For Me, The Year Begins With A Dot. #DotDay2016

Our first day of school is Wednesday, September 7th.  This is just 5 school days before International Dot Day on September 15th, 2016.  And for me the timing couldn’t be more perfect.   Dot Day has become an important part of my students first grade year.  It’s the first time, that we think and talk about what is  most important about ourselves and the learning journey that we are about to begin. This day is named for the classic Peter H. Reynolds story called  The Dot. The book shares the story of a girl named Vashti, who begins a journey of self-discovery after a teacher challenges her to “make her mark.”   This will be just the third year that I have joined thousands of other educators around the world who are asking their own students to make their mark.  And this one question is the perfect way to start a new year.

During the 1st week of school we will have read the book several times and have had many conversations about Vashti and her teacher.  But on Dot Day, it truly is a question that I pose for the first time to my brand new 1st graders – “How will YOU make your mark?” Then I will hand them a  single piece of paper, a paint brush and some watercolor paints.  I ask them not only  to make their mark but to write a word or two to go with it.  I explain that these will hang in our classroom for the 170- some days to come.  I’m always delighted with the outcome.

Every student’s dot is original and I’m always amazed by how these simple works of art inspire us as our year goes on.   We refer  to them when we are stuck,  last year, Carl’s dot reminded us to try.  During projects, Ruby’s dot gave us permission to explore.  When we were struggling, Noah’s dot told us to be brave.  And finally, Olivia’s dot lets us know that it’s always okay to follow your heart.  Important life lessons.  Other dots reminded us to work hard, to make new friends and to play.   And each one inspired me, as their teacher,  to take risks and know that my 6 and 7 year old students would rise to the challenge.  IMG_3917

2015-16 was a great year filled with challenges including  a teacher’s strike that delayed the start of our school year and meant that we did Dot Day 10 days late.  And that’s one of the reasons why Dot Day 2016 is scheduled for September 15th ~ish .  Dot Day is not about a  certain day.  It’s about a question that we as teachers need to ask students again and again.   “How will you make your mark and how can I help you make it?”  Here’s the link – It’s not to late to sign up.  http://www.thedotclub.org/dotday/

~Molly

 

 

 

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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 

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

 

Moonshot Thinking – An Ongoing Lesson in Perseverance, Risk Taking, Connection and Apollo 11

Our school mascot is the explorer.  Our symbol is a rocketship.  So when I first heard the term “moonshot thinking” I was intrigued.  Digital Learning Specialist and Educational Keynote Speaker, Jenny Magiera brought it to my attention last summer as I was following the BLC15 hashtag on twitter.   Mageria challenges all teachers to create a classroom where it’s okay to fail.  It’s her belief and mine too, that mistakes are usually opportunities to try again.  And it’s often these second attempts in learning that push us to take bigger risks, and in the classroom, even a 1st grade classroom, these risks usually lead to deeper more meaningful learning.  

I picked up Brian Floca’s book,  Moonshot – The Flight of Apollo 11 in the fall.  I knew that not only did I have a mentor text for my 1st graders first non fiction unit of study but I also had a book that would inspire my students to ask questions.  After reading Moonshot my 1st graders put many of their questions on sticky notes.  “How do you get to be an astronaut?   Is space travel dangerous?  Do you sleep in space?  How long does it take to get to the moon?”  These questions led to spending a good chunk of our We Wonder Wednesday researching  Neil Armstrong, space travel and the effects of gravity in space. Videos from this historic time helped us learn how to  make meaning of images.  And my students marveled, as together, we watched the grainy, black and white footage of Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon.  We even tweeted our questions to Moonshot author, Brian Floca and to our surprise he tweeted back.

  

That connection alone was enough to inspire my students to think big.  They were so proud that the author of our favorite read-a-loud was talking to us.  But even more importantly, at least to me, this book started what is still an ongoing conversation in my classroom. How do we set goals and what does it take to meet them?  Learning is a lifelong adventure and if we want to to accomplish great things, all of us have to try, fail, persist, try again and even repeat many times before we can  reach the the highest of heights.  Moonshot thinking.img_5188