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

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

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