Saturday, February 27, 2016

Personalized Learning + STEAM Design Challenges

I opened my very first Maker's Space in the classroom four years ago while teaching gifted second graders.  I had read about Genius Hour, 20% Time, and other types of ways to engage students in building critical and creative thinking skills.  I was very familiar with project-based learning it was embedded in our teacher-created curriculum before it was popular in the wider world of education. I was compelled by the idea of co-creating a unit of study with my students, however.  I wondered if they would be able to take responsibility for designing and completing their own project to show their learning.  I wondered if I would be able to mange many different projects, rather than one large performance task that all students engaged in.  I wondered if we would all have the stamina and skills to work through the messiness of projects AND show achievement on school division learner objectives.  As I reflect on these early Maker Space opportunities, I realize now that was how I dipped my toe into the personalized learning pool.

I was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic, motivated, and engaged students were during our Maker Space times.  I was shocked that all students achieved at a level higher than expected, even those who consistently performed below expectations prior to the Maker Space implementation. Perhaps it was because I used many tools to keep the learning on track?  I used Treffinger's Creative Problem Solving Tools to assist with problem solving along the way.  I used the SCAMPER tool often to help students think beyond the literal when designing new or hybrid inventions.  Together we watched many YouTube and SchoolTube videos to learn how to program our Raspberry Pi, create simple circuits on paper, and record videos and podcasts.  To keep the focus on learner objectives I created 'to do' posters and choice boards.  I incorporated exit tickets, simple rating systems and a student conference schedule to check for understanding throughout the course of our units.

I continue to use these very tools today.  I have added a few suggested activities, though.  At the beginning of each Maker Space session, the students and I meet to set our intentions.  We review our learner objectives, individual SMART goals, and consult team planning pages.  We set our agreements for the time period.  We role play appropriate ways to take brain breaks as well as keep our teammates on task.  One caring student created a quiet corner filled with books, a laptop, and some quiet fidget-toys.  He informed all of us we could use it during those times when we needed a break from the 'heavy thinking' or from our partners.  My goal here is for students to make the connections between their work and their learner objectives.  I want to help answer the question, "Why do we have to learn_____?"

I set the timer on my phone which reminds me to stop during the session to conduct a "Stop, Drop and Analyze" where I ask students the following:
What is working for you right now?
What stage of the design process are you in?  Why?
What is not working for you?  What do we need to change or modify?

At the end of each session, we debrief.  We review our learner objectives.  We celebrate successes as students share those with the whole group.  We conduct a gap analysis and write down items we need to work on during the next session.  For example, during this last session, students noted they needed to talk less and work more.  They also decided they need to assign jobs and share the workload more with each other.  These two stretch goals went on our agenda for the next session.

Finally, we review the pictures and videos we took during the session.  I challenged the students to help me document their progress.  Their pictures and videos are so much fun to watch, and educational, too.  For me, these artifacts serve as the best learning opportunities.  I liken it to how football coaches use videos to teach players new plays and critique performance.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

If You Goal Set With Students...Then They Will Want To...Write Their Own Assessments

While conducting a recent goal setting session with a small group of students, one of the students made the following comment:  "So, my writing goal can actually help me achieve my reading goal."  I am sure she was surprised at how thrilled I was with her "ah ha" moment.  As a result of consistent goal setting and monitoring, students are making the connections between disciplines.  Another student in the group added to the first child's comment by saying, "We are going to study historical documents during the unit, which means we are going to be practicing reading and writing." 

The process of goal setting requires time and preparation. I am starting a new ELA unit of study as my students have pre-assessed out of the regular unit of study. To prepare, I found a gifted unit that perfectly aligns with our current ELA VB learner objectives, as well as the social studies unit related to Virginia Documents.  I believe students need to understand the direction we are headed as well as know the learner objectives they are responsible for learning. Therefore, before we embark on the new unit, I want them to set at least one reading goal.  We will work on all the objectives during the unit, but each student will focus on one objective for their individual SMART goals.

