Sunday, March 20, 2011

Anytime Learning...Anytime Teaching by Laura

I have been working in schools that have e-mail for nearly fifteen years.  E-mail makes it easier for me to teach. I would rather help a student get "unstuck," even during my evenings and weekends, than wait for them to come to school frustrated.  I wish students would e-mail me more!  Writing an e-mail to a teacher means you have to know how to ask the question so you will get an answer that is helpful. Being able to ask a question in a manner that will furnish the answer you need, is a hallmark of an educated person--and a good communicator.

Sometimes explaining concepts in an e-mail exchange can be tough.  I had a highly motivated student who corresponded with me a couple of times this past Saturday.  She was analyzing her data for an independent science project.  Because she is determining the relationship between atmospheric pressure and snow density, she needed to learn to do a scatter plot in Excel.  We had discussed this in person, but when she got home it wasn't clear.

Screenjelly made it possible for me to help her-- on a Saturday evening when we were miles apart.  I recorded this little movie in a moment or two.  It won't win any academy awards, but it did help my student to get "unstuck."  I have also used Screenjelly to record a movie for parents so they can see how they can navigate to information that is on my class website.

Anytime, anywhere learning, makes it possible to be an anytime, anywhere teacher too.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Let Kids Rule the School...We did just that! By Shirley

This week I realized that sometimes things just seem to fall into place and are meant to happen. This was the case with a new project that we tried in middle school this week, called Imagination Day.  The first thoughts of something new began to emerge on Twitter last Wednesday, after I read a tweet and then a great blog post by Josh Stumpenhorst @stumpteacher. This post was all about the very successful Innovation Day that his school had just experienced and where students became teachers for the day.  It sounded a lot like what we believe is important at PDS and what education should be all about…passion, creativity, flexibility and student led.

Our plan was initiated after I emailed our middle school head George Swain and our head of school, Josie Holford suggesting that we do something similar in our middle school. They were both excited and enthusiastic and so we brought the idea to our middle school faculty the next day, Thursday, during our division meeting. The next D Day - Intensive Study Day, was Tuesday and our next window of opportunity. Could we plan and organize something so big in a few days? By 5pm we had great ideas and the plans were set. The next step was to introduce Imagination Day to our students. George did just that at our assembly on Friday morning.

There was a buzz going around the Chapman Room, Cafeteria and classrooms as students talked about their passions and whether they wanted to teach, attend workshops or do both. Next step was filling out a Google form to tell us what students wanted to do. We had twenty-one offers of great workshops from a number of students from grades 6th through 8th grade.   

Here are the offerings…
                                                           Session 1                                         Session 2

Building Birdhouses
Successful Revolution
Acting Improv.
Juggling with Devil Sticks
Media Center
Frame by Frame Animation
Baking Brownies
Making Tacos
Candle Making
Speed Writing a Short Story
Sign Language
Math Magic
Rise and Fall of Rome
Speaking Chinese
World War II
Basketball Skills
Soccer Skills
Baseball Skills/Running
Lower School
Teaching in Lower School
Music Room

Meetings were set up so that the “teachers” knew the length of the workshops and what they should plan for. They then filled out planning sheets. Lastly, the sign up Google form went out to the rest of the middle school on Monday morning.  Everyone was happy with their choices and we were all set to go.

Tuesday arrived, and we the faculty were a little nervous. Had we pulled this off successfully or would it be a disaster? We divided up so we could oversee three different workshops in case there were any problems. There were NONE. We loaded up on cameras and Flip cams and off we went into the classrooms. Boy were we surprised! Every kid was engaged, focused and having a great time and learning so much. Student teachers were amazing and had planned absolutely fantastic lessons. 

Here is the first video of our great day...

At the end of the day, we created another Google form so that everyone could reflect on all aspects of the day. Everyone in middle school (teachers and students) wanted to do it again and soon.

Here are some quotes from some of our students…

“I’ve never left school so tired.”
"I learned that teaching is fun and that I like Tacos."
"I was surprised at how well the class went."
"I learned that teaching is really hard."
"Learn from other people."
"I think this could be done any place, any time."
"It's a great learning experience. Not only are we learning from other kids but we are learning about other kids."
"I learned how to make candles and that lime is supposed to go on Tacos."
"School should not only be about academics. I say let the students have fun and learn something new."

Funnily enough, this article from The New York Times turned up about the same time as we were planning our Imagination Day. Let Kids Rule the School. So let's pass the word and involve more schools in this kind of day.

What more is there to say? Empowered students become creative, passionate learners. There is no doubt in my mind.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Taking A Break While Writing Reports by Shirley

I am in the middle of writing 6th grade humanities reports, and suddenly realized how lucky I am at PDS to be able to reflect and get to know each of my students so well. I know in other schools teachers have to grade tests and write reports based on test results. At PDS we don’t grade and don’t give many tests. Assessment is so much more than a number on a piece of paper.

