Amplifying Minds

Learning and Growing Together

Archive for the category “Learning At Its Best”

Reimagining School: A Student’s Perspective

From Nicolas, a kid I taught in 5th grade, who is now in 9th.

Nic has some interesting perspectives, but the thing I have always appreciated about him is that he is thoughtful, caring, looking to make connections, a risk-taker and first and foremost, a person I am proud to know.

Just as my opinions are my own on this blog, his opinions are his own on his wiki and blog.


What’s In A Fishbowl?

Wow…I watched my 5th graders on Wednesday have a great discussion on Today’s Meet about books.  They were sharing and recommending, and asking for recommendations and connecting and just basically having a ball. They went on and on for around 30 minutes.

On Thursday, I put 3 of my fourth graders into a “fishbowl” to talk about the books they are reading.  The kids watching the fishbowl conversation were supposed to write down thoughts they had that connected to the book talkers, or questions they had. The first group was extremely self conscious, but they could each talk about their book.  Success! After all, this is literacy group, right?

They just didn’t have a conversation–each of them took a turn talking and then there was dead silence. Then one kid asked if either of the other two had anything else to say, because he could “add a whole bunch more”.  When neither of them spoke up, we started hearing the whole story of the book he was reading!

So we tried a second group–after one kid had said, “A conversation is supposed to go back and forth, back and forth–and they just said something and no one responded.”

So in the second group, I told the “watchers” they were to listen for questions the group members asked, and still write down their connections.  That prompt itself changed the conversation–since the three kids knew the rest of them were listening for questions, they did ask questions of each other–in 5 minutes, they asked each other somewhere between 12 and 15 questions…

The we noted that one of the speakers wasn’t looking at both other people in the fishbowl , but only looked to one. We talked about how that body language could make someone feel left out, and how nice it feels when someone looks at you and smiles as they are talking. At this point, the kids were all clamoring to get in the fishbowl to talk, and to show they could ask questions and they could talk to both people, and be the best they could be.  However, our time was up…so they all walked out of my class wanting it to be tomorrow so they can come back and talk about books. They can’t wait!

And neither can I.  I want to see their eyes light up as they hear about books and they decide they want to read that one.  I want to see them scribbling furiously as they make those connections to their friends talking and as they think of something they want to ask. I want to watch their questions get more and more sophisticated and their connections get stronger and stronger as they realize how the stories they read and the books they study have connecting features ands elements?

Now, it’s my job to keep ramping it up so their conversations become more than retelling the story and sharing favorite books. Keep tuning in…I’ll be sharing how I shape that happening as I go along.

When and Where?

Several days ago, I found this (what I’d consider to be fairly old now)  YouTube video called “What Does It Mean To Teach In The 21st Century?” In it, the authors listed the following skills and asked, “Where do we expect them to learn the skills they need to be successful on the Internet?”

The skills were: paraphrasing, attributing, subscribing, editing, tagging, tweeting, linking, experimenting, reflecting, commenting, searching, posting, locating, linking, integrating, networking, bookmarking, mashing, uploading

The list made sense to me.

They further added these as work kids need to be engaged in as part of their learning:

gather and use data, talk about reliable sources, publish and evaluate work, collaborate, store work and reflect on their progress

Yep, again, made sense to me–although I could add a few.

This morning on Twitter while participating in a tweetchat, #rechat, @ehvickery, as a connected teacher getting her kids to be connected learners, listed these as some of her expectations for learners: Curation – Verify/Trust Info – Various Perspectives – Determine Value to Meet Need – Share & Filter

And my first thought, looking at these lists, was the question from that video…where do we expect students to learn these skills?

Emily’s list was very similar to the ones on the video, and ones I value. But I don’t see kids in my school using these skills much in contexts that matter to them…and I think all schools, including mine, should have conversations around where and when these skills should be taught and learned–by both adults and students.

As I look at those lists, I can’t imagine how some teachers can teach those things to kids–they don’t do them themselves online, so how can they teach them? Heck, I’m not even comfortable teaching all of them and I am considered to be a pretty connected educator, tech-savvy and experienced online.

Too often we rely on others to teach these skills–the library teacher, a computer teacher, a technology integrator–and we assume the kids have them.

But, let’s look at them in the context of our educational past, and think about going to workshops I’m sure many of us have attended–‘Writing Across The Curriculum,’ ‘Integrated Units,’ ‘Reading to Learn in Science‘ (or SS), ‘Writing in Math Class,’ etc. We haven’t done a good job of integrating those topics–Math teachers still teach math. English teachers still teach reading and writing.  Our 3 R’s are still, in most places, isolated skills, taught as distinctly separate subjects, despite the habits of mind that go across the disciplines.

