Thursday, September 19, 2013

Remaining Cool and Unruffled

Constitution Day was this week.  In honor of the writing of this document, I'd like to do a little writing of my own, based on a quote from one of the architects of our great nation.  This quote also happens to speak directly to the the kind of advice I needed someone to give me this week.

“Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”        ― Thomas Jefferson

What a smart guy.  If only I could follow this advice every day and never find myself frustrated by a particular group of seventh graders whose chattiness at the end of the day borders on disrespect... If only I could remain calm, cool, and collected every time the copier breaks (again) or a child asks me a question I literally. just. answered.  By Thursday, all of the patience and peace that was accumulated over the previous weekend has typically worn down to a more emotional response to said roadblocks in the day. I feel like no matter what your profession, this pattern can be seen. When the pace of work is more frenetic, when the people with whom we are interacting make what we feel like are unfair demands  that make our lives harder, then it also gets a lot tougher to "remain always cool and unruffled."

Yesterday, during the last class of the day.  I did not manage to stay cool and unruffled.  My class could not stop talking.  This class is made up of a group of kids who, for the most part, have been friends since elementary school.  I felt like I set a strong precedent for behavior during the first two weeks of school, but we've been in a downhill descent for the last week and a half.  Yesterday, they won.  I busted out my "real teacher voice" and told them exactly who was in charge.  This particular approach, one I like to call "yelling," is obviously the least effective of the classroom management tools in my toolbox, but I was frustrated.  By allowing myself to get emotional, I gave them the advantage, and they took it.  Now, they didn't do this on purpose.  This is a sweet, well-meaning, smart group of seventh graders.  But putting all their redeeming qualities aside, they are still 12-year-olds who are trying to sit still and focus for the final hour of an eight hour stretch of sitting still and focusing.  It's a tough life.

Anyway, the bell rang at the end of the day yesterday, and I knew I needed a new approach to make this work.  Preferably, I needed a "calm and unruffled" approach.  I looked at the seating chart to see who I could switch around.  Nothing.  When a class of twenty-eight children are almost all buddies, and you have thirty chairs, there's not a whole lot that shuffling the seating chart can really do.  But then I realized (lightbulb moment!) that they didn't know that. All they knew was that I allowed them to pick their seats during the first week of school, and they were really enjoying their personal seating choices.

So here's what I did today.  The bell rang, and I said in a calm and unruffled voice," The first time I ask you to stop talking today, I will change the seating chart. The second time I ask you to stop talking, the whole class will have lunch detention Monday.  The third time I ask you to stop talking, I will start giving individual, after school detentions.  Now please get out your bellringers, so we can go over the directions."  The rest of that fifty minutes was glorious!  Not a single child spoke one word without raising his or her hand.  Thomas Jefferson turned out to be right.

My goal for the coming week is to maintain the upper hand by remaining calm and unruffled.  I have to remind myself that things outside my sphere of influence just have to be faced.  Complaining about them isn't going to change them or make them go away.  I'm going to focus this week on finding some inner peace and keeping it, even when it's tough.  Even in the presence of the chaos that is seventh grade.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Turning an Epic Fail into a Win: An EdTech Story

Ok, so today could have been terrible.  I mean absolutely awful.  I had planned to do a Bring Your Own Device lesson today, since I'm in the process of making my classroom a more "EdTech friendly" environment.  I even enlisted the help of my colleague from UCA, Dr. Michael Mills, who is always ready with an awesome creative lesson idea.  Once again he succeeded in amazing me with a fantastic, high level thinking activity, requiring students to analyze multiple primary and secondary sources and evaluate their relevance to a particular research question.

The BYOD/technology piece here is that each source is accessible to students through a QR code.  Now, I love a good QR code.  It bypasses the need to have a large number of students logged on to the wifi network, which can cause a pretty solid traffic jam sometimes, creating a situation where nobody can get on the Internet.  QR codes also eliminate the need for students to type in lengthy website addresses, should they be accessing the Internet.  All things considered, I think QR codes are GREAT. When they work.  When they work, they're just fantastic.  However, today they did not work.

In our efforts to bypass our need for the Internet, our QR codes connected to text turned out so complex that the QR scanner apps on the devices couldn't read them.  And thus, we have come to the center of my love/hate relationship with technology.  I adore technology.  In fact, I probably have an addiction to several social networks.  I don't know how I would survive without my iPhone, and (true confession) I've never taught without a SmartBoard.  But when technology fails, it's not just a minor hiccup.  It's an epic fail.  In the moment when Dr. Mills and I realized that the QR codes weren't going to work, we could have panicked.  We could have said, forget it kids, we'll just read Diary of Anne Frank today, so you don't have homework.  Most people would have found that perfectly acceptable.  But not us.  I refuse to lose to a computer.