My students recently completed an end of trimester reflection that asked a few questions about how they feel about their learning. I was quite surprised to find that many of them wrote that their best work was a collaborative project where they worked in pairs to plan, organize and teach a lesson on a topic about ancient Crete. They then had to create a Wiki page, using all the teaching tools they had used in their lesson, and link wherever possible to other students’ pages. Each separate class had decided that they would assess each others' work by using a rubric. They were far more rigid in their comments than I would have been, but at the same time very helpful with their comments and suggestions. Each group, then had the chance to go back and revise their Wiki to make changes, which they all chose to do. Why would I need any kind of test to see how much they know about ancient Crete? Their knowledge is all there on our Ancient Greece Wiki Site for everyone to see.

I am enjoying my report writing this year, and I’m finding that using Google Docs, our class blog and our Ancient Greece Wiki is making my job a lot easier. I have online access to every piece of writing each student has composed this year. All their collaborative projects are either on the blog or the Wiki, so I don’t have to carry papers, notebooks, lots of notes, or try to remember little pieces of information about each student. I have everything I need online to assess each student’s progress in all areas of their learning, and I really feel I have gotten to know these students much more in depth than in previous years. All of these web 2.0 tools have helped me write more individual reports with lots of examples and quotes from each student. I am only half way through the report writing, and look forward to writing the other half, about these creative, passionate and hard working students.

Slideshows Remind Us What We Did by Laura

We have the ideal schedule in our middle school.  We have flexible blocks, and most of the time we choose to work with our students for 100 minute long periods, every other day.  I love the "long block" format, and find the days that we choose to do short, 50 minute periods tiring and less productive. The one disadvantage to having students every other day though, is that it can be harder for everyone to recall what we did during the last class.  Since our school works to design curriculum that permits in-depth investigation rather than quick examinations of many topics, remembering what happened in the last class is truly important.

Taking inspiration from my Hudson Valley Writing Project Summer Institute in 2009,  I have used photos to help students relive the most recent class.  I assign a digital documentor at the start of class and hand that student the camera.  It is a popular job!  Last year the digital documentor, or "DD," chose a couple of photos to represent the class.  This year I have been using slide show making programs and not limiting the number of  photos. 

I have tried several slide show making programs and the students and I have settled on two favorites:  Animoto and PhotoPeach.  Animoto gives a slightly edgy and sophisticated final product, and allows short video clips to be incorporated to add movement to the production:

Teachers are eligible for a free proaccount that permits "full length" slide shows.  I am always grateful to web based developers who show such generosity to educators!

PhotoPeach is a little "cuter." In PhotoPeach you can put captions right on the pictures. It also allows you to search through YouTube for music. This was helpful when in a recent class about air pressure I found myself moving through my day with David Bowie in my head. Having his music as background to the slide show was a great relief (and enjoyable to the students too!) Here is an example:
Under Pressure... on PhotoPeach

My slide shows are loaded daily onto our class blog, and in the fall I sent all parents the link.  Judging by the number of hits, I definitely have parents who have been checking to see the photos. 

I usually show the slides early in the period, and sometimes the DD serves as the host--especially early in the year.  By June we will have a photographic log of just about every class period we spent together this year.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Little Productions Provide Practice for the Mind's Eye: by Laura

One of my class topics this past week was the development of the earth's atmosphere.  Like so many concepts in science, our understanding is based on data, but has to be pictured in the mind's eye by anyone learning about it.  We can't see the atmosphere now, and we especially can't see what it looked like in the far past.  So, helping students develop a way to visualize the invisible is as important as having them just remember a sequence of events.  In fact, I would argue it is more important than having them remember a sequence of events:  Once a sequence can be pictured, there is far less for a mind to have to remember.

To help students visualize the sequence of changes undergone by our planet's atmosphere, I had them make a digital story.  These were simple:  They drew panels, cartoon style, and wrote a simple script.  They photographed the drawings, strung them together using iMovie, and recorded a narration.  My job as their teacher was to edit the narration with them, to make sure it was accurate.  Here is an example of one finished project.

The first time I ever had students make movie productions in class, it took a very long time.  The finished work was well polished, and with the help of our tech department, all projects were strung together into one long movie.  It was a Production--with a capital "P."

Last week's work falls at the other extreme.  We didn't spend very long making these movies.  The initial stories were done in about forty minutes, and we spent part of a second class showing them and then editing the narration for accuracy.  They are productions-- but small, and well worth their time.  Here are the ways I have been able to list, so far, for why the atmosphere movies helped my students:

1. They had to use both recently used vocabulary and recently learned concepts to tell the story.
2. They had to picture the events and symbolize the un-seeable.
3. They took what was presented to them as factual information, and created their own understanding through words and pictures.
4. As their final editor, I have a chance to formatively assess their understanding and  improve it before misconceptions took too firm a hold.
5. Because they showed their work to each other, they had an authentic audience for their "publication."

I am fortunate that by teaching in a one-to-one laptop program, not all productions have to be large or particularity time consuming.  Technology provides a great advantage for visual learning!