Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Learning Lab: Tiered Learning

This week I had an amazing opportunity to participate in our school's first ever Learning Lab.  A couple of week's prior to this, our building instructional coach, Sara Wickham, was invited to observe a lesson in my classroom.  After the observation, she said, "You know, I've been kicking around this idea in my head about a learning lab.  Would you be interested in working with me on this?"

Here is the basic idea:
  • Invite teachers to sign up for the Learning Lab experience (to occur during their planning)
  • Teachers will meet with the instructional coach at the start of the hour
    • The Instructional Coach will introduce the concept of the learning lab experience
    • Teachers will watch a 2-3 minute video created by the classroom teacher briefly explaining the lesson and discuss any look fors that should occur while observing
  • Teachers will then enter the Learning Lab (the classroom) and observe the lesson for 10-15 minutes
    • Teachers are encouraged to ask students questions
  • Teachers will then leave the Learning Lab and debrief with the instructional coach
    • Teachers will discuss ah-ha moments, comment, ask questions and share ideas they saw that can be immediately used in their own classrooms
I am writing from the perspective of the classroom teacher hosting the Learning Lab.  Over 4 class periods, 9 classroom teachers, 2 administrators and the instructional coach visited my class. Sara wrote a post from the perspective of the coach.  You can read about it HERE.

Here is an overview of what they saw in a 45 minute class:

Video Introduction

Class Lesson
  • Students will discover the process for conjugating -ar verbs
    • Students will watch the teacher created PowToon video
    • Students will choose to take virtual notes or notes on paper
  • Students will self-direct their learning and practice through tiered and scaffolded activities housed on a Tackk Board

Post Observation Comments & Questions

My Responses to Post Observation Questions
  • How do you grade tiered assignments? I rarely “grade” practice for a grade as it is practice. Instead I use descriptive feedback to help kids stretch and grow (most of the feedback is oral, but when using google docs I use the comment feature).  When I do grade tiered assignments I have a grade break down (Basic = C; Proficient = B; Mastery = 90-95; Advanced = 95%+)….even then it is for minimal points and/or is recorded but exempt from the grade book   Today’s lesson was not for a grade.  My students know that the practice we do is to help them improve; reach proficiency.  Because I share the levels of understanding at the start of the school year students realize that they will have to stretch to reach the upper levels of understanding.  The practice we do is scaffolded so that students may move forward and back as needed.
  • How long does it take to create tiered assignments? Tiering can be simple, like today’s lesson…all students were essentially doing the same activity(NOT multiple different activities), they simply chose when to move on to the next level of understanding.  I think sometimes we get overwhelmed as teachers by thinking that differentiated instruction = creation of several activities.  Most days my students are working on the same activity and I tier it using levels of taxonomy:  recall/application/creation/creation+ (+extending what we learned and connecting it to a new process/concept and/or tie it to a previously learned concept)  Tiering can also be a compilation of multiple activities such as: learning menus and thinktactoe.  These can take a bit of time to create HOWEVER there is a pay off for time spent…1 thinktactoe = 2-3 days of activities/lessons.
  • Are students that continually choose the basic level ready for the next level of Spanish? The majority of my students try for at least proficiency, not all students reach proficiency, but at least try proficiency.  Are BASIC kiddos ready?  If a child has a desire to move on in the language we have a professional responsibility to support that child’s choice.  I do not believe all students will be proficient in the language (when teaching within restricted timelines).  Some kiddos may work very hard and remain basic or proficient low AND still enjoy the language.  I want our students to know that if they have a desire to learn and work hard at it, then continuing in the language is the right choice for them.  Will there be basic kids that move on that lacked motivation? Yes. Are they ready for the next level? Who knows…maybe they matured over the summer and they return ready to learn.  
  • How do you motivate kids that seem to always choose the basic level? I think it is absolutely okay to start with the basic level and to stay there until the practice begins to feel easy.  It is my role, as the teacher, to be up and around the room, to facilitate conversations about learning and encourage students to try the next level(s).  How do I motivate? Enthusiasm and positivity is contagious.  Kids at the basic level need A LOT of KUDOS…they need to know that you believe it is possible for them to excel.  I know this sounds very “ra-ra” cheerleader…but many of our kids rarely have someone cheering them on…you may be the only person in their day that believes in their ability to be successful.  It is human nature to want to do well at what we try.  It is also human nature to feel defeated when at first we don’t succeed.  “Failing forward” is a pretty popular edu term these days.  There is a lot to be said for teaching students resilience…we can teach it by offering multiple opportunities and multiple pathways for success.