So we did what every good teacher does.  We decided to monitor and adjust.  In first and second period, we struggled through the process of frantically downloading new QR scanners and trying to increase the size of the codes to see if they scanned more easily.  This helped, sort of.  Some codes would scan, and some wouldn't.  We pulled up some of the sources on the SmartBoard and worked through part of the activity as a class.  Amazingly (and thankfully) my first two classes of the day were incredibly well behaved and perceptive to the fact that we were doing our very best to make things work.  They did the best they could with what they had, and they instinctively worked cooperatively with others around them to try their best to get the work done.  I was so thrilled I could have cried tears of joy.  That first week foundation that was laid and creating our classroom vision statements really seemed to come into play today.  My kids were living out their commitment to create an awesome learning environment, and I didn't even have to ask them to do it.  It was a proud, although still stressful, moment.

By third period, we solved the problem.  Rather than having students scan codes to access the sources, we put the text on the handout and had students cut the the sources out into twelve squares.  They then had to sort their sources into three groups: images, primary sources, and secondary sources.

After sorting their sources, students used their devices to identify the people in each of the images.  Since we've been reading Anne Frank, they knew exactly who Anne was.  I mean, she's on the front of their book!  But they were a little unsure about some of the other images.  Since we couldn't use the QR codes, this was a great way to still integrate technology into the lesson.  It ended up being a really meaningful mini-lesson in identifying appropriate search terms, which is both a Common Core technology standard and a pretty important life skill these days.

The last step was to sift through the evidence with a partner and determine which pieces of evidence were relevant to the question.  We gave students twelve pieces of evidence, and they only needed eight of them to answer their two questions, four pieces of evidence for each of our two questions.  This meant that students had to sift out the four unnecessary sources, and then determine which sources applied to each question.  

Once they evaluated the evidence and selected the correct pieces, they could answer each question, and glue their evidence to their paper.  By seventh period, we finally hit our rhythm with this lesson, and even had time to spare!  Students used that time to reflect on their process during the lesson.

Overall, I learned two things today.  First, I learned that a strong classroom management foundation is essential in implementing a BYOD program in any classroom.  A mutual trust and respect must be built in order for students to be successful in the process of learning how to use their devices for instructional and educational purposes and not just as playthings. Second, if you think you have to be flexible when a traditional lesson tanks, you just multiply that by 100, and that's how flexible you'll need to be if a technology-based lesson tanks.  I'm pretty Type A, so it can be hard for me to switch gears quickly in a lot of situations.  But like I said earlier, I also hate to lose, and I'm definitely not losing to an iPad.  With any lesson, it's important to have a Plan B, but I was reminded today just how necessary it is to take what you're given, no matter how frustrating it is, and turn it into a win for the students.  

Before I call it a night, I have to thank Dr. Mills and our school's media specialist for jumping in and fixing the problem with me.  I don't think I would have survived the adventure of today without an awesome co-teacher to keep my sense of humor intact and help me monitor and adjust.  It made for an awesome lesson and an even better story :)    

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Tabletop Twitter

Today was an AWESOME day, thanks to my coworker Amy.  Because she introduced me to my new favorite lesson -- Tabletop Twitter.  I had SO much fun doing this with my students today!  I think the best part about this lesson is that it's completely student directed.  I set it up with about five minutes of instructions at most, and then every single class totally engaged in teaching each other (YAY!!) and analyzing passages from The Diary of Anne Frank.  Watching my students truly engage in cooperative learning and monitor their own on-task behaviors was like a little slice of heaven.  And I think I even tricked them into thinking they were just "having fun." ;)

Ok, so here's how it works...our team of teachers picked five passages from the reading homework.  Each passage was 2-3 paragraphs.  Then, each passage was put on plain butcher paper.  When students came in, they were split into five groups.  Each group starts at their own piece of butcher paper.  Everyone has two silent minutes to reread their passage.  When the timer goes off, each group has two minutes to talk, come to a consensus, and "tweet" their response to the reading on their piece of butcher paper.  We focused on inferring emotions and developing empathy with Anne Frank.  Students are also allowed to "hashtag" their responses.  Here's the tricky "retweets" are allowed.  That means that students have to come up with new ideas each time they come to a new passage.  By the time a group reaches their fifth passage, this gets tricky, and students really have to read between the lines.

Here are some pictures from our lesson today...


Any day that I get through six class periods, and every single class says they want to do this lesson again, it's a HUGE victory!  So thanks to Amy, I had an absolutely awesome day in my classroom.  I can't wait to do this activity again this year with new content.  It will be fun to see what kids are able to do with it, now that they've done it once.

Looking forward to more #TabletopTwitter as the year goes on! #success