Thursday, January 29, 2015

Beetle Brownies Anyone?

Photo Credit: miss bake-a-lot via Compfight cc

The Background:  At the first of the school year, we always do some mealworm experiments as part of the 5th grade science core.  I let each of the kids take home a mealworm to watch it change into a beetle. This year, we kept the extra mealworms in our classroom to observe their life cycle.  One of my traditional "tricks" on the kids is to make beetle brownies after the mealworms have changed to black beetles. But, they still haven't changed into beetles.

My school switched to a year-round schedule this year.  I'm on A-track which means that we not only had the holiday break, but we had an extra three weeks because of being off-track. During the off-track time, my kids were online in @edmodo communicating with me and participating in some activities. It was great, as a teacher, to have a line of communication with my students while they were on vacation.  I thought it was the perfect opportunity to set the kids up for a little joke. I knew that coming back to school after a long vacation would be hard for most of them.  I wanted my students to come back to school excited!

The Hook: Last Saturday,  I told them that the mealworms were changing into beetles (truth). They ARE changing- very slowly! I didn't say that they had changed. The kids were excited about the mealworms changing into beetles as well as all of the other changes happening in our classroom. Many of them couldn't wait to come to school on Monday.  Success! My students returned to school this last Monday, January 26 excited and ready to learn.

To celebrate the new year, and for being active online over their break, I gave them a brownie.  Everyone ate with gusto! They told me how delicious the brownies were as they licked their fingers and smacked their lips. I smiled and then read them a little excerpt from the book, Beetles, Lightly Toasted by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. It was hard not to laugh as a read about a young boy that added beetles into a brownie mix for a school science project and watched as his friends ate the brownies.

As I read, I could see my kids' eyes get bigger as they looked around the room at each other. "Would Ms. King really give us brownies with beetles in them?" They looked at where we kept the mealworms. They were gone! Happy faces changed into sheer looks of horror. "Had they just eaten beetles?" Some kids took their napkin and started to wipe off their tongue. I smiled and kept reading.

When I finished reading, there were a lot laughs, and questions! There were also a lot of kids that wanted to read the whole book. I just happened to have about 15 copies available.

Now, did I really add beetles to the brownies? You'll just have to read the book!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Throwing Grades to the Curb

Photo Credit: Lord Jim via Compfight cc

Assessment and grades have been on my mind a lot lately.  The last couple of years, I've been morphing into a teacher that I don't really recognize in myself. When it comes to grades, I've done it all. I've averaged percents, awarded points, given out zeroes, penalized for late work, used rubrics, given self-assessments, assigned group projects where all students received the same grade, and every other kind of grading practice that teachers still do or have done in the past.

Maya Angelou said, "I did then what I knew how to do. Now I know better, I do better."

Admittedly, I don't know a whole lot about standards-based grading. I 'm learning- questioning how it all works when I'm required to assign traditional grades to my students. I've been reading and listening to the experts in the field. It makes sense to me, but then I ask myself all kinds of questions about how to implement a whole grading practice that is foreign to me. 

So I'm blogging (which is also a foreign practice to me) to help me sort out my thinking. I'm thinking out loud and trying to make sense of all of the thoughts spinning in my head. 

This is what I know so far:

1.  My students and their learning are my top priority.  We are a community of learners. We've worked hard this year to establish trusting relationships where there are nearly thirty teachers in the room helping each other to understand and master the standards.  I value them and their insights about our classroom. They have a voice and I am listening to their perspective about grades, assessments, and assignments. Students, even 5th graders, have opinions about what helps them to learn.

2.  Timely, specific, descriptive feedback helps them to learn. It also helps when I conference with my students during the learning process about how they can improve rather than at the end of a unit of study or project. I'm learning more about the type of feedback that actually helps learners progress. I like the phrase, "I a result....". Personally, I like to tell my students something positive that they accomplished, something specific about what's missing, and encouragement of how to get help in order to redo and fix the mistake. This is very similar to the SE2R model suggested by Mark Barnes. This type of feedback doesn't always need to be written.  In the past, I've spent hours and hours writing specific feedback for students only to see them not even read my comments. They just wanted to see the grade. Now that I'm getting rid of grades, students care more about the feedback. But, I need to work on not giving advice based on an great article that I read tonight. Seven Keys to Effective Feedback It's a process.

3.  Grading practices like zeroes, penalties for late work, averaging scores, and no opportunity to redo or retake assessments are gone. I'm comfortable with throwing those out and have actually been in the process of eliminating those grading practices for some time. I've always allowed students to redo a math assignment. I'm not sure why I wasn't consistent with other subjects. I'm still trying to figure out how to manage the retakes of tests. I think the easiest way is to give the student a different kind of assessment like a written or oral response vs a completely different written test. I also know that I can quickly give a quick quiz on Edmodo. It's also important to me for the student to show some kind of effort towards learning the information that they missed on the initial assessment. I'm not exactly sure how to manage that though. I'm encouraging re-dos and retakes but I haven't made them a requirement. I struggle a little bit with my elementary students having the responsibility to decide. Basically, they don't want to redo anything--which is why teaching revision in the writing process is so painful.

