The Story of Learning, Part 2

story of learningAs mentioned in my last post, I’ve struggled as I consider the question “What will be the story of learning in your classroom this year?” I’m a sucker for a good story. It’s why I love good books, great movies, and skilled teaching. All involve good storytelling, and I can get lost in a good story for hours and hours if time permits. I want our story of learning in my classroom to be a great story. It has to be a great story. My students deserve nothing less. But…I’m not sure I know exactly what that story should be yet. After all, I haven’t met most of my students yet. How can I possibly know what our story should be?

It’s important to develop my students’ voice. It’s important they have choice about their learning and have ownership of it. Their thinking matters. I know what skills, concepts, and dispositions they need to develop, but this isn’t really my story of learning. It’s theirs. As I’ve thought more about this question (while running 14 miles this past weekend), I’ve decided my students and I need to plot the story of our learning together.

Good stories don’t happen by chance. They have important elements that come together to create a powerful story. We need to consider those same elements as we plot the story of our learning. Here is a quick list of some questions I plan to work through with my classes as we develop the story of our learning together. We’ll start contemplating and discussing these together during the first few days of school.

Setting: Most of our story will take place in Room 218 at Presbyterian Day School in Memphis, Tennessee. Nevertheless, I want my students to consider the type of environment we want our classroom to be. What will be the tone and ethos of our room? What should we do to make the most of our space? What pledges do we need to make to each other to create the environment we want?

Character: What types of learners do we need to be? What attitudes and behaviors should we adopt to create a great learning story? How should we treat each other? What do you see as your strengths as a learner, as a reader? Where do you want to improve?

Conflict/Rising Action: What are the problems we want to solve? What questions should we explore? How will we handle disagreements among us? What are the internal and external conflicts that might get in the way of our learning? How should we address them? What will we do when we struggle or when things are hard?

Climax: What would be the greatest thing you could do this year individually? What do we want to accomplish as a group? What aspects of learning and school matter to us the most?

Falling Action/Resolution: What would need to happen in order for you to say you had a successful year in this class? When you look back at 6th grade, what do you think you’ll remember?

Theme: What is the main goal we want to achieve this year? What are the “throughlines” that tie all our learning together? What are the big questions about conflict (our grade level theme) we need to consider?

I’m out of time to write. Does any of this make sense? What other questions should my students and I consider as we “plot” our year together?

This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

Prepping for Back-to-School

back-to-schoolMy back-to-school in-service starts Wednesday. I’m looking forward to the new school year and everything a new beginning signifies. Over the past few days, I’ve reflected on how my approach to the start of school has changed through the years. A video shared by Hugh McDonald on Twitter and the discussion that followed sparked my thoughts. While this teacher has made some choices I wouldn’t make, I appreciate the passion and excitement he’s bringing to his work. He want san inviting space for his students and I can appreciate that. However, I was somewhat surprised by the comments of several on YouTube who equated his decorating with his teaching. Those are NOT the same thing. I’ve sat in rooms with four bare walls and learned from some extraordinary teachers. I’ve also sat in some beautiful rooms where the teaching was awful and the learning absent. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for an inviting space, but I see no correlation between one’s ability to decorate and his ability to teach.

Here’s the video Hugh shared:

I’m reminded of myself as I prepped in my first few years teaching. As a rookie teacher, I would start working in my room weeks before the students arrived. I’d spend hours (if not days) arranging desks, decorating walls, writing names in textbooks, creating lists of rules and procedures, and ensuring I outlined and explained it all in a typed, class syllabus handed out the first day. This wasn’t necessarily a bad use of my time and energy. After all as a single guy with few responsibilities outside my job, I had the time, and I had plenty of nervous energy about each upcoming year, too. But I’m not sure it was the best use of my time either.

