Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Staying in my lane

You know how when we are learning how to do something, like drive a car there are times at the beginning when you are overwhelmed with the shear amount of "things" that you are expected to do at one time.  Then this miracle of sorts happens.  One day you suddenly, realize you are no longer overwhelmed. You are driving and no one has died, the car is staying straight in the lane, and you can even manage to flip to a different radio station without any additional panic or stress.  I haven't reached this miracle spot yet this school year.  I was there in that "miracle" spot for 7th grade.  It was a good feeling.  I still haven't not reached that level of confidence with the material, timing and scope.  I know it is only week 2, I should calm down.  But after living in that sweet spot for so long the level of struggle that I am grappling with daily isn't a good feeling.

The week started off way better.  Writing the post last week was healing plus having Monday off to sleep didn't do any harm either. The learners worked on finishing their first PBL this week.  It is always easier to finish a project than it is to start one...I think it is one of those untold PBL laws.  My teaching team decided this summer that we wanted the students to have a chance to go through the process of PBL with a smaller project that had meaning but would not be graded.  This way we could find our way and they could "experience" the learning organically.  The students spent the week in the halls, on the floor gathered around phones and laptops filming and editing video.  Even my slowest learners made progress and learned through the experience.  I asked them what they learned at the end of the week and it was like music to my ears: "teamwork, how to work a google doc, planning is important, you need to take your team norms seriously, how to edit a video" the list of things was truly beautiful.  It validated all the pain and struggle that I have been experiencing.  I know it is going to be worth it.

As a teaching team we have a routine...I love those.  We teach 1st period then we debrief the experience in 2nd (our joint off period) with a series of "I like and I wonders."  That usually result in us flipping and reorganizing to make the flow better and we take from each other ideas that worked best for us.  Then we look at the coming day and week.  We try to work out how we want the week to flow and work through the days.  We set up our plan for the coming day and volunteer for task to complete during our off periods. It is a tight schedule.  And doesn't leave much time for long term planning.

This week we started looking at our next PBL.  It was the first one we wrote together...when you do things the first time sometimes they aren't the greatest.  I think this PBL fits perfectly into that group of "not great."  My BTB and I are in a teaching PLC and volunteered to hash out our problem project hoping for feedback.  Well, we left there both feeling sick.  It was great feedback...too good really.  Like the kind where you are asked questions you haven't ever asked yourself and need to immediately define to move forward.   And if we had a 8 hour summer day to sit and hash it out there would be no stress.  However, my BTB left the meeting for a quick weekend trip and we both knew that would mean we would have to squeeze in that fixing magic into our tightly scheduled 2nd period meetings or I would have to do it this weekend.  Either way...not a good feeling. 

This weekend here I sit...working on finding my PBL magic and answering those mega life changing questions.  I feel like that new driver trying to keep the car in the lanes.  I hope no one dies.

*Edit: After working a weekend and reaching out to my twitter professional learning network I have to say we have created a beauty of a pbl for the kids, Colonial America: Why do people move?  Now to see if the kids appreciate it as much as we do. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Adventure of a new year

The last bell of the day rings in June and the students run out of the building almost as fast as the teachers do.  Not this year.  When the bell rang they sounded more like the starting gun to the upcoming marathon race I eagerly agreed to.

I have taught 7th grade Texas history for the last 13 years.  I know the subject, expectations and skill acquisition that is expected as each year progresses.  Students enter as babies and leave me little teenagers.  I know and love the teachers in my grade level.  They ran to my rescue when I was sick, comforted me when I lost my grandmother and saved me daily with passing period stories of 7th grade awkwardness (the antidote to any bad day.) They are my peeps.

In May I was offered an opportunity to teach with a woman who challenges me professionally, makes me think and grow.  (And I happen to adore her in every way.) I jumped at it.  It was in the same school...I would move 4 doors down the hall from my people.  Not a big change, or so I thought.  I should have known right away when people congratulated me on getting "promoted." I would cringe every time.  We are all on the same pay scale, how is moving 4 doors down a promotion? Did people really see those 13 years I spent in a job I loved as a demotion from this new opportunity?  Disheartened I tried to let it go.

My new BTB (best teacher buddy) and I met the Monday after school let out.  We were joined by her long time friend and our fellow 8th grade U.S. history teacher, (T-dog.)  We started with a deep conversation about our vision for teaching and how we saw that translating into what we did in our classroom.  We agreed that to meet the needs of the 21st century student we needed to make dramatic changes...all of us did.  Our vision statement: to provide engaging, innovating experiences everyday in a classroom that utilizes current researched methods. A quote became our focus and motto- "Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire." 

We looked at the district provided curriculum and really studied the standards. After painful hours of discussion we agreed on our driving question.  From there we decided on the assessments. We had discussions about letting our old routines and pet lessons go.  One day we would be super excited the next we would be nervous and anxious about so many changes all at once. Lucky for us those days were different for each of us.  When one would get worried the others would be there to talk us through it and remind us of what our bigger goal.  Some days we were not agreeable...that is the nice way to say it.  We would start looking to fall back into old safer patterns.  There was always one of us that would stop and ask the right questions to get us back on track.  There were tears, high-fives, waffles, more inservices than I have been to in a long time and experimenting with technology.  We bonded over Google docs and websites.  Each of us found a comfortable role we fit into to make a strong team.  Basically, it was a magical summer.

Then school started. It is nice to plan, but then the kids come, other teachers talk and beat you down with snide comments about the nerve of us trying to use the resources our building has to offer.  Our dream to team teach and spend every waking minute together fell apart after one day and 80 kids in a single room.  All plans and dreams for greatness are met with immediate speed bumps.  We expected them.  We didn't know they would hit us so fast and so many the first week of school.  

I was also caught off guard by the level of home-sickness I would feel.  4 rooms down might as well be a new planet. My best friend, sister really, is no longer across the hall.  No more making faces through the windows at each other.  And the precious little time we do have together we are surrounded by people wanting our attention for other things. I knew things would change...they always do. Joining a group/grade level is tough. I used to know where I fit in, but after this week I feel like I know more about where I am not fitting in.

The beauty of this magical summer though is we continue to talk it out. I know that they are there for me in this transition and I am there for them.

Our students are doing their first BIE pbl.  None of us have taken the formal training.  That was the only training we weren't allowed to take this summer.  Instead we were self trained. Two years in the same PLC, a tour of a New Tech High School and a single day training we are practically experts. We have traded in classroom rules for classroom and team norms.  We are working to limit our talk time and save it for one on one coaching instead. Our students are using "I like and I wonder" as the reflect on their learning and actions in class.  So far the students are excited. We are too.

Can't wait to see what wild adventures we run into for week two.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What about the map?

photo source
Have you ever been handed a map and asked where to go?  Contained in that breath is terror and complete energy all at once. Your fate and those seated in the car are wrapped up in the directions you decide to give.  This thrilling moment is what every August feels like for me.

I have the map, the training, the curriculum and the rule book are in my hands. When those students walk in it is all up to me to determine the direction we will go and how we will all feel about the journey.

For the last 13 years I have taught 7th graders. They walk in baby 6th graders...scared, terrified that all the rumors they have heard about being a 7th grader are true, "There is endless homework, we will make you write in cursive and the pile of projects will break your backs and buckle you at the knees."  Then they meet us...we aren't that scary of a group.

My school district, like many in the nation is in the middle of big changes.  Three years ago our new Superintendent started a process called, "Strategic design" with the goal of transforming the district from a good 'ol boys club to a modern learning community.  Change is painful.  3 years into the changes they are starting to make sense. This past May I was given an opportunity to move to 8th grade US history.  I am working with a friend who challenges me professionally and makes me think deeply about what I present and introduce to my students. 

It has not been an easy transition.    I know it is worth it because I have seen the map and I know the  journey will be powerful for me and my learners. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What is PBL?

I have never been a teacher that enjoyed standing in front of the class and preaching while the students dubiously take notes.  My voice never would hold for longer than a day of "preach" teaching.  And the student's attention was as shakie as my voice. Granted...I do love that 7th graders think I know all that there is to know about everything.  But they will think that regardless if I am preaching to them or at their side coaching them along.

My First Steps
When I first started teaching I took Kagan training for cooperative learning. It is a program that teaches structures that work with any lesson to get students moving and working together.  It is was a start.  I could see very early that students were more effective when they could talk and reason through a problem as a unit rather than alone.

The problem I ran into was the lessons that I was given were many times fancy worksheets. Stymied by the lack of resources and an administrative staff that preferred rows and silence I floundered a lot.  Sure I made them Indian tribes, racing pioneer families, a dinner party welcoming Stephen F. Austin, cattlemen looking to market their cows and a classroom government...but these were but highlights in a school year that lacked real purpose and connection to the outside world.  Never did I give them a chance to exercise imagination, connect to a global community, go back and correct things they did not understand or ask real questions then try with all their resources to find the answers. I never thought about it.

Project Based Learning
a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.
My school district asked for volunteers to act as a leadership team to train the district.  I signed up.  I like to know what is going on. Mom always calls it being nosey.  I signed up and for the next seven years worked as a curriculum designer reshaping our curriculum into the Design with the End in Mind model.  It was the best training I could have ever asked for from a district. As a teacher this focused my teaching on what goal I was teaching toward.  It taught me how to formulate questions to lead students to that goal.  I started as a writer for the district but as I trained other teachers on the method it became second nature.  It took my teaching to a new level.

I had the questions, I had the Kagan methods for grouping and I knew that for students to truly understand something they had to connect to it. The last piece of the puzzle came when I read the book Global Achievement Gap, by Tony Wagner.  

There it was.  The final pieces to what I was looking for.  I started to madly search for more information on the model that Tony Wagner spoke.  
photo source

It was not groups, or questions alone.  The students needed a tight combination of driving questions, a real audience, choice, reflection/revision and knowing why they needed to know.  All of those together are not an easy package to produce on a daily basis.  Creating a real significant PBL project means a ton of front loaded work. Strong questions are not easily written.  Mapping a project so the students don't get stuck and flounder requires planning and systems that act as their safety net.  

I am not an expert at this process yet. But I do have some advice to share: 
  • Students not used to choice become drunk at first with their own power. This will pass...but it is painful to watch. 
  • Giving students the opportunity to ask for help and your support will make everything better for both of you.  Give them a daily chance to ask for help, reflect on what they accomplished, and a chance to strategize for the next day.
  • When a project goes longer then you planned that is okay.  Schedules were meant to be changed.  
Final Thoughts
Growth as a teacher seems at times to stand still then has huge spikes.  Moving toward becoming a PBL teacher has been one of my biggest spikes in growth.  I continue to grow and will share it with you. 

What is the book or training that has meant the most to your teaching?  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Welcome, Now Let's get Loud!

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Come on in!  Pull up a plastic chair and let's talk.  

Regardless of where you are in your teaching career there are somethings you will notice.  
  • All of us hate change...some will act as though any slight change will threaten the existence of our careers and the future of America.  Usually they are wrong.  
  • Technology is tricky.  Some teachers are eager to try it out but they have to accept that you won't get the training and you will have to self teach.  The technology that you have if it works, and the network is not down the kids will love.  Be careful not to make high tech worksheets. The temptation is always there.
  • Administrators are weary.  The best things for the kids are difficult to check off a list.  Freedom in the classroom means there will be some teachers that don't get it.  They will try but they don't get it.  
  • Even though the system seems broken I love being a teacher!  
Why so loud?  
My entire teaching career I knew that my students did better when they could talk to one another.  We never sat in rows.  Well I tried to be normal...but it never lasted too long.  And yes I have been shushed by well meaning math teachers.  But we are learning here so sometimes we have to make some noise. It didn't take long for me to learn that rows were not my thing we needed groups so we could get louder. And if I was having fun so were they.  

This blog is a tribute and road map, maybe a life line to other teachers like me.  I welcome you and can't wait to meet you all.