachers, not just first year teachers, have hours of work ahead in order to re-start a school year.
A teacher’s summer usually comes to a rude awakening when she enters her classroom for the very first time of the new school year, only to find every piece of furniture piled in 1 corner of the room. After days of rearranging and cleaning out junk you find that you didn’t know existed, your mindset shifts to the “list.” You know…the one that you made during the school year of all the things you would do during the summer when you had all that extra time that no longer exists. You start quickly prioritizing the list, knowing that you’ll never get it all done before the students arrive. Wait. THE STUDENTS?! Amidst all the paperwork and crazy beginning of the year deadlines, you have to prepare your room for your new class of STUDENTS. And then it hits you (particularly in the world of Kindergarten)- these are BEGINNING OF THE YEAR Kindergarteners….most of them won’t be able read or write, much less sit still for 5 minutes! Then you start digging into old lesson plans just to remember what to even teach the first week of school. And all these stresses exist even WITHOUT changing other factors like school, grade level, teammates, and classroom. There are hardly enough hours to get your room ready for a new class, much less to get everything ready with improvements to the year before.
Experience definitely makes things easier. It gives you a structure to start with and a comfort level with the responsibilities of day-to-day teaching. But throughout the school year, little things jump out that need improvement in the classroom, whether it be an issue of management, organization, or instruction. And in the moment, it’s hard to make those improvements. That’s why there will probably never come a year when I don’t spend parts of summer thinking and planning for the next year. So I’m learning that the beginning of the year cleaning, stress, and preparation does get easier; it just doesn’t go away. You shift from thinking about how you’re going to create something out of nothing, to how you’re going to tweak something to make it better.
I want to hold myself accountable to yearly change, so here you have it: my first annual post where I will reflect on aspects from the last year, and set goals for how I want to improve them for the next! These action steps are works in progress…but as I put them in place and these aspects of my classroom transform, I plan to go into more depth, reflecting on these changes and sharing resources that might be helpful along the way!
1. Buzzworthy Work Bulletin Board
Rather than my current bulletin board with 22 clips holding up 22 pieces of student work, this board will now display pictures of student collaboration in action and QR codes with digital creations that students have made! I want to use the bulletin board in my room to showcase student learning, creations, and projects in a new and improved way.
2. Furniture: Out with the Old, in with the Innovative!
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been gradually de-cluttering my classroom and moving furniture to make more room for spaces that impact student learning. This year, I moved out a teacher desk and some shelving. With a more open room, I am excited to bring a Makerspace/STEM corner to my classroom, where old recyclables will be stored and reused and where students will get opportunities to problem-solve and create.
3. Wonder Wall/Friday Genius Hour
I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around how I’m going to begin Genius Hour- a weekly time for students to pursue and learn about their personal passions- with my kinders; but I know that as the year progresses, we’ll get there together! I’m excited to create a Wonder Wall in my room, where students can post curiosities or questions they have. This new classroom feature can serve as a spring board for Genius Hour research, and also for whole class project based learning throughout the year!
4. Re-vamped Morning Meeting
As part of our school improvement plan action steps, our school is going school-wide with morning meetings this year! I hope to learn some new ideas to revamp this morning time my students and I use to start our day. Some ideas I’m already thinking about: Rather than always getting individual student responses around the circle, I’d like to incorporate more productive partner talk, so that we can cover more topics and have more discussion, with a little less sharing out. I’d also like to diversify our topics for discussion, for example: class mission/rules, compliments, concerns, what students are proud of/working on, feelings, academic goals, content review.
This year, rather than just using CMAPP (Wake County’s curriculum guide) as a resource for homework (worksheets), I have created a homework grid. The purpose of this optional grid is to provide flexibility/choice (16 tasks, all month to do it, pick the task you’re in the mood for), teach responsibility (students practice “school” skills at home to get better at them, and color the box after completion), and make homework and learning fun (tasks that get students moving and working on academic/social skills in play-based, collaborative, and family oriented ways). This homework grid will give students a resource to engage in practicing skills across the curriculum.
