Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Students, Storytelling and SEL: EduCon 2.5

On Saturday I attended EduCon 2.5, an "innovation conference" hosted by Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. While I only attended one of the three days of EduCon, I found my sessions did an excellent job of sending me home with a few concrete ideas to implement in my classroom.

In the morning I attended a session on Students as Teaching Resources led by Anastacia Brie and Grace O'Keefe. The two presenters shared details of a high school program in which they train students to become 'lead learners' during science labs, and after some breakout discussion with lower/middle grade teachers, it became clear that there were lots of opportunities to use a similar model in 5th Grade. For example, this year I rolled out Google Drive to my English students, and the process took several class periods up front, with additional conferencing time to troubleshoot individual student issues. After the EduCon session, I decided to try the roll out differently next year. Instead of doing all the teaching myself, why not invite a few students to come to a training session in late August? This way, a handful of students get a chance to be leaders in their grade, facilitate peer-to-peer learning, and move our class away from a teacher-as-only-resource frame of mind. I'm very excited to try this out next year!

After lunch I attended Sequence and Consequence: Why Storytelling is Essential for Learning, led by Gerald Aungst and Amanda Dykes. Here too I felt the session was structured with concrete ideas in mind, and almost immediately Aungst provided me with an excellent tool to use in my classroom. He asked all participants to close their eyes and imagine they were holding a present. After a few seconds, we opened our eyes and discussed the story behind our imagined gift. As Aungst pointed out, without being asked we had all created a narrative to go along with the present -- who gave it to us, what occasion it celebrated, and even what was inside the imaginary box. I'm psyched to take my students through this activity as we begin our unit on writing historical fiction, as it so clearly demonstrates the power of their own imaginations.

The day at EduCon 2.5 ended with a session led by Chris Lehmann, the founder of Science Leadership Academy and a veritable celebrity when it comes to education innovation. At Care For vs. Care About: Creating the Ethic of Care, Lehmann was joined by two of his colleagues, Pia Martin and Larissa Pahomov. The three educators posed an intriguing question: What is the difference between caring for and caring about? Conversation in the room led to an agreement that caring for something implied more action and emotion than caring about, but perhaps more interesting was the developing notion that students and teachers can do one without the other. For example, a teacher might care for a student, tying her shoelaces, helping her with a math question, without explicitly caring about her. It's important for teachers to model for students that one must strive to both care for and about those around them. To that end, the SLA team focused on a discussion of their advisory program, and I sat back with no small degree of satisfaction over the healthy and robust advisory program my own school has developed over the last few years with the help of Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Perfect Day

Today was one of those excellent days of school wherein everything goes perfectly, and I wanted to jot it down to remember. Yesterday morning, as I listened to Richard Blanco read his inaugural poem, One Day, I decided to scrap my intended plans for English and devote today's classes to a study of the text. The poem, of course lovely but also complicated, required much of my 5th Graders. There were lines and even stanzas that they immediately understood, related to and were able to discuss eloquently, but much of the poem challenged my students, pushing them to the far reaches of their contextual knowledge as they tried to make sense of new vocabulary and figurative language. In each of my three sections students picked up on different lines of the poem, bringing their individual expertise to a conversation that was energetic and beautiful. While I was impressed by students who tried to define resilience or articulate the significance of the relationship between Martin Luther King's and President Obama, the most wonderful moments of my classes came when students pointed out lines of the poem that they liked "just because the words sounds nice."

In the afternoon, the entire 5th Grade met in the library for a Skype session with a Marine sergeant who was formerly stationed in Afghanistan. Our Social Studies and English curriculum has been focused on a study of the Middle East, and the students were eager to chat with someone who had experienced the geography, climate and culture of Afghanistan first hand. They asked meaningful questions ("Did you see women or girls outside alone?"; "How did you communicate with local residents?"; "Is the Taliban as bad as they seem to be in the books we've read?"), listened with respect and attention, and left the experience with a broader knowledge and understanding. We've discussed historical fiction in ever-growing detail, and it was excellent for the students to see that the details of their novel matched up with the experience of the Marine, sparking the understanding that an author has to do significant research to write accurately, albeit fictionally, about events in history.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

From the Lower East Side to Communist Cuba: Learning About Culture and Community

This week the 5th Grade spent a day investigating signs of community and culture both at home and in other parts of the world. In the morning, we took 47 students to NYC's Lower East Side, a neighborhood rich in diversity. Students observed tenement apartments and tailor shops, row after row of dumpling houses whose signage displayed both English and Chinese text, and, in a stroke of luck, a beautifully ornate Buddhist temple nestled into a row of construction warehouses. After an excellent lesson from their Social Studies teacher on observing signs of culture, our students were primed to find meaning in a cluster of stores selling signs, panes of glass and metal siding. They noticed architecture, pointing out how small and tight the LES's buildings seemed compared to other parts of the city, and in Little Italy they immediately picked up on the the red, white and green color scheme on display in every bakery window or restaurant awning.

