Monday, November 3, 2014

Breaking Out of One-Size-Fits-All Instruction

In my last post, I shared about Science teacher Kari Sherman's inspiration to create a tiered lesson for her students on the concept of photosynthesis.  Today I had the opportunity to visit Kari's classroom and see it in action.  It's noteworthy that the physical environment of Kari's classroom speaks volumes.  You can see that Kari clearly posts the classroom objectives and outlines specific directions for students.  Another element really struck me about her room, however.  Her bulletin boards for motivation and fast-finishers immediately told me two things about Kari.  At her core, she believes all kids can succeed, and there's always more science to learn.  We're never done learning! What does your environment communicate?

Once the directions were outlined, students started exploring the content.  It was pretty interesting to watch every single student engage with the content the entire class period and an array of conversations take place without a spoken word.  Just before class started, Kari told me she decided to add a padlet wall for students to be able to add resources, questions, etc.  Now this is what we call crowdsourcing! 

As I observed students choose their path to understanding, I was struck by the variety of student selection.  Kari's TACKK outlined different ways for students to enhance their understanding of photosynthesis.  Some students chose the reteaching option, while many chose the "more practice" option, and a few selected the most difficult option.  I'm left wondering how the student learning would have been different if there had not been more than one way to process the information.  Kari's lesson provided a manageable and engaging way to break away from one-size-fits-all learning!

For more information about this lesson, you can contact Kari @MrsSherman_LHS!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Learning from Each Other: A Learning Lab in Action

Teaching can be an incredibly isolating job.  Many teachers cherish their team collaboration time and are connecting with other educators through social media, but it's rare that teachers have the opportunity to observe one another.  As a high school coach, I have the awesome opportunity to be in classrooms constantly.  Of course, teachers specialize in different content areas, courses, and even grade levels, but there is still so much that can be learned by observing a colleague.  We have more similarities than we do differences!

A few weeks ago, I was in Charity Stephen's classroom and saw a tiered assignment in action. Charity had created this fantastic playground for her students.  All students were engaged, and every student was working at their readiness level.  I was immediately struck by two things:
1. There was no stigma for doing different activities in her classroom.  Some students were working on advanced-level work, while others were in the novice stages. 
2.  Many students were choosing to complete the advanced-level work, rather than take the easy way out.  
My immediate thought was MORE PEOPLE HAVE TO SEE THIS IN ACTION! 

Thus, our first LHS Learning Lab was born!  Charity graciously agreed to arrange another tiered assignment and allow teachers to observe.  I invited staff with this LEARNING LAB FLYER.  About ten teachers participated throughout the morning and we used this LEARNING LAB PROTOCOL to guide our conversations. Check out Charity's blog post for info on her lesson and her reflections.

Throughout the morning, teachers engaged in great conversation as they reflected upon teaching and learning.  Here are some of the highlights from teachers: 
  • "It's great to see how it works to differentiate within a single lesson.  I often think of differentiation as something you have to plan for within an entire unit.  This makes it doable!"
  • "It's interesting to see how well students that I struggle with in my class are working in Charity's class.  Perhaps if I try some of these ideas, I would see different results."
  • "The way Charity talks to students always allows them choice."
    • You'll want to take notes.  Do you want to use paper or Google Docs?
    • When you're ready to get fancy, try the mastery level.  When you're ready to get really fancy, try the advanced level." 
My favorite part of the experience was that Science teacher Kari Sherman was able to apply the idea in her own classroom within 24 hours.  Here is the tiered lesson she created the very next day!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Formative Assessment Ideas for the Classroom

Today our teachers had the option to gather together during their plan period to discuss some ideas for integrating formative assessment in the classroom.  Of course, we bribed them with some yummy Halloween treats, but the goal was to engage in conversation about practical ways to formatively assess learning. To get the conversation rolling, teachers had some time to dig into this digital flyer I created.  
Click HERE to access the flyer. 
There was so much energy throughout the day as teachers reflected on the strategies and shared new ideas for engaging students and monitoring understanding.  A tremendous amount of reflection occurred using a super simple format! 

My favorite part of the day was how much learning I did as teachers shared ideas about what works in their classrooms. 