I administered a literature pre-assessment from the William and Mary unit entitled, "Persuasion".  I then scored the pre-assessment using the given rubric.  I grouped the students by their scores (high, high-medium, low-medium, low).  I then created a SMART goal planning tool using the Schoology assignment tool.  I created a list of VB learner objectives that align with the new unit of study and added a digital copy to Schoology as well as made hardcopies.

I sat with the students in small groups to debrief the literature pre-assessment scores and set reading goals using the SMART goal framework.  We used a success-analysis approach, where I asked the students to first reflect on areas they received scores of 4 or above, according to the rubric.  Then students were asked to identify an area of need, compare that need to the list of VB learner objectives, and set a reading goal.  It was during this goal setting session that Phoebe had her "ah ha" moment. 

Two questions and considerations for our continued work with these SMART goals remain:
1.  Students expressed an interest in re-wording the learner objectives in kid-friendly language.  I believe this will also translate to them seeking to assist with the development of assessments.  I will have to build in time for this type of work.
2.  Students are working on efficient ways to monitor their goals.  They like the idea of using an app, Schoology, or Google docs, however, access to devices are not guaranteed on a daily basis at school.  Both the kids and I are afraid to save the data "in the cloud" at this point.  Students track their writing goals by using the 5th grade writing rubric as a post-writing checklist.  We wonder if a reading objective rubric would serve the same purpose?
3.  Students agreed that just by engaging in the goal setting process, they better understood the grade level expectations.  Several students stated they now better understood the differences between an AP level of proficiency and a P level.  We do acknowledge we need a way to keep the objectives visible throughout our work on this new unit.  I currently write learner targets on the board.  Perhaps instead, I should create a daily check-in for students to write their own objective targets?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Award Systems: Motivational or Problematic?

 Award systems abound lately.  You can earn points for spending money at certain establishments. You can earn cash back for using certain credit cards.  I recently read an advertisement for a company who was offering a free television in exchange for a furniture purchase.  I find this proliferation of award system quite ironic since we seem have to abolished award systems for kids in school. Remember the days of Principal's List and Honor Roll?  I abolished overt award systems in my classroom years ago. Gone are the days when each student earned a certain number of classroom bucks for engaging in behaviors I selected as important to my classroom structure.  So why all of a sudden do I see award systems everywhere?  There has been an explosion of award systems in school as delivered through applications such as Class Dojo, Achieve3000, and TenMarks.  How about the new system of awarding badges to teachers?  Are we just re-naming our old award systems?  Aren't these new point and badge systems just a modern version of Principal's List and Honor Roll? What do these systems say about how we feel about the learning opportunities we are offering our students? Do these award systems, whether it be points on Class Dojo or badges for using applications, build intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?  

Once again my students teach me a lesson, and this time it is about award systems.   As a result of one of my students hitting the 1000 point mark in his Achieve3000 work, he asked how he was going to be rewarded.  I gave him a candy.

This child was very happy with his candy, until...his friends asked him how he got the candy.  Pretty soon he and a group of trusted peers presented me with several reasons why a piece of candy was not going to cut it in this case.  The main reason given was: "Can we all have candy?  I have 5000 points, shouldn't I get 5 candies?  The same kids get the candy, every.time.we.have.a.candy.award.system! The kids who read fast will get all the candy.  What about those of us who take our time?"  During their questioning it occurred to me that while I was not ever offered candy for doing my job, other ways I have been rewarded have raised my own hackles! Offers of early release time, while given in a positive spirit, cause me to have to do more work-the very thing I just got awarded for! Offers to "pay me in points" for exercising irks me, too.  I do not need to be bribed to stay in shape. I do it for myself, my family, and my job. I won't buy furniture from the company offering free televisions because I worry their product must be cheaply made, otherwise they would not be bribing me to buy it!

