Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Encouraging Risk Taking

A while back I asked my partner teacher, Tara Frederick to write a "Guest" blog post. She wondered what it should be about and thought like most, that she didn't have anything to share that people would want to read. I know that Tara is one of the best teachers I've ever seen. Her compassion for students and her knowledge of child development is incredible. She is the most thoughtful, kind, generous and insightful people I know. I'm lucky I get to share a classroom with her every day and you are lucky that you will have the opportunity to learn from her just from reading the blog post below. Enjoy! 

Encouraging risk-taking!
By, Tara Frederick

Kate and I are having an amazing time co teaching our 50 incredible students this year! She and I share the same passion for teaching and learning. We have encouraged each other throughout the years to share with the world what we do best and tell our story. I am honored to blog this week and share with you my thinking about taking risks in education! One thing Kate teases me about is that my “talent” is that I will try anything. And she is right!  I have been interested in creativity and the impact that creative teaching, or thinking can have on learning for some time. For me being creative or innovative is about trying new things and doing something differently….taking lots of educational risks!

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One thing many people find surprising is that I have been teaching 3rd grade for 17 years. Yes, you heard correct. I know that seems to many of you like an incredibly long time in one grade level! For me, not one year has been the same as the next. It has been a 17 year journey, becoming an expert of 8 and 9 year old behavior and learning. A journey to discover the best ways that children learn and gather every amazing tool and trick along the way. Although my personality and teaching style remain the same, I am a continual risk-taker with my practice. When I learn about something that can change my students lives or the way that they learn, I am first to jump in and try!

Now don’t think for a second that I am jumping in without confidence in what I am about to start! I am committed to researching and seeking educational opportunity for my students that allows them to reach their fullest potential. I am well equipped and planned for launching a new idea! I teach my students that risk taking and failure is a part of learning, as I share with them my personal investment in our class goals. One thing that you may be wondering about is how parents in my classroom feel if I am continually risk-taking.  Well, the answer for me is in the response to my communication. Parents are a part of our learning community. With a continual open line of communication, my families never feel like they are a part of a series of failed experiments, but rather a part of an incredible educational endeavor in which their children are thriving. They are well informed and I can articulate the importance behind every new initiative we take. The payoff is that I am able to meet the complex needs of all students and form relationships that support our learning at school.

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How do I do it? How do I reach beyond the security of the standards and venture new places in education without feeling overwhelmed and alone? There are a few things that I would share with you that keep me excited, educated and willing to take new risks in the classroom. I do not do this alone and by all means, I am nervous every time I launch something new! Here are a few things I never forget...

Involve Your Students and Families:
Learning about my students and their families is the key to structuring our learning environment. My students are different each year, why should I approach each year the same? As my students begin living in my classroom, I refocus and change according to their needs. This may mean I need to completely redesign my classroom, change the way that reading groups are running or completely change the flow of our day. Instead of thinking that my ideas have failed I look at it as a learning experience I need to embrace. My students are guiding my teaching!  Their needs and learning is taking front seat and they are taking charge of their learning!

Surround Yourself With Positive Risk-Taking Colleagues:
I have been in and out of many classrooms as a District Lead Mentor and the classrooms that stand out, have one commonality: they all take risks. Not only do the students OR teachers take risks, they take them together. Many new ideas come and go but I have made it my mission to surround myself with colleagues who inspire me to take that leap. Those who I trust will help lead to the success of my classroom. I am surrounded with amazing educators and am passionate about not re-creating, but learning from others. I educate myself through professional reading and take risks in ways that I know whole heartedly can make a difference. I continually reflect and seek advice from those trusted educators.

Student Choice:
I’m a huge advocate for Genius Hour and student choice in the classroom. I believe inquiry-driven learning experiences and projects allow students to have a say in their learning path. I know it can be risky at first. You’ll feel like maybe you’ve abandoned the curriculum (is that such a bad thing?). You’ll feel like you’ve given up some control (is that such a bad thing either?). However, what you’ve really done is allowed the students to motivate their own learning. It’s a risk for sure….but it is one worth taking.

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go." -- T.S. Eliot

I am not suggesting that you scratch that one lesson this week for a change. This is much bigger. These risks that I take aren’t really risks at all. Instead they are choices. Slowly at first…then more powerful. Do you want to keep doing things the same way with your class, or do you want to grow as a lead learner beside your students? Trust yourself as that amazing educator you are and go for it! Step out of your comfort zone and reach for greatness. I choose wisely and it has made a journey of 17 years in 3rd grade one that I will never forget.

If you want to know more about some of my risk-taking this year, check out Kate’s amazing documentation of our journey together!  She has been busy blogging about the most important risks we have been taking this year. Or you can check us out at the Ohio Educational Technology Conference in February!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Problem Solving and Dreaming of the Future

This week was big for The Light Bulb Labs! We watched 8 and 9 year olds become expert problem solvers. We watched them learn collaboration and perseverance. We watched them believe in the impossible. We watched "wonder" happen right before our very eyes.

Let me ask you this...do you think a 3rd grader in a public school setting can write computer program in Java Script? How about Python or Ruby? Do you know what these even are (it's okay, I didn't either until this week)? This week we celebrated the Hour of Code. An event that is organized by code.org. Here is what they have to say:

"The Hour of Code is a global movement reaching tens of millions of students in 180+ countries. It is a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics."