6. Nonfiction Leveled Readers for Research
As we work toward more voice and choice for students and more opportunities for students to research what they are passionate about, I need a greater variety of information sources for students to use. Digital tools are always great, and we have many at our disposal. But there will always be a place for books too! One challenge with K students is their (sometimes) limited reading skills. So this year, I hope to find some nonfiction leveled readers, varied in topic and also rich in information, for students to have as another research tool.
7. Easier + More Effective Data Tracking System
This one scares me, because it is a big undertaking! With K students, another challenge is conducting assessments: they usually have to be done one-on-one and take anywhere from 3-20 minutes per student depending on what is being assessed. It is a huge time waster and keeps classroom teachers from actually teaching the skills that need to be assessed. However as educators, we really need formative assessment to drive our instruction. My goal is to look at our quarterly curriculum standards, how they tie into the broad report card clusters that parents see, and for each quarter, to create a series of quick assessments/checklists that will drive our teaching and more clearly tie to report cards. As I figure out how to ensure that this new system aligns with district requirements, I will continue to share on how our new data tracking system goes!
8. Digital Portfolios
What if, by the time that each student graduated high school, he or she had a portfolio of work, all in one digital location, displaying both learning over time and showcasing his or her best work throughout the years? Rather than placing a grade on the child, a portfolio shows the potential and growth in any learner; increases motivation as students write and create for an audience; provides an opportunity for practical, 21st century learning; and saves student work collectively in a portfolio that can be shared with others. Our goal as a Kindergarten team is to have our students each creating their own digital portfolios through Google Sites, where they link their work (in Google or other forms of media) to showcase learning over time; and hopefully students will continue to add to their portfolios over the years as they learn and grow!
So here I go into year number 4! To my 2017-2018 batch of students: I am so excited to meet all of you, and to learn & take risks with you this school year!! Let’s do this!
In the past, my Kinders have always participated in “shared research.” With a whole or small group, I have modeled how to use various tools for research (W.K.7), I’ve shown how to scan through the text to seek out the important parts, and I’ve shared how I can use this information (W.K.8) to write informational text all about a topic (W.K.2). From there, students used the information that we collected in our shared research to follow my modeling and also write all about that same topic.
And I recognized that while I was on the right track, showing students the importance of research in 21st century learning, I was the one picking the topic, doing the work, giving the information, and modeling the writing. Students, rather than gathering their information through research, were gathering their information from me to write all about a topic. Additionally, students were learning about a topic as a group – a topic that I chose for them to watch me research and potentially one that they had no interest in. I was the one doing, rather than them.
When I asked myself how to change it up and make this a more valuable experience, I was overwhelmed: overwhelmed with the idea of how to give a class of K students choice in what they researched, overwhelmed with how students would be able to independently gather information through research with limited reading skills, and overwhelmed with the idea of how to effectively organize personalized research for 22 Kindergarteners, where they have access to a variety of tools,
It was a risk, but one that I wanted and needed to take. In this post, you’ll see the steps I took to make it happen, the sharing and collaboration that started to take place among teachers along the way, and my reflections on the success of the project.
I broke the project into a 3 week time span.
Week 1- the research
Week 2- the “all about” books
Week 3- green screen informational movies
Week 1: The Research
I knew if students were going to be researching different topics, they would be working in small groups with common interests. So I figured that learning stations would be the best way to organize the research that went into the project. While I wanted to give voice and choice to students in this research project, I also knew that to make the project more effective for them and less scary for me, there needed to be some structure also. I narrowed it down to animal research, and from there, picked a diverse variety of animals students could pick from. On a simple, hand-written slip of paper, students ordered the animals 1-5, based on their research preferences; and from there, I was able to group students into research small groups. Students’ choices and interests were varied, allowing me to give them either 1st or 2nd choice.
5 animals meant 5 learning stations, and student small groups would rotate through all the different stations in 1 week: the 2 teacher-led stations (by me and my TA) would be the stations where the bulk of the new learning took place, and the other 3 would be more observational-based learning stations. We did one rotation per day during our 20-30 minute writing block each day. Each animal group had a folder, which gave them their task/materials for that day’s research. This is how I kept the stations organized, and, after thorough modeling, how students knew what to do during their station. Students knew that after all of this research, the goal was for them to know the characteristics of their animal, their animal’s habitat, what their animal eats, along with any other information that they find to be interesting about their animal and what it can do. Participating in these research stations would allow me to assess W.K.7, how well and effectively students participated in shared research.
