Innovation and Risk-Taking – A Reflection Inspired by #IMMOOC, Season 2

I have been catching up on the Innovators Mindset Open Online Course and it didn’t take long to inspire me to start blogging again.   It’s so easy to be so busy that blogging just isn’t a priority.  Teaching,  family, staff meetings, parent meetings, National Boards, etc. etc.  But when I start listening to innovative teachers share their practice, my head starts spinning and I want to share what I’m thinking too.  So often we feel like we don’t measure up.   So here I go.  Again.

There are many things that make a teacher innovative.  Because I value collaboration, face to face, and with people I’ve never met, communicating using 140 characters or less – I’m innovative.  Because I take risks in my day to day practice -I’m innovative. Because I learn from my mistakes-I’m innovative. And  because I give everyone of my   1st grade students the support they need to make choices and take risks in their learning – I am innovative.  But  the hard part about being innovative is that nothing stays the same.  I can’t rely on what worked last year or the year before because ever school year brings a new group of students. And a new set of challenges.

Right now I’m struggling with We Wonder Wednesday.  This is a day that I set aside for my students to learn about anything they want to.   They can work by themselves, they can work in groups – they just need to be learning.

 

I have students, 7 and 8 year olds, researching fish, dinosaurs, Michelle Obama, plants, bubbles, Mt. Everest and binary numbers.  ( crazy, I know.)  And they are learning.   They are picking a topic , doing basic research, and then creating a  poster or a book, often using technology,  and moving on to the next wonder.   And then they repeat.  Why aren’t they taking more risks?    Is it them or is it me?   By now my students have learned what it means to be a self directed learner, they know what it means to think critically and share their thinking.  And we  have also  defined what it means to be creative.

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For me being creative,  means not showing your work the same way again and again.   And  that involves taking risks.  Are all my student able to do that? I don’t think so.  So is it me?Or is it them?  What am I missing? Are students just picking a topic and saying, “OK, today I want to learn about fish?  Or are they asking questions, after all wonder means to be  curious about something.  They shouldn’t be picking a topic. They should be asking questions.    And if they don’t have a lot of questions about a topic, then they should find another topic.  One they are passionate about.  Maybe that is what’s missing.  Passion.  How do we create a classroom where children are passionate about their work?  Giving them voice and choice, time to wonder and ask questions, is a good start.  But how do we model passion?  That might be the key to innovation. So this Wednesday, I will remind my students  how I wonder continually-when I’m making my coffee in the morning, on my drive to work,  while I’m teaching, and most especially on a walk when I’m catching up on conversations  about innovation in teaching.   I will remind them  how passionate I am about learning and sometimes that means taking more risks, looking at things, even learning in a new way.  To do this we will need to be persistent, resilient and flexible.We will need to push ourselves to think differently about the world.  And if I can teach them that – I can consider myself innovative.

~Molly

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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 

Class Meetings in the First Grade

It’s a typical afternoon in my classroom. We’ve just finished our last recess and students are coming in excitedly.  As part of our routine, students begin to seat themselves around the outside of the rug, during this time they are chatty and high energy–a normal first grade class. We all get seated and the breathing leader tells students that today we will do 10 deep breathes. He rings the bell and then slowly begins to lead students in 10 deep breathes. At the end of the breathing, all students are quiet and have placed their hands palms up on their knees, ready to begin our compliment circle. As a stuffed puffin (our class talking stick) begins to make it’s way around the class, students compliment each other for a variety of things that happened throughout the day. One student thanks a classmate for walking her to the office when she skinned her knee. Another student thanks a friend for including everyone in soccer and playing fairly at recess. After receiving a compliment,  students fold their hands together as a silent signal they no longer need a compliment. Our compliment circle finishes in about five minutes and then we move onto our class meeting agenda for the day. We have one problem to solve as a class today–lately our transitions have been noisy and taking a lot longer than normal. We bring the transition problem to the class and brainstorm possible solutions. During our brainstorm time, students bring up various solutions and raise concerns that may accompany the solution. As a class students vote and hone in on the idea of timing our transitions on one of the iPads. One student raises the concern that students might get too wild in the rush to beat the timer so we also develop a guideline of “When we transition, we will transition quickly, quietly and safely”.  The solution is put into place that afternoon during pack up. We will continue to try this solution for a week or so before revisiting at a class meeting to see how it is working.

 

When I came to Queen Anne Elementary, I had never had formal Positive Disciple in the Classroom training and was only vaguely familiar with it. My first year at Queen Anne, I was able to take a training very early in the school year. At first, I struggled with implementation in my classroom. I have never been a teacher who yelled or was punitive to students but turning classroom problems over to students to solve was challenging. I was used to fixing class problems quickly and making the rules for the class. I was a kind dictator in my own classroom. Giving students ownership in daily classroom decisions means that I am not the only one making the class rules. It also means that sometimes a student driven solution is complicated and does not solve the problem. In this case, we revisit the proposed solution and adapt as needed. What I observed and began to realize about the power of class meetings was  that each of my students realized they had a voice in the decision making process,  and not only could they come up with solutions but they could help solve problems for the class as a whole.