The thing is, the Hour of Code teaches so much more than computer science. When you walked into the Light Bulb Labs this week it was a total celebration of learning. Every day began with reading about a different computer language tied to a real life application and practice session. We used many resources from the Hour of Code to achieve this. The students worked in collaborative partnerships to debug and work through learning the new code language. The conversations that took place were incredible. For example, Caden shared: "At first our program totally didn't work. We had arms and bodies where we wanted the leg to go. We had to totally debug our program to figure out how to fix it but we got it! It was awesome!"

We had the opportunity to learn how our code skills can be used in real life by learning about the Raspberry Pi. This pocket size computer (around $35) could be HUGE in education. This small device comes with so many resources for the classroom. One of which, is the online tutorials for things like Making a Minecraft Photobooth. We were lucky enough to try this one out, with the help of one of our real life programmers on campus, Mr. Doug Jones. Do you know how excited students get when you use Minecraft in your classroom. If you have never tried it, you should. It allows you to see a whole different side of some of your students. Quiet kids become fearless leaders when they use a tool they are confident with. Check out this link to see even more resources for the Raspberry Pi. We are just beginning our journey with Raspberry Pi that kicked off this week, but our students were mesmerized!

We also had the opportunity to use our skills to show older students what we know. First, we taught fourth graders how to code. We looked at code.org tutorials, teaching them concepts like looping and debugging. We also looked at apps like Kodable, Hopscotch and Cargobot. We even played card games to learn about conditionals. One of the favorite activities though was creating Human Code, where partners would write programs for their buddies to put into action. Kids teaching to kids a skill is something magnificent to see. Not only were they applying their knowledge but they were growing their presentation, speaking and listening skills.


It wasn't just our students who were learning this week. Students were asked to study famous computer scientists outside of the classroom with their families. They were also expected to explain what we were learning about and share that knowledge with their families. Here is some of their feedback.

As if our week couldn't get any better, we wrapped it all up by having the competitive HS Robotics team come and share their adventures with us. They brought with them two NAO robots and the robot they built and competed with last year. They talked to our classes and several others about computer programming. They even let our students drive their robot and try the task they were given for last years competition. It was incredible!

One reason this week was so special is because our third graders do something we call "Code Academy" every Wednesday afternoon. Tara Frederick and myself use the free K-5 curriculum from code.org as well as many other resources like Bitsbox, Hopscotch, Scratch, LEGO EV3 software, Cargo Bot and Kodable. Every week, we challenge our students to use code and all they have learned from it. During this time we also ask them to become Makers in our classroom Maker Spaces. Committing this valuable classroom time took considerable thought but both of us would tell you that it is the best decision we have ever made. So really, Hour of Code was kind of our Superbowl:)

Maybe you took part in Hour of Code and maybe you didn't. I encourage you to pick one thing from today's blog to try out in your classroom. Explicitly teaching skills like collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking are just as important as teaching Common Core standards. I can't list for you every standard I met this week by completing the Hour of Code, but I can tell you that my students couldn't wait to get to school every day and most of their Hour of Code reflections shared their disappointment that they week was over. So for me, that's what really matters!

As always, I'm happy to share anything you read about or answer questions. A huge thank you to code.org for such an amazing week! Can't wait for #HourofCode next year!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I'll say it again and again...It's About Relationships

We are fresh off two intense weeks of Parent Teacher conferences and I can't help but smile when I think about it. That's right, I'm grinning from ear to ear. Not what you expected to hear? I'm not sure where these critical conversations got a bad wrap. Yes, we stay late...very late.  And yes, it is tiring (like having a newborn baby at home tiring). The thing is, these moments are crucial to developing strong relationships with the families of our students. It shouldn't be the first time you meet these special people. Remember, their babies visit our classrooms every single day. To have a successful school year, we need to be the best of partners. We don't have to see eye to eye on every topic but we need to keep the child as the focus of the conversation. So here are a few takeaways that I want to remember from this year's conferences:

1. Give more time than you are supposed to. No, it won't be easy and you will miss your own family like crazy. But...not feeling rushed gives both the teacher and the parents the chance to actually communicate with each other. Stay on schedule, but give more time...it will be worth it. At the end of each late night, my co-teacher Tara Frederick and I would look at each other and comment about how nice it was not to feel so incredibly rushed. It wasn't just us that felt that way, many of our families commented on how nice it was to be able to talk back and forth rather than rushing in for 15 minutes to have information spewed at you with no real dialogue.

2. Start the conference by honoring what the parents concerns are. We chose to start every conference by saying something like, "Tonight's time together is a chance for us to talk about your child. Any concerns, questions or general wonderings are welcome. I have a lot of information to share with you, but, you know most if not all of it already. So, let's just talk...about how amazing your child is." Many times the parents didn't have concerns and so we lead with their work samples and eventually the parent struck up a conversation. There were many though that had something specific they wanted to tell us. While most of those precious moments remain with Tara and I, it was so reaffirming to hear feedback from our parents that supported the work we are doing.

3. Tell your student how much you loved talking with their family.  Most students get really nervous for parent teacher conferences. Sometimes rightfully so, but most of the time there is no reason for the student to be nervous. I loved the face students gave me when I told them how much I loved talking with their parents. You could see their pride from ear to ear. I would give some kind of connection or compliment about the students family and you could see the school home connection strengthening.

There were so many special moments during the last two weeks. So many great conversations, so much relationship building and so much support for our students. So I'll say it again...relationships matter-how are you building relationships that support student learning?