Special Education teacher Matthew Estep told me about Pear Deck, which is a student response system similar to Infuse Learning or Socrative.  What I like is that it presents in slides and saves in your Google Drive. Genius!

Math teacher Erin Ramsey shared My Favorite No, a great way to address student misconceptions and celebrate that mistakes are okay connected with daily exit tickets. 

Science teacher Robert Marquardt shared this great graphic organizer that provides students a method to reflect on their thinking.

This was a fantastic day of collaborating and generating ideas about how to monitor student learning and adjust instruction.  Feel free to share your ideas for formative instruction in the comments section below!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Getting Kids to Write Well - What Works?

Last week I had the opportunity to work with our freshmen teachers to think about ways to develop writing skills in our students.  I referenced the Writing Next report to focus our efforts on research-based strategies that work with student writers and curated with some practical ideas in the classroom.  I'd love to hear what writing strategies work in your classroom!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Thank You to Students of Room 602

To the students of Mrs. Burnett,

Used with Permission - Image Source
Today I feel hopeful for the future.  I can't thank you enough for welcoming me into your class over the past couple weeks.  Watching your expressions as you absorbed the performances of Sarah Kay, Clint Smith,  and Carvens Lissaint , and analyzed what makes a speech powerful, a message heard, an audience connect was priceless. When we began, Mrs. Burnett told you that people often doubt the ideas and messages of our youth. The past two days we were able to witness the power of your voices and that you all truly have amazing things to say.

Your willingness to think and rethink how to craft your message gives me hope that you will realize getting it right the first time isn't always a good thing.  The bravery you showed as you share deeply personal stories about your experiences with overcoming the wounds of bullying, supporting loved ones through cancer, moving on despite regrets, and seizing opportunities for success gives me hope. It gives me hope that you will be empathetic, that you will be warriors, that you will make a difference.

The questions you ask give me hope that you will bring perspective and conviction to the challenges of our world.  Jaden asked, "What's the deal with always have money for war, but not for education?" My challenge to you is to find a platform to ask that question beyond this classroom.

The wisdom you share gives me hope.  Your voices reminded us that sometimes "the biggest bully is yourself," that "luck and success aren't the same thing," that 3 words can change your life so "appreciate every minute." If you combine your wisdom about life with the kind of wisdom found in books, you can be a tremendous force for good in this world.

Thank you for sharing your voices with me.

Mrs. Wickham

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Do You Know About the Secret Sauce?

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Last year, I had the opportunity to visit Nexus Academy, a blended learning high school in Ohio. The founder explained to me that "data is the secret sauce. We can get real-time data about what kids understand and we are small enough to take action on the information.  That is what makes us different."  Today I just witnessed an amazing opportunity in a classroom, and it so SIMPLY leveraged the secret sauce!

Science teacher Kathy Moburg has partnered with me to think about how we can use digital tools to improve instruction and increase student feedback.  Kathy has an amazing scientific mind and wanted to start thinking about how Google Forms could help her address learning needs of her students. Kathy started by creating a 3-question Google Form as an exit ticket.  I stopped in her first hour class to watch the magic happen!
Kathy uses the Summary of Responses feature
to quickly provide student feedback.

Kathy posted her exit ticket on her BlackBoard site and students were able to access and complete the form in less than 5 minutes; she then pulled up the summary of responses and displayed for the class to see. Immediately, Kathy was able to address misconceptions of her students.  Kathy explained to me that this was so powerful because as a geologist, it seems logical that the PreCambrian Era occurs before the Paleozoic Era. She realized some of her students were mistaking Paleo (meaning ancient) as the oldest Era.  This misconception is something that Kathy could have easily missed if she had not leveraged technology to capture student understanding.  It reminds me of what Understanding by Design author Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe call the "expert blind spot." It can be difficult to understand the misconceptions our students might have on a topic, but using technology, we can address student misconceptions instantly!!!

