Saturday, July 30, 2016

Flexible Seating

Good morning! I woke up this morning quite groggy and exhausted. This has been one long week. I worked on Monday for a mentoring meeting, had Tuesday off, then the entire district came back on Wednesday. It is always tough, as all of you educators know, to go back and sit through "sit and get" sessions. I see what our district tried to do with pumping us up and getting us excited for the year, but sometimes it falls of deaf ears... and that is what happened for me this year. It is partially my own fault, that I only had an hour and a half of work time in my classroom over the three days. I could have gone in earlier... I could have stayed later... but made the choice not to. 

One thing that did happen is teachers came into my room and asked me why I hadn't set up my classroom yet. I replied by telling them that my classroom is set up and that I am using flexible seating this year. I was a little bummed with the faces and replies I got back. There was not much support going my way on this, and I am not surprised. It took me eleven years to get here, and I know it might take one week to send me back to seating charts. My mantra for last year was "Whatever", so at least my mantra for this year is "Cautiously optimistic". I am trying new things - I am working towards believing more in student choice, so it only seems fair that student choice with seating falls in with that. 

Over and over, I tell people that I'm the "non-traditional" teacher, yet my classroom had only desks, set up in pods or in rows. People... that's not "non-traditional"! I knew that my classroom had to look a little different if I was going to walk the walk. I really liked the furniture from MiEN that I saw in Louisville, Colorado for GAFE, but knew I could never convince anyone to purchase $500 chair/desk combos. So I started to think about what I could use in my classroom cheaply. I was sort of thwarted at every turn, but found some cheap camping chairs from Kmart and a couple of floor pillows from Amazon. (The floor pillows are actually pretty awesome. I wish I could afford more for my classroom.) I also moved all of my desks and chairs to the outside of the room. I am bringing in a long folding table (will purchase a tablecloth since it's rather gross) and will allow the students to use yoga balls or the regular chairs for seating, and will also allow them to stand at any place in the room. I may also purchase yoga mats or bath rugs to add more floor options, and I am intrigued with a low table and floor pillows. I know I have more time throughout the year to add more seating options.

So... from the very first day of school, I will have a Slides presentation in the front of the room telling students that they can pick where they sit. I really don't care. As I said "I really don't care out loud", it cements that it does not matter to me where the students sit. Yes, I will still have to move students for misbehaving (it IS middle school) and some students may lose their privileges and have to sit in a classroom desk and chair. But it's the IDEA that students have choice. I think some of them won't know what to do with this... it's too different and weird.

Again, I am cautiously optimistic. It's these little things that make me want to continue teaching.

Thanks for reading! I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website
Donate a Google Cardboard to my classroom!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

#gafesummit recap

Hey guys: I want to be honest with you. I'm scared to death about this upcoming school year. To be even more honest, I have not been looking forward to going back. There are going to be some changes around me that I am not ready for, and because I am the eternal pessimist, I wasn't happy about it either.

But this past Tuesday, I was at a GAFE summit hosted by our own district! Holly Clark was there, and I have been in awe of this lady for awhile. Not only is she an amazing and engaging speaker, she always says it like it is (but really nicely), and her teaching ideas are phenomenal. Her presentation was called The Right Question (with ideas from the Right Question Institute), what I consider an innovative way to add student choice to your classroom.

Holly mentioned that it would be beneficial to read Make Just One Change in order to fully understand how to incorporate the QFT (Question Formulation Technique) into the classroom. I am glad that I did. I finished the book last night, and in order to help myself incorporate this into my class, I created a sketchnote.


When Holly presented on this topic, she modeled the six components of QFT for us. While it was incredibly valuable to see in action, at the time, I struggled to see how to incorporate the ideas in into my class. Reading the book helped me think through the entire process. I am excited to use these ideas in my class, and I hope that they work with my students. 

Step 1: come up with a QFocus. Instead of asking your students questions/prompts to get them excited about learning, you give them a focus that will have the students generate questions. For my American Indian unit, I ask the students How did American Indians change the history of the United States? Now, for my QFocus, I will tell the students American Indians changed the history of the United States

Step 2: produce questions. I will then have the students work in groups of three to generate questions. They generate questions based on the QFocus. They may come up with questions such as the actual essential question (How did American Indians change the history of the United States? or Who were the American Indians?) The students have 5-8 minutes to write down as many questions as they can. They cannot discuss the questions, judge them, nor answer them. They must write all questions exactly as they say them. If they make statements, they must change them into questions. 

Step 3: assign questions as closed or open-ended. The students look at the questions and determine if the questions are close-ended (have a one word answer) or open-ended (needs further explanation). They should also change three questions from open to closed, and from closed to open. 