    My Insights

    While a certain level of anxiety can come from observations I felt relatively relaxed.  I think this is in part to wanting to be authentic with my colleagues.  This was not meant to be a horse and pony show of perfect practices.  It was meant to offer a real glimpse at what happens in the classroom every day. Some days we are rockin' it, other days we are not.  I honestly had no idea how this lesson would go as I had never used Tackk as a self-directed platform prior to this lesson.

    Students were told in advance that other teachers would visit the classroom for a small amount of time.  They were further encouraged to not be afraid to answer questions that may be asked of them and to simply interact professionally and honestly.  I thought multiple classroom visitors might be distracting for students.  However, the students didn't skip a beat when the observers entered the room.  They simply kept on working and asking questions as if it were business as usual.

    In first hour, there was a moment in which over half the class had their hands raised. I could sense their anxieties from lack of understanding the new learning objective.  My vision for "self-directed" learning was quickly falling apart.  I simply stopped the class, regrouped with some whole instruction and released learning again.  (My principal calls this CAR...catch and release).  It was awesome to have that moment of vulnerability in front of my peers. Why? Because the Learning Lab should be an authentic experience that spurs conversations and allows ALL participants to stretch and grow.

    This experience allowed me to stretch and grow in the following ways:
    • The collaboration and conversations that resulted from the Learning Lab created connections between colleagues that might not have otherwise occurred.
    • The feedback and comments from the observers fanned by flame for teaching and learning 
    • Knowing this was the first Learning Lab experience in our school, I was inspired to blend the tiered instruction with multiple media platforms so that observers would be able to walk away with a several ideas they could immediately implement in their classrooms
    This leads me to share with you the ultimate goal of the Learning Lab experience, two days later, Kari S., a science teacher in our building, shared a tiered lesson she created as a result of the lab (scroll to the end of her Tackk and look at her wording on student tiering/'s simply awesome).  I love that this addresses the thought that this can't be done in core classes! This in itself made the Learning Lab a success!

    Tuesday, October 21, 2014

    Differentiation & Autism

    Before I begin this post I should say, I am not a special education teacher.  I am simply a "regular ed" high school Spanish teacher of 17 years.  So, why am I, a Spanish teacher, sharing this post about differentiation and autism? Because...