4.  Academic grades will not be mixed with student behavior.  In the past, I've docked students' grades for turning in late work or poor classroom behavior. I know better now. 

5.  Giving students assignments for the whole week via Edmodo is a positive. Most everything we do is done in class. I do ask them to read each night and encourage them to practice some skills online with the game-based programs that they love. They can choose when and where to complete their practice according to their personal schedules and available class time.  (I'm not quite to the point of no homework at all.)

My students also like having frequent five problem math quizzes (knowing that they can retake them if necessary) to show that they've mastered a standard.  It really is an opportunity to celebrate growth. They like the in-class flipping that we're doing. It's easy for them to get help from me, their peers, or to re-watch a video of instruction. They appreciate not having math homework and having the opportunity to learn from and with their peers.

I'm giving formative assessments constantly throughout the day and providing many choices for my students to show their learning.  But, I don't use them for "grades". Formative assessments are for practice.

Students are taking more ownership of their learning through reflection and tracking their own progress.

Overall, I'm on the right path as I try to make my classroom more student-centered. I have a lot to learn! I still need to find answers to my many questions. But, I'm feeling more confident about defending my grading choices. As teachers we need to move past "This is what we've always done..." mindset and question our grading practices. 

Are we out "to get" our students or are we truly looking to find better ways of helping our students learn?  I would love to know your thoughts.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Old Dog Learns Another Cool Trick During #satchat

This tutorial was shared by Scott Rocco @scottrrocco

When I watched this video tutorial, I instantly saw a way for me to be more organized and to feel successful at the end of the day. I'm going to make a short "to-do" list each day and check items off. I'll actually be able to see my success! Even if I only get one thing checked off, that'll be a good thing especially if it's something that's been on my mental to-do list for a long time. I'm the best procrastinator of all time.

I had to share this with my colleagues right away! This would be such a great tool for principals and for teams that are collaborating on a project.

Google Keep is even easy enough for me to start using immediately and I have.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Old Dog Learns New Trick

Last night I went to a class to learn more about Google Classroom. Our district has FINALLY made this available for grades 3-6. I can't wait for my kids to be back in school so we can get started!

But the best take-away was a little trick for bookmarking.  When you add a bookmark to the bookmarks bar, delete the description.  The only thing that you'll see will be the icons. My bookmarks are now clean and I can fit more on the bar. Yahoo! That's a pretty neat trick for an old dog to learn.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Tightrope and a Full Plate

It's late. I can't fall asleep even though I'm exhausted. . My head is spinning with ideas and thoughts Thoughts about TIME or the lack of it so it seems.  We make time for what's important to us- what we value. We all have the same 24 hours a day. Making time to do those things that we value is a constant challenge and balancing act.

Image by Leo Reynolds

Today I have been reading, reading, reading. I've read blogs, articles, tweets, chapters from professional development books, and even a little from my stack of kids' books. When my eyes could no longer handle the strain, I played podcasts or Youtube clips and closed my eyes and listened.  My brain is on overload! There's so much information to absorb! There are so many great ideas from other teachers that I'd love to try.  There's so much technology that I have to learn! There is so much information playing in my head that is causing me to question everything that I've ever done in the classroom.

I took the time today to read. I wanted to. I needed to. But now I feel like I'm on a tightrope trying to balance a huge plate that's full of "things to do and learn". When will I have the time?

This year, the district purchased a new "basal" reading program and dumped it our laps a few days before school began. Why? It baffles me to think that in our digital age, when we desperately need computers/devices that the district would spend thousands on a basal program. What a waste! But that's not my point. I haven't had the time (or made the time) to hardly even crack open the book. (District people would not be happy to hear me say that!) We're supposed to use MasteryConnect. Luckily, I knew how to use it a little bit. I'm supposed to be using a host of other programs and initiatives. Oh, yea, teach the standards for the state Core (Common Core) which I'm still learning and trying to understand with some clarity.

I haven't even mentioned the normal responsibilities of teaching like planning, meetings, grading, etc.  Truthfully, I feel like the Grinch complaining about Christmas.

And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! That's one thing he hated Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

What I really want to do is learn more about Genius Hour, Makerspace, and how better to teach  STEAM. Bottom line- I want to do what I feel like is BEST for my kids! I know them. I know what they need. Those are the things that I'll focus on and make time to learn to implement.

The challenge is to walk the tightrope between playing the district mandates game and what I'm learning and want to provide for my kids. My plate is full. Something has to go!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Countdown to an Opportunity

Just the other day on Twitter, someone shared with me an opportunity to win a grant ($5,000).  Due date January 2, 2015-midnight! The money still wouldn't allow me to get iPads/laptops for my whole class but it would be enough for 15 or so iPad minis. Time is ticking! I had yesterday (couldn't focus). I have today. I have to at least try.