Setting the tone on Orientation Morning …

In his book, ‘Intellectual Character’, Ron Ritchhart talks about the importance of the messages, both explicit and implicit, that we send to the students in our class.  Are you sending messages that imply a culture of working or a culture of learning and thinking?  He encourages educators to think about the messages that they are sending students in the early days of the school year.

At my school, the first opportunity I have to send messages to my 2016 students came a week or so ago on Orientation Morning, where I got to meet and spend 90 minutes with my new class.  The planning of this 90 minute session always takes a while because I want to think very carefully about the messages I send to the students.  What do I want them to leave the morning thinking and feeling?  There are so many messages I want to impart to students, but primarily, I want students to know that 4D is a place where:

  • We know each other on a personal level.
  • Time for thinking and discussion is important and not rushed.
  • Reading and talking about reading is valued.
  • Technology is an important part of our daily life and we use it in purposeful ways.
  • We persist and help each other out when we are stuck. (growth mindset)

These are such key ideas that it is hard to do justice to each one in 90 minutes, however, it is possible to give a taste of each point.  This is what I did:

We played some name games where we all had a laugh at the creative and sometimes silly alliterations that we came up with.

We completed a ‘Getting to Know You’ survey using Socrative, a tool that is used a lot in Year 4.  The questions asked were:

  • What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
  • What is your favourite story (book or movie)?  Why?
  • What is your favourite thing to do at school?  Why?
  • When you are not at school, what do you spend most of your time doing?
  • What is something you like about yourself?
  • List three words that best describe you as a learner.

We read and discussed two books, both carefully chosen for their message about thinking and growth mindset.  The books were ‘The Extraordinary Mr Qwerty’ by Karla Strambini and ‘The Dot’ by Peter Reynolds.

We used a Chalk Talk thinking routine combined with a modified Compass Points routine to explore and then discuss our feelings about moving into Year 4.  The questions we explored were:

  • What excites you about Year 4?
  • What worries you about Year 4?
  • What do you need to know about Year 4?
  • What are your expectations for Miss Davidson as a teacher?

Throughout the session, we had some laughs, I felt like I got to know a little about each student and they all left with a smile on their face … and hopefully a message about what Miss Davidson values in her classroom.  Roll on 2016 and the imparting of positive learning messages in those early days of the school year.

How do you set the tone of your classroom?



Assessment for learning using Kahoot …

There are so many technology tools around that sometimes, it’s hard to know which ones to use in the classroom.  My thinking is that it’s good to try them all and then figure out which ones best suit you as a teacher and the class with whom you are using the tool.  I also believe that it is important to use a range of tools to maintain student engagement.

A free tech tool I recently discovered is Kahoot, an online quiz tool.  The website (go here to create a Kahoot and the students go here to complete the quiz).  The website has three options – quiz, survey and discussion.  So far, I’ve only used the quiz.  Each quiz provides a competition-like atmosphere, which students love.  Each question has a time limit (you can set the time limit) and students win points for each correct answer. After each question, a leadership board appears on the screen, much to the delight of students.  Normally, I am not a fan of class competitions as I worry about the anxiety they induce in some students as well as the students who sometimes struggle and need extra thinking time.  However, adding two extra ‘tweaks’ to the Kahoot experience can turn a simple quiz into a much more powerful learning experience.

The first ‘tweak’ is to pause after each question (especially the questions that many students got incorrect) and ask students to prove their answer to the person next to them.  This simple addition not only means that students are articulating their thinking, but for those students who had an incorrect answer (the quiz provides immediate feedback), they are hopefully able to rectify any misconceptions.

The second ‘tweak’ is to allow students to write their own Kahoot questions.  During or after a unit, students work by themselves or in pairs to create questions for a student-created Kahoot quiz.  Students write their questions and multiple choice answers in their book and I use them to create the online quiz.  Allowing students to create the quiz questions automatically differentiates the learning experience because questions of various complexity are able to be created, as can be seen in the examples below where the first example simply imitates the sample equations and the final example uses two different operations.

Screenshot 2015-12-04 12.03.18

Screenshot 2015-12-04 12.03.42

Screenshot 2015-12-04 12.03.33

Screenshot 2015-12-04 12.03.56

Allowing students to create their own questions gives a useful insight into their ability to not only answer questions, but write the question and provide appropriate answer choices.  It is easy to see the level of sophistication of their thinking by looking at the answer choices they provide.  Are they able to predict student misconceptions or have they simply used random numbers?