And so, how can we expect these skills–“the ones kids will need to be successful on the Internet”–to be integrated into various lessons?  Don’t we need a separate place and time for them to be taught (by a separate person trained to teach all of them), so we can hold kids accountable for using them?

Well, I don’t think so.  Thursday in our 5th grade math class, Betsy (@bagee1) and I had kids share their various ways of solving an elapsed time problem and then we held a discussion about which ones worked, which were efficient, which took more time, which were clearer to understand, etc.

In doing so, weren’t we “determining value to meet needs” and looking at “various perspectives,” as Emily was quoted above? And, weren’t we, when we finished and asked kids to decide which was best for them, asking them to “filter” out the less effective ways?

The point here, is that these skills aren’t necessarily limited to technology or the Internet. They go across disciplines in many ways and are  ones we need in math, or writing, or reading, or science, or….the list could go on and on. But do we? Do we teach them in ways that allow kids to see them across disciplines–or think about and use them in context of the Internet and what they do there?

Do we teach in ways that allow kids to learn about themselves as learners and become better at learning?  Have we become so attuned to teaching our subjects for the test score that we don’t teach learning any more? Isn’t school where kids come to learn?

So should our conversations as teachers, our faculty discussions, be about these trans-discipline skills? Shouldn’t we talk about how we can teach paraphrasing, attributing, subscribing, editing, tagging, tweeting, linking, experimenting, reflecting, commenting, searching, posting, locating, linking, integrating, networking, bookmarking, mashing, uploading not just in the subject they fit most logically and traditionally, or only in the context of the Internet, but across disciplines?  And shouldn’t we be explicit in naming them when we use them in various subjects, especially if our subjects remain silos?

Aren’t those the conversations we should be having as we think about when and where these “skills we need to be successful on the Internet” should be taught? Shouldn’t we be talking about how to get out of our silo-ed classrooms, and how to use and recognize and talk about skills and habits of mind across disciplines? Shouldn’t we be teaching compliance less and thinking more? Shouldn’t we do less teaching kids how to play school and please the teacher and give them more opportunities to learn like real learners learn?

After all, we can’t teach what we don’t think about and we can’t collaboratively think about what we don’t talk about. So when and where do those conversations occur?

Minecraft? or Crafting Minds?

Several days ago, I found this (what I’d consider to be fairly old now)  YouTube video called “What Does It Mean To Teach In The 21st Century?”  While I plan to critique part of it in this blog, I like some parts of it and plan to use it with our teachers on Monday’s workday to spark conversation. Take 9 minutes to watch it, or this blog post won’t make as much sense as I intend, I don’t think.

First, let me say that my definition of engagement is based on Phil Schlechty’s work and that of our adaptations through our learning walks.  Our administrators, as they do learning walks in our classrooms, look for what we’ve defined (with John Antonetti) as the 8 engaging qualities.  These include:

personal response

clear and modeled expectations

emotional/intellectual safety

learning with others

sense of audience


novelty and variety


These are derived from Schlechty’s work by John Antonetti, who has worked extensively with our district in the past. So, as we design classroom work, or look at what we’re doing, we look for those qualities.

And, as a mathematical thinker, as a logical person, as someone who appreciates comparing and contrasting, I generally like dichotomies–but pairing entertainment and engagement doesn’t work in this video.

I don’t know about you, but the work I do–as an adult–is pretty enjoyable to me if it encompasses those traits. And, so I have to disagree with some of the dichotomies set up in that video.

First, entertainment is passive and engagement is active. What?  Some of the things I do for entertainment include reading, solving a puzzle, playing a game, playing jeopardy, hanging out with my grandkids (and that is NOT passive, believe me!), camping, storytelling and I’ve spent years waterskiing! I don’t think it’s an either/or situation.

Secondly, entertainment is enjoyment and engagement is learning???? When I’m learning I’m not entertained, and I can’t enjoy learning?  That’s simply crazy!

And look at the other dichotomies set up–

entertainment=short lived, engagement =long term

entertainment=not relevant, engagement =meaningful, applicable

entertainment=allowing escape from reality, engagement =solving problems

entertainment=using creativity of others, engagement =using your own creativity, fun, exciting

Again, it’s not an either/or situation in any of those cases in my mind…

But let’s look at some of the movements abroad in schools today…Minecraft for education, the maker movement, coding of all kinds, problem/project/passion-based learning, connected educators and kids, flipped classrooms, etc., etc., etc. Are those things either entertainment or engagement?  Doesn’t engagement entertain us? And doesn’t entertainment engage us?