 

Our class meetings follow the same format every time. Using the same format means students know what to expect and this leads to an efficiency in our class meetings. We begin with deep breathing to calm down and get ready to focus. Our class meetings take place at the end of the day after the last recess, not a time first graders are normally very focused. We do deep breathing to regain focus and this sets the calm tone for our meeting. We then open with a compliment circle. We focus on giving “inside” compliments vs. “outside” compliments. Inside compliments are compliments that are focused on actions, behavior and character traits. After our compliment circle, we move onto class problems that need to be solved. Sometimes there aren’t any problems, in that case we close with a fun game or high five and move on with our afternoon. If there is a problem, we brainstorm possible solutions and then vote on these solutions. Most of the time I am merely the scribe during this time, however, if a student comes up with a solution that is punitive or not practical, I step in and say “As a member of the classroom, I can’t live with that solution” and we strike the possible solution. This does not happen regularly. After students are done brainstorming, they vote. As a wrap up to the class meeting with end with a fun game or high five. We do class meetings 3-5 times weekly and they usually last 10-15 minutes. By implementing class meetings, my classroom now runs more smoothly, there are less behavior problems and all students feel like important members of the classroom community.

Positive Discipline

 

Life Lessons

It’s been a hard week.   Our school community learned that our principal and the founder of our school was leaving.  On Wednesday afternoon, district leaders told our staff that our principal, David Elliott had decided to take a leave and would not be returning this year or next year.    He was gone.       For Good.        Period.   

Alicia and I both knew that that the principal we knew  wouldn’t leave Queen Anne Elementary without saying goodbye to his staff and to his students. So on Thursday, all of us came to school with heavy hearts wondering how we would tell our  kids that Mr. Elliott, the principal that knew them all by name, that did lunch duty because he wanted to have real conversations with kids, and that led our school with passion and courage was not coming back.  I had only been in my classroom for about 5 minutes when one of my students and her mom walked in with this-  

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Obviously, our district  had sent our parents a letter the night before and  it was clear that most of them were in shock too.  It seemed that very few in our community believed that our leader, the man who built our school would leave without a word.  And since I had already been touched by one child’s act of kindness, I wanted to make sure our community knew that these were the students we were growing. So I sent out a tweet with the hashtag  #ThisIsTheSchoolThatDavidBuilt and despite the typo, people saw it and responded.  Soon our families were connecting in person and on social media. I now had less than 10 minutes before the first bell and my head was spinning with questions, “What would I tell my students? Would they be feeling the same sadness?  Would they also  be wondering if our school was going to change?  Who would be in the lunchroom and who would be leading our school?”  And then I did what I do on many days when I’m unsure of my next steps. I walked down the hall to look at our pillars that greet every visitor that comes to our school. These pillars are the foundational statements that guide our teaching and learning.I snapped a picture and sent this tweet out to the world tweaking my hashtag so that it read #DavidBuiltThisSchool.

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Our school is a special place.  Queen Anne Elementary is an option school in the Seattle Public School District.  Our families choose to come here.  QAE opened it’s doors just 6 years ago and was originally envisioned as a school where, simply put,  children would learn how to learn.  I was not here in its first year but joined the staff in year two.  Alicia joined in year three.  It was that year we started using iPads in our classrooms, sharing a rolling cart between classrooms.  And it was the next year in a staff meeting when David,our principal, said that he would like to pilot a 1to1 program in our school.  Alicia and I raised our hands.  And with David’s strong encouragement, that  December our first grade team had iPads in the hands of all our kids and the learning for both us and them was transformational.  Now all of our kids, kindergarten through 5th grade have 1to1 devices. But these devices are just tools to show the world what is at the heart of our teaching and learning, our pillars:     

  • 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 learn everywhere, we learn together
  • We are creative

And when things get hard at our school, students and teachers, come back to these pillars and know that they can and do hold us up.  All of us held classroom meetings so that students could talk and ask questions about Mr. Elliott’s sudden departure.  In first grade, I think both Alicia and I would say that our kids really helped us remain strong.

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 And in fifth grade, the students who came here when Queen Anne Elementary  was brand new worked through their feelings together.   There were lots of tears and many memories shared.   Life Lessons.  

