Sunday, July 16, 2017

Tips for hands-on, minds-on learning experiences

Think about things that you remember best from when you were growing up. What made those experiences stay with you for all these years so that they continue to make up your schema about what learning looks like? Chances are, those things you still remember engaged you or challenged you much more than worksheets or lectures. We call that level of engagement hands-on, minds-on.

Planning and implementing hands-on, minds-on learning experiences is different from opening a teacher's manual and writing down the page numbers. It takes a deep understanding of both the standards and your students. Creativity needs structure - and hands-on, minds-on learning experiences need structure in order to have a sense of freedom. Giving the freedom for your students to explore, create, question, and fail can be scary and it requires a classroom community that values risk-taking and a growth mindset.

Are you thinking about incorporating more hands-on, minds-on learning experiences in your classroom? Here are some tips to help you get started:

  1. Plan tasks with multiple entry points. Having multiple ways to solve a problem or having tasks that build on solving problems allows students to see connections in what they are learning and explore possibilities rather than just solve for right answers. 
  2. Assign roles. Giving students roles helps them to engage and provides structures for the problem solving.
  3. Start with the end in mind. Know what skills students will need in order to solve the problem in order to build those skills into the instruction and practice that you provide. 
  4. Teach kids how to fail. Teaching kids to have a growth mindset helps them understand that problem solving isn't just about finding the right answers - it's about learning and growing. 
  5. Use the real world. Multi-digit addition and subtraction is far more interesting to students when they have a real world problem to solve. Below, students are determining what they would eat if they had 800 calories and had to have a healthy diet. Multiple solutions, real world problem, and excitement about math!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Summer Learning Matters

I have been away from my blog for a couple of months - my oldest son just graduated from high school a few weeks ago and my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary, so I have been fully engaged in just getting through my regular commitments! I woke up this morning to thunder, lightning, and pouring rain, so it is time to get back in to my blogging routine!

This week, we started summer school. What do you think of when you hear the phrase "summer school?"

Well, urban dictionary defines summer school as "school that takes place in the summer - also known as hell." That is definitely not what we want kids or parents to think of when they are thinking about opportunities for learning! The research supports the need for engaging and authentic learning experiences, particularly for urban students, during the summer months to prevent summer slide.

Our vision for summer school was to make it fun for students and teachers - to completely undo that perception that summer school an awful, worksheet driven place where students and teachers are miserable. So, welcome to Summer Academy 2.0.

We envisioned a summer learning experience where students would be "hands-on, minds-on" and teachers would have the freedom to plan thematic instruction with the freedom to practice strategies and use materials that they wanted to use in order to build their own professional toolbox. We envisioned a summer learning experience that was more like the summer camp experiences that cost hundreds of dollars to send your children to - only we would do it at our school!

We have 10 themes and each theme carries throughout the day through ELA, Math, Writing, and Enrichment. In the "Down on the Farm" theme, students are reading decodable texts about farm animals, making omelettes in math using farm fresh eggs, and raising chicks.

One of our themes is called "Around the World" and students have passports that they stamp when they have mastered learning about a continent or a culture. Yesterday during math, the children had counted the number of states in the 50 states and they were discovering how many sets of 10 math cubes was equivalent to the number of states.

 In the "I, Robot" theme, students are learning to be engineers and began coding this week using Oz-bots.

Our "CSI: Classroom Science Investigators" theme is focusing on chemistry and chemical reactions. Students made pinch pots this week which they will be firing in a raku firing with a local artist.

Planning and implementing thematic, project-based learning takes time and a relentless commitment on the part of teachers. Seeing our students engaged, happy, and enthusiastic about their learning is worth it! 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Why Your Students Should Start a Blog - Take 2

I started my own blog in January of 2015 and it is one of the best things that I have done in terms of my own leadership; providing me an opportunity for reflection and a chance to think through my next steps. So, I am 100% behind the idea of supporting the students at my school in starting their own blogs.

Blogging provides students with an opportunity to write with a purpose - to take a stand on a topic and use research to support their opinions and to develop their own voice as a writer and an owner of ideas. This is what we want for our future generations - to be literate, to be well-spoken, to have ideas that they can support with facts, and to be creative. Blogging is a natural entry point into all of these aspects of being college, career, and life ready.

