Flexible Seating, A Reflection 5 years In

It seems like flexible seating is everywhere on social media and it makes my heart happy.  Last year Molly wrote about not having chairs in our classrooms and how our classrooms function without chairs. I would refer back to this article if you are curious about how it looks. Why We Don’t Have Chairs

When I came to Queen Anne Elementary and saw Molly didn’t have chairs in her classroom, I immediately said “ I don’t want chairs either” and I haven’t looked back. What’s funny, is five years ago it seems really progressive to me to not have chairs in a classroom and I remember getting plenty of strange looks from my teacher friends at other schools. “But where will they sit?” “How do you know they won’t just wander around all day?” “What if they sit/stand on the tables?” ( gasp! Something I’ve been known to do a time or two). Now I come into my classroom and it just seems normal to not have chairs. I still get asked from time to time “But why don’t you have chairs?” There is a variety of reasons but what always strikes me in our research driven school environment, is where is the data that shows students are more engaged sitting in chairs? Or the data that shows it’s healthy to have students sit in chairs for hours upon hours? There isn’t any  research that I know of that suggests that a more traditional classroom with students sitting in chairs for hours is engaging or healthy for students. What I’m reading is more and more research about the benefits of standing tables and low tables, both for engagement and health purposes.

I believe we made great strides when we took our desks out of rows. But we stopped moving forward when we simply rearranged the furniture putting students into desk/table groups. We need to continue to strive to make the best learning environment possible for our students and that includes flexible seating choice.

One issue I’ve seen floating around social media from teachers interested in flexible seating is how to give up control when you ditch the chairs. My response? Chairs don’t give you control nor do they engage students. So it’s not really giving up any control. It might be challenging to your sense of order as a teacher,  however engaging teaching and strong classroom management does more to create a positive learning environment than chairs ever have. If you are on the fence about flexible seating this year, I urge you to give it a go. I am so thankful that Molly challenged my thinking on seating in the classroom five years ago. Losing chairs inspired me to create more engaging content, sharpen my classroom management skills and gave my students more choice within their classroom.

My Why -Making a Difference in the Lives of My Students

Every summer I look forward to more time for exercise and usually that means a daily walk with something playing in my ear.  Last week, it was Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk on how great leaders inspire action.  This talk is not specifically about education but  as usual, as I was listening , my brain started thinking about school.  In his talk, Sinek  explains what he believes make organizations  and leadership successful.  He says that the great leaders and organizations in the world are motivated, by what he calls, the golden circle or the why, how and what.  And as he explained this theory, I was already applying it to what I have learned about teaching.   In  our job, we all know what we are supposed to do -educate students.   And we are usually given the how – curriculum, supplies, professional development.  But Sinek would argue that for most, it’s the why  that  is unclear.  He says that very few people and organizations in the world know why they do what they do.   What’s  your purpose,  your cause or belief, he asks.  Why do any of us get up in the morning?    Why do we teach?

I know why.  And it’s more than just wanting to make sure my students are academically proficient.   I want my 1st grade students to know how to learn, to ask questions,  to collaborate with each other, to be able to solve problems and to push themselves to learn more.  I want them be  concerned, confident and compassionate citizens of the world.

Alicia and I are lucky enough to  work at an elementary school that was built on the foundation of 5 pillars. These pillars not only guide our students ( K-5) but they provide the framework for our teaching.    These pillars are “my why.”

We are self-directed learners

We encourage each other to think critically and learn more

We are concerned, confident and compassionate citizens of the world

We earn everywhere, we learn together

We are creative

In my classroom, students are learning to read, write, and work with numbers.  They are doing projects and using technology to connect, capture and create new learning.  But I know now that it’s the work we do around these pillars that drive my instruction and their learning.  There is so much pressure around test scores and academics and yet very few administrators seem to care how we are teaching students these 21st century skills.   I have learned that it’s these skills that push my students to think critically and learn more.  It’s our daily classroom meetings that build community and help us work together to solve problems.  It’s a mindset for learning that is explicitly taught.

We start the year by learning step by step what it means to be a self directed learner.  Then we do the same to define what it means to be a critical thinker.  And every day of the year we practice persistence, optimism, empathy, and resilience. This is why my students and my fellow teachers at Queen Anne Elementary are successful.  It’s why I love my job, and why I look forward to getting to school each morning.   I would love to hear your why.   And of course, here’s the link to Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk.

