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student engagement

Education Teaching Tuesday Teaching Tip

The Subversive Innovator

Last week I was able to meet with some teachers who are doing great things with technology in their classrooms. We had a meeting to talk about how tech can live in our schools, and part of the meeting was asking them to create a vision for what digital learning could look like in their school in three years. We had five minutes of silence as they typed their responses and read the responses of their colleagues. And then we discussed.

And the first comment was, “If only it could actually be like this.”

Which was followed by nods of agreement, and then several comments about why this could never work. I totally get this. I get the feeling, I get the sentiment, and I get the frustration.

It reminded me of a conversation I was part of several years ago, sitting in a room of mentor teachers, all with a student teacher from the University of Chicago in our classrooms. The mentor teachers were brought together for training, and to be told about the end of the year “project-based learning” unit that was required for our student teachers to complete. We all sat there, watching the implementation gap grow between what our student teachers were expected to do, and our school expectations.

After a series of comments, most of which were explaining why this project-based learning could never happen, one of the facilitators said, “I understand that there are challenges, and that this will live differently in each school setting. But I also believe that we have enough talent in this room to figure out how to be subversive within the system to bring what we know to be best practice into our classrooms.”

The subversive innovators.

You know, the ones who are doing really cool things, but maybe doing so on the down low, with little fanfare, largely uncelebrated, so as not to bring too much attention, so as not to make too many waves.

south chicago model
(The finished product of my student teacher’s project-based learning about our neighborhood)

It’s close to the end of the school year, so for today’s Teaching Tip, I wanted to give a few ideas of how to bring innovation, creativity, and fun into the classroom, even if time is limited and expectations are high.

1.) Find your squishy time

It’s different in every classroom, but there are moments within each day that are under-utilized. The time right after lunch, the time between lunch and specials class, the time right before the end of the day. I usually know when I’ve hit up against a teacher’s squishy time because when I ask to see their schedule, and I point to a specific spot, and they get really non-specific about what is happening during that time. Or they get defensive (often because they’ve already identified this time as squishy and are putting it to good use!) That’s the time do get creative. Even if it’s only 5-10 minutes. SO MUCH can be accomplished in 5-10 minutes.

There’s also squishy time within the content, like changing the end of unit assessment to a performance task, incorporating one center rotation focused on student choice or interests, or using the math drills at the beginning of the lesson to incorporate calisthenics, as one of my teachers does with her 4th graders.

2.) Get student input

When bullying got real in my class, I held a class meeting to explain the situation to my 3rd graders and ask for their input. Honestly, the biggest reason was that I realized that the problem was bigger than what I could solve on my own. Their ideas were pretty fantastic, including a system of bully tickets, kindness tickets, a bully poster campaign, and a bully prevention leadership team. It was so much better than I could ever imagine, and it was completely different than what I would have developed.

More importantly, it worked.

It can be helpful to start with a shared problem, and help students to come up with solutions. One teacher I work with is using the end of the year time to do a study on the elections because his students kept asking questions about a certain candidate and why he was doing so well in the polls. Another high school math teacher presented the problem that many buildings in their city were not accessible for wheelchairs, and the class used what they had learned about angles and measurement to build ramps for local businesses.

But the point is, if it isn’t clear where to start in innovation, ask the students. I guarantee that one of them will have a far better idea than anything I could blog about here.

3.) Follow Through

making rocket launchers(Making rocket launchers in science)

This one is the hardest for me. I am great with ideas. I have a million ideas a day. Seeing them through to their completion is always the hardest part. And it’s the same with innovation.

There are a few things I’ve seen help with this.

One, setting a deadline. Put an end date on it and do as much as possible to prepare for that deadline and keep it a fixed mark. Deadlines are great motivators.

Two, push for a product. It can be a letter, a drawing, a photograph, a robot, a recipe. It can be almost anything, but there should be something to show for the time that is given.

Three, carve out time to share. Yes, learning is fun in and of itself. But it is also super duper fun to get to talk about what you’re working on with other people, and show them what you’ve made and created. The first thing I do when I create something new is share it to social media to get feedback. Why should the classroom be different? If there isn’t time to do a show and tell in class, take a picture and create an instagram bulletin board, or twitter feed for comments.

The best part of the end of the school year is that usually there’s more squishy time available to do fun and engaging things in the classroom. And students are antsy to do high impact, high engagement activities. (AKA, everyone is squirrely and behavior can take a nosedive!) Why not try something new?

For ideas about some of the incredible things happening in classrooms around the country, check out this AMAZING TED talk from Stephen Ritz, about how he started a gardening program for his middle school students in the Bronx. (And if you can get through it without crying, I don’t believe you.) Then just go ahead and keep on watching this TED Talk Playlist of inspiring teachers.

And for the record, my innovating time started with right after lunch. I gave students five minutes of choice time to do any silent activity they wanted to do. And from there, we snowballed.