With everything that students can consume online, isn't it a better option for them to engage in being producers of a positive online presence? George Couros, whose blog I love, shared his similar points of view in his own blog (here). Our students can, and should, see themselves as having a positive influence and online presence. There are countless YouTube videos and Reddit articles for them to consume, but in order to truly make a difference in the world and in their community, they must have opinions that they can support and speak intellectually about - even when their opinions may be about pop stars or sneakers or fashion icons. Check out these children bloggers who certainly have something to say and who are making an impact with what they are saying here.

Here are some great resources for models when you are encouraging your students to begin a blog (remember that a model is important because it provides something that you either can choose to or not to emulate and that is important for framing kids perspectives):

Blogging is a vehicle for self-expression, reflection, and for making a positive imprint on this universe that we live in. In this time of anger, protest, violence, and confusion, isn't it important that we give our children a means to think through the questions that the have in a way that will help them to learn and grow and make a positive impact on this ever changing world in which we live.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

In appreciation of teachers

Teaching is the most important profession. The founding fathers knew that "an educated citizenry is vital to our survival as a free people" (quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson). Teachers and parents share the responsibility of ensuring that our children are prepared to assume their responsibility in this educated citizenry. In short, we teach the future. There is simply nothing more important than that.

Teachers in urban settings face seemingly insurmountable challenges with ensuring that our children are prepared with the skills they need to take their rightful place in the future. Teaching in urban schools is more than a profession - it's a calling. And urban teachers require a unique skill set. They must repeatedly go above and beyond - in supporting students emotional needs, in teaching social skills, in providing a constant balance of intervention and acceleration, in teaching English alongside the curriculum, in supporting communities that regularly deal with poverty, violence, and underemployment, and in planning and presenting engaging lessons that meet students where they are and push them to where they can ultimately be.

Urban teachers are superheros. They have to be. They demonstrate a relentless commitment to changing the world for the most vulnerable students each and every day. Celebrating them for a day or even a week does not do their work justice. They should be celebrated each and every day.

This past week, our students celebrated our teachers and our teachers celebrated our students. There were so many amazing stories, but this one just sums up how amazing urban teachers are and have to be.
"We were doing STEAM activities in our classroom. A student came up to me and said, "if everyday was like this, you know, no learning, we'd be good all the time!" We told him that he had been learning as a scientist and an engineer all morning. He said he wanted to be a robotic engineer after today and was going to ask his mother if he could go to summer academy to keep learning. "

This is why we do what we do in urban education.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Do the Most Good - take 2

I originally wrote this blog post about a year ago. This seems to be the time of year when teachers and leaders wonder if the grass is greener in some other district. I think it is important for us to reflect on our level of commitment to the students we serve and the vision of our organization. As with any marriage or long-term relationship, commitment is a choice. We could always choose another way, but staying committed...that takes patience, communication, and work.

Why did you get into education? What made you decide to be a teacher in the first place? I think it is important to revisit this connection at this time of year because it is a time of the school year when there is a lot of contemplation about how things could be easier or better or more convenient in another school or in another district.

I don't think I thought about the impact I could have on other people's lives or on the greater community when I got into education - I was 23 and I was so excited to have a job - my focus wasn't on my role in changing the lives of children or families. Soon after I got a handle on my new position, I became aware of how my role extended past my classroom and into the greater community. As I grew as a teacher, I reflected on my role as a teacher and I knew that I had to admit that I knew that there was places where I could have a greater impact. That was my draw to urban education.

I believe that we need to "do the most good" - that if we are capable that we have a responsibility to help others.
While we can do good in any district, not everyone has the competencies for urban education. And urban education is where we have the greatest need. The children in urban classrooms need the absolute best teachers. They need committed teachers who have deep content knowledge, extensive strategies for managing classrooms, and who appreciate the diversity of our urban classrooms. While the grass may appear a brighter color of green in suburban districts, the reality is that the same grass grows everywhere. Urban, suburban, and rural districts all face challenges. However, the challenges in urban education cannot be solved without the best teachers working to overcome the disadvantages our children may have and strengthen the future of our urban communities. 