When making decisions about technology use in the classroom, I am interested in choosing the right tool for the right purpose, not using technology for the sake of using technology.  I want the technology to help me be a better teacher, not simply engage the students.  Student engagement is the cherry on top but not the essential ingredient.  I am more interested in how I can use the technology in a meaningful, purposeful manner.  I am in interested in how the technology can help me understand students and their thinking.

How can you tweak a technology tool to make it work better for you?




The case for continuous online reporting …

It’s that time of the year.   Teachers have finished writing reports and are catching up on all the other teacher related tasks that have been neglected for the past 5 weeks (as well as reclaiming their weekends!).  I calculated that I have written nearly 20,000 words in report comments.  Do parents read those comments and understand how well I know their child and the growth in their learning throughout the year?  Or, do they just look at the grades with no perspective of what their child did to demonstrate mastery of that concept?   Of course, portfolios help here but do parents really know how to cross-check between the portfolio and the report? I wonder if the time that teachers spend writing reports is in equal balance with the time that parents spend reading the reports?

Report writing time is a lovely time to reflect on the growth of students throughout the year as well as identify gaps that need to be addressed in whole class and individual learning.  But, is there a better way?

Many schools have ventured down the continuous, online reporting path.   Some are further along than others and some are just beginning to dip their toes into this new world, one in which teachers and parents develop even closer partnerships in the quest to further student learning.

There are are so many benefits of continuous online reporting:

  • Parents receive information about their child’s learning in (almost) real time.
  • It encourages more regular dialogue between parents, teachers and students.
  • Report data is more readily available to be used by teachers to inform the next steps of student learning.
  • Students can act on the feedback from summative assessment and use it to inform future learning.
  • The report and its process is more meaningful when compared to end of semester reporting because of the ongoing nature.
  • Although it consists of the same amount of work for teachers (perhaps more at the beginning), the workload is spread out across the year.

As with any new system, particularly one involving technology, there are many aspects to consider but there certainly seems to be a plethora of ready-made options out there.  Which begs the question, why aren’t more schools diving into the deep end with continuous online reporting?

What does reporting look like in your school?

FlipConAUS 2015

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be part of a team of teachers headed to sunny Queensland for Australia’s very first FlipCon (for those not in the know, FlipCon is a conference about Flipped Learning).  At any conference, I hope to learn new things on two levels – firstly, I like to leave the conference with my thinking about teaching and learning altered or challenged, ie.  I want the ‘big idea’ stuff.  But, I also like to leave a conference with something I can do the next day in my classroom.  FlipCon ticked both these boxes.

What is the best use of class time?

This question was, for me, the big idea I left the conference with.  This is the question that I want to have at the forefront of my mind as I finish the year off and move into the 2016 school year.  In an ideal world, collaborative learning, discussion, and problem solving are the three key things that I’d like to use class time for.  Flipping the classroom allows for all of these things.  But, what is flipping and how do you do it?

I used to think that flipped learning only worked in classrooms, mostly secondary, where the traditional lecture takes place.  Ie.  Watch the lecture at home, do some problem solving etc. at school.  I was curious about how the flipped concept could be applied at the primary school level.  Enter the ‘in-flip.’  In-flipping is where students are introduced to content via video in the classroom.  This could be done after a pre-test, with different students watching different videos, as a way of revising concepts or as part of literacy/numeracy rotations.  Flipping in this way effectively means that there are two teachers in the room – real life you and virtual you.  There are so many ways that the primary teacher can tweak their current teaching to include flipping.  Benefits of flipping?

  • More time for 1:1 or small group teaching,
  • More time for collaborative learning and group discussion.
  • More time for problem solving.
  • Allows students to progress through concepts at a more flexible pace.
  • Greater differentiation is possible.

The recurring take-home message from many of the FlipCon sessions was this – make a start but expect it to take time.  So, make a start I will.  For the remainder of the school year, I plan to create a couple of videos addressing common grammar errors in Year 4 as well as some maths videos.  I’ve also flipped a dictation assessment so I don’t need to continually repeat myself for the slower writers.  The conference introduced many of the ways to create screencasts, including Screencast-O-Matic, eduCanon, Explain Everything and Office Mix, so I plan to have a play around with all of these over the next few weeks.  My goal over the summer is to prepare videos for all the major Maths topics in first term as well as videos introducing different genres of writing and some of the mechanical aspects of writing.  Another area of interest worth exploring is the idea of flipping parent information.

Upon return from the conference, I used Storify, another suggestion from the conference, to archive my notes (written as tweets) for future reference.  You can check out my #FlipConAUS story here.

How does or how could flipped learning look in your classroom?

