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.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Computational Thinking: How does it fit?

I joined an online class called 'Computational Thinking for Educators", offered by Google this summer.  I am intrigued with the use of algorithms to make "work" easier.  In what ways (IWW) might facilitating computational thinking enhance learner engagement in 5th grade?  IWW might computational thinking assist learners in better understanding their world?  IWW might it enhance our work in the area of sustainability and design thinking?  Perhaps adding this "dimension" will better allow me to differentiate for my high ability learners as I have found current curricula to be lacking in substance designed to meet the needs of the intellectually gifted students.

Here is a cool tool that utilizes algorithms:  ngrams to use to track word or phrase usage over time and within different cultures.  My students are currently studying physical regions of Virginia.  Students ponder how human systems are impacted by location.  The word civilization comes to mind here.  Has the definition of civilization changed over time?  Would there be evidence in literature?  How might other cultures view the term civilization?  IWW might students develop an algorithm to track travel from region to region using different forms of transportation (aka Google Maps)?

This is where I will endeavor to begin using computational thinking with my students.  I must say this course has further solidified my recent theory:  the older I get, the less I know.   This course has added a new facet of learning for me.  Thanks PLN for introducing me to "Google school"!

Thursday, September 3, 2015


Why Do I Care So Much?
In my quest to flip open house I would not allow myself to worry about the technology pieces required to complete the job.  So, now that my plans have come to a screaming halt due to lack of access to the internet and a non-working SmartBoard, I am preparing plans B and C and wondering why I even considered the idea of flipping open house anyway?  Why do some folks jump right into integrating technology, or adopting a new curriculum, or taking on new initiatives?  Why do some folks not even open the curriculum update documents until later in the first quarter, if at all? 

I like to believe I am kid-friendly.  Not only do I have two kids of my own, but I was once a kid.  I disliked school with a passion.  One son feels that same about school as I did.  I seek to create the type of learning environment that honors all types of learners.  I don't want children to leave the room disliking school!  

This means I must respect the three key principles of good educational pedagogy: curriculum, classroom management, and instructional practices.  My philosophy also requires that I respect those that create the curriculum and provide access to training on instructional practices and classroom management.  I must respect what each child brings to my class.  I must try the things I am being asked to try, even if initial attempts fail. 

In my house, when new foods are presented we must all take 'no thank you" bites.  This means we must take a bite and if we don't like the bite then we say, "No thank you."  I care so much because I want to honor all who have gone before me.  I seek to honor those who have slaved over the new curriculums, those who have planned our welcome back to school activities, those who have built the very ramp that delivers children to my door!  I am willing to take the "no thank you" bite and at least try!

When a man assumes a public trust he should consider himself a public property. 
-Thomas Jefferson

Friday, August 28, 2015

I'm Flipping Open House!

"Not Your Mamma's Open House"
Dr. Hatten recently published an Edutopia blogpost (link to blogpost here) regarding creating the penultimate 21st century open house.  This year I will try many of the suggestions in the blog post.  I began by tagging (bribing) my children to assist me with videotaping a condensed version of open house.  I am going to try and flip open house!  I plan to set up stations at the actual event: 1.  e-mail distribution list, 2. Sign up for Schoology account, 3.  Preview ELA materials, 4.  Design thinking around classroom environment set up.  While families are moving around the room I will be able to meet and greet families!

I edited and published the video to my YouTube channel.  Here is the link:  Open House 2015  Prior to the actual open house I will send home a postcard with viewing information.  I am hoping families can use the video as a reference over the course of the year to assist in discussions regarding the classroom climate, learning opportunities and general overall impressions of the school year.  For those families who cannot attend open house, this video may help students feel more comfortable.

I also created a student handbook for families to reference.  Here is the link to the 2015 Student Handbook:  Student Handbook  I will add updates as they happen over the course of the year.  

Between the video, student handbook, and stations I hope I to have addressed many of initial concerns for my students and their families. Feedback is always welcome. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

In an effort to better personalize learning for the 2015-2016 school year I have switched to using from years of utilizing Edmodo. I still really like Edmodo and think it is a great place for teachers new to integrating microblogging and social networking with students to begin their 'tech+students' adventures. Schoology allows similar microblogging and social networking, in the same safe, invite-only environment. In addition, I can easily add media related to the subject areas I teach. Check out! Here is a link to a video useful for getting to know the product:  How To Use Schoology As A Teacher

You are invited to leave a comment regarding your thoughts on Schoology!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Try This!  Don't know what to do with all those favorites from Google+, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram?  Use "if this, then that" recipes to connect your favorites to your e-mail, OneNote, or EverNote accounts! For example, I created an 'If This, Then That" recipe to direct favorites from tweets on Twitter to a notebook in EverNote.  Once per week I open Evernote, scan through the favorites and either move resources to other notebooks per their topics or delete those that I no longer need.

Here is a video to help you use these recipes to streamline your social media interactions!