It doesn’t take a lot, it just takes a step.


Assessment Education Teaching Tuesday Teaching Tip

Choice in the Classroom: 4 Ways to Give Students Agency

I recently was able to attend an incredible conference in Berwyn IL school district 100. Their iEngage conference featured a site visit to classrooms full of student-centered learning. And it also featured one of my favorite tech speakers, Jennie Magiera. Jennie spent one of her sessions talking about the need to incorporate Play and Choice into our teaching. You can see a great Sketch Note of this session here.

Recently I’ve been in a reading desert, but when I do read, it’s been in the pop sociology/psychology genre, making my sociology teachers from college proud, I hope. (I know I’m not the only one still paying back all those students loans after graduating college with a sociology degree.)

One of my favorites in this genre is Daniel Pink’s DRIVE. The book is all about what motivates us to act. And Jennie’s words reminded me that one of the key motivators that Pink talks about is choice. In his book, Pink gives four ways that you can give choice, and he does it alliteratively, so I thought I’d share those with you, with examples of teachers have used each one.

1.) A Choice of Task

This one can be tricky, if you’re trying to make sure everyone is learning the same ideas. However, there are some great strategies to make it happen. In one class I recently visited, the teacher gave the students a list of fifteen math problems. The students got to choose two problems to solve. They were then able to choose their technique for solving the problem (#4).

Within an ELA classroom, the choice of task could be as easy as choosing which book to read. Or as involved as choosing a social issue, researching it, and coming up with a project to influence change, as was done in another classroom I visited. Some students chose to write letters to politicians. Another chose to do a poster campaign to stop bullying within the school.

At another conference I went to, two teachers presented about giving students 20% time like Google does. This incorporates a lot of the 4 T’s, but the basic gist is that for an hour every week students are able to choose the project they’d like to work on. One student learned how to code and designed their own website. Check out this video about Genius Hour. (And maybe you only can have Genius 5 minutes, but how great will those 5 minutes be?!?!)

(Whew, I can’t watch this video without getting teary and excited.)

2.) A Choice of Time

How much time will the project take? When is the project due? Several teachers I work with let students set the due date for their projects (within reason). They can create the timeline for when certain components will be completed. For big projects, one teacher posts a calendar in her room and students sign up for the day they’d like to present or the day their project will be complete.

If you have technology in your classroom, creating a shared calendar between you and your students can help facilitate this.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 1.44.45 PM

For tasks like cleaning up or organization, asking students how long they think it will take and giving them the autonomy to decide how much time they have can change whining and complaining and stomping feet (just me??) into a game. how long will it take

3.) A Choice of Team

look you give friend

This one is easy–give students a chance to choose which people they get to work alongside, or if they want to work alone. I saw one teacher have a “mix and mingle” and students got to walk around until they’d found their team. Another teacher used a shared google doc with two columns, and students could sign up and someone else could sign up to be their partner.

Or maybe your students are more like me, preferring to work solo if that is an option.

If you want some more ideas about grouping students, check out this great article from Genia Connell about ways she helps students get into groups. One of her ideas is to put different students on speed dial! Then she can say, “Go to your speed-dial 1 partners” and students pair up with the person they chose in space 1.

speed dial 1

4.) A Choice of Technique

The last is to give students a choice of how they complete their work. I think there are so many ways that this can be done, but I’ll name a few. When I observed the student I talked about above complete his math problems that he chose, the second part of the assignment was to explain how he solved it. He was able to choose how he explained his answer to his teacher. He chose to make a video with Photo Booth, but other students made a slide show, one student was using Explain Everything to do a screencast, and still other students were writing out their thinking. The key was that each student was able to chose themselves how they wanted to do the work.

student photobooth

Other ways to include choice of technique is by incorporating choice boards. Kasey Bell of Shake Up Learning has some great resources for differentiating based on learning menus and tic-tac-toe boards. She even provides templates! Teachers design the boards so that the students have to make tic-tac-toe, but no matter which way they do it, they will be getting a chance to get some content input, and then given a chance to demonstrate content mastery. Not only can the student choose how to make tic-tac-toe, but they are also able to have choice about how they want to show they’ve understood the concept. (Seriously, check out her site, it’s full of great stuff.)

When I think about it, a lot of jobs are easier if I get to choose the technique I want to use. Cleaning isn’t my favorite thing, but if I get to use really nice cleaning cloth and good smelling spray, suddenly I’m willing to wash windows! I know one teacher lets her students choose the kind of writing utensils they use. It does mean she gets some work turned in completed in highlighter, but the students were excited to do the work!

It’s not surprising that CHOICE is such a powerful tool for teaching, and it’s not hard to make small changes to make sure students (or teachers) are able to have agency and voice in the learning process.

Comment below with any pictures or ideas you’ve used or seen used in classrooms! (If you want more info about Drive and Daniel Pink, check out this great RSA Animations video of the key ideas in the book. So worth the time!)

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