 

~Molly

 

 

 

 

Learning With Our Twitter Buddies

We are very lucky at our school to have a math specialist. Ms. Francisco is known throughout the school as a math lover and this year, she created math challenges that brought her love of math to all students in the school. I am going to link her website complete with all the challenges she created at the bottom of this blog post. I highly recommend checking out her site.

This year, we participated in the primary blogging community and connected with another first grade classroom outside of Toronto. We enjoyed blogging back and forth greatly but what was most impactful in our classroom throughout the year, was our tweets back and forth. One day, we were working on the math challenge as a class and my class tweeted how engaging but hard the challenge was this week. Our buddy classroom instantly tweeted back “What math challenge?” We explained and shared the math challenge site with our buddies for the upcoming week. Usually,we worked on the math challenges on Friday’s however, our buddy classroom began tweeting at us on Monday morning–they were so excited by it and couldn’t wait to share their work! The challenge that week was to design the new gym our school will be building in a few years using 60 cubes/squares on graph paper, taking into account what type space makes a good gym. We quickly got out the cubes, iPads, and graph paper and went to work. What amazed me the most were the thoughtful conversations students were having as they designed. While they quickly realized a long, narrow 3 x 20 gym would not be ideal for many activities, they thought it could be fun do timed sprints in! One other thing we did while we shared our answers with our buddy classroom through twitter, we also projected student work up on the project through AirServer. AirServer is one of the more powerful tools we have access to–showcasing different student thinking/work, drives all of our students to create and produce more. Below are some examples of student work, students collaborating and a picture of the great work displayed up on our AirServer.

 

By using Twitter to share our learning with our buddies and receiving feedback from them, student work was elevated and so was engagement. My students are always excited to work on the math challenge, but when they had another, audience to share their work with, their engaged soared. I am excited to for next year’s math challenges and to share our learning with other authentic audiences through Twitter.

 

Ms. Francisco’s blog complete with math challenges! http://qaeacademic-support.weebly.com/math-challenges.html

 

 

Math Challenge -Sometimes You Just Have To Start Again

I’m just going to say it , straight out,  Math is hard to teach, even in first grade.  Students seem to love it or hate it – not many fall in between.  You have those kids who struggle and  you have those kids who seem to know everything.  This school year, our schools math specialist started a bi- weekly math challenge.  Just the word challenge seemed to motivate my students and so we did it, regularly, every 2 weeks.  My students did well,  (getting the answers)  but what I did better as a teacher  was to ask ask more questions.  How do you know that’s the right answer?  Could there be a different answer?  Show me your thinking!  So by the time we got to Math Challenge 12 , I was really on auto pilot.  It was the first Monday after spring break and I have to say I grabbed the math challenge  and thought “perfect,  an already planned lesson.  Let’s go! ”  I put the problem on the overhead,  read it, heard my students  say “this will be an easy one” and they grabbed their pencils and went to work.  And then, as usual, I watched my “high” math students finish quickly and one by one the rest finished too. We moved on with our day.   It wasn’t until that afternoon that I went over their work.  And while shocked may  be a bit of an overstatement – it really was close to what I was feeling when I realized that all of my students but two, got the problem wrong.

  
Hmm.  What did I do wrong?  In my classroom we have spent the year talking about doing our best, persisting through hard tasks and rising to a challenge. The book, A Mindset for Learning by   Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz  has helped my students learn that growing our brains is going to make us more successful in life.  So the next day – this was the morning message that greeted my students. 

But first we would practice a new brain grower-  Resilience, “When you have trouble, you bounce back and try again.”   During this conversation, my students admitted that the challenge was hard and they too were tired after spring break.  They promised to  start again  and when they finished , they would grab the 2nd challenge as well  ( There is always 2 challenges – Level A and Level B) . And of course, they would show their thinking.  This time they grabbed their pencils, math manipulatives  and went to work.   

 And one hour later, students were still working. 

 And by working I mean real work.  The answers didn’t come easy and no one was copying anyone else’s work.  Soon  the students who were struggling the most were working in groups and I got out my phone to ask a few how they were feeling.