Urban teachers have to have strong classroom management skills and have a deep commitment to educating our future. Those are the teachers that we need in urban classrooms. And we need those teachers to stay committed to solving the challenges of urban education. Too often in urban education, we invest in developing a teacher with potential and then after a couple of years they think teaching will be easier somewhere else. Suburban schools are smart - they know that successful urban teachers can be successful anywhere. However, the inverse is definitely not true. It takes grit to be an urban teacher. Anything that is worth doing in life will have challenges. There are classrooms everywhere - but really making a difference means teaching where you can do the most good. Even when it is tough. They say that teachers aren't "in it for the income - they are in it for the outcome." Being the one who can help to shape the future is the best perk that we can have as a teacher - better than summers off or great health insurance or snow days. We are opening doors to the future. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

What does it mean to be college and career ready?

My oldest son is a senior in high school, so the idea of college and career ready has a duality to me as both a parent and as an educator. I am seeing my seventeen year old son, who has so much academic potential, lack so much in the way of the soft skills that will determine success or struggle in college or career. I am continually trying to find the balance between pushing my son and letting him fail forward. It is the same for us as educators - trying to find the balance between academic proficiency and the kind of self-management and independence that will ultimately make the difference for our kids.

In this article from Educational Leadership called "What Makes a Student College Ready?," the author identifies four key pillars that relate to college success - Key Cognitive Strategies, Key Content Knowledge, Key Self-Management Skills, and Key Knowledge About Post-Secondary Education (Educational Leadership, 2008, 66:2). As a parent,  I am concerned about my son and those self-management skills - things like being able to get up on time, manage his own time, manage his own deadlines, and manage the stress of everything happening at once. As an educator, I worry about the students in my school who lack key content knowledge because they have struggled with being below grade level or they lack experiences that would give them prior knowledge to connect to. I also worry that so many of our students lack knowledge about post-secondary education and that will impact their ability to successfully complete college and be ready for a career.

David T. Conley (2010)
Our children, both biological and school, must have support from their teachers in being ready for college or career. Ensuring that our students have the skills that they need starts in elementary school and continues throughout their schooling. If we are going to ensure the future of our communities, we must ensure that our students have the skills they need to be ready for college and career. That's what I want for my own children and for the children in my school.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Dear New Teacher

Last weekend, I traveled to New York City to talk with potential teachers about the great things happening in my district and why they should consider a position in the Syracuse City School District. I met some extremely talented people with great potential and experience. In a meeting with Hunter College, I was asked what I look for in a high quality candidate. I was reminded of a letter I had written last summer after interviewing a number of potential candidates.

Dear New Teacher,

As you prepare to interview for a position in the field of education, whether it is for a daily substitute, a long-term substitute, or a probationary position, please take a moment to consider what you believe in and how we will see those beliefs come through in your interview. Your interview is the first step in establishing yourself as a professional - you must have a sense of who you are as a professional and what sets you apart from the other candidates who will walk through my door. There will be tough questions - about instruction, about classroom management, about teaching to get results - your answers should show that you have some experience thinking about these things. Please give this some thought. If all you know about differentiating instruction is "centers," then you need to really dig deeper. Your interview should set you apart and show that you are a well-read, thoughtful, and purposeful candidate who is going to be 100% committed to the children in my school. That's what I am looking for. I am looking for passionate, dedicated, hard-working individuals who will make a difference in the lives of my kids - what have you done, either personally or professionally, that demonstrates that and how will you make sure that I know you are the one that will make that difference? 

Our children are our most precious resource. Every minute that they are in classrooms must be purposefully crafted to move them closer to proficiency and intentionally implemented to ensure they have the skills they will need to be successful in their lives. New teachers must be able to take feedback, be coached, and see their practice with a growth  mindset. If you struggle with receiving feedback, being coached, or if you need to feel like you always have to get a gold star, you should spend some time reflecting on how that might get in the way of teaching for results. 

I need to see how you are going to love my kids. But not in that "oh, sweetie" kind of way. Love them enough to expect amazing things from them. Love them enough to have high expectations and consistency. Love them enough to be consistent in your planning, preparation, and instructional delivery so that they know you are always giving them your very best and they will give you their very best as a result. Love them enough to teach them that they can achieve academically and that they cannot act foolish. Love them enough to see past their surface and see them for who they can be. That's what I need from you, New Teacher. I need you to understand how important your role is. You have the power to change the world. You have the power to change lives. You will make the difference. 

With optimism,
Principal Reeve-Larham