After fifteen years, I don’t spend too much time decorating and arranging the space before the students arrive. I do break my room into two primary sections. I arrange one part as a reading/living room area and the other part as an instructional side complete with desks in pods to ease conversation and small group work. The only things I put on the walls are the posters required by my school (standards and language of thinking) and the visible thinking anchor charts we use most often. The only real decorating I do is outside my door where I creatively (and tediously) display the names of my homeroom students. We post and share student thinking (usually on Post-It® notes or written on the IdeaPaint™ wall) on the rest of the board and wall space in my room.

During in-service, I try to spend most of my “room work” time planning and reflecting on the learning that I should happen in my class. I don’t spend time considering rules and procedures. The students and I work together develop these in the first weeks as we get to know each other. One of my goals is to have a student-centered, inquiry-driven classroom, where each student knows his voice and choice matters. Obviously, there are a few non-negotiable procedures we must follow (like what to do during emergencies), but when I can include the students in making decisions, I do.

As a husband and parent, I have demands on my time I didn’t have when I began teaching. My vacation time from school is valuable time with my family, and it’s important I be present with my wife and children investing in my relationships with them. Summer is time when I can truly focus on them. Therefore, I don’t spend much time at school in the weeks before in-service. I understand why some teachers do, but I don’t. Sure, I still read professional texts and work on my professional goals during the break. Summer is a great time to reflect on my work, but you will no longer find me spending the last few weeks in my classroom burning the candle at both ends and trying to get my classroom perfectly decorated and my syllabus appropriately typed.

What about you? How do you spend the weeks leading up to the start of school? How has your prep for the start of school changed through the years?

This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

Have I Somehow Underestimated My Students?

Have I Underestimated Them?Do I underestimate my students? Do I see them as capable learners, thinkers, and creators? Do I believe they are real problem solvers? Do I give them enough agency over the learning? Do I show them how much their voices truly matter? Have I empowered them? Do I really trust they can make a difference in our world? How do I know if I have underestimated them?

My students just wrapped up their project-based learning and made their in-class presentations on Friday. Many of them did extraordinary work, and we’ll be sharing it beyond our class walls when we get back from spring break. Having seen just a small part of what my students are capable, I have spent the past couple of days wondering if I somehow underestimated them. Many of their projects are amazing, and yet I’m wondering if something I did has held them back. Was the bar set high enough? Did I support them in the right ways?

My friend Amanda wrote a post a few months ago confessing she had underestimated her kids. She’d had some discipline issues and problems making for a tough year, and so she’d shied away from “trying ‘out of the box’ type stuff.” On the other hand, I’ve embraced the innovative stuff, allowed my students a ton of freedom (even when it’s made me crazy), and I’m still wondering whether I underestimated them.

This is my first experience with PBL so I’m still learning the process, but I’m curious whether other teachers who have tried PBL have had similar experiences in thinking they have underestimated their students. I’m away this week enjoying spring break with my family, but I’d love to hear your thoughts when it comes to underestimating kids.

In the meantime, check out this video of highlights from our student-faculty basketball game on Thursday. Note to self: Never underestimate Garrott B.

Students End 20 Year Streak and Win Student-Faculty Basketball Game on Controversial, Overturned Ruling from Presbyterian Day School on Vimeo.


The Threads That Run Through: Understanding Conflict


At PDS we have outlined overarching themes for each grade level. First graders examine similarities and differences, and  second grade students survey connections. Third graders take a look at systems while fourth graders study innovation. In fifth grade students investigate perspectives, and in sixth grade we analyze conflict.

Conflict is at the center of every great story, both in fiction and life, and our most honorable heroes face animosity with courage, humility, and grace.

In our 6th grade reading class, we look at conflicts in literature and in our world. We begin the year reviewing the four different types of conflict we see in stories. A character may have a clash with another character (Man vs. Man), or he may struggle in his own heart or mind (Man vs. Self). Sometimes a protagonist contends with difficult elements in the environment (Man vs. Nature), or he may stand against his culture or community (Man vs. Society). As we read, we find different types of conflicts and mark them in our books discussing them as we go. We also try to make connections between the specific conflicts we see in the text and those we see in the world.