But the major highlight of our walking tour was the Guan Gong Temple, which drew us in with the sweet incense and bright oranges left as an offering in front of its door. After asking permission of the monk inside, we took the students into the tiny space to look around, observe and sketch some of the beautiful alters and statues they saw. The centerpiece of the temple is a huge figure of a buddha surrounded by flowers, fruit and oil, and our students were mesmerized by this rich display in gold, orange and red. The people working at the temple were happy to answer our questions and the students left with a small understanding of religion but a huge appreciation for the unique cultures with whom they share their city.

Another highlight of the day came in the afternoon, when two parents, both native Cubans, came to speak to the 5th Grade about growing up in a communist country and immigrating to the United States. We have been studying the Middle East (Afghanistan in particular) as part of our Social Studies and English curriculum, and the students made excellent connections between life under Castro and life under the Taliban. While there are plenty of significant differences to note, I was impressed with the way students picked up on the more subtle details of living in a place where one feels constant suspicion for their neighbors and at odds with the beliefs of their government. They asked excellent questions ("Were girls treated worse than boys in Cuba?"; "Did you have to dress in a certain type of clothing?") and expressed wonderful self-reflection ("Hearing about growing up like this makes me feel silly for being scared of something like a spider. There are much scarier things in the world.")

The day was all around wonderful -- that special kind of wonderful teachers and students feel when they leave their classrooms together and share a new experience. All morning I felt lucky to live in a city where one can amble through a maze of streets and find hidden treasures of culture and community. Though I regularly use technology in my classroom and consider resources like YouTube and GoogleDrive critical elements of my curriculum, this day was a reminder of how meaningful personal experiences are to both teachers and students.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Exploring Collaboration with Goole Drive: 5th Grade Reading Recommendations

Last semester my students used Google Docs to write their personal memoirs. They worked on their writing in class and at home, and shared their docs with me in order to facilitate editing, printing and general troubleshooting. They did not, however, collaborate with their classmates, and so I've been looking for opportunities to take advantage of this particular facet of Google Drive.

I have a few ideas and lesson plans to explore in the coming weeks, and first up is a grade-wide Suggested Reading List, which was inspired by a Twitter conversation with Katherine Schulten and George Swain. As we enjoyed a little pleasure reading over the winter holidays, George, Katherine and I tweeted back and forth about what we were currently reading and which titles we were looking forward to digging into. At some point in the discussion, Katherine, a former English teacher and current editor of the New York Times Learning Network Blog, tweeted this:


It immediately dawned on me that I should do something similar with my students, who are always asking me for book recommendations or sharing titles they've loved. When we returned from winter vacation I created a spreadsheet on Google Drive, titled it 5th Grade Reading Recommendations, and shared the link with all of my English classes. For the initial rollout, I made contributing to the list a required homework assignment, asking each student to access the file and add a single title. I was pleased to see how many chose to add two or three or five titles to our spreadsheet, and days later students are asking me if they can continue to collaborate on the list. I'm curious to see if I'll ever need to require contributions again, or if the spreadsheet will gain enough momentum to exist independently of me. Regardless, my classes were excited to recommend books to their classmates, and each suggestion is signed so that curious students can seek each other out to discuss titles. 

Next week I will again experiment with collaborating on Google Drive, as I ask my students to brainstorm questions for an upcoming Skype session with a former U.S. Marine.  More on that soon! 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Goals for 2013 -- 5th Grade English

One goal for my English class this term is to incorporate lessons on grammar and mechanics into our existing Writers' Workshop. Like most of you, I shy away from worksheets and workbooks, but I felt at a loss as to how to teach punctuation, parts of speech, etc., without using some element of rote learning or long editing sessions with a red pen.  So, twice a week my students would take out their Writing Skills workbooks and spend 15 minutes on topic sentences or descriptive language. I don't even want to think of how many hours I've spent editing student work, catching every single small error without providing truly meaningful context for fixing them.

Yesterday I finally read Mechanically Inclined (which had been sitting on my shelf for months, an unknown treasure trove of teaching ideas), and I'm feeling very excited to get back to my classroom next week so I can start introducing some of author Jeff Anderson's (@writeguyjeff) strategies. It was a relief to read the early chapters of Anderson's book, in which he reassured me that workbooks are indeed a poor choice for teaching grammar, an assertion which he bases both on research and his own expertise. Workbooks are completely at odds with everything else that goes on in my PBL classroom, so I'm delighted to look for other avenues for teaching these skills. Anderson advocates teaching students how to notice and fix their own writing errors all within the parameters of an excellent Writer's Workshop model. He suggests using mentor texts not only as inspiration for writing ideas, but also as models of strong and effective grammar use. As we rely heavily on mentor texts and workshop conversations in my English classes, I'm looking forward to adding this new layer of meaning to the work my students are already doing.

English teachers, how do you incorporate lessons on grammar and mechanics into your classes?