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And while we were inside the building, our community was outside working to make sure that the school that David built was going to move forward. I know it will. The work here is to important. Of course, there is much more to this story.  And the end hasn’t been written yet. Our principal isn’t perfect. In a letter to our community he admitted that he did make a mistake by not completing teacher evaluations last year.  But we are standing with him anyway because he is more than his mistakes. So thanks to all of you who are fighting the fight to get our principal back. It’s my belief his work is not finished.   And thanks to all of you who are fighting in schools everywhere for the chance to teach kids more than just academics, It is the life lessons, good and bad, that matter most.

–Molly

  

Speaking, Listening and Viewing – A Must See Project by Guest Blogger Katie Cryan Leary

photo 6Three years ago, my kindergarten team and I started launching our school year with a project called Who Am I ?  There are three speaking, listening and viewing student goals for this project. The first goal is ‘to look at and acknowledge the speaker’. The second goal, ‘speak audibly and express thoughts, ideas and feelings clearly’ and the third goal, ‘describe familiar people, places, things and events and, with prompting and support, provide additional detail.  These goals’ are directly aligned with the national kindergarten CCSS for literacy. It is critical in kindergarten to set up a supportive learning environment in which students feel comfortable speaking and are respectful listeners, so starting the year with this project makes so much sense to us.

From the first day of school, we focus on helping our students use their bodies, voices and brains to listen as they learn the routines of kindergarten. We talk about how good listeners use a still body, a voice that is off and an engaged brain to listen. We post a Listening anchor chart as a visible reminderlistening poster.

 Each day, we assess our listening using a thumb signal. This helps our students internalize what their brains, bodies and voices need to be doing when they are listening. We use our listening to learn how we are the same and different and to explore who we are in our community. We practice our listening constantly and consistently during mini-lessons, class meetings, peer sharing sessions and weekly school assemblies.

During these first few weeks, we observe and assess these important skills.  We use checklists to track the level of proficiency and comfort our students have when communicating with each other and identify students who need extra help and provide them with additional support.  In early October, we transfer our thumb system to a paper student self-assessment rubric. photo 5We use these self-assessment rubrics throughout the year to help students self-assess their learning and set goals for future learning.

After our classroom positive discipline routines are in place and our collective listening is solid (usually early October) we officially launch our project. We read the book Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox and start thinking about the question ~ What Makes Me Me?.  At a station, students reflect on this question, creating drawings that communicate to their classmates information about who they are and how they fit in their community.

We continue to read great books  and share our thinking on our classroom blog via drawings and blog posts that reflect on the questions: What do I love to do?, and What do I want to learn how to do that I don’t know how to do yet?

At this point in the project, we start to deepen our self-exploration by asking ourselves ~ How am I the same? and How am I different? than my new kindergarten friends. As we identify the similarities and differences between us and discuss how these differences are what make us each so unique and wonderful. We talk about our families and create a Where in the World have our Families Lived? map learning about our families’ history and backgrounds and providing more ways to think about how our families are the same and different. photo3

We then summarize our listening learning and transition to speaking instruction with a Museum of Us gallery walk activity. (See http://cryanleary2014.weebly.com/class-blog/launching-our-1st-project-based-learning-pbl-project-who-am-i) Each student brings an object from home that represents who they are. During the gallery walk activity, students have a turn to be both a speaker and a listener. When they are a speaker, they have a safe opportunity to present their object to classmates one at a time, using their speaking to teach others who they are. When they are a listener, they use their listening skills to learn new things about their classmates.After the gallery walk, speakers give compliments to classmates that they noticed being really good listeners while they were speaking. Listeners were complimented for standing still, for not touching the speakers object, and for focusing on the speaker.

After the students have had a chance to participate in the gallery walk as a speaker and listener and assess how they did, we give our first speaking lesson, teaching our students that effective speakers use their bodies, voices and brains to speak, the same three things we use to be good listeners. We add speaking to our existing listening poster, helping the students make this connection. photo 2 

For the next week, we dive into noticing speaking. We talk about what good speaking looks like and watch videos of kids speaking, some effective and some not. We talk about what a still body looks like, we practice using clear voices, and talk about how we know speakers brains are engaged – the speaker looks at the audience, their fluency and pace of speech allows the audience to understand. We look around us for examples of all of these things and point them out when we notice them.

While we are exploring speaking in class, the students work in art class with our art teacher to create pieces showing who they are and how they are the same and different from other members of our classroom community. These art pieces include a self-portrait, a plate showing favorite foods, a shape collage showing the student’s home, a thumbprint family portrait and a drawing of the student’s favorite activity. These art pieces are used to create an All About Me presentation board. photo 4

Before the final posters are created, students are given station time to use the cameras on their iPads to record each other speaking about their favorite activity, practicing their speaking for their final presentation.

Then, after the posters are pasted together, students do a final practice, this time presenting to their small table group at a station. Before this practice, we review our effective speaking criteria: to have a still body, a clear voice and an engaged mind. After each student presents, the audience provides feedback about what they observed the speaker’s body, voice and brain doing during the presentation. The speakers also gives the audience feedback about their listening. After this small-group practice, students view their video, assess their speaking using the student self-assessment rubric and then set a goal for how they plan to improve their speaking for their final presentation.