Embedding Thinking Routines into Practice

When I first started learning about developing a culture of thinking in my classroom, I began by exploring the use of thinking routines as a way to deepen student thinking and make student thinking more visible in the classroom.  In the early days, I think I viewed thinking routines as activities to do, rather than the routine (as the name implies) practices that happen as part of a culture of thinking.  This, by all means, is a great way to start out using thinking routines.  Just the other day, as I planned a lesson, I reflected on how far I have come in the use of thinking routines in the classroom.

In the lesson, as part of the Global Read Aloud (we are reading ‘Fish in a Tree’), I wanted students to unpack the below cartoon and be able to see the situation from the perspective of each animal.

The thinking routines, Step Inside and Circle of Viewpoints, were obvious choices, and my thinking progressed from there.  To begin the lesson, students used a See, Think, Wonder to begin to unpack the cartoon.  Whilst they shared their ideas, I used What Makes You Say That? (which, I believe, is the most simple question that a teacher can use to improve their questioning and therefore, the thinking of their students) to delve deeper into their responses.  With this initial analysis of the cartoon complete, it was time to go deeper into the minds of the animals in the cartoon.

I wanted students to have the opportunity to combine all the brainpower in the room to consider the situation from each animal’s perspective before they recorded their independent thinking because I knew that some students, particularly those with (high functioning) Autism Spectrum Disorder, struggle to see situations from perspectives other than their own.  So, I combined a Chalk Talk with the Step Inside routine, which allowed all student voices to be heard and also allowed students to see what others had written.  Seven posters, each with the cartoon and the Step Inside questions were placed around the room.  The Step Inside questions were:

  • What might the (animal) see?
  • What might the (animal) think?
  • What might the (animal) wonder?

As the routine progressed, I also added in ‘How might the (animal) feel?’ to help students empathise with each perspective.

The key instructions I give to students during the Chalk Talk (even after multiple opportunities to practice, I find that these reminders still help deepen the conversation) are:

  • Read the other ideas first.
  • If you agree with an idea, either try to expand upon it by providing more detail or by simply placing a tick beside it.  Try not to repeat ideas.
  • If you disagree with an idea, you must give reasons.

At the end of the time allotment, students returned to their initial poster, read the comments and chose what they thought were the key ideas to share.  This is what some of the posters looked like at the end of the Chalk Talk/Step Inside routine:

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At this stage, students were confidently sharing their thoughts are debating different ideas and were ready to synthesise their thinking in a blog post.  Students chose an animal and used the Circle of Viewpoints routine to document their new thinking.  Here are some of the examples:

Screenshot 2015-10-16 17.57.17 Screenshot 2015-10-16 17.57.53 Screenshot 2015-10-16 17.58.19 Screenshot 2015-10-16 17.59.08

Embedding thinking routines into the daily teaching routine is something that takes time, but the pay off is huge.  Rather than simply having an unstructured conversation about the cartoon, through the use of carefully planned questions with a specific goal in mind, students were able to develop a deeper understanding of different perspectives.  Many students could build connections between the cartoon and their own lives and I am hoping now that students will be able to build connections to ‘Fish in a Tree.’

Beginning to blog …

Schools can only be cultures of thinking for students if they are also cultures of thinking for adults – Ron Ritchhart

And so begins my journey to allow more time for myself, the teacher, to think about and reflect on the culture of thinking that I am developing for the 24 students in my care.  Schools are busy places and so often the professional dialogue, reading and writing that helps teachers improve their practice is neglected.  Why is it that this vital aspect of our development as professionals so easily falls to the wayside?  Often, I have tried various ways to make this reflection time an essential part of my routine, but, a week or two into the term, the hectic life of a teacher takes over.   Blogging is my attempt to inject greater reflection into my teaching practice.

The idea of blogging has been on my radar for some time now,  inspired by reading various posts by Dean Shareski and George Couros, amongst others.    But, it is easy to put these kind of projects off, always hoping for a better time to come along.  As teachers, we all know that the ‘right time’ will never come.  We just need to dive into the deep end.  A procrastination tool for me has been finding a lens through which to blog.  All the teachers I see blogging seem to have a lens; their ‘thing’, something  they are particularly passionate about.  Deciding to start writing has encouraged me to think about the elements of teaching about which I am especially passionate.  Thinking and technology seemed to be the two aspects that kept popping up.  Making student thinking central to my classroom culture has always been an important part of my teaching, and as technology has grown over the past few years, finding ways of helping students create, connect and collaborate has been a key focus of my teaching practice.  Of course, there are many other areas of teaching about which I am passionate about, but it is these two key ideas that I plan to focus on when writing my reflections or ‘confessions’, as the title of this blog indicates.

How can teachers find ways to make reflection an essential part of our teaching routine? How can schools facilitate this?