And what does that have to do with Minecraft? Is school all about entertainment and engagement?  Do our kids have to be entertained to be engaged?  Do they have to always be engaged? And why am I concerned so much with these two words?

Well, my room is where kids come to play Minecraft. My room is where they explain it to one another , set up mods, visit each others’ worlds, and can chase and kill zombies (or be killed by them.)  They tell me they’re building and making, and honestly, I don’t know if they’re just feeding me a line of bull. So I wonder about their engagement. I wonder about their learning, and I wonder about their time.  I wonder about their interactions with others (both online and off) and I wonder about wasted opportunities to do other stuff.

So I think about engagement and entertainment and wonder if Minecraft is really worth my kids’ time. They used to interact with one another face to face, playing strategy games. They used to cooperatively build structures and towns and communities with our digital fabrication tools.  They used to be into exploring our 3-D printer. And, I know they’re doing all of those skills (sort of) when they get into Minecraft.  But is it what they should be spending their time doing in school while they are face to face?

It’s an “and,” not an “or”–but kids have to find the balance for themselves. The “and” begs for balance–I play a handheld Othello game each morning…and play Qwirkle with my friends in the evening.  Those entertain me–as does the soap opera I have watched since I was in middle school.  But those things are important to my refreshing who I am–they engage me, in various ways, but they also invigorate me, as they allow me to reflect, rejuvenate myself and energize myself through down time. Finding the balance for myself between the down time I need and the time I use for growing and learning is MY choice–it’s MY decision to spend time online interacting with new acquaintances and friends (some of whom have become real f2f friends) or with my nearby friends that I live around every day.

So how do we, as teachers, help our students find their personal balance?  How do we encourage them to explore online avenues of growth, but also realize the importance of face to face interactions?  How do we allow them to make their own choices, and not judge them as they make different choices from what we might make?  This is their youth–and while it is different from ours, the values I value are still the values I can teach–and I believe, values that matter.  While technology enhances and enables our students of today to learn in ways I never imagined as a youth, the choices I make as a teacher need to enhance and enable them to make good decisions as they become adults–because they are MY future as well.  We need to help students, as always, learn balance between being responsible and having fun; we need to help them learn from life experiences while demonstrating good sense; and we, as teachers need to help themselves craft their minds.  We need to make sure, as they use the technologies available to them, that they are not simply using games like Minecraft and other online diversions to avoid growing and learning, but instead learning through them and with them and finding the balance they need to become the best they can be.

What Does it Mean?

Championing Kids–What DOES it mean?

In the past few years, we’ve had a fairly large turnover at my school, for a variety of reasons…growth, retirements, people moving…but that means we’ve also had a fairly large number of new teachers join us, and that’s been good. The ones I’ve had the pleasure of working with are extremely conscientious, hard working and most of all, care deeply about kids.

And that’s the first step to “championing kids.” You absolutely have to give a hoot about the kids–all kids, not just the teacher pleasers, or the ones who play school well. We’ve got kids in our classes who don’t play school well–or who have learned to play a version of it that doesn’t get them ahead–in either gaining privileges through showing responsibility OR the learning arena. So, teachers who champion kids work on those skills explicitly (as well as implicitly) while teaching and scaffolding learning.

For example, in a collab fifth grade class last week, my collab teacher, Betsy (@bagee1), and I spoke to the kids directly about body language and what it says when you’re in a group listening. We talked about the fact that you could be paying all the attention in the world to the speaker with your ears, but if your back is turned, the speaker may think you are not interested. I spoke a bit about body language and listening and how to code switch and how to know when to code switch, then Betsy added some comments about personal behaviors and how to manage them.  She addressed the fiddlers, the wigglers, the kids who simply learn better if they are moving a bit or not concentrating all of their energy on sitting still.

But she didn’t tell them they had to stop–the message was be aware of how your behavior is impacting others. Betsy never put anyone down for tapping a pencil or squirming around, or clicking a pen (one of my habits) or fiddling with their belongings or doodling, or any of the other thousands of  things kids can find to entertain themselves (and drive otehers around them nuts). Instead, she was clearly saying we accept you, and let’s figure out a way for you to be yourself, but be considerate of others at the same time. Her message was definitely to be yourself, but consider how your behavior is impacting others and change something if you are distracting others.  Then we gave explicit strategies.  Put the pencil down, move away from the person you’re distracting, move to the back of the group, etc.

That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy collaborating with teachers, but especially Betsy.  She champions kids all the time.  She doesn’t raise her voice, she never appears perturbed, but she is constantly pushing kids to excel, to work together, to accept others, to recognize strengths and to honor and respect the community in the classroom.

