Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Trust in what you know...

I'm struggling this week. It might be because of the time change. It might be because of a short week. Or it might be knowing that Spring Break begins in just a few days. Or...if I'm being honest, I have a bad case of the testing blues.

We have been blessed with a wonderful student teacher. He brings a different lens to our classroom and allows Tara and I to continue to grow as we work to prepare one of tomorrow's teachers. After sitting with us through a long week of Parent Teacher Conferences (where we saw 47 out of 51 families in a week-more about that in a future post), this fresh face to education wrote the following letter to our students:

Dear Class,
As you already know, next week you will take the MAP test. We know how hard you have worked, but there is something very important you must know.
The MAP test does not assess all of what makes you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you like we do, and certainly not the way your families do.
They do not know that some of you speak two languages, or that you love to sing or write code. They have not seen your natural talent for creating amazing inventions. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them, that your laughter can brighten the darkest day, or that your face turns red when you feel shy. They have not seen you move from curiosity to genius. They do not know that you participate in sports, wonder about the future, or sometimes have trouble focusing. They do not know that you are kind, trustworthy, and thoughtful...and every day you try to do your very best work.
The scores you will get from these tests will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. These tests do not define you. There are many ways of being smart. You are smart! You are enough! You guys are the light that brightens the Light Bulb Labs and you are the reason we are happy to come to school and learn with you every day. So, in the midst of all these tests, remember that there is no way to “test” all of the amazing and awesome things that make you special.
All we ask is that you do your very best work and do not give up. You are rock stars and you are amazing students.

Your Teachers,

Mrs. Frederick, Mrs. Thoma, & Mr. Staggs

When he shared it with Tara and I, we did a lot of reflection. You see, all of the tests we give, we know they have value in some ways. But in others, they unnecessarily cause overwhelm and concern for the parents of our amazing students. We spent many of our 1-1 conferences reviewing numbers because, rightfully so, that is what their parents were worried about. They got a letter, from the state, telling them a number and a blanket statement about what their 8 year old knows. We've been working with their children for 7 months and have pages and pages of notes and information about the growth we see and where we are headed next with each child. This is important to them, it is. They are excited to hear the anecdotes about how their child spends their days. But they are so worried about these numbers, even when they fight like crazy to pretend that they aren't. So...I was compelled to follow Mr. Staggs letter, with a letter to our parents:

Dear Parents of the Amazing Light Bulb Lab Students,

  First and foremost, we want to thank you for sharing your children with us. We recognize and respect that your child spends more hours awake with us in a day then you will get to see them awake at home. We don't take this lightly. We spend hours planning every moment of their day and monitoring their smiles and "thinking faces". We make a million changes as we observe what is working for your son or daughter and what isn't. To be honest, during the school year, there are more pictures of your children and our learning on our phone, than of our own children. We learn what makes them laugh, cry and giggle. We push them when they need it and we remind them to clean up after themselves (sound familiar). We make sure that they are safe and happy at school because we know that they will not be able to do their best if we don't take care of these two things first.

We know what a special year 3rd grade is. It's the last of the early primary years. We strive for every second of this final year in early childhood to be a moment where they will fall in love with learning. We know all about the research for what must be accomplished by the end of this year. We know this is our big chance to make them see what is so special about school. We have in our sights what next year will bring for them in their intermediate elementary years. We know how the shift in departmentalizing will rattle them at first and then challenge them in new and exciting ways. We know it all. Which is why, we spend so much time thinking about your children. Planning for their days at school. Studying them at every moment to learn what will hook them.

And then we give them test after test. Please don't mistake what I am saying. There is value in making sure our students achieve the skills necessary to move forward in their education. But I want you, no I'm begging you, to remember that your child is so much more than just the number that gets reported to you on a bar graph. If you want to know about your learner, ask me. I'll tell you a funny story about how they were creating a model of their house in Tinkercad and then they 3D printed 8 years old. If you could have seen the pure joy and elation this success brought to won't show on a test, but I can tell you all about it. Or maybe you'd like to talk about how in small math group, your child just explained the entire process for multiplying two digits by one digits to the entire math group. But that isn't how the computer will ask her to show what she knows. Maybe I'll get the chance to show you the invention they prototyped that will help others who need a new type of cast that is easier to keep dry and not get stinky. You won't find that on a test. Or my favorite, maybe you'll listen to 51 kids share what they are passionate about. So passionate in fact that they talk your ear off for as long as you'll let them, and even attempt to follow you into the bathroom because they just can't contain the excitement about their learning. Sadly, the test won't ask them about the Porsche car company, Stephan Curry or Gymnastics.

You see, your children have learned so much more than I could have ever dreamed possible. It just may not come out on every test they take. I'm not teaching them to take tests, they will get so much practice taking tests over their years in public education that I don't worry or doubt for a moment that they didn't grow that 6 RIT points they needed. They are 8. They should focus on falling in love with learning. The rest will fall into place as they grow and develop into the Genius' I see already.

To be fair, I want to say again, that these tests do have many benefits and I do use them to guide my instruction. They are a piece to making sure I'm on track with your child. I just want you to know that I did my very best for your child, the same way that you have done your very best. But they are 8, and this number does not come close to explaining what growth your child has made this year. If you have concerns about that...let's chat! I've got hours of learning to share with you!

With love from part of your child's village,

Mrs. Thoma

And so those small steps brought me back to reality, but not before I took a moment to think of myself and all the other teachers who may have the test taking blues.