There are a tremendous amount of tools that can be used to understand student thinking allowing you to immediately provide feedback.  No more waiting until tomorrow, next week, or next month!  How are you using the secret sauce in your classroom?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Problem With Not Having Problems

Do you ever get sucked in, totally absorbed, ridiculously excited about total nerd shows? I'm not talking about The Voice here, people! The other night I couldn't stop watching this documentary on KCPT focused on solving the problem of preserving the shark population, while protecting the public from shark attacks. How do we protect humans without injuring or killing sharks? What struck me about the show was the process of problem solving and how different it is from the problem solving that often occurs in schools.

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1. Do you have a clearly defined problem?  Do you (the teacher) already know the answer?  One idea that really made me pause during the show is that we have all these field experts who genuinely don't know what to do about this problem.  They've tried a variety of methods to keep public safety, but there is still a big problem.  How can we give students more problems in school that don't already have a solution or a single correct answer?  Additionally, how can we actually use problems that exist in the real world and provide students opportunities to share their ideas in a public platform?

2. How do we develop individual expertise and collaboration?  Solving the shark problem involved collaboration among marine biologists, lifeguards, politicians, pilots, marine technology experts, and more.  Each individual possessed a specific expertise, but solving the problem required collaboration among all of them.  How are we preparing students to have deep expertise in a given field?  How are we creating cross-curricular opportunities to learn, explore, and problem solve?  How are we helping students learn to collaborate?

3. Do our students know how to collaborate across cultures?  While the shark story started in Australia, the team quickly partnered with experts in San Diego, California, to gain new perspectives, learn other options, and test solutions.  More and more, the opportunities to collaborate globally are expanding.  How are schools preparing students to find people in other parts of the globe that may have expertise on a problem that needs solving locally?  How are we teaching students about efficient ways to communicate globally?

4. Are we encouraging students to fail forward? These marine biologists developed a multitude of solutions to the problem, and they failed several times before they succeeded.  How do we create the culture of failing forward in our schools?

5. Are we leveraging technology?  The most simple and effective part of the shark solution was to use Twitter to quickly notify beach-goers of shark sightings and alerts.  Are we teaching students to think about Twitter in ways other than a social platform?  Using high-definition cameras, the team developed a method of spotting sharks despite changing weather and ocean conditions.  Obviously these are very specialized tools, but are we giving students access to basic digital tools and teaching them how to use them?

Clearly I have more questions than answers, but I know we must be FIERCE in our pursuit to create opportunities for students to learn in these contexts. There's nothing nerdy about that.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Dangers of NOT Using Wikipedia in the Classroom

Recently I've been working with a social studies teacher on guiding students in exploring how the philosophers Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau influenced the American framers.  Rather than have students try to absorb this information through the textbook or lecture, my colleague really wanted his students to dig into the primary sources of these thinkers.  Suddenly this conquest became more about reading historical documents, thinking like historians, and distinguishing among ideas!  

As we tossed around ideas for guiding students toward these goals, one idea we discussed was allowing students to do some crowdsourcing in order to gain a basic background knowledge.  I even suggested letting students use Wikipedia as one possible source of information for the crowdsourcing, even though I knew it would make my colleague cringe!  I was right; he CRINGED!   His reaction really caused me to reflect upon my suggestion.  Have I lost my mind?!  So I'm thinking out loud here, and I worry about the effects of NOT using Wikipedia in the classroom.  

If we don't show students how to use Wikipedia as a starting point and then move beyond it, I worry they won't understand how to move beyond Wikipedia when they are learning on their own. We certainly live in a sound bite culture, and Wikipedia provides conveniently condensed information on so many topics.   It's a fantastic place to build some basic understanding of the who, what, where,  and when, so that students can launch into deeper questions of why, how, which, etc. These questions should propel them into more complex texts.  Why don't we model this for students?  If we don't, I fear we will raise a generation of thinkers content to stop at the simplest of sources like Wikipedia and SparkNotes. 

Wikipedia is a petri dish swimming with questions about currency, relevance, bias, authorship, and more.  In the information age, it's essential our students are savvy with evaluating information. Because of the nature of how Wikipedia entries are created, it is the perfect environment to teach students to question the information they are reading.  Can the information be verified on other credible sites?  What information is missing? 