Station 1: Brainpop/Make a Map: I led this station, as students would be logging into their individual Brainpop accounts, watching an informational video, and using the “make a map” tool to show their new learning.
Station 2: Habitat: Students observed pre-printed pictures of their animal’s habitat (located in their folder), and from their observations, spent time drawing and labeling the parts in their animals’ habitats.
Station 3: “Nonfiction Boxes”: This is one of my “work on writing” centers that students are already familiar with, which is why I thought it would fit perfectly into an independent research station. While looking at pictures/info about their animal, students wrote down observational facts about the animal.
Station 4: Informational read-aloud/puppet making: My TA led this station. She read them information about their animal using an animal encyclopedia, asked several comprehension questions for discussion after the reading, and then monitored while they made a “puppet” of their animal. This is the puppet they would use in the culminating green screen project.
Station 5: Pic Kids app: Students used a grid within the tool Pic Kids to insert photos of their animal and write can, have, are facts about their animal collaboratively.
Students rotated through the stations during week 1, periodically reflecting in their journals along the way.
Week 2: The All About Books
After a week of research, it was time to apply their learning to write informational text. Students were now going to organize their learning onto a planning sheet, and from there, create their all about books. Their planning sheet contained 4 sections for them to organize their information, indicated by pictures: characteristics, habitat, diet, and other interesting information. Students worked for a couple of writing blocks to plan, and a couple of writing blocks to make their books. This was the section of the lesson that addressed the majority of the learning objectives: W.K.8 (recalling information from research) and W.K.2 (write informational text).
Once we finished the planning and writing of our books, students buddied up to peer edit their “all about” books: they gave each other feedback, and checked each book with a writer’s checklist. This was the first time I had my students use a writer’s checklist collaboratively, rather than independently, and it was the most successful my kinders have ever been using this rubric tool! 2 brains are better than 1!
Week 3: Green Screen Informational Movies
As an extension of W.K.8 (recalling research), I wanted students to work together to create informational green screen movies on their animal, and consequently create a teaching tool so that others could learn about their animal. Again, I was overwhelmed. How were small groups of Kindergarteners going to take their individual notes and information to make collaborative, collective green screen scripts. I wracked my brain for the best way, and thank goodness I ran into Chris Tuttell that morning! She took the best of my ideas, added her own ideas, and we had a plan.
Each animal small group worked at a table, with each student holding their individual scripts. Students in the 4-5 student animal small group formed smaller groups by partnering up and taking on 1-2 sections of the planning sheet. They partnered together to share their sentences in their particular assigned section (for example: habitat), and from there, partners circled the sentences between the 2 that best summarized and taught others about that section. Then, the partners in the small group came back together as a whole, and shared their circled sentences with a recorder in the group, who made the official script for each section.
To make it kinder-friendly, the script template was structured very similarly to their original story planning sheet.
Once the script was completed, we made copies for each team member and highlighted their respective lines. Students rehearsed and were ready to make their informational movies.
As we wrapped up this project, I was left with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. I had taken a risk, it actually worked, students actually learned, and best of all, they had so much fun. In listening to their sweet voices in these green screen movies, I can hear a confidence and maturity in some of my students that I’ve never heard before. I love how certain tools can excite students in ways that I, nor they, ever imagined.
Click here to see our final green screen informational movies!
Collaboration Along the Way
Collaboration is where I should have started with this project, but since I had never tried anything quite like it with Kindergarteners, and struggled to find online resources/information of other K teachers who had tried it, I felt like the idea may not work and wanted to try it before mentioning it to my team. Once I started my research learning stations, I got excited that it was working and, with that boost of confidence, started sharing with my team! They were immediately excited about the structure, yet voice and choice, in the research project and started the project in their own classrooms, with slight adjustments/differences that helped fit the project to the learning and needs of their own students.
