Give kids an inch and they go the mile! Inspiration is the inch!

I have had the privilege of having some amazing classes in my career as a teacher and some very challenging ones as well, but one thing that they both have in common is when given the chance to excel they always do.  One of my favourite units in grade Four is Medieval Times. It’s a great era of time that draws in all kinds of interests. Unfortunately, I cannot cover all of the cool facts and interesting things of the era. To solve this, I challenge my students to a “rise to power.”

For this challenge, they are to do a presentation about something they have researched, made, drew, or created about the medieval times. It allows the students to go off and explore topics that are not covered due to time.  The kids absolutely love it. When given the chance to learn and when that learning is appreciated kids excel and go above and beyond.  Yes there may be parent help but shouldn’t that be encouraged sometimes. All I know is that when given the chance to excel and show their learning, in an environment that students feel appreciated and engaged, they will rise to the occasion no matter the type of student we have.

Here are a few of the projects:

This is a medical shield project inspired by a students idea on coarse of arms. Students loved it so much they did a whole class project.

This I is a manor house. Not all correct in the representation but learning non-the-less.

Inquiry doesn’t promote fact growth, or does it?

I was out with a friend of mine last night when we got into a heated debate about inquiry based learning. I was fine with his opinion until he got to the part that inquiry learning does not promote facts. His argument was that teachers spend too much time letting the kids explore that they forget about the actual computation that is needed for them to do the math.

My argument, was that though I can’t speak for ever teacher who teaches inquiry, only myself and those that I have seen, it does. Not to be frank with my argument but it does. As a teacher it is my job to make sure that my kids are learning mathematics. This means that they aren’t just figuring out amazing ways of solving the problem but are actually talking about the mathematics.  Facts are amazing but without a context they are just facts, meaningless and useless facts.   In an inquiry based learning environment students do learn their facts, maybe not as quickly as if I used flash cards and mad minutes but they don’t forget them once they have learned them.  In addition, my students also learn them in engaging ways, through games and contextual problems.

But this is only my opinion, would love to hear what you all think?

Celebrating Mistakes

I would be the first to admit that I am not the greatest writer.  In fact, I detest writing.  It was and still is something that I struggle with; however, that is okay.  Knowing this and making mistakes makes me human and students need to see this.

Often we as educators think that we are suppose to be perfect, know all person.  We are the ones that students turn too as models and we must be perfect.  This is wrong; at least in my opinion!  Our students need to see us struggle.  They need to see us problem solve and work through our own problems.  Our students need to understand that mistakes are okay, that they are places for learning; if we don’t make mistakes then how do we show them this.  If we truly believe that the process is better than the final outcome then by making mistakes and owning them, we honour that process.  So make a mistake and see what learning happens.

Creating Accountable Talk in the Classroom

Accountable Talk is a big passion of mine.  Seeing the results of the students talking is truly amazing.  Here are just some small tid-bits that I compiled to help create accountable talk in the classroom.
Accountable talk just doesn’t happen, no matter what age group you are teaching, you have to create conditions for it.       

1) Students have to feel like they are welcomed (which I know we all do as educators)

2) All voices are heard à this is the hardest part.  We sometimes only chose certain kids to talk

3) At the beginning of the year like many teachers I spend a lot of time on training my students to work in partners, what talk looks like, and sounds like.  We go over rules for partner talking and what my expectations areThis is rough at the beginning of the year.  I often do this through games, not only is this great in primary but it works well in junior.  As you are playing games you are also teaching many of the math concepts and having small conferencing moments with the students. You get great diagnostic assessment and provide formative assessment right on the spot.  For junior I tend not to spend as much time and introduce games every Friday because of how short on time I am and how dense the curriculum is in junior (spend a week if not two though).

There are also talk moves that you can be constantly do:

1)      Wait time: à when students have enough wait time they will participate (this takes time)
§  At the beginning of the year this wait time feels like hours but if you don’t give it then they won’t talk later
§  When you wait the accountability is on them
§  Kids need time to process
§  Add in think pair share here: à great teaching tool to promote talk
2)      Revoice: 
          When you revoice what the students have said then they feel accountable to the work.  It validates their opinion but at the same time makes them think about what they are talking about
          You can also have the other students revoice: à this holds other students accountable to contribute to the community and that they have to listen
3)      Just don’t talk:
          I think that sometimes as teachers (me included) we talk too much
          I sometimes don’t say anything and then a student jumps in (let it)
Finally talk will not happen if you don’t plan for it to happen.  You must think about what big ideas you are going to be discussing.  They sometimes don’t happen but if you have things planned out you can create questions to lead students back to these ideas or be prepared to discuss what the students are talking about or ready for. 

Will you be the Change? A reflection on the autrocities in this world

I am writing this blog for two reasons: one is to record a piece of terrible history and reflect on the way it has impacted me and to hopefully inspire my students (or anyone reading this) to continue doing what they are doing (which is amazing things).

A couple of days ago there was a bombing in Boston; an act of Terror.  It was a sad and senseless act, one that whoever did it should be ashamed of themselves.  My heart and my prayers are with the families of those who are injured and those who have lost someone because of this event.  I am saddened by the fact that humanity can be so cruel and senseless.  This world would be a far better place if we can all just make peace with each other and check our egos and pride at the door.