While Wikipedia is straightforward, it's not reading for dummies.  Wikipedia has mastered arranging information with headings, bullets, and tables of contents in order to make it accessible.  It's a great model of how to use these text features to guide readers through information.  But if you do a google search for a topic and filter results by reading level, surprisingly, Wikipedia entries frequently show up under the advanced reading level.  

Wikipedia equals opportunity. If anyone can contribute to this open encyclopedia, why don't we give our students that opportunity?  What better way for them to understand how information is created on the internet and why it's important to always be critical consumers of content?  For more information on how to contribute to Wikipedia, check out Contributing to Wikipedia.

So have I lost my mind? I'd love to hear your thoughts via the comments box below, Twitter, or email. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Getting Started in a Digital Classroom

I love the excitement of teachers readying their classrooms for the new school year.  It's energizing to watch how teachers will decide to arrange the room, what will go on the walls, how they will create an environment that is both engaging and organized.

As we embark on year 2 with 1:1 in our school, it's equally interesting to watch how teachers ready their digital environments.  Your classroom web presence IS the modern chalkboard with potential for anywhere/anytime learning.  It can, however, be overwhelming to think about how to get started.  What should go on my web presence?  How can I make it more dynamic?  How should I collect work in the digital realm?  How do I establish practical boundaries for my students with these tools at their fingertips?

Here's a compilation of tips I shared with our new staff recently based on the tips and tricks our teachers have discovered.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Getting Beyond the Surface with Online Discussions

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A science teacher colleague of mine recently asked about how to get his students started using Twitter discussions.  He was curious about the ins and outs of using hashtags.  I'm thrilled he's considering ways to use this platform to extend the discussions in his science classroom; engaging students in online discussions is a powerful platform for fueling thinking, dialogue, questioning, debate, research, and synthesis.  My caution to this teacher was that deciding the hashtag is only the tip of the iceberg!

While students might know more than we do about the ins and outs of Twitter, it doesn't necessarily mean they are armed with the skills to engage in a riveting academic discussion.  We must teach students how to engage in these platforms, and doing so will teach them a host of great skills in addition to the content.

  • Begin with the question.  Before you ever encourage students to share their ideas online, it might be worthwhile to spend time generating questions.  Whether your topic is a novel, a mathematical concept, or a historical event, a question grid such as this one can help students consider questions that are powerful for online discussions.  Questions in the top left of this grid are questions that can easily be googled.  They are important questions because understanding the basic foundation often helps us dive into deeper questions, but they may not fuel an online dialogue.  As you move to the lower right corner of this grid, questions become more and more complex.  Students might work collaboratively to develop as many questions on a topic using the grid.  Then discuss which questions might best move the online discussion forward.  
  • Consider roles.  Be specific about the various ways to engage in online discussion by using roles to make the skills explicit.  Assign each student a role for the first few online discussions and rotate roles so that students experience practicing the various skills. 
    • Questioner: Proposes open-ended questions to fuel the discussion
    • Provocateur: Acts as the devil's advocate trying to get students to see opposing viewpoints
    • Explorer: Explores and shares relevant links to expand the information under consideration
    • Connector: Seeks outside experts to engage in the conversation by posing questions or comments directly to the expert
    • First Responder: Responds to the questions and comments of others with new questions, ideas, or information
    • Summarizer: Recaps the major points and questions of the entire online discussion back to the class 
  • Model and deconstruct.  It's critical to participate in the conversation with students and model the kinds of posts you'd like to see.  It can also be helpful to isolate specific posts and discuss them as a class.  How did the post contribute to the online discussion?  What worked?  What could be improved for next time? 
  • Synthesize and summarize.  One of the biggest challenges of online conversations is getting participants to read past their own comments.  Often, students will make their required post and never go back to read anything else.  They are missing so much rich dialogue!  Make it a part of the process to synthesize the information with other content you've been exploring in class, and summarize the highlights of the online discussion.  Students might even respond to a thinking stem such as: 
    • I used to think ____ but now I think _____
    • Because of _____'s comment/question, I'm now wondering ________
    • Prior to this discussion, I hadn't thought about ______
  • Join forces.  Once you have a few online discussions under your belt, join forces with another class to make the conversation more dynamic. These could be your own classes that are in a different hour, or join with a class across the hall or the world.  Understanding multiple perspectives and considering new questions/ideas will add another dimension to the discussion and guide students to think beyond the surface.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Find Relationships in the Wreckage

Venice, 2013
True confessions: My husband is a home wrecker. This is a picture of us in Venice last summer, and we're very happy.  This summer has been a bit different.  He's become completely obsessed.  I hear him tossing and turning at night, and I know he's not up thinking about me.  He's constantly running "errands" and trying to learn all these new tricks.  I'm getting a bit worried.