And there folks, lies the rub of the issue!  What is motivation and how do we maximize it? What message do we send about something if it comes attached to points, badges, candies, or homework passes?  Several folks have published articles, books, and research on the topic of motivation.  I encourage you to read Del Siegle and Betsy McCoach's work on underachievement and motivation. A good place to start is via this website:  Spotlight: Strategies for Inspiring Underachieving Students

However, this video from Daniel Pink on carrots and sticks is the most highly recommended.

So, you are probably wondering what I did after making the candy mistake.  Well, I called a class meeting.  I wanted to know if the students thought an award system necessary, and if so, what type of system should be implemented.  Here is a photo of one of the charts we used in the early stages of brainstorming the issue.

A small committee (of students) created a student poll.  Poll results indicated students in both classes wished for an award system.  As of Friday, the students were in the midst of developing the system. Think they will appreciate the awards?  Think they will actually increase efforts to earn Achieve3000 points?  I do, on both counts.  Why?  Because the award system was designed by participants for participants.  Now that I have deeply immersed students in the personalized learning environment, each student feels compelled to participate in the learning.  Now that they are invested, I should not have made assumptions about what will continue to motivate them.  Lesson learned.

What thoughts about award systems, motivation, or personalized learning does this blog post bring about for you?


Monday, January 4, 2016

SMART Goals Abound! What Now?

Today we celebrated our return from the holiday break by learning how working memory helps us meet our immediate goals.  You are probably wondering why I chose the topic of working memory to kick off the new year rather than have the students set resolutions or write about their favorite holiday activity right?  I know my students well.  Monday is not their favorite day of the week, and they are very quiet and subdued.  Any activity requiring them to share feelings or set new goals would have failed.  Spending a great deal of time getting to know my students does pay off many times throughout the school year!  I chose working memory as the topic because I wanted them to have a better understanding of how their brains work before I launch them into a revisit and revision of current SMART goals.  I will save that discussion for later this week!

So we started by viewing the TEDEd video entitled, "How Your Working Memory Makes Sense of the World, by P. Doolittle.

I then asked the students to partner up and answer the following questions:
1.  What surprised you the most about working memory?
2.  What made the most sense about working memory?
3.  What evidence of the strategies listed by Mr. Doolittle are evident at school?  Or which strategies should be evident?

While sharing responses I created an anchor chart to show our harvest.  We even went back and re-watched parts to ensure we fully understood the message.

I then asked students to complete the following:  Working memory is like a ___________, because...

During the rest of the week, while I meet with small groups and individuals to review SMART goals, I will refer back to today's discussion while we debrief.  I know some students currently refuse to use graphic organizers during the writing process and this does impact the final outcome.  I know some students refuse to try different organizational tools and this impacts final outcomes.  I predict a much different dialogue now that we have discussed this video on working memory, can't you?  Instead of me critiquing student progress or lack thereof, students will be better able to design strategies for success based on video evidence.  Instead of students relying on others to identify moments of success, each student now has the background knowledge to identify their own successes.  My being open to personalizing the learning environment means I can involve students in the learning process. As per Peter Doolittle from the TEDEd video, "What we process, we learn".

Monday, December 14, 2015

Building Learner Agency in the Personalized Learning Environment

A key principle of personalizing learning is facilitating learner agency.  How do we best invite our students to become active learners?  Can students of all ages make good decisions about their learning?  How do we bring together curriculum parameters with student driven learning and calendars?  Those of you interested in personalized learning will grapple with these questions and more.

I start at the beginning of the year by inviting my students to become active participants in their learning.  This year I started the year by reading Dr. Suess's Oh The Places You Will Go followed by a class discussion of hopes and dreams for 5th grade.  I then move students to answering the following questions in a gallery walk or 'chalk talk':

  • What is my role in the learning process?
  • What do I need from my classroom, peers and teachers to learn?
  • What are my expectations from Mrs. Buhner?
  • What do I bring to this classroom (think strengths, talents, skills, etc.)?
  • What do I hope won't happen this year?
We lay these posters side by side and look for patterns in the responses.  We create a list of strengths, talents, skills, wants, needs, hopes and dreams.  We then create a classroom constitution (and in some years the students have created a Bill of Rights).  I further survey the students individually to learn about their learning styles, interests, and goals.  