Step 4: prioritize questions. There are options, for this step, to have students work individually or in their small group (or both). They have to decide on the top 3 questions, depending on the focus of their QFocus. In my case, for the American Indian unit, I am thinking I will have the students prioritize the order of the questions based on which questions need to be answered first. I am using these questions to help the students research and gain interest in American Indians. Once the students have prioritized, they have to justify their order to the entire class. 

Step 5: next steps. In the case of my American Indian unit, the students will continue to research and create new questions based on their research. They will be working in their groups of three on a unit project, so their research will support them in answering the essential question and making the video project. The nice thing about this is that students get to focus on their own interest with American Indians (i.e. student choice). It is almost like independent research, but with much more support from me. 

Step 6: reflection. I still have to think through exactly what this looks like, but I know that the focus will be how the QFT led to deeper learning, developing confidence, and applying new skills. I will likely have the students vlog using the app Recap and posting their reflection and unit project on their digital portfolio

I know that this is a lot, but I am envisioning (however scary it is), that I will film myself facilitating the QFT in class in order to a) personally reflect and b) give you guys a visual of what this looks like in action. QFT is making me excited for next year (which I was not at the beginning of this week), so at least year 11 won't start off as a bust.

Thanks for reading! I'll see you next week :)

- Rachel
My Teacherspayteachers website
Donate a Google Cardboard to my classroom!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Now that I'm a mentor...

...I'm looking for ways to help my mentee. I have not been assigned a mentee officially for this year, but I am excited to move forward in my career into a leadership role. I was doing some research into mentor support when I stumbled across a page from They posted twelve questions that people should be asking their mentor and I thought it would make for an interesting blog post!

1. What do you wish you knew at my stage?
Pick and choose what you are going to do in the classroom - you cannot do everything. It will take time to add stuff to your bag of tricks, and that's okay! Start with what you are good at, then build from there. For example, I am quite good with integrating technology in my classroom. I integrated tech from the very first day of school. My tech integration has changed over the years, but it's something that I incorporate because I think it is important. Even though I am tech savvy, it took some time for me to use Twitter. I was really resistant to blogging until this summer! For my curriculum, it took me a long time to come to terms with giving students choice. This school year, I will have more choice for my students than ever. But like I said before, start with what you are good at and are comfortable with, BUT, keep growing and keep building your arsenal.
2. Who else would you recommend I connect with?
It sounds silly, but you first need to connect with your classroom janitor and with the secretaries in the front office. They will be your go-to people when you need something, and a smile and a please/thank you can go a long way. I have rarely argued with these people because of the foundation I created when I first started teaching at SMS. I would also encourage you to find a mentor whether it's the mentor that you were assigned or just someone that you can go to for advice. I would lastly recommend that you find someone to talk to whether it's a psychiatrist, a friend, a family member - someone who can listen to you and help you work through the problems that you will go through as a teacher. You might think that your spouse or partner is the perfect person for this, but they will get sick of you talking about school all of the time. Find someone that you can blow off steam with that understands what you are going through.
3. How can I work smarter?
This will take some time - after 10 years of teaching, I'm still trying to figure this out! Find ways to build in quick, formative assessments. Find ways for the students to provide feedback (*cough* Google Apps!) for each other; even grade each other! And remember that you do not have to grade everything and not everything has to go in the grade book. 
4. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I wish that I would have studied backwards design from the get-to. I never realized how essential it would be for my lesson planning, and how helpful it would be to better integrate the Marzano tools that our district is implementing. When I started teaching with the iPads, I wish I would have spoken up about how necessary training was. I needed support, and I did not get it. I also wish I would have known about Capturing Kids Hearts training when I first started teaching. These three things could have transformed my teaching from the start instead of me figuring it out as I went.
5. What are you trying to accomplish this year?
I want to make sure my classroom Marzano scales are strong from the start of the year. This way, I can have my students "grade" themselves on the scale and reflect much more this year. I was inspired at the ISTE 2016 conference to have students create their own projects and rubrics which I will start second semester. I also want to continue to stay positive throughout the year - I always start strong at the beginning of the year, but it tends to wane second semester. I need to find a way to keep myself going!
6. Am I being crazy?
Yes! You're a teacher! But for all of the crazy moments, you will find those special moments that make you smile and laugh. 
7. What should keep me up at night?
Your job is to not be kept up at night. I've been there, and it's not fun. It's not fun replaying conversations with your colleagues or rereading angry parent e-mails in your head. You are a teacher - it is what you do, but it is not who you are. You cannot do it all. Find something to do and be outside of school so that you can sleep at night - it could be going to happy hour with friends, reading a really good book, learning a new language, or doing yoga. Find something that makes you happy and helps give you perspective.
8. What were your biggest failures?
My biggest failure as a teacher was four years ago - the first year I taught with iPads. I had a rough group of students and was completely unprepared to teach with iPads. There were numerous complaints outside and inside my classroom. I honestly thought I was getting fired. While it was the worst year I've had, it was the most growth I've had as a teacher. I learned a lot about HOW to teach. I learned to be less sarcastic, more engaging, and how to smile. I realized that no one was going to train me, and I had to really figure out how to teach with iPads. Now I have a good handle on what I am doing and no longer worry about getting fired - I really reflected and made changes.
9. What has been your most rewarding accomplishment?
My most rewarding accomplishment has been becoming the teacher that people can go to. I love having that reputation! I also love it when students come back to tell me that I supported them beyond my class - that means what I am doing is WORKING! It supports my curriculum and tells me that I am not shooting blind.
Thanks for reading! I'll see you next week :)
 - Rachel