It's not what you'd think though.  When I say he's a home wrecker, I mean it literally.  Earlier this summer, I told him I'd like to do a photo collage on the back wall of our living room.  He decided we should just redo the entire living room.   And I don't mean just buy some new furniture.  Greg suddenly had visions for an arched doorway, a granite fireplace, wall lighting, crown molding, and more.  The scary part...he wanted to do the work himself.  Did I tell you my husband doesn't have much experience with home renovation?  So here are a few photos of the current status of my living room.

I'm cautiously optimistic that Greg will be able to complete these projects soon and that they are going to turn out well.  Our living room desperately needed an overhaul.  But even if they don't turn out well, I'm really proud of him.  I'm not sure I would have the courage to just start carving up walls and ripping off fireplace tile.  He's teaching himself how to do all this by just digging in, watching a load of YouTube videos, consulting with some local experts, and problem solving along the way.  I wish learning in our classrooms could look more like our home renovation project. The exciting part is that it CAN!

I'd like to share some ideas for using digital tools to break the ice with students.  Using digital tools to build relationships in the first few weeks of school is a great way to help students get comfortable using digital tools in the academic environment.   You'll likely learn things about students in these venues that you wouldn't in more traditional icebreaker activities.  While it's natural to feel some trepidation about using technology in the classroom, don't let the fears stop you from exploring the potential.  I guarantee you'll build relationships from the wreckage!  As you decide on how to begin the year with students, consider your PURPOSE for the icebreaker activities.

To guide students in being proactive about their digital footprint:

  • Create a digital cover letter using  While you're at it, be sure to create one for yourself. Thanks to the suggestion of George Couros I created one for myself.  Check it out here.  
  • Design a digital resume using a tool like Prezi.  This is an especially great activity for older students, but don't dismiss it if you teach younger students.  There are some pretty amazing entrepreneurs that are no more than 10 years old!
  • Challenge students to create or redesign their Twitter profile to showcase more about their passions and pursuits for impacting the world.  This is an especially great idea if you plan to use Twitter in your classroom. 
To get students comfortable sharing online:
  • Consider having students use the YouTube webcam to create a quick broadcast about themselves.  It will get them comfortable talking in video format, which can be a great formative assessment tool throughout the school year.
  • Use a backchannel platform such as Today's Meet, Padlet, or Twitter to answer simple prompts about themselves.  I love Catlin Tucker's ideas for using Padlet as icebreaker.  The prompt is simple: where in the world would you want to travel and why?  Add a sticky note and explain.
  • Use Pinterest to create a board that illustrates "10 Things about ____" with captions that explain the photos.  Students could create the board about themselves, or this could be used as a strategy for exploring content. Check out this quick YouTube tutorial:                                                            
  • Students could create a selfie story showing "A Day in the Life of ___" and capture it via Instagram, PowerPoint, iMovie, etc. 
To support students in acclimating to a new building culture: 
  • Create a scavenger hunt of people and places throughout your school and allow students to use Instagram and a class hashtag to facilitate the journey. 
  • Encourage students to meet each other using FaceTime, Skype, or Google Hangouts to facilitate a game of digital hide and seek.  Spanish teacher Abby Saverino used this game to build relationships and help her students in building their Spanish speaking skills. 
To get students engaging in tools you plan to use throughout the year: 
  • Allow students to create an infographic about themselves.  Creating infographics is a fantastic act of synthesis, research, reading, writing, and multimedia presentation, and they can be used for so many academic purposes throughout the school year. and Piktochart are two of my favorite sites for students. 
  • Create a map of important locations in your life and annotate each location using Google Tour Builder.  This mapping tool can be used to tell all kinds of digital stories throughout the year about academic content. 
  • Create a digital scrapbook using RealTime Board or a timeline of your life using Capzles. Again, great tools to come back to over and over again throughout the year. 
As you consider all the possibilities, remember that offering students CHOICE in how they represent themselves online goes along way.  Additionally, capitalize on the power of doing icebreakers in a digital format by sharing them on your classroom website in an "About our Class" section, including them in parent newsletters, and building community throughout your school by sharing them on classroom hashtags.  What if 5th graders commented on the 3rd graders personal digital scrapbooks, or seniors welcomed freshmen to the building by commenting on their infographics?  When we use digital tools we have the power to share our work beyond our own classroom walls.  Tap into that potential! And if you're feeling a little fear, remember that's a good thing.  My mantra for this year is that if I'm not feeling scared, I'm not trying hard enough!   