Championing kids means setting up a classroom community to accept differences and honor what we all bring to the table. It means recognizing that people will use different tools, work in a variety of different ways and have varying preferences for where to work, which tools and methodologies to use and that individuals even care about when to work and with whom they work. It’s about providing meaningful choice and acceptance and challenge to constantly grow and learn and work cooperatively with and around others.

My next post will be on rules that support championing individuals.

Championing Learners

I have always loved the quirky kids–the ones who are what I call “odd ducks.” It’s one reason I hate the phrase “instructional tolerance.” I just don’t believe anyone should be “tolerated” for being who they are.

So I blogged about that about a month ago, as our county has initiated a series of “pathways” teachers are supposed to explore and one is “instructional  tolerance.” The definition of that pathway is

 Supports a learning environment where active, engaged learners routinely choose from a variety of learning spaces, collaborative and individual activities, and technology tools, including their own personal devices; values students having opportunities to learn best practices essential to entering contemporary learning and work environments and enables students to sustain an open mindset and skillset in the use of evolving technology tools.

I’m not sure why that is tolerance at all. Sounds simply like good education to me. But I did find out I’m not the only one who has an issue with “tolerance” as part of that pathway.

However, I don’t want to revisit that post.

I want to propose another word.  And I found the word (I think).

How about championing learners”?

Supports a learning environment with active, engaged learners”….”values students”….”enables students”…”learners choose”….

I think all of those are ways to champion learning, don’t you?

For me, it’s not about the instruction, but about the learning….and what we do to NOT get in the way, but instead support and scaffold and sustain and encourage and promote and find value in and have compassion for and show passion about and share opportunities to… learn.

I’ll be exploring what I mean by that phrase in the next post and maybe more after that…Join me on that journey if you want.

Technology Enabled Learning

technology infused…

technology integration…

technology enhanced…

technology whatever….

There are a lot of ways right now to talk about using technology in the classroom.  I guess there always have been, but my favorite at the moment is about technology enabling learning that is different–learning that allows for deep understanding and envisioning. It’s about learners using the technologies in ways that enable choice, creation, collaboration, creativity, and making in the pursuit of understanding.

Is the learner using the technology for consumption, creation, entertainment, what? Because it’s what the learner does with the technology that makes the learning meaningful and useful or not.  I think it’s important that we all share with one another what our kids are doing.

Can learners in your school use the technology in ways that enable them to learn more deeply, and in better ways than without it?  Or, do teachers and students simply use technology  as an electronic worksheet, word processor, or video/game machine?

Does your school allow the kids to envision new ways to use it, or are they stifled?  Can teachers use technology in innovative ways to move beyond lecturing, powerpoints and being the sage on the stage?

In this day and age, learning can be enabled by technology, and/or it can be accomplished without it. But, given a chance, teachers and students can set up learning episodes where the technology enables the learners to go further, deeper and faster in ways that have not been possible before.  And I think it’s important that we all share with one another what our kids are doing.

How are you using the technologies you have to enable learners ?

The Need For Time

All teachers need a 3 day weekend (so we can have 2 with our family and one to work) and a bit of time during the day throughout the day. Our bodies weren’t made to wait all day before going to the bathroom, or needing a few moments to refresh or reflect on an incident that happened that day. But, it’s part of the job we all know.

I began this post a couple of days ago because it had been one of those days where I had no time to take a breath–I was busy ALL day! Then today I saw an article in EdWeek about some systems going to 4 day school weeks.  The article spoke to a system in Iowa that is using Fridays for professional development, enrichment and some remediation.  Every other Monday, all teachers are available to  support students, either with enrichment or remediation.  I think that would be an awesome set up. Some Mondays you have time to learn, plan with your team, develop materials around new curricula and explore and be exposed to new ideas and some Mondays you actually have time, without a slew of other students in there, to work with individuals and small groups to increase understanding and retention of knowledge. I wish our school could pilot that! (she says, as she sits at her desk yawning!)

So what are the pros and cons of making a four day week? This system in Iowa did it by adding on an hour each day , T-F.  Some will see that as a pro, others a con…The need for a babysitter an additional day a week…again, both a pro and con, depending on the viewpoint.  I suspect you could make any argument into both a pro and con.

Obviously a 3 day weekend would be kind of cool, for anyone–but there are other ways of giving teachers time. This Iowa system figured out how to provide extra time for both kids and adults for learning. You can always add days to the beginning or end of the school year, but that’s not when we need the time. We need it on a regular basis, every week. Our system has gotten creative with scheduling, using specials (P.E., Music, Art, etc.)  to provide planning time for elementary teachers during the school day, and our secondary teachers don’t need something like that–their breaks are scheduled into the day, since they don’t need coverage for their homeroom kids.   So, beginning of the year, end of the year, breaks built into the schedule and calendar…. how else could more time be found for teachers to learn together, to extend kids’ learning and to plan and work together?