Dear Rock Star, Hard Working, Life Changing, Dream Facilitator,

Hey...I know you are struggling right now. Hang in there. These kids need you. This test does not tell you what kind of teacher you are. I know it's easy to put on that brave face with your students and dance and cheer to get them pumped up. I get that its exhausting to worry about what the results will reflect on your teacher evaluation. But here's the truth, although your students scores will account for 50% of your overall teacher effectiveness rating, only YOU know what kind of teacher you really are. You know your kids as if they were your own children. So remember that some of your students are still learning how to take these tests and don't lose sight of their brilliant mind. Be okay that it moved you down on the rating scale-as long as you know you took that student to a new level this year, let that be enough. Don't spend so much time worrying that this public record will look like you didn't work hard enough to raise test scores and instead relish the ah-ha's, the "I did it's" and the epic failures that turned into successes. Real learning doesn't come in a neat package that moves exactly the way it should. Remember above all else, that you got into this job to change lives, so forget the test and get back to that work!

Your Fellow Life Changer

Phew! I'm starting to feel a little better and I hope you will get out of the test taking blues and gear up for the powerful learning that takes place every day. Tests are here to stay (for a while anyway) so be sure to take care of yourself and keep your priorities straight. We have a lot of kids counting on pick yourself up and remember that standardized tests do not tell the whole picture of your students growth or your teaching! Use these tools to reflect, make changes and move on! This is an opportunity for growth if we choose to look at it that way!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Bringing a zoo to YOU!

How do you bring standards to life so that your students are so excited about what they are learning...that they can't sleep or eat without thinking about it? do Genius Hour! However, in being realistic, I realize that I can't do Genius Hour every day all day (although I'm working on a plan for that too). In the real world, we have to combine studying things students love with finding a way to help students fall in love with what our state standards require us to teach.

Insert virtual zoo here! That's right a virtual zoo. Any idea what I'm talking about? It's okay, most people wouldn't know either. Since January, students in the Light Bulb Labs have been working on
creating a sort of "virtual zoo". A zoo that could be brought to life anywhere. We began this exploration by thinking about what we know about the word "virtual" (which was close to nothing) and the word "zoo". After a major ideation session, we were ready to look for common themes. Here are just a few of the items we came up with.

A virtual zoo should:
     -Have a variety of animals
     -Show different habitats where animals live
     -Be beautiful
     -Be fun for kids and adults
     -Teach visitors about animals and habitats
     -Have "kid" things to do (they did not love finding out there was no petting zoo)

Upon completing or list, we began diving into an intense six weeks of studying everything we could about Life Sciences. We met all of Ohio's New Learning Standards for Life Sciences in Grade 3 plus a few outside our grade band of study. We used tools like Brain Pop, Magic Treehouse Books, Zoobook Magazines, Non Fiction texts, National Geographic Kids websites, webcams and many, many more. We became experts first in habitats that included, a Non Fiction informational poster as well as a classroom made diorama all while practicing what it is like to truly collaborate. Next, we taught each other what we had learned at a Silent Museum within our classroom.

We read various types of book both Fiction and Non-ficition to develop our reading skills, as well as learn about various animal species. These books took us on Artctic Adventures with Balto, to transporting in a Treehouse to the prairie, then back again to the story of a unique and special "Wolf" and even taught us about perserverance and struggling to surive with one of our favorite dogs, Squirrel. While completing this rigorous work, students kept track of their work on their own calendar agendas and completing many literacy activities including a character traits book discussion. 

One of the most exciting parts of this adventure was the day students chose their very own animal to become an expert on. Boy oh boy, was it a nerve wracking day watch student after student select animals that I have never even heard of! How will I help them research I wondered? I should have calmed my fears that day by remembering that I'm not in charge...they are. They found everything they needed to complete a five paragrahing informational report about every one of these curious creatures. To make this task seem a little less daunting to our 8 year olds, who only recently discovered the purpose of a single paragraph, we introduced topics of study during our Writer's Workshop. For example, they researched the habitat, diet and predators and then wrote one paragraph about those. Before we knew it, they task of 5 paragraphs was complete and the sense of accomplishment was over flowing. In addition to writing about their animal, they also had to paint a portrait of their animals habitat as well as create a 3D model of their animal to display at the zoo.

Throughout this experience, we were integrating technology in many ways. To create a more authentic "Zoobook" magazine, we used an app called PicCollage to create images of our animals. We then used those images and our Google Docs of our animal writing to create books in the app Book Creator. This amazing app creates beautiful books that can be read on any ePub reader! In addition, and by far my favorite part was creating Augmented Reality using an app called Aurasma. The students chose "trigger" objects which launched a video of them telling about their animal and when tapped, linked to their Google doc of their animal writing. It was incredible!

As if all of that was not enough, we needed an authentic audience. Who loves! So we invited a few first grade classes to enjoy our virtual zoo between their Carnival of the Animal rehearsals. At our virtual zoo, 3rd graders were partnered with 1st graders to complete a zoo ticket. This ticket required them to move through five stations. 

1. Make-Make your favorite animal out of playdoh
2. Learn-Learn about 3 new animals in our zoo using the Aurasma app
3. Watch-Watch animals in their natural habitat and take sketch notes
4. Read-Read eBooks about your favorite animals and graffti our garage door with new facts
5. Art-Color animal fact sheets to add to our zoo or take home
The students had a blast! It was difficult to tell who was having more fun or who was leading whom. Either way, there was a ton of cross grade level learning and a wonderful opportunity to share the hard work we had completed. Since this event was our big culminating event, we wanted to make sure our families had the chance to celebrate their child's work. So we took all our trigger images and the links to our ePub books and are currently creating a "Zoobook" that will head home with our students... so that they can take their "virtual zoo" anywhere!

As we do with every unit, we ended with a time of quiet reflection and thoughtfulness. It's always my favorite part of the project. To hear what students thought went well and where we can improve never fails to amaze me. Overall, this was a total success and I know that our students were passionate learners who were studying things they love...and at the end of the day, shouldn't that be what school is all about?