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Let's Get It Started!

Who would want to leave this face?!
2 days ago I was not very enthused about another school year.  Don't get me wrong; I love my job, but I have an 8-week-old baby and leaving Henry right now isn't high on my list.  I can happily say my mind is getting in gear!  I've had the awesome opportunity to hear George Couros and Catlin Tucker speak the last two days at our Liberty LEADS conference, and I'm feeling so inspired to tackle a new school year.  Blogging and engaging with educators online is one of my personal goals for growth this year, so here goes it!  I'm counting on you all to hold me to it.

As a new school year approaches, I'm pondering all of the to-do items for the beginning of the year. How will we get to know our students?  How do we establish class expectations?  How do we make sure the chaos in the classroom is focused on enthusiastic learning, not troubleshooting and keeping everyone focused?  How do we reinvent our methods of tackling these beginning routines to capitalize on the power of digital tools?  I'd like to launch a series focused on ideas for starting the year and share some ideas for using digital tools to engage with students from day 1.  But first WHY?

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It's amazing to me how pervasive technology is within our lives.  I never had the power to text message in high school and laptops were definitely not yet the norm even when I was in college.  Now I can't imagine going anywhere without a smartphone or working without my laptop.  I can message my brother in Boston, hear step-by-step driving directions, or snap a picture or video at any moment. Technology certainly comes with its pros and cons, but if one thing is certain, I'd bet it's not going away.  I'm inspired to think about how and why we can teach students the powerful opportunities they have because of the technology that is part of our lives.  So why begin the year utilizing technology?

Here are just a few reasons:

As I said before, technology isn't going away. The reality is that we can put our head in the sand and ignore the amazing tools that we have before us, or we can model for students what you can do with digital tools.  I've found that students are often wicked good at using digital tools for social or entertainment purposes, but they struggle to understand how to use digital tools for academic purposes. They probably won't make this leap if we don't teach students the methods and allow them the opportunity to make mistakes.

Let's be part of the solution by guiding students in building a positive digital footprint.  George Couros was incredibly honest about the reality that future employers will google our students before they are hired.  The question is what will they find?  We can critique our students' actions online, or we can help them to build a positive digital presence that represents who they are and where they want to go.  Building a powerful and positive digital presence may just lead them to opportunities they've never even considered.

There's an incredible opportunity to learn about our students using digital tools and build stronger relationships.  I'll never forget my colleague Stu telling me that he expected relationships with students to be less powerful when his classroom went 1:1, but the exact opposite happened.  When students send you a video response with questions, the ability to see facial expressions and hear how they articulate ideas is amazing.  Watching students record videos while holding their dog or sitting in their living room will help you connect with students in ways you can't with paper and pencil.

The idea of a school community will take on a whole new meaning.  When we create using digital tools, we have the opportunity to share like never before.  Consider creating a class hashtag where you and your students can share links to class projects.  Additionally, invite parents, colleagues, and other classrooms to collaborate via the hashtag.  Students are no longer creating just for the teacher when we use digital tools and create spaces for sharing.

I'm sure there are many other reasons to consider; these are just a few rumbling around my brain. Check back in the coming days for practical ideas you can use in your classroom as the school year begins, and please share your ideas with me!