Friday, January 20, 2017

What Does Top-Quality Grade-Level Work Look Like?

     Every classroom in every grade revolves around content work. The work can be discussions, games, projects, research, technology, art-work, and other formats, but a great deal of it results in written products. Students and parents can often be confused and even stressed about just what that final product should be or look like. Of course, we want the content to be mastered and correct, but there are conventions to "top-quality" work. There is always showing ownership (Lord, how many times in a career do we say, "Put your name on your paper"?), neatness, and legibility. As teachers, we don't expound on these conventions because it's fun to fuss or because we don't have enough to do. We are trying to instill proper work habits that will transfer into our students' adult lives. We want them to be able to navigate their own careers and work goals with the tools they need to be successful.
     One year, I finally realized that showing was better than telling my 5th grade students. Instead of once again lecturing them about the quality of their work - a lecture they obviously weren't listening to - I decided to create a portfolio of sorts, an exemplar that students could reference when they needed to.
      I first decided what guidelines I was looking for in my students' work. What exactly DOES top-quality 5th grade work look like? I chose these parameters to start with:
  • It is reasonably neat.
  • Math work shows your thinking.
  • It is complete.
  • It is checked for accuracy.
  • It is turned in on time.
     Then, I settled on the old tried-and-tried 3-ring binder (I'm a fool for binders!). I gathered multiple examples of 5th grade work that showed these elements and put them in the binder. Keep in mind that I was not looking only for the A+, 100, "perfect" papers that some students can consistently create. I wasn't looking for perfect. I don't believe that "top-quality" means perfect. After all, we're working with young humans, here. I wanted to display age- and grade-level appropriate work samples that students could reasonably emulate and learn to produce on their own.
     I had a few older samples stuck back from earlier years, but I had to choose many pieces from the classes I had that year. I chose teacher-created and student-created work, long-term projects and quickies, tests, quizzes, and writing samples. If I had it to do again with our current technology, I would take photos of larger things such as 3-D projects and posters and put them into the notebook. To preserve privacy, I put a label over student names and, sometimes, the grade. Again, I didn't want students to wrongly assume that the only good work was beautiful and mistake-free.

     When my portfolio was complete, I discussed its purpose with my students. I housed it on the tray of our whiteboard where all could see it and use it during the day. I have to tell you here that students often browsed through it during their breaks and down time. I loved seeing them use it in such a leisurely way! I knew that they would steadily process what they were seeing and that those elements would eventually show up in their own work.

     A wonderful, but unintended, consequence of our notebook was that I was able to share it with parents, too. During conferences or casual drop-by visits, I could point to some great work samples for specific activities. It really seemed to help my parents when they saw that 5th grade work could actually look like it was done by children and didn't need that adult "touch" added to it.


     Could you try this in your classroom? I believe it would be appropriate for any grade level, any subject(s). Give this method a try and let me know how it works for you. Or, I'd love to hear another method that works for you!
     We're all in this together!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Need A Helpful Little Nudge?

     Every life has conflict. From the most mundane glare over a disputed parking space to damaged  relationships, we will all be faced with conflicts. It doesn't have to escalate to the Hatfields and McCoys level to bring a negative vibe into your life. I truly believe that it's not having a conflict itself that is so challenging, but rather how we deal with it.
     Of course, no one should ever accept any form of abuse. It's the day-to-day misunderstandings as well as the incidents that can become long-term that we must decide how to address. I'd like to offer up the philosophy in the meme above as a way to reflect on how we might diffuse or eliminate conflict by simply being generous and taking a step back.
   I'm not even saying that we need to admit wrong when we're really right. Certainly don't support someone else in wrong-doing. "Eating Humble Pie" can certainly mean saying you're sorry if you hurt someone, but it doesn't have to. If someone else needs to feel that they're being heard, or that their thoughts and feelings have merit, or they need an emotional lift, it can be so soothing and refreshing if we take a step back, validate their feelings, and reach out a healing hand. That can be a bite of Humble Pie, too. If we can do it on-the-spot, so much the better. If time has passed, that healing can still take place. If you are in a situation like this, consider making that call, bestowing that forgiveness, and reconnecting. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