Together, we create a purpose for being together, in the space given to us.  Together we define our parameters.  Together we define how we wish for our year to unfold.  This is my time to introduce students to habits of mind, learning objectives, SMART goals, and growth mindset.  It turns out inviting the students into learning how their brains work motivates most to actually use their brains!  

In the next post I will discuss how we move from co-creating a learning environment to re-organizing units of study into problem-based learning activities in which students drive their own learning and monitor their growth goals.  How do you facilitate learner agency?  What has resulted from co-crafting a learning environment?

Saturday, October 31, 2015


How do we successfully iron together subjects in 5th grade?  We S.T.E.A.M. them!  OK, that was not a great joke, but it was the only way I could think of to make a point about how we integrate authentic learning opportunities into our packed academic schedule.

This is how I began my last class blog post.  I think the reason many teachers hesitate to jump into the Maker's Space arena, or try engineering challenges in their classrooms is partially because we have learned to fear new buzz words, but also because we fear the pacing guides more!  What will happen if we get off pace with our division pacing guides, or worse yet, get off pace with our grade level?!?!?!  Many of us envision the proverbial sky crashing down, especially at SOL score time, right?

However, after 3 years of navigating the engineering/STEM/STEAM/Maker'sSpace world, I have learned 3 very valuable lessons.  The first lesson:  taking the lid off the traditional classroom and allowing students to pursue their own ideas earns me a TON of social and emotional capital!  Overall, the students seem to like school more, they are calmer, and when we return to unit studies they seem much more highly engaged.  This happens every.single.time!  The calming effects last for days, too.  

Lesson 2:  I hear and see evidence of student achievement from ALL students, not just from my extroverted students.  Students I used to worry about ever learning how to measure to the nearest eighth inch demonstrated advanced measurement skills during the design phase of an engineering challenge.  The student I could not get to write multi-paragraph compositions would hand in a detailed analysis, conclusion, and sales promotional plan for a new product he designed during Maker's Space-that he has already "pre-sold" to several students!  Lastly, during traditional unit lessons, students who would normally sit and receive information would jump up and make profound big idea connections to work we had done during problem-based learning activities.  This happens every.single.time!

Lesson 3:  You may think this lesson is selfish of me to publish, but I think its important to note.  I am a practitioner and lifelong learner.  However, I do not know everything I need to know about every subject I teach. Student explorations through design challenges or open-ended problem based learning activities provide me with new information I can apply to future lesson activities.  For example, this latest round of design challenges centered on exploration of student understanding of scientific reasoning, logic, and the cyclical nature of planning and conducting investigations. As students worked through a catapult design challenge, I learned how to better teach them the use of shapes, not to just name the shapes!  I witnessed a partnership attempt to measure the angle of their spoon with a ruler, encounter failure, ask another team for help, and finally measure with a protractor.  Now they own this new skill!  This is how I should have protractor skills in the first place.  Finally, I had an epiphany while listening to student conversation:  cycles are embedded in our work as writers and readers, too...How can I apply this new idea into my future plans?

Please share your journey with STEM/STEAM/Maker'sSpace or problem-based learning.  What lessons have you learned?  Why should or shouldn't other teacher practitioners try this trend?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Videos: Use the Embed Codes!

Have you ever wanted to use a link to a YouTube video in your lessons or blog but worried that you might inadvertently link your students to inappropriate content?Have you tried to embed the videos instead of using links?

My teaching partner and I use Schoology.  We can embed a video into course content.  When students click on the play button, only the video shows.  There is no link directly to YouTube included.  Try the embed code in Edmodo or other LMS and post a reply here letting us know how it worked.