  
Today, I’m looking over their work once again  before sending it on to our Math Specialist.  She will pick a “winner” for our primary and our  3,4,5 students.  

 
   I believe we proved that we are persistent and resilient in @MsMecksClass even if all that  math thinking comes with a price.   

~Molly 

Project Based Learning in the Primary Classroom

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Four years ago I was hired at a newly formed Project Based Learning ( PBL) school. I remember sitting in my interview being asked about a project I would develop and struggling through the response. I was vaguely aware of PBL but had no idea how to develop and plan a project. Luckily, that summer our whole staff went through a multiple day training on how to develop and implement a project. Project Based Learning involves creating a multiple week project based around an open ended question, called a driving question. During the project, students become researchers, testers, makers, writers and take on collaborative roles in groups to develop a final end project that they present in some manner.

More and more I read about high schools and middle schools turning to PBL, in my own district is it touted as a way to differentiate in the advanced learning programs. Recently there was even a movie put about High Tech High which is entirely project based. If you haven’t seen Mostly Likely to Succeed, I can’t recommend it enough. All of this is great and I know and believe that PBL can engage and benefit our youngest learners. PBL is a way to access and engage ALL of our students regardless of age or ability.

Four years ago when Molly and my other teammates developed our first projects, we relied heavily on information from the Buck Institute. We still go back to this resource time and time again when we get stuck because even after four years PBL can be challenging as a teacher.

A critical aspect to PBL is developing a strong, concise driving question. This question guides the entire project and needs to be open ended and allow students multiple access points into the curriculum.This fall, we developed a new project with the driving question: How can we build a city in our classroom? This project is based on Washington State Social Studies Learning Standards and incorporates Common Core Language Arts and Math state standards. The big ideas behind it are that cities are places where people choose to live and work together.  And that cities are made up of many different systems that function for the greater good.  

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After introducing the question, and brainstorming what we already know about cities,  we began building in our classroom. At first students were fixated on our cities landmarks, the sports fields and the Space Needle. I let them build these  within their PBL groups with  various tools ( legos, keva blocks, magna tiles, knex etc..) and then I called them back to the rug and introduced the concept of a system. From that definition, my students realized their cities were not complete systems-they had parts  of a city but most of the group’s work lacked roads, stores  and other critical aspects of a city system. They began again and went back to their groups and began to build more complete cities, talking all the while about the work they were doing to ensure their city was a complete system.  Through these conversations, students are learning how to collaborate,  how to have  learning conversations that involve speaking and listening  as well as how to work  through conflicts together. They then wrote about their cities on their student blogs after we had finished building for the day.  

The Construction Crew mid design and build of their first city

While core academics such as literacy and social studies  are easily integrated into projects, Molly and I both  believe the most imporant skills students learn through these projects are 21st century learning skills such as collaboration, researching, critical thinking and perseverance.  They learn how to be flexible when their plan doesn’t work the first time.   And they learn how to revise their ideas as they gain new information and input from peers.  During our debriefing after our first day, one student explained “Well I had to be flexible because I couldn’t find the pieces I wanted to make my hospital so I kept  looking for others that would work as well.” I was impressed by this comment but not surprised, these sort of conversations happen naturally during PBL.  In Molly’s classroom, students did self reflections on paper and you can see that students came up with many different ways to be more successful in the future.  

 

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Our city project is just beginning and every one of our first graders is excited and about this project.  We will be learning from many guest speakers and are hoping to visit many parts of our city for research.  My class this year, like every year has a wide range of abilities and needs.  Every morning when my students enter the classroom, they eagerly check our schedule to see when we will be working on PBL.  Project Based Learning is a powerful learning tool that should done in every classroom with every student.

–Alicia

Small Steps

The day before school, I was ready. Ready to jump into the adventure that is first grade. And then we went on strike. When we eventually went back to school, I felt scrambled and rushed, it was the middle of September already!  Today was our tenth day of school and suddenly I realized what was going on in my classroom.  I was rushed and my students knew it, so they were rushing to keep up with me.  I knew what I needed to do.  I needed to slow way  down and start taking small, focused steps.