Saturday, July 9, 2016

What is rigor?

As I drink my coffee this Saturday morning, I'm reminded of a conversation I had with another teacher this week. This teacher and I were talking about another teacher that is a common acquaintance, and we were talking about how this teacher is a "brand new, baby" teacher. She has no teaching experience, but when the three of us were talking, this acquaintance was using all sorts of buzz words when talking about her future classroom.

When it was just the original teacher and myself together, we were talking about what this acquaintance had to say. The other teacher was frustrated that she was using buzz words, thinking that she was saying what we wanted to hear. She believes that this new teacher needs to teach content. She kept reiterating that she needs to teach RIGOROUS content.

I felt like she was insinuating that I do not teach rigorous content, nor does my team teach rigorous content. Is it because we teach with iPads? That's how it felt. I think she was alluding to the fact that she does not consider teaching 21st century skills or teaching in a project-based classroom teaching "rigor". I honestly think that she believes rigor is MORE.

That blew my mind, and inspired this post to talk about rigor. A quick Google search [What is rigor?] provides many results about rigor and education. This is a hot topic of which most of you are aware. I feel like Dr. Barbara Blackburn says it best,
"Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so he or she can learn at high level, and each student demonstrates learning at high level." (Blackburn, 2008).
Our job, as teachers, is to create a rigorous environment, create units and lesson that force students to learn at high levels, support students through those rigorous units and lessons, and provide choice for students to demonstrate their new learning. This can be done through traditional or new methods of teaching.

I know that when I started teaching with "new" methods, I was taking a risk. I was scared of failure and was embarrassed when I messed up. But in the end, risk taking transformed my teaching. My students were creating projects I considered insane (i.e. above and beyond 8th grade). I was proud of my students and was proud of the change in my classroom. I know that my students are going to have the same feelings (scared, frustrated, embarrassed) when they enter my classroom, but I hope that they are proud when they leave.

How is my curriculum rigorous?
  • My students answer open-ended questions. Students are asked What is an individual's responsibility to a community? and What drives people to seek independence? Students have to answer these questions based on evidence from the historical era that they are studying. They have to make connections between past and present in order to see trends throughout time. 
  • My students have to demonstrate their learning through various forms of media. They have created digital stories, infographics, silent films, travel videos, DBQ essays, and sketchnotes (for some examples). Every project is different so they have to demonstrate learning of the content and learning of different forms of media. These should be forms of media that they will encounter in the real world. 
  • Students have to plan out their learning before they create a final project. They have to construct meaning of the content for themselves. They have to figure out what questions to ask while thinking critically about the content. It's not about memorizing the content - it's about how the content is used. 
This can all sound fine and dandy, but students really struggle in my class. Often, my classroom is the first that they've encountered that "looks" like this (not traditional memorization and regurgitation). My classroom doesn't fit the game of education that they've been playing since kindergarten, so they do get frustrated and upset with me. Often I hear students say they want it to be easy. I know that I have to build in more support to help them, and am learning this more and more each year while I teach.

In the end, rigor is not more. I can challenge students to think critically through a paragraph instead of a five page essay. I can challenge students to think critically through an iMovie trailer instead of a whole movie. I know that when I plan units and lessons, I have to remember:
  • Learning at high levels 
  • Support of learning at high levels 
  • Demonstration of learning at high levels 

If I can remember these things, I can make my class rigorous no matter my teaching style.

Thanks for reading! I'll see you next Saturday :)
- Rachel

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Note: I was really inspired by this article from Huffington Post. It makes great connections between yoga and rigor in the classroom.