Our assigned summer book Surviving Hitler contains many examples of each type of conflict. Our boys understand and connect with the story and it serves as a fantastic introduction to World War II and our 6th grade social studies curriculum. In social studies our boys explore major global conflicts in the 20th century asking “Is war ever justified?” 

While reading I Am David in the first trimester, we look closely at the man vs. nature and man vs. self conflicts David faces escaping the Communist concentration camp and fleeing to Denmark. The boys further consider man vs. self conflicts as they create their “I Am” projects reflecting on their own internal conflicts.

In the second trimester, we consider man vs. man and man vs. society conflicts. As an introduction we look at primary documents examining pictures from the American Civil Rights movement. (Last year we visited the National Civil Rights Museum, but we were unable to do that this year because of renovations.) Then, we read The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. Most of the book focuses on man vs. man conflicts (Byron vs. everyone), but there are several man vs. society conflicts as well. After reading Watsons, we inquire into apartheid-era South Africa before reading Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg. With Jo’burg we focus mostly on man vs. society conflicts and investigate the lasting economic effects of apartheid.

The study of conflicts continues in the third trimester as the boys select from books that further our inquiry. During both the second and third trimesters, we also complete several small group projects. The projects serve dual purposes. First, they allow the students to show their understanding of the books in a more authentic–creative way. Second, it offers the boys the opportunity to work through real conflict. I rarely allow the boys to complete a project alone. They must work with a partner(s) on their project and hold one another accountable for the work as they go. I try not to interfere unless necessary. They must develop the ability to share ideas and collaborate. They must learn to give positive and negative feedback to their peers (via the Ladder of Feedback protocol).

Why do I want my students to understand conflict? I want my students to recognize different problems in the world and challenge the way things are. I hope that by better understanding conflict they will develop the character and determination needed to create change. Perhaps they will learn to engage problems and not flee from them, and hopefully my students will learn to persevere through challenges to grow deeper and become more capable leaders. William Ellery Channing said, “. . . difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict (“Self-Culture,” September 1838). I hope my students develop resolve.

I’m still learning the best way to scaffold and design the learning activities to help my students develop a deep understanding of conflict–and I’m still working on teaching ways to resolve conflict into the class, too. Assessment of student understanding is a weakness, and I need to make changes moving forward. However, I’m pleased with the progress of the class overall. I need to develop and refine things further, but we are on the right track.

This is the last post in a series of reflections on the throughlines for my 6th grade reading class. Check out the overview of the series or the posts on thoughtfulnessmaking connections, and student voice.

The Threads That Run Through: Student Voice

student voice

Returning full-time to the classroom last year, I longed to add more student voice to my class design. When I began teaching, I bought into the idea that as the teacher–the lone adult in the room–I was the one who best knew my students’ learning needs. I viewed educating as something we did to the students and not something students owned and shaped themselves. After all, others made most decisions connected to my formal education–even my early professional development. In all honesty I wasted most of those learning experiences. When finally I took ownership of my learning (in graduate school), my professional growth and development swelled. If my learning increased through my owning it, then I wanted the same for my students. In my class I want my students to know that they matter, that their opinions count, and that their insights call for attention from others. I want my students to have a voice.

One way, Alice and I engage student voice in the 6th grade reading class is by having students design our class bookmark. For years, Alice has provided the boys a bookmark as a tool to remind the boys of metacognitive strategies to use while reading. Last year, in oder to allow for more student voice, Alice and I asked the boys to design the class bookmark based on what they know a thoughtful reader does. The result thrilled us.

In addition to designing the bookmark, I engage student voice by giving students choices when possible. While our school requires summer reading, I let students read whatever they like for two of the three required books. Additionally, I introduced book clubs, my rethinking of literature circles, last year encouraging the boys to choose the books, roles, and projects and empowering them to set the schedule and assignments for their clubs. The boys loved the book clubs, and seeing several boys develop as leaders inspired me as well. I’m looking forward to giving further control of the book clubs to the students this spring.