As a culminating activity, each student uses their speaking skills to present his or her presentation board to their peers via an oral presentation. Specifically, they are asked to:

~ introduce themself

~ introduce their family members

~ tell us something about their home

~ tell us about their favorite activity

~ tell us what their favorite foods are

They also listen to and view the presentations of their peers. This provides each student an opportunity to showcase his/her speaking skills as well as multiple opportunities to demonstrate their listening and viewing skills as a member of the audience.

After presenting, students view a video of their presentation and self-assess their speaking skills on a final speaking rubric. Final presentations are videotaped and uploaded to student e-folios, along with students’ final self-assessments.

Each year, I expect students to be hesitant to do their final presentations. Each year, I am surprised that almost every student volunteers to go first. For the three years we have done this project, all of my students have successfully used effective speaking skills to share their poster with the class. I am amazed at the excitement and confidence my kindergartners bring to this activity ~ every one of them bravely speaking. They also work hard as audience members for their classmates’ presentations, using their listening skills to learn about their new kindergarten friends. I am proud of how well they do with both of these challenging tasks.

* A few of our favorite books that explore this concept

Whoever You Are ~ Mem Fox

It’s Okay To Be Different ~ Todd Parr

To Be A Kid ~ Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko

Only One You ~ Linda Kranz (and You Be You)

The Skin You Live In ~ Michael Tyler

Shades Of People ~ Shelly Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly

One ~ Kathryn Otoshi (and Zero)

Spoon ~ Amy Krouse Rosenthal (and Chop Sticks)

Here Are My Hands ~ Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault

What I Like About Me ~ Allia Zobel Nolan

The Color Of Us ~ Karen Katz

-Katie Cryan Leary

A huge thanks to Katie for sharing this blog post with us.  Katie leads our school’s amazing Kindergarten team and is a mentor teacher to all of us at Queen Anne Elementary. Her students come to us with such enthusiasm for learning! And of course they come know what it means to be a good speaker and a good listener. This foundation makes our job so much easier!  Thanks Katie!  You can follow Katie’s classroom on twitter @msCLqae

Missed Opportunities

Tomorrow was supposed to be the first day of school.  And let’s face it, teachers spend a lot of time thinking about that day.   Not in June, when we are saying goodbye to the students that we have come to know so very well.  But surprisingly, very soon after, when we finally have the time to reflect, deeply reflect, on our accomplishments and on our missed opportunities.  Because there are always some.  For me, it’s always the “did I do enough question” especially for my students who struggle.  The students who were just shy of reaching grade level in reading or math.  The one’s who struggled with friendships or anxiety and the ones who struggle with their identity even at age 7.  Teachers face these issues each and every day and we hope that “in the moment” we say and do the right thing,  We teach and reteach,  problem solve and counsel.  We do our best.   And then we look to the future and wonder, how can I do it better next year.

In Seattle, teachers went back to school a week ago.   There were three days of professional development before the Labor Day Weekend.   At my school, we talked about math, writing and reading, focusing on a new phonics curriculum.   We welcomed new staff and had the  rare opportunity to talk about curriculum with colleagues that teach in other grade levels.  I work in a school with an amazing staff and for those 30 to 45 minute sessions, I was engaged and even inspired.  But most of the time, I felt like our students must feel when everyone is expected to learn the same thing in the same way.  So when those 3 days were over, it was what I didn’t hear that bothered me most.  Even though our school  just finished our first year, half year for some, as a 1to1  school, we didn’t talk about technology.  We didn’t talk about giving kids the opportunity to drive their own learning. We didn’t talk about Wonder Wednesdays or Maker Spaces or Edcamps.  I believe this was another missed opportunity.

And so today, I returned to my classroom and spent the day getting ready for my 26 new first graders.  As always I was imagining the possibilities.   Alicia and I want to engage students on that very first day.  We want students working in groups and creating tutorials that will showcase what they know.   Last year students created digital books with titles like “How to Grow a Plant” or “How to Be a Good Listener”.  These tutorials created a baseline for learning.  Our students quickly latched on to the idea that we are all experts at something and that each and every one of us can be both teacher and learner.   It set the tone for our year.   We were going to try it again tomorrow and this time trust that we could act as facilitators as we watched our youngest learners work together to create new learning and share it with one another.

But there will be no first day for us tomorrow.  Seattle teachers are on strike.  Tomorrow, Alicia and I will be on the picket line with thousands of our colleagues.  All of us, dedicated educators,  united by our passion that teachers and students deserve better.  Would we rather be in our classrooms?  Of course, but it’s time for us to take a stand, otherwise it would be just another missed opportunity for teachers to make a difference.