    Here are just a few ideas that have worked for my students, with (and without) autism, in addition to special education modifications and accommodations:
    • Personally connect every day.
      • Pull up a chair next to the student or simply kneel down to his/her level.  It doesn't need to be a long conversation every day, simply a two way interaction to start off the class.  Ask how they are doing or what they did the night before...any question that will elicit a response (verbally or even a head nod) will help a student with autism make a connection with your class.
    • Discover their passions and connect.
      • One student loves candy, another loves puppies - sometimes all it takes is having a basket of candy in eye sight or a packet of puppy stickers to encourage participation.  Sound silly? I think not. If you have a student with a sweet tooth and candy is the reward for participation, you suddenly have a resistant child with autism participating.   
    • Embrace technology.
      • In class, most students are connecting with other students throughout a lesson.  A student with autism can find it difficult to make face to face interactions.  One day, I saw a girl with autism on Twitter, so I dug a little deeper and asked her to tell me why she liked Twitter.  She said she feels less judged online and has lots of online friends, but not so many at school.  Isn't that interesting...for those of you that thought social media was minimizing our personal interactions with others, think again.  For a child with autism, on line communication can be an easier way for a student to express his/her thoughts.  Consider having an online platform for students to comment and/or answer questions.  Here are just a few:
    • Assist Inquiring Minds. 
      • Have you ever had a student that asks question after question?  One year I had a girl that kept beating me to the punch.  I would begin an explanation and she would ask a question before I could finish the explanation.  Wait time is very difficult for some students, it can be twice as difficult for a student with autism.  What seemed to finally work, for this girl in particular, was an index card.  At the start of class I would give her an index card.  If I were speaking to the whole class, she was instructed to write her questions on the card.  Once I was finished speaking, if I had not answered all of her questions on the card, she could then ask me her remaining questions.  Other ideas to assist inquiring minds might be:
        • using technology for the student to ask questions
        • reward wait time with something they love (candy, stickers, computer time...)
    • Student Choice.
      • Allow students to choose their learning path/activity by scaffolding for levels of readiness.  Offering choices to a student with autism can help him/her feel and actually be in control of his/her learning.  Abandon the one size fits all approach.  In order to avoid a student being overwhelmed, limit the number of choices to just a couple and use concrete language for the directions.
    While one strategy may work for one child, the same strategy may not work for another.  I've found, regardless of the child, there are three essential keys to differentiating for students with special needs in your classroom: pacing, patience and persistence.
      • Pacing.  You must keep your fingers on the pulse of student learning needs.  It is up to you to know when to stretch a student and when to slow down.  Students, especially those with autism spectrum disorder, may not always have the words to express his/her learning needs.  You must offer frequent check ins for understanding and adjust activities according to mood and/or ability of the student.
      • Patience.  If you think you are exhausted from your efforts, think again.  My best friend of 30+ years has 3 boys with autism. Yes 3.  The 45 minutes of patience I give in a one class pales in comparison to the love and patience she offers her 3 boys, 24 hours a day.  
      • Persistence.  There will be days when you exhaust your bag of tricks. There will be days in which a student tries to shut down.  On these days, consider giving the student some space.  Simply check in with the student throughout the class by kneeling to his/her level, speak in a soft voice and offer words of encouragement. If the student can break through long enough to interact with you, consider this a win for the day and begin again the next day.  Finally, do not allow defeat to reside in your classroom.  Create a culture of persistence and start anew every day.  

    I dedicate this post to my soul sister, Melanie, who gives her unconditional love, devotion and energy to her 3 autistic sons. If you were to look up strength in the dictionary, her picture would be there...well it should be anyways.  Love you Mel-O-Wheat!

    Tuesday, October 14, 2014

    Jedi Mind Tricks in the Classroom

    Lower the force field 

    Standing over a student can cause anxieties to rise and/or leave a student feeling defensive. Instead sit next to the student or kneel at the same level as the student.  This will help foster a feeling of togetherness.

    Sitting behind the teacher desk separates yourself from students thus creating an invisible barrier between you and the students. Start tracking how often you sit behind your desk versus how often you are up and about and/or seated with students.  The more time spent with students, the lower the force field will be. 

    Feed the senses
    Students will respond to cues in their environment.  For example, every day for SSR (sustained silent reading) I would turn the lights off in my room and turn on only the lamps.  Students would quietly enter the room for reading.  If I forgot to turn off the overhead lights, students would loudly enter the room and choose socializing over reading. Ignite the 5 senses! How does your room look, sound, smell, feel and yes, you offer the occasional snack? From lighting and seating to plug-ins and snacks, the subtle changes in environment can shift the feel of your classroom for students.