What "Bless Your Heart" Really Means

     Not exactly education related, but you never know...
     There seems to be some confusion about a phrase that's very near and dear to my heart. The phrase "Bless your heart" is a traditionally southern phrase, often used, but more often misunderstood. A number of people have told me recently they think it means a big, fat "I don't care" or worse. 
     Nothing could be further from the truth! "Bless your heart" means exactly that - the speaker is practically bestowing a blessing on you. The reason behind the blessing is almost always - almost always - one or more feelings of empathy, sympathy, kindness, concern, understanding, and compassion. 
      It's only once in a while that this beautiful phrase is used with a little less than 100% compassion. In situations where someone may be seriously whining - I mean, "my day is ruined" whining - over something completely trivial, like "They only put two shots of caramel in my latte!", then you can confidently fix them with a cold stare and say, "Well, bless your heart" before you stalk away. You have just very nicely told them you hope they get a big dose of  "There are children starving in this world - you need to get over yourself" soon.
      The only other situation is if someone commits a social faux pas and seems oblivious. These would only be minor infractions, like wearing inappropriately high heels to a job interview. "Bless her/his heart" can then mean, "Well, that's just pitiful. I hope she/he wakes up and smells the coffee soon!"
      So, now you know! "Bless your heart" is generally one of the most loving things you can say, but it has a nuanced meaning for any occasion.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Critical Thinking, Inference, and Analysis: A Fun Strategy

    Teaching students to think critically is a challenging, but essential, task. Critical thinking is necessary in our everyday lives, even to our safety and well-being. There are many component skills that help build critical thinkers. The abilities to observe, infer, question, generalize, use prior knowledge, draw conclusions, and support thinking with evidence are just some of the skills that students must master and apply.
     One of the most effective strategies I’ve used in the classroom to help develop critical thinking is our Analyze the Picture of the Day activity. It’s simple and extremely low-prep. You can use it over and over and it’s always fresh and new. Students learn and grow by their own participation and by hearing what their peers contribute.
     Preparation for using Analyze Picture of the Day as a year-long activity is so simple. I always provide students with a template that gets glued/taped into their Science notebook. You could put the template in any notebook. Some that I've used look like this.

     Students are challenged to write two inferences and two questions based on what they see in the picture. I direct students to write full, complete sentences following this model, "I can infer ______ because _______." It get kids familiar with the concept of inference and supports writing complete sentences. The same is true of the questions. I encourage questions to begin with, "Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Does? or Is?"
     As we're learning the process, it's amazing how much you can pull from one picture! Check out some of the inferences/questions we pulled from the picture below!
     Kids love knowing that you can hardly ever be wrong as long as you can point to evidence in the picture to support their inference or question. I keep reminding them that, "Inference requires evidence."
    The beauty of analyzing a picture is how well it transitions to analyzing literature. With careful modeling, students begin to form in their minds pictures of what is taking place as they read. 
     If you're interested in some of the materials I use, check out my "Critical Thinking: Analyze the Picture of the Day" product on TPT. I've included 12 pictures in the product to get started and suggestions for other photo resources. Best wishes!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

6 Reasons I'll Never Go Paperless

      As we move farther into the 21st century, education in general is embracing more technology and for very good reasons. Compiling, storing, and sharing educational data has reached levels that I could only dream about when I began my career. Communication is far-reaching and instantaneous. Content can be presented to students in multiple formats and can be interactive. Student data can be sorted and filtered to created custom lessons and learning groups. There is no question that technology supports education in very positive ways.
     Along with technology comes the question that accompanies many new opportunities, that is, “How far can I take this?”. Some see this question as an exciting challenge: Let’s see just how far technology can take us and how we can harness it to achieve our goals. It’s a great question and often leads to new discoveries and tools.
     We certainly have not answered this question yet and we may never discover the limitations to what technology can do for us. Some educators have chosen to pursue a “paperless classroom” as one extension of this question. Their goal is to present content, provide practice, assess learning, record grades, and communicate all of this digitally. 

     While it’s certainly an interesting challenge, I believe the pursuit of a paperless classroom is misguided at best and actually harmful to students at worst.
     1. Unless every student that you teach has access to a device and wi-fi in school and at home, it’s not going to work. Teachers must accommodate families without devices and internet connections by providing a hard copy of every homework assignment, newsletter, and note. And in the classroom, you need to have 1-to-1 devices. If not, you’ll have rotating groups, some of which will have to be using paper and pencil. You then have one foot in each camp, paper and paperless, trying to meet the needs to two opposing systems.
     2. It’s impersonal. Many students need interaction with their teacher rather than learning over an interface. While there are certainly excellent interactive programs available – I’ve used many – they still lack the personal, specific give-and-take that you can only get when a student is with his/her teacher or another student.
     3. It’s only as reliable as today’s internet connection. If you put all of your eggs into the technology basket, when technology fails, so do your lessons. Lack of IT support is a huge stressor in the classroom. Having to prepare a back-up plan for every lesson can significantly increase a teacher’s workload.
     4. Research shows that the physical act of writing makes more and better brain connections than typing does. The act of writing by hand is slower and allows the student to think about the topic more deeply, where typing can lead to mindless transcription.
     5. Research also points out that it is more difficult to develop “cognitive mapping” on e-readers. Some paperless proponents do not include hard copy books in their goal. Other teachers want to access all of their texts through devices. With no physical books to page through, students lose opportunities to go back and forth in the text to find words and sections and to see the structure of the reading.
     6. It’s unbalanced. Pursuing a classroom with only technology is just as unbalanced as pursuing a classroom with no technology. I hesitate to embrace extremes. Extremes in anything tend to discount at least half of the population involved. In a paperless classroom, you lose the opportunity to address the varied and wide-ranging needs of your students.
     I suggest to teachers who are struggling with the paperless question to pursue their goal through the other meaning of “paperless”: instead of “no paper”, try “less paper”. Your school system has probably already eliminated a great deal of paper by having a digital record-keeping system for attendance and grades. Assuming you have adequate devices, learning to use learning platforms such as Google Classroom can significantly reduce the papers required for practice and assessment. I hope, though, that teachers never lose sight of the power of the hand-printed word, the influence of holding a book in one’s hand, or the impact of a lesson personally taught by a teacher.
     What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Funny Kid Stories: Let's Hear Yours!