Kelsey Clarke, one of my teammates, and myself had meanwhile been anticipating a visit to our classrooms from Lisa Poirier, a K teacher we have connected with this year through different PD, events, and of course, Twitter! It so happened that Lisa was coming to observe our literacy blocks, and was able to see both of our projects in action. She got the perspective of my project, as we wrapped up the all about books and started making our green screen scripts…
Lisa, also excited about personalized research for her littles, took back some ideas as she began the project in her own classroom! Each of our projects had slight differences in implementation and outcome, but were all derived from the same common theme and idea.
After we all finished up the project, we used the green screen videos from each class as teaching tools: students teaching students about their animal. To amplify overall student learning, we gave students the opportunity to view the green screen movies of all 3 classes, and then Kelsey, Lisa, and I connected through Google Hangout for some student reflection.
It was amazing to hear students speak to what was easy and challenging in the project, what they really enjoyed about the project, along with the similarities and differences that they noticed between the 3 projects. Lisa’s class even asked for some tips for collaboration, to which students from the other 2 classes responded saying things like “Don’t fight…be kind! Listen to all members. Remember, it’s not just about 1 person’s idea…it’s about what everyone thinks!” These student-created green screen movies became authentic teaching tools, and gave us the chance to connect and reflect with others for added relevance and excitement.
My Own Reflections
What would I change next time?
>Next time, I would start with collaboration, rather than end there. Collaboration up-front will help finalize those challenges/intimidations before starting. Now that this project won’t really seem like a risk anymore, it should be easy starting here next time.
>Brainpop jr. is such a great tool with lots of new features. I had created individual student accounts, so that students could watch the video and make-a-map in their individual accounts. Little did I know that the video software was out of date on half of my desktops and would not play the videos. So we got creative. Sometimes, we would watch the video as a whole group, then go into our individual accounts to make a map. Sometimes, for sake of time, we’d watch the video together and then students would make a map as a small group, taking turns with the dragging and typing. Next time, I would have my students already familiar with how to login and utilize Brainpop in their individual accounts, and also ensure that the proper updates were already put in place on the desktops.
>I would love to make my stations more rigorous and more learning-packed next time. This time, I had some stations where actual learning and research took place, but other stations were more observational, simply looking at pictures to gather information. When taking a risk, sometimes we add in elements that bring a sense of comfort and make a task seem more doable. That way, when attempting it again later, those original risks seem less scary, and make room for new risks you might take the next time around. So next time, I would like my kinders using additional tools in their research stations, for a wider variety of experience and learning. Maybe youtube kids? NC Wise Owl? Pebble Go? Discovery Ed? Adding a variety of nonfiction easy readers to my classroom library? Not only would I like to add new research tools, but have my students already accustomed to using them when they get into their learning stations for a research project. As research is such a relevant skill, I’d love for student research to become a consistently-used skill, rather than a skill simply used for 1 big research project.
>Quality-wise, Google Hangout was a bit lacking when it came to the visual and sound elements. We’re wondering if there’s a way to connect and reflect more clearly?
>This time, I gave voice and choice on what animal students researched. As I continue trying this project in future years, I can’t wait to see how it will grow. Some possibilities I’m contemplating: How could I structure it for students to choose their research tools? Rather than having everyone complete a green screen movie as their culminating teaching tool, how could I give student choice in the teaching tool they will each create? These are all possibilities that would have seemed overwhelming during my first trial run of the project, but possibilities I now feel inspired to consider, in collaboration with my teammates.
As always, my little ones have proven to me that #kindersCAN. Throughout and after the project, I shared my hesitations with them in trying this research project, and how it was scary for me to turn it over to them, knowing how chaotic all of the different topics and tools could get with a room of little people. But I told them that I believed in them, because they had never given me a reason not to. And as they worked, they took part in similar reflections. Throughout the week, we took time to reflect and describe what we were finding easy and hard in our research. Seeing my students’ awareness and grasp of their own learning, just as I had shared my own reflections with them, was powerful.
Each time I do this project, I believe that it will get better and more effective. And at some point, maybe research will stop being referred to as a project in my classroom, and become a frequently and consistently integrated tool for learning and exploring our personal curiosities……maybe #geniushour is in our near future!