    Avoid the dark side
    When a student says, "OMG I hate this activity, I don't even want to do it"...whatever thought you may have and however offended you may not go to the dark side.  Instead offer new light.
    1. I spent a lot of time on a truly awesome activity that integrate technology (taking pictures with cell phones), manipulatives and tweeting final picture products.  Students were having fun! But then it happened...a student uttered the words, "This activity is so stupid!"  I admit my first thought was, "Just do the stinking activity! Can't you see everyone else is having fun?!" I rallied quickly, swallowed my pride, knelt down to the same level as the student and said with sincerity, "I am so sorry this activity is upsetting.  Is there another way you would like to do this?" She let out a sigh of relief and said, "Yes, please. Instead of using these manipulatives can I just write out the sentences and I tweet those?"  I said, "Absolutely!"  If a student can offer another way to demonstrate understanding that does not water down the rigor/relevancy of the content then by all means let them!

    Be one
    We are neither more than the students, nor are we less than the students. We must be one with the students in order to truly have our fingers on the pulse of their learning needs.  We cannot be one with the students if we are not having conversations with the students about their struggle and/or successes.  We cannot be one with the students if we choose to sit behind our teacher desk. We cannot be one with the students if we are unwillingly to listen to them.  We can only be one with students when we choose to feel their struggles and work through their struggles with them.  We can only be one with the students when we choose to celebrate their successes and in turn push them to go beyond what they thought possible. We can only be one with students once remove the barrier of the teacher desk and choose to be with the students. We can only be one with students once we focus less on the idea of an orderly classroom and instead pour our energies into creating a culture of learning in order to grow together.

    Tuesday, October 7, 2014

    Beyond the Retest

    Teacher names come and go.  There are some that make me cringe at the thought of their names, others I have no memory of at all and a select few that landed a special place in my heart.  In 1985, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Downing, was one of those rare teachers that made such a profound impact on my life that 30 years later I feel inspired by her to write this post.

    It was a social studies test and I failed it miserably.  However, it wasn't the failing of the test that makes me recall this memory, it was what Mrs. Downing did after I failed that made the impact.  You see,  Mrs. Downing was 30 years ahead of her time, she encouraged me to take the test again.  She studied with me after school.  She also sent home a review for my mom to study with me.  In the midst of the retake she recognized that it was not my lack of understanding the content, but self-doubt that sabotaged my learning.  I truly believed that for every obvious answer there was that it was a trick being played on me.  I believed that I could not possibly know the answer so, for every answer that seemed like the right answer, I would then choose a different answer.

    I used this absurd thought process again on my retake.  As I stood on the other side of the her desk, I watched her grade my retake.  I could see that I missed the same answers again.  I remember hanging my head in defeat.  Mrs. Downing turned my test face down and asked me to look at her.  She then gave me words of encouragement.  She told me she believed I knew the correct answers and that she thought I was letting my brain get in the way.

    She told me to stop overthinking and to go with the first answer that came to mind.  Mrs. Downing then asked me the test questions aloud and I answered all but two of them correctly.  She flipped my test over and changed the grade to reflect what we did out loud.

    That oral assessment with Mrs. Downing was more revealing than any paper pencil test.  I think of that moment today as I reassess student understanding.  There is not only great power in releasing the "one and done" mentality for testing, but also in embracing multiple ways to assess understanding.

    You see, like Mrs. Downing, we each have the choice to move beyond the retest. When we look at student data, we sure as heck better be looking at our instructional strategies.  We need to be open to talking with colleagues about what works, abandoning what doesn't work and embracing new ideas.

    If you are a teacher that retests, consider branching out beyond the paper pencil test to embrace conversations and/or try quick whiteboard assessments.  If you are a teacher that does not believe in retests, consider the value in student teacher conversations about the assessments.  Even if you do not retest, you have the ability to connect with a struggling student through the conversations you have together.  Perhaps, through these conversations you will help students break through their fixed mindsets of self-doubt and turn their beliefs into growth mindsets.

    Who knows, maybe you will be someone's Mrs. Downing some day.