Student voice plays a role not only in our reading but also in our writing. One way students voice their opinions is through Broken Spines, our book review wiki. Students can write a book review for the wiki any time they finish a book. All my students share reviews, but several students also serve as wiki managers, too. As I reflected on in the thoughtfulness post, I’m still working to include blogging in the class design. Hopefully, students blogs will help further develop student voice in my class and give them voice beyond our classroom as well.

Currently, we are attempting project-based learning having just finished reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 and Journey to Jo’burg. Through brainstorming and class discussions, my four classes have each chosen a different issue of injustice that they are researching. Their goal is to make a difference related to the issue. They selected some big problems–racism, sweat shops, chronic unemployment, and poverty/homelessness. They have chosen both the issues and the projects they will complete. It’s a messy process (and one I plan to write about later), but their level of engagement and the ownership they are taking for the process is extraordinary.

I recognize I still have room for growth in embracing and developing student voice in my class, but I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished over the past two years. What do you think about the steps I’ve taken? What do you do to embrace and develop student voice in your classroom? What questions or feedback do you have about these ideas?

This is the fourth post in a series of reflections on the throughlines for my 6th grade reading class. Check out the overview of the series or the posts on thoughtfulness and making connections.

Running Thoughts: A Thinking Mashup

While running this morning, I was thinking about some recent blog posts that I have read. They’ve been percolating in my mind as I think about learning, the writing process, the upcoming school year, and this blog. The first posts are Bo Adams’ “Walking Myself and My Dog to School or Braiding NPR and a Cup of Joe” and his “Process Post: Contemplating Juxtapositions.” Both are interesting posts, but what has percolated in me has more to do with Bo’s process. First, he uses an everyday activity–walking his dog, as an opportunity for thinking and learning that he then turns into a “random reflection.” I like that and think I can apply that to my own routines. Second, Bo writes what he refers to as “Process Posts.” According to Bo these posts are “a place to think and not worry about getting all the pieces to fit together or all of the conventions right. It’s like a journal. I usually use a process post as I am working out some thinking in my mind.” (1)

With all of this in mind, I have decided to start my own version of process posts that I’m calling “Running Thoughts.” These posts will simply be a collection of things I’m thinking about while I’m running. In order to capture my thinking before it melts away in the craziness that is my daily life, I plan to use Audioboo to record my thoughts as I am doing my run cool down. I tried it this morning and think it will work well. Unfortunately, I forgot to charge my phone last night and it died before I could finish the audio reflection. My plan is to post the short audio reflections to my Posterous, then write a more complete reflection here on the blog. I plan to set a time limit for the writing of the posts and not to worry about polishing and perfecting it. (I will run spellcheck.) We’ll see how it goes. I generally try to run 3 times a week so maybe I can

The other post that has percolated this morning is John Spencer’s “From Goals to Commitments.” In the post John shared that while he still plans to have his students set individual goals and collective class goals, that he is going to transition from setting personal goals to making personal commitments. The difference is in making a promise about what he can and will do.  For some reason this idea resonated in me and while running this morning I identified a few commitments that I want to make. This list certainly isn’t complete yet, but the following are things I know I want to commit to:

  • Honoring the most important member of my PLN–my wife, by focusing my attention on her when we are together (no multitasking) and talking aloud about the crazy things rambling around in my head
  • Investing time in playing and teaching tennis to my own kids. They, particularly Eric and Andrew, have shown an interest recently in my favorite sport, and I want to commit to helping them learn the game and discover whether they enjoy it or not.
  • Giving my students a voice in my classroom. I like how John put it when he said he will let the students “help negotiate the norms, rituals and goals” in his classroom. I will do something similar.
  • Trying new thinking routines in my classroom and giving better evaluative responses by using the Ladder of Feedback
  • Providing examples and rubrics to help model ways in which students can demonstrate their learning well.
  • Updating my teacher website/blog weekly in order to better communicate with parents and other interested parties

We’ll see how this Running Thoughts series goes. Now I just have to remember to charge my smartphone.