     Every teacher has a million of them: kid stories that are funny, endearing, sometimes embarrassing, and always great memories! All you have to do is share one in a group of teachers and they're off - one story follows another.

     One of my favorites:
     My 5th grade class was studying the Civil War. Students were preparing to visit the library to research a topic they'd chosen to write about. One little boy gathered his materials, then stopped by my desk for a question.
Student: Mrs. McFadyen, how do you spell Eelee?
Me: (obviously puzzled) Ummmm...I'm not sure about that word. Can you use it in a sentence?
Student: You know, that general's last name - Robert Eelee! (Robert E. Lee)
      What are some of your favorite kid stories? Let's share!

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Math Misconception That Hurts Our Students

     Math can sometimes seem like countless skill-based concepts that we must make sure children internalize. A misconception can really throw a kink into the works. I believe there is a math misconception that is never taught but is far too often “learned” by far too many children. This misconception can significantly impair their overall performance and damage their attitude toward math. This misconception could be stated as,
“Since we have to learn (memorize) basic math facts,
we have to do all math mentally.”
     What children seem to do is transfer the necessity for quick mental recall of basic facts to the entirety of math. The belief is, “I should be able to look at 3 x 5 = and instantly spit out the answer. Therefore, I should be able to look at 
and instantly spit out those answers, too.” Believing this is so damaging to children and their ability to grow mathematically.

     How do kids develop the “all math is mental math” misconception? This mistaken belief is born just about the time that children grasp the concepts of combining and taking apart. Well-meaning teachers and parents start to focus vast amounts of energy on learning (memorizing) basic addition and subtraction facts. As we move on in math, we add multiplication and division facts to the task. Children who struggle even a little bit with this task can start to fall behind in math and may never catch up. What’s worse, they may develop an “I’m not good at math” mindset or, worse, “I hate math” mindset.

    How does this “all math is mental math” misconception hurt students? Beside the frustration and negative attitude that can result, students also miss the importance of talking about and writing about their math. They think that the only good math is mental math, so why should I write it down? I’ve seen kids who thought writing down their math thinking was actually a weakness. This poor habit of not recording our mathematical thinking further hampers math growth. 
     I have seen so many children over the years begin to pull into a shell as the need for efficient recall of math facts hampers the rest of their math performance. All of the other essential math skills (rounding, predicting, estimating, drawing, analyzing, collaborating) that don’t require math facts seem not to matter. Every math lesson becomes a mathematical mine-field where the lucky ones who know their basic facts will shine and the unlucky ones who don’t may suffer acute embarrassment and chronic frustration. I was actually one of those unlucky students – it took me years to develop efficient recall. I never understood how my struggle fed right into the “all math must be done mentally” misconception until I became a teacher – a math teacher, of all things – and was able to recognize and verbalize the problem. 

     So basic math facts aren’t important? Don’t get me wrong. As a long-time math teacher, I am all about mastering basic math facts. They are vital tools for so much that we do in math. Along my journey as a math teacher, I discovered that there are infinitely better ways to teach the concepts and learn the facts than the way I was taught…and, to be honest, the way I taught early in my career, but that’s another blog post. 

     What can teachers do to correct this misconception? I wish that I could go back in time and directly teach what I have learned to my past students. What I can do is to take every tutoring, consulting, and mentoring opportunity to allay my students’ frustrations. My dialogue includes comments like these. Maybe you can think of others that would work.
Math is so much more than basic facts.
Basic facts are the only thing in math that needs quick recall.
Learning basic facts can take time. In the meantime, we can still do math successfully.
You can write about and talk about math without knowing the answers right away.
Arithmetic is simple computation. Math is solving problems using many math tools, not just basic facts.
Writing about math is what great mathematicians do.
If you know most of the answers right away, the math is too easy for you.
Math is meant to be worked through.
     I wonder if other teachers have experienced this misconception among their students. I’d love to hear how you correct it as you support your students.