Last week I tried a math lesson with iPads. It was not a complicated lesson at all, in fact the concept of making tens with unifix cubes was developmentally right on for my first graders. My plan was for students to create an Educreation project with three different slides showing the different groups of ten they created. In my haste, I forgot got that my new first graders had limited experience with Educreations in Kindergarten. Needless to say, the task was much too complicated for most of my students. This project had way too many steps and tools to navigate for students to begin with.  So I took a step (or two) back. And began again.

Today after my mini lesson in word work, students had the choice to graph sight words from a weekly sight word list, make words with letter tiles or write words using white boards. Whatever they chose, they needed to show their learn through pictures and words. I asked students to use the app Pic Collage to take three pictures and write a sentence about their word work. This was a simple task, however, it reinforced many skills my students will need for larger, more complicated projects. Students practiced taking clear photos, selecting a font, typing in a text box and saving their work to the photo library. Pic Collage is a very simple to app to navigate and every year it is one of my students favorite apps to use.

 I realized today that what I had forgotten in my  rush to develop independent first graders was  the small steps we take daily  to lay the foundation for the future work ahead.  And the need to start with simple tools that help are students be successful from the beginning.  That’s how we grow the independent, self directed learners that leave our classrooms in June. My goal going forward  is to slow down and remember to keep taking small, focused steps forward. We shouldn’t be in a hurry.

–Alicia

Student documenting the words they built to use in a Pic Collage
Student documenting the words they built
Graphing sight words from a favorite book
Graphing sight words from a favorite book

Why We Don’t Have Chairs

 

 

 

 

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It’s usually the first thing anyone who hasn’t been in our classrooms before asks, “Why don’t you have any chairs?”   It’s a good question and there are many reasons Alicia and I have given up chairs to support student learning.   First things first, our youngest students like to move and they don’t sit anywhere for long.  Our classrooms are small and if there were 26 desks and 26 chairs we wouldn’t have room to do anything but sit.  Learning would look extremely different.

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Without the more traditional classroom set up we can  easily move tables around so that we have a wide open working space. Sometimes we push all the tables to the sides of the classroom to create a larger working space. These photo’s show how students have plenty of room to work as they explore how balls move and begin to build ramp systems in science.   Sometimes our tables become stages for group presentations. Without chairs and desks, we have a great deal of opportunity to change our classroom layout in a moment’s notice to best fit our students learning needs.

You’ll notice that we have tables and not desks.   We believe this is the best way to get our students used to working together.  Both of us have no assigned seating in our classrooms and on the first day of school we begin teaching kids how to make choices that work for them. First graders like to fidget and sometime being a self directed learner means you sit at a table or lie down on the carpet with a clipboard.

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It’s rare that you would see all of our students sitting at tables.  First graders love to mix it up.  We firmly believe that students learn better when they are not glued to their seats.   It’s important that they are able to engage physically and creatively while they are learning.   Even so we still take many brain and body breaks to get out kids up and moving around during the day.  And if you need anymore convincing, you probably already know that with our youngest learners, chairs can present their own unique issues. They can squeak, tip over frequently and cause a great deal of noise. Not to mention, how hard it is to get first graders to push chairs in when they’re not sitting in them.  In fact, it was tripping over a chair that caused me to take the last chairs out of my room for good.  For a long while, I had a mixture of low tables and traditional desks and chairs.  So, after tripping  and while  planning a writers celebration, I decided I would move the chairs into the halls so we would have more room to move around.  The celebration was super successful. But when I told my students that  I would be putting our room back together in the morning, they replied, “Why would you do that – we love the  low tables and  it’s so much better this way.”  As usual, my students understood what worked best for them before I did.  And they make it clear that our classroom was too crowded.

I will say that in the beginning, Alicia and I felt some resistance.  Parents worried that their children would be uncomfortable or they would get dirty sitting on the floor.  We bought many carpet squares and pillows but found that while children will reach for them occasionally, they really prefer sitting or kneeling on the floor.  There have been times when children’s physical limitations or other reasons have warranted bringing a desk and chair into the classroom.  And of course, we do what is right for every student.  In a perfect world, we would love to have a mixture of all kinds of seating, but for us, at this time, in the space that we occupy, our furniture helps support the  learning community that we believe is most important for our kids.  A classroom where everyone is making a choice that allows them to be successful.  And at the same time creating a classroom environment where collaboration and conversation is always part of the learning process.

-Molly