 When I hear news like this and see the awful atrocities in our world I worry about the next generation who will occupy this place.  What type of world our we bringing our children, and students into.  This world can often be a scary place for our students.  It’s filled with hate, crime, war and senseless violence. 
In my classroom, these discussion are never turned away.  I try to teach through a social justice lens and often will have discussions about many of these devastating events and topics.  It is because of these discussions that I am constantly reassured (every year) that we (human kind) will be okay.   I am reassured and amazed by my students tenacity, love for humanity and open hearts.  If we could all have the compassion that grade four and fives can show than we would be a better place.

 So to end this reflection, I ask you “will you be the change you want to see in this world?”

Asking Good Questions

Asking questions has always been an important aspect of any teachers job but understanding what makes a great question is the hardest part of the job.  As a teacher we have watched those Professional Development (PD) videos on the classes that seem to be in rich discussion, always learning and having students say such wonderful and impacting statements.  I know I often sat in those said PD sessions and said, ” How in the world did that happen?” or “Those students must be the best of the best?”  It wasn’t until I watched my own videos up in a PD session that I realized there was more to this then meets the eye.

Part of my research has been to look at how my questions impact the learning of my students understanding in mathematics.  As a secondary question I also wanted to understand how teachers plan in order to ask good questions.  I have noticed three important aspects that may help in asking good questions.

The first is that as teachers we need to plan for good questions and good talk. Discussion just doesn’t happen.  We may think that they do but real discussion takes time, just like real learning takes time.  If we want to impact our students learning, we, as teachers, need to plan for it to happen.  The first step is planning meaningful, rich tasks that allow students to explore the concepts.  These tasks need to be open ended and have a real context for all students to access the problem/tasks.  The second step is anticipating students problems, responses and learning.  I often have these mapped out based on my experiences, learning and research into the subject matter.  As a teacher we MUST understand my students learning and we MUST understand the curriculum and concepts being taught.  It is more then just opening a textbook and learning steps or procedures to solve the problem.  When you can identify the problems students may have you are better prepared to give a question instead of directly teaching the concept.

The second aspect of asking good questions is the type of questions that we ask as a teacher.  Often, (and I am included in this) we as students questions that only have one answer, or we just want to check for understanding and move on.  If we want our students to develop deeper understanding our questions have to be focused on learning objects and linked to further explanation of concepts.  For this to happen our questions should: 1) push our students beyond the basic procedural output and into connecting it to conceptual big ideas; and 2) introduce connections to other concepts or subjects.

The final aspect is giving our students wait time to respond.  Often, we expect an answer to a question right away.  This is due to the fact we already have an answer that we are looking for or the question only has one answer to respond too.  When we give our students the time to think they have time to develop an true understanding.  When we rescue our students or go right to direct teaching we rob our students of their understanding and thinking.  In addition, the wait time also allows our quieter students to feel a part of the community and wanting to participate.  It honours their learning.

Asking good questions just doesn’t happen.  It takes practise, it takes time and it takes patience.  You will make mistakes but that is okay.  Some times it may seem that you are going backwards in learning but when you sit back and reflect your student’s learning, you may just be surprised; I know I have been.

For more information read the following articles:

Orchestrating Productive Mathematical Discussions: Five Practices for Helping Teachers Move Beyond Show and Tell.  Mary Kay Stein, Randi A. Engle, Margaret S. Smith, Elizabeth K. Hughes.

Technology Makes You Cool

I was really inspired this week by all of my students.  You see this week was the first attempt at blogging, both for myself and for the students.  It’s a big risk putting our thoughts to blog space but I think it will be worth it.  The intent of this space is to reflect on our amazing year at our school: What we have done, learned or even just share the amazing individual learning that is going on.  The hope is that once a week students will be putting up a post that reflects these objectives.  Its been a lot of fun so far.  It has also been a big learning curve, more for me then them.  We first discussed what made a good blog? We looked at some of the blogs that the kids have read and then we co-constructed a rubric for the kids to follow in order to be successful.

But you know what the best thing about this was the kids loved it.  I even heard this:  “Mr. So is the coolest teacher!”  Internally, I thought, “why? cause I let you blog?” But as I reflected on the experiences that my students are having it goes beyond pure blogging. Here are some of my thoughts as to what those reasons are:

1. Its fun: I am all about fun and guess what technology is fun.  Kids love it, period, full stop.

2. Gives my students a voice:  One of the most important things that I have thought about over the course of my teaching experience is student voice.  I personally believe that all of my students need to be and should be a part of the classroom.  The learning environment is more theirs then mine.  I am a mere observer and facilitator of the learning.  As students explore blogs, wiki sites, or even use the I-pads and netbooks it encourages that voice and brings it to the front of the learning.  No longer is it the teacher saying “hey learn this…or do it this way” now the students are in charge of the learning.

3. Its engaging: I might be giving away my secrets here but I try numerous things in the classroom in order to make the lesson engaging for the students.  But to be honest, there is nothing like putting a piece of 21st century learning in front of the students and they eat it all up.  They love the I-pads, music videos, youtube, wiki sites and now blogging.

So if you are thinking about blogging I say go ahead and jump right in, the fact that you are reading this blog is amazing. Keep in mind that I am always amazed at what my students are able to accomplish and I am sure all students are that way.  And to my amazing class reading this I say keep doing what you are doing.

Here are some helpful tips for blogging: