Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Small Grouping as a Verb

A small group lesson is beautiful.  The focus!  The discussions!  The connections!  The honesty!  The learning!  The insight! Mathematically, however,  if a teacher is teaching 4 students in a small group, there are 20-30 other learners on their own.  Not great odds!  If the 20-30 ‘others’ are busy with, well, ‘busy’ work, that defeats the beauty of the small group.   I thought, brainstormed, tried, thought some more… and asked the experts (kids, of course).  Our goal was meaningful learning experiences that could be carried out independently. None of these suggestions are magic, but together it worked like magic.  

Here is where all of your salesmanship skills come in to play.  You are selling the Learning Process.  The Joy of Learning.  The Growth Mindset.  Get your pitch ready and be ready to revisit this topic often.  Get those kids to believe that learning is power, learning is meaningful, learning is sexy.  Well, they don’t like that S word… maybe COOL?  Sell it!  It may take a week or two, longer for the Goofballs that I’ll mention later. Talk about the excitement of learning.  Once students buy into the learning, growing concept, behavior issues settle down and engagement goes crazy.  

For the Others (those 20-30 not in a small group), I worked at designing engaging work that kept their focus.  When a concept required repetition, I added a QR code check, or a partner check.  Variety is key, so I kept a list of TYPES of learning experiences while I planned:  technology, games, real life, partner, writing, literature, project, videos, puzzles, projects, challenges, research, mentoring.  Sometimes we get into a rut, so the list helped me stray from boring.

Easy equals boring in a kid brain.  They love the ‘just the right’ challenge.  Since that sweet spot is different for every kid, I offered choice of ability.  When there are 20-30 Others in your classroom, you want to make sure they are able to work independently.  I used a MENU method with three columns - MASTERY, APPLY, EXTEND.  Students who hadn’t mastered the concepts worked in MASTERY and then into APPLY.    Those brilliant students who are smarter than the teacher spent most of their time in EXTEND, where the could go deeper with the concepts.  Designing learning that takes a student deeper is a great teacher challenge!  BTW, I like the word ‘Mastery’ because there is dignity in mastering the concepts.  

My small groups were strategically random.  I called 3-5 students around my table for our focused lesson.  From an outsider, it would seem that I randomly called up students.  I sat where I could see the whole class, of course.  In a perfectly behaved classroom, I would choose by ability level.  I started with low and if a kiddo was struggling, I would have him/her stay through the next group lessons  (and they are magically the one who ‘got it’ first!).  If there was chatter in the classroom, I chose a chatter-er and left their partner-in-crime to work independently.  If I noticed a student was staring off into space, I chose that kiddo. I could innocently ask, “What are you working on." to get them back on track.  

How many of you teachers have checked your amazon order, Facebook status, or Instagram account during a workshop?  No? Well, then were you the one leaning over to tell your friend about your weekend escapade!  As adults, we would be hard pressed to be silent for hours on end and day after day.  When I would hear kids chatting, I gave them a mixture to connect.  These are great skills that they should be learning.  Yes, there is work to be done, but I was in this for the long game.  I also kept a sweet sounding chime for the times when the chatting was to much.  Overall, the class had a low murmur! 

One routine that I stuck to religiously was modeled for me in my early days of teaching.  Before we set out on the ‘workshop’ portion of our class.  I asked two questions, “If someone walked in, what would our classroom look like?  If someone walked in, what would our classroom sound like?"  It seemed to focus our behavior and the expectation came from the students.  It took less than 60 seconds.

My students wanted to have access to me while I small grouped, so we implemented the EMPTY CHAIR.  I always kept an empty chair for those kiddos who needed my help.  

Most classes have one or a few goofballs who have difficulty working on their own.  I gave them options.  We love all love options!  They could sit at the SOLITUDE DESK so they could focus, they could sit near me (next to the EMPTY CHAIR), or they could partner with of my choice.  They usually stayed close to me.  I showered them with positive reinforcement until they built up their stamina to work on their own.   Come up with your own options and make it sound like you are giving the ‘GIFT’ of options.

If they Others are engaged in their awesome learning experiences and I am in the middle of a great small group lesson, no one likes to be interrupted if noise gets loud.  Stopping each time the noise level increased would stop the flow of learning, so we incorporated a sweet sounding chime.  The chime was meant to bring the noise to the level of murmuring that we love.  

Hmmm!  With 20-30 Others in my classroom, I had to come up with a plan for students who needed help.  We established that collaboration was part of learning.  Our classroom was focused intently on learning, and none of us learn in a vacuum.  It was interesting to watch the allies that were formed in the name of Learning.  Imagine yourself in a college Physics class where the teacher made you sit at your desk without talking.  Scary?  Now imagine a class where you could work on your own if you got it, but could work with a friend or that brainy kid you don’t know well.  

Choice based classrooms are not a free for all.  Not every student completes the same work.  I never used the word ‘quota’, but I thought it.  If I had fifteen assignments on my menu for the week, we would discuss the number of assignment would reasonable amount to finish.   We discussed this as a class so they had more ownership with the accountability.  I kept a checklist.  If a student did not manage their time well, I gave them extra time during the day - elective time, recess, lunch, before school.  Accountability helps students focus.  Time management is a skill most adults struggle with, what a great opportunity to teach time management.  

Ease up on grading.  We are used to grading everything!  Shift to just grading some things.  I once challenged my fifth graders to memorize the state capitals.  I studied all winter break.  I KNEW those capitals!  Sitting down to take that test was crazy stressful.  Heart beating.  Any sound made me lose track of my thoughts.  I shushed everyone so I could concentrate.  South Carolina!  Columbus? Columbia!  I missed two.  I shifted my teaching practice to allow for learning experiences that were meant for learning

Can you imaging if a toddler was graded ever time he stumbled?  What if we corrected every mispronounced word?   When you 20-30 students you want to work independently, let them have some learning experiences.   When I eased up on graded, kids bought into the learning process.

Most, almost all, students love having choice and find empowerment in being able to have some say in the course of their day.  For a few, choice is HIGHLY STRESSFUL.  When I encountered my first kiddo who was experiencing anxiety with choice, I was shocked!  “ Do you want me to choose for you?”  “Yes.”  In utter dismay, I made her an agenda.  At first I thought my choice idea was a failure, but the light bulb came on - It occurred to me that this is true differentiation.   

Not every day or activity was great.  In the true spirit of growth mindset, I asked my students for daily feedback.  I was able to model what learners do - reflect, adjust, try again.  They also analyzed their learning process.  Simple questions with a lot of listening.  They became owners the process and aware of their own process.  They saw that not everyone sees the world as they do.  

Which activity helped the most? 
Which activity was most engaging?  (engagement=learning, right?)
What experience seemed useless, easy, boring, difficult?
What do you do when struggle?
How would you tweak our activities?  
What type of activity helps you learn?

Monday, December 3, 2018


We all know that moving is important for kids.  The research of movement affecting brain activity is endless.  As I teacher, I worked at incorporating movement.  I tried brain breaks, ten minute recess breaks, video dances, but all of these interrupted the flow of our classroom.  The solution came from designing my classroom with authentic movement.

My classroom was a Menu Based Classroom so kids could move from learning experience to learning experience at their own pace.  If they needed to sharpen their pencil, they got up and sharpened their pencil.  If they needed help from another student, they got up and walked to their friend for help.  Sometimes they stood while working.  Movement was 'as needed'.  Some students don't need to move as much and some do.  Movement became a natural aspect of our class.

My seating arrangement also contributed to genuine movement.  When the alternative seating options were presented to me, I jumped on that band wagon as quickly as possible.  Seating options allowed for kids to move more naturally, and with choices, kids chose the best seating for their movement.

-bean bags
-bar stools
-chairs with wheels
-spools (wooden spools that kids turned sideways so they rocked - and cheap!)
-cushions with coffee table
-wooden stools with wheels. 

We had to establish rules for our seating.  Student chose seats on Monday and owned that property for the week.  If there was an open seat and they wanted to change, they could.  Seating was not a mode of transportation.  Some of my options could be used to cruise across the classroom, but that was NOT an option.  Haha!

My behavior problems virtually diminished and engagement increased.  One of my favorite stories is having a student who had checked out of the academic process at second grade.  In my class, he chose the cushion and often watched the lesson almost laying down.  It was a shift for me to think this was 'okay'.  He was listening and when he curled his legs up on the cushion and worked on the coffee table... he worked!  He became an avid learner and member of our class.  I attribute it to having options of seating and movement.

One of my great teacher friends is NOT a bean bag type of teacher.  She incorporated alternative seating with grouping chairs differently.  Partners,  Groups.  Solitude.  This offers choice and some movement as well.

Try it!  Go to yard sales, ask for donations, post your quest on Facebook.  It doesn't have to be costly!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

GENIUS HOUR... what is it?

So Genius Hour is now a 'thing' in schools, which is a movement that I joined as quickly as I could!  I dove in by giving my students an hour per week and we worked out the logistics as time unfolded.  However, like I do most things, my clarity came as I went through the process.  The 'What is Genius Hour' came as I analyzed my students spending their time being authentic learners.  Here is my clarity of the importance of incorporating a genius hour.

Adults, who are life long learners, engage in 'genius hours' which adds to their life experience.  I started thinking of my life. 

-My trip to Cuba took extensive research, planning, talking to experts, and had an end goal in sight. 
-When I built a shed, I had to research the project step by step.  I visited building sites to study the process of building.  My end goal was to build a shed. 
-Running a marathon was an overwhelming goal. Not only did it take training, it took planning, research, and talking to people who had run marathons.  My goal was to run a marathon!

When I asked my students what projects their parents engaged in that took learning and research, they had some awesome genius hours!

-brewing beer at home (haha!)
-raising chickens
-planting a garden
-writing a book about their sister's illness

This conversation helped my students wrap their heads around the concept of a project that required research and learning.  Generating ideas that take authentic learning is a challenge and the possibilities are endless!  Because the types of end products are so different, they style of research also varies.  There isn't a cookie cutter method to getting your students to an end product. 

Give them time, have then set a goal for an end product, and support their efforts in deep learning.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

My Journey through from WHOLE GROUP to CENTERS to ZONES

Like most of us, whole group instruction is what I knew from experience.  In studying education we were taught to write lesson plans for whole group.   I loved it.  I loved being the star of the show with the challenge of keeping the class engaged with eye contact and nods.

My first aha of, 'Oh, this may not be working', was in my tutoring groups when I realized they didn't learn the stuff I taught so beautifully.  And, of course, they didn't speak up and say, 'I just don't get this'.  .  . but they did speak up in the tutoring group.

So I tutored anyone who would come before school, after school, or even during lunch.  We had great conversations, they could do the work in front of me, and I loved the 'Oh, now I get it!' light bulb moments.  There were some problems.  I was running myself ragged with teaching WELL beyond the school day.  Kids were exhausted.  Well, the kids who came were exhausted.  There was another group who just didn't have it to show up before or after school.  They are kids for goodness sake!  But if small group worked, why not do it DURING my class time.

I started centers so I could have that magical sweet-spot of teaching with small groups.  I created organized spreadsheets with groups organized by their abilities, attention spans, and personalities.  By moving furniture around, I had areas for awesome learning.  Areas for computers,  interactive learning games, quiet practice, and background literature.  My table was situated so I could see all of the action while I worked with my small group.  We set the timer and when the buzzer buzzed, students moved to their next center. The small group utopia had been solved.  It was like classroom ballet... kinda.  When it came to independent work I had the Goldilocks problem - too hot or too cold.  And I am not sure how well you know kids, but not all of them work at the same speed, so that buzzer thing was a problem.  It needed some adjusting, some tweaking, and just some re-thinking.

Menus were not new to me, but I had never thought of making my whole class a giant menu... but that is what I did.  My goal was to train my students to make wise academic choices so they were challenged at 'just the right' level, but also had a choice in the TYPE of assignment.  Since students do not work at the same pace, and some could have wonderful quality if they were given ample time, I gave them an entire week to work on the menu.

The menu had three categories (review, apply, extend) and I used painter's take to separate my white board into these categories.  Within each category were 4-6 assignments with some variety (games, technology, paper practice, partner work).  I numbered the assignments in each category.  Review 1, Review 2, Review 3.  Magnets were used to display the assignments.  If there wasn't a paper assignment, I just wrote the assignment using dry erase marker.  Each category (review, apply, extend) had a small file box that held the copies for the students.  It wasn't fancy or super cute, but kids LOVED it!

We took a short pre-assessment each Monday, so students could gauge their understanding of our focus content.  It took some training for them to realize some needed time to review and some were ready for extending.  Our goal was learning and improving.  My kids who flew through assignments were now truly laboring on some deeper work.  My sweet, low kids felt comfortable taking time to truly understand the work.  The feel in the classroom was like one of those Google offices with a low-key hustle and bustle. I was ecstatic because I had time for my small groups!!!

At first kids were trying to get through ALL the work, which was nearly impossible.   They were stressed!!  In true hippie style, I shifted saying 'Do what you can.'   Okay, I know, you could see that flaw!  After another week, we settled on a minimum.  Each week I would set a minimum number of assignments (12 out of 15) they would have to complete by Friday. 

So how do you gather grades when kids are making choosing their own educational adventure?  With my dry erase marker, I starred two or three assignments and these were mandatory.  I graded those assignments.  Students kept their work in a pocketed folder and handed ALL of their work in on Friday, which I looked over but did not grade it all.  I only graded the assignments that I starred - and I starred the work that gave me the best insight into their understanding.  We worked on a culture of genuine, authentic learning for the sake of improving.  Awesome work was displayed, so quality was valued on some of the work that was not graded.

Hmmm, well, I did have a few kiddos who were just not 'into' genuine, authentic learning.  That student stayed close to me.  While I had my small group, I also had this cutie working next to my side. There was lots of prompting and praise, but soon they saw the value of freedom to choose and work at their own pace.

My Surprises
The biggest surprise was the natural collaboration that took place.  Students helping each other, working together, teaching, small-grouping.  When I focused on my small group they were working to help each other out.

As a kid, I would have LOVED having choice and being able to choose challenging assignments.  One student thoughtfully approached me saying that the choice was just too stressful.  What?  I was shocked, but in the true spirit of differentiation, I made a schedule for her.  I chose the work for her assigned days that it was due.  She was happy!

As time went on, I played with my weekly Zones.  During the World Series, all of our assignments had a baseball theme.  One week they had to do all of the work WITH a partner.   When our school ran low on paper, we had a paperless week.  Some of my brainiac students asked if they could design a week of Zones.  I opened up my resources and let them choose the assignments.

This system, as you could guess, would work beautifully with a higher-level gifted class.  And admittedly, I started with that class first.  Not long after, I rolled it out for my special ed class.  And, yes!  they loved it.  Sometimes it is difficult to know how to best utilize a special ed co-teacher.  With Zones, the teacher was able to seamlessly work with the students who needed some scaffolding.

So many of our behavior problems come from forcing whole group instruction or a one-size-fits-all curriculum.  Imagine adults sitting through a daily training for six hours where we could not talk.  We would chat a bit and check our text messages and even shop on Amazon.  I didn't allow shopping on Amazon, but I did allow some small talk.  The small talk usually resulted in collaboration.   Behavior problems virtually diminished.

One day my principal brought a group of principals from the district to see our Zones in action.  They watched for an hour while these kids ebbed and flowed through their work.  It is not the silent classroom or one where the teacher is the center of the stage.  In the educational field, there are buzz words of differentiation and choice, but no one has really told teachers HOW make it work.  These principals ended up sending teams of teachers to watch my classroom - seeing is believing. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Literally, OUTSIDE the Box

I submitted an idea for CAST this week - Literally Outside the Box.  My plan is to present all of my outdoor lessons.  I LOVE taking my kids outside for awesome learning. I have gotten so much better over the years at making the outside experience an impactful learning adventure.  Kids love it and I love making science real.  When kids can make connections from the real world to the science I have to teach, we have won!  

I am also going to include games that I have adapted and created. Here is my version of Oh Deer! from Project Wild.


More is coming!


One of my colleagues said that I love NEW.  I love new ideas.  I love a new format of my class.  I love a new seating arrangement.  I love new warm-ups.  At first I thought it was because I wasn't focused.  I've come to embrace my creativity.  I am always looking for something NEW.  A new way. My warm ups change every two or three weeks.  My students are never bored.  They also embrace creativity and my fresh little classroom.  

Here is my PREZI that I have presented at NSTA and CAST.  


Spiraled Warm-Up:  BRAIN WORK!

Science Coloring Book- HOMEWORK!

Science Coloring Book

Last year I chalk painted some doodling canvases of some of my hardest concepts to teach.  They hung in my classroom on the side wall.  I was going for the coffee shop chalk doodling.  When the subjects come up and I am teaching away with some lab or activity, inevitably one of my kiddos says, "Oh, I already knew this from your picture."  Or they will have a huge aha moment, "So this is like your painting!"  I thought it was so funny (interesting, poignant) that pictures could teach so much.  

I sat down over the winter break and doodled my whole curriculum.  My kids saw some of my drafts and have been begging for their own coloring book.  

I used my Coloring Book  for homework this year.  With a bunch of printing and three staples, each kiddo had their own book.  The homework assignment was to color (or highlight) one page of their choice.  When they arrived to class the next day, they traded their book with another student.  The 'in class' assignment was to look over their friend's coloring page and write a summary.