What Gets Tested Gets Taught

We all know the adage, “What gets tested gets taught.”  We’ve (many of us, if not all of us) been in the position of feeling the pressure to teach the state standards in ways that will assure our school a decent, if not high, pass rate.  And, we know that when the principal asks teachers to do something, teachers feel an obligation to do so.  (If you don’t believe that, go read @mssackstein’s book, Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective.) I was lucky enough to help her do some last minute editing and got to read part of her work. She does an awesome job of explaining how teachers feel obligated not to say no when the principal asks for something. So, I see an “if, then” statement happening here.

If what gets tested gets taught, and if the principal can ask teachers to do things and expect them to do it, then   the principal can call the shots as to what and how the teachers teach, right?  That means all of the woes in schools today are the principal’s fault, aren’t they?

So what follows is that we need NOT to fire bad teachers, but instead fire all principals in any school where teachers complain about having to teach to the test and that all they have time for is the state mandated curriculum.  Then, pull in a principal who can lead the school, telling teachers what to do to make schools better, support kids to learn more and in different ways, following their passions, learning to code and make, and becoming well-rounded citizenry.

So why hasn’t that happened? I’ve heard about principals telling their teachers to use our new learning spaces all over our county. I’ve watched my principal tell our teachers they have to get connected-and so they Skype, join the Global Read Aloud, collect and pin on Pinterest, interact with one another on Facebook, and some even blog, have their students blogging, lurk on Twitter, and do who knows what else online? I’ve watched many a principal say “Your PLCs will meet this week” and so they do.  I’ve worked with many a principal who has told us to do many a different thing, and we do.

But, you know what?  No matter how much our legislature and the public point to schools and say “close the bad ones”, or to teachers and say “fire the bad ones” or to principals and say “be a different kind of leader,” it’s NOT about individuals and individual schools, or even, (most times) individual leaders. It’s about systems and changing  them to meet new ideas and our changing world.  It’s not about integrating technology but recognizing and supporting technology-enabled learning for everyone at all times. It’s about belief systems and philosophies and honoring students as learners and everyone asking good questions (not just the adults) and believing in competency and having a growth mindset and trust and a whole bunch of other things that come whenever a group of people congregate. It’s about human interactions and human feelings and expectations and support and helping one another be the best we can be. It’s about acceptance and yes, love–of oneself and others.

So if we believe what gets tested gets taught, why don’t we test whether we treat each other as humans first, and whether we can grow in our abilities to build a better world, for this generation and the next?  Why isn’t our focus on the future instead of solely learning what has already happened to the human race and what science we already know? Why aren’t we fighting to develop our abilities to think mathematically or scientifically or engineeringly, or codingly, or architecturally (that one’s for you, Emilia!) or however we need to think to make our world more sane, more humane and more wonderful for everyone?

That’s where I’d like to see our emphasis–more on engagement, deep learning through the use of various tools, and empowering people to be competent and efficacious learners who lead us to a better place.

(And, for the record, the first part of this post was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Principals don’t deserve to be blamed any more than anyone else does.  I appreciate mine pushing us to push ourselves, and try something new. I wish we all pushed each other a bit more. )

Wonder Some More

Last year I was doing some demonstration lessons in my 2nd grade classrooms and we decided one of our first ones would be based around Dot Day. This is a day many, many educators celebrate creativity, courage and collaboration.  It’s based on Peter H. Reynolds’ The Dot, a book about a young girl whose teacher encourages her to “make her mark.”smDot

Since Dot Day is a Sunday this year, my school is celebrating it tomorrow.

I’ll be heading into second grade again to do a great lesson using the thinking routine, See-Think-Wonder.

We based a series of  lessons around dots–and our first lesson was one of perspective and looking closely at artistic endeavors using dots. I found some great dot art for the kids to wonder about and explore and I created this page of pictures.

We would show one picture, such as this:


and ask the kids, “What do you see?”  In this routine, this part is for them to be very literal, describing what is in the picture.

Then we ask, “What do you think?”  Here, they can become fanciful, predictive, thoughtful, whatever, but here is where they often make connections to their prior experiences.

Then we ask the kids, “What do you wonder?”  Sometimes we ask that BEFORE clicking on the picture and sometimes after–because if you click on each of the pictures, you go to another version of what they have been exploring and wondering about.

The ooohs and ahhhs are awesome to hear!

Want to have some fun wondering today?  Go check them out!





click on the picture,

then wonder some more!

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