Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Homework Policy that Sparked a Movement

My district has been sharing school policy updates with us this year and recently the homework policy was revised. I quickly opened up the revised document, excited to read it. I was hoping it met the needs of today’s student and was thrilled to see the focus on family time, explaining students and parents have the right to decide their time after school. I then flipped to the guidelines and immediately realized students and parents needed to see what the expectations were for them.

Emailing the links to the parents was the initial step I took. Then I copied the guidelines for individual students and posted the policy on our SMARTboard. We read through the policy together and broke into small working groups to go over the guidelines. Students were tasked with highlighting things they felt were interesting, items they agreed with, and ideas they disagreed with as they read. These notes would be used during a class discussion and an email we decided to send to our school committee.

Students were empowered to share their thinking with our local officials, who volunteer their time to serve our schools. They examined the middle and elementary school guidelines and had a lot to say about them! During a shared writing experience we crafted the email, making sure all voices were heard (including the parent volunteer in the room).

Dear School Committee,

Today we read the homework policy. Then we looked at the requirements for the homework for middle and elementary school. We got highlighters and highlighted things we found interesting. We read it in small groups. We also compared it to our own experiences.

Middle School Feedback

Assuming summer work is given, students thought it was unfair that you must finish it because some people go on very busy trips and don’t have time to. Another student felt there should be a little school work, but she would rather be able to enjoy the time off. Another student said summer reading should be suggested. If summer reading is given it should be one book you have to read that you answer questions about (no essay). Different people should get different types of books though. A child chimed in that it was unfair that kids should be told what to read because they should be reading for pleasure and not something that is forced. A parent suggested asking kids to read a certain amount of pages. She also suggested students be given the assignment to create anything that shows the theme of the story. You could paint, draw, compose music, write an essay, blog post, etc. Sky's the limit. She said it would be more difficult to grade but then asked what the purpose of summer reading is- is it to make sure the child is reading or to get a grade? A child suggested picking a genre and getting the book approved before leaving for the summer.

It was mentioned that it is fair that students have two days for every day missed to make up work.

A student liked how it was limited to 1.5 hours of homework for all the courses. This gives you enough time to get work done and get to other things.

Another felt it was good that the summer work would have instructions with who to ask for help.

A student did not think it was fair to have 1.5 hours to do homework. He inquired as to what if students needed more time. Ms. Freedman explained that this time was a guideline and that students certainly do not need to finish all their work but try their best within that time frame.

A parent asked a question at this juncture (she was volunteering). She noted homework is up to 15% of a grade. If a child works 1.5 hours and does not finish how will this impact the grade as it is not clear. What is the provision for that in the guidelines?

It is fair that teachers are not required to give homework over family vacation.

Elementary School Feedback
From the parent: As a parent in the introduction it says there is no study that shows there is a benefit to homework in the elementary grade yet she found that in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade that her kids had more homework than in later grades especially with those packets. (They are now talking about rainbow words and ABC order) In addition to that they were also signed 15-20 min of IXL a night.

They liked how homework was not assigned on weekends and vacations and encourage that never to be changed. However they wanted you to know that there are teachers who do that (I am not one of them).

They said the 30 minutes seemed fair for upper elementary.

The parent suggested covering yourself for all grades that you might want to include an exception to the amount of time for special projects as she does not count that as part of the 30 minutes because of the time it takes. It also takes working on weekends. Are teachers no longer going to be giving special projects or do they understand it is part of the time allotted?

Students would like more choice to their work. This is not something for a policy but something maybe teachers should be discussing.


Ms. Freedman and her secret agents

The letter received a response from a member of the committee that sparked students to act! They wanted to reach out to more people. I asked students what they wanted to do. They discussed as a group and came to the decision to email their thoughts to the principals at the two elementary schools and middle school. They also wanted to share their thinking with our student council, so our class representative wrote a letter to our principal inviting him in for a conversation with her and our other class reps. Lastly, a student suggested doing a Flipgrid to share our thinking globally. They had some strong thoughts on homework and summer reading.

Students need experiences that inspire, enagage, and empower them to share their voices and make change. They benefit from authentic learning opportunities that teach ways to accomplish this. I highly suggest looking at your school policies and sharing ones with students that impact them. I am thrilled my students know to read policies and guidelines. They are aware no one can take their recess away (Health and Wellness policy), how to use technology responsible (Responsible Use Policy), and that they do not need to work more than 30 minutes a night, excluding reading, doing homework per the new guidelines set forth. I decided to blog about it, contributing to their movement! 

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Red Rover Red Rover Who Would You Call Over?

While students are inside playing Fortnite or other games they are missing out on the great outdoors. Today I took my class outside and decided to play Red Rover. I lined them up and organized them on the field across from each other. I spoke to one of the teams about what we were doing, and every single one of them had never played Red Rover. I teach 5th grade. How do you make it to 5th grade and never play Red Rover?
I remember my recess in elementary school. We played 4-Square, Kickball, and Red Rover. We ran around the playground, and I know someone got married under the slide with a tin foil ring. It was a time of innocence.
After explaining the rules of Red Rover along with a small behavior reminder I had my students play. I saw twenty-two students working as a team on that field today. They cheered for each other, supported one another, and laughed. I saw students strategizing where to go, who to call, and doing their best to hold hands so no one broke through.
They told me this was the best game ever and asked if they could play it at recess. Reflecting back on some of the photos I took I saw pure joy in each of their faces. Kids need time to learn how to play recess games that are constructive. They need moments to be a kid and just have fun. Imagine playing Red Rover at work. Who would you call over? I think we all need some more time outside to play. Let the wind whip through our hair. And allow every day to have some joy in it!
Image may contain: one or more people, tree, grass, outdoor and nature

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Making Our Own Traditions and Sparking Student Curiosity

 Today I am proud of my 22 students for taking a risk and choosing a new end of the year tradition for our 5th grade class. Building bridges is traditionally the culminating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Math) activity for our students. Many come into 5th grade knowing and expecting they are going to build bridges at the end of the year. I have taught bridge concepts, delving into the different trusses and engineering vocabulary used when constructing a bridge. I would watch students work in small teams to create a bridge made out of Popsicle sticks and glue. Last year students learned using too much glue is a catalyst for failure of bridge construction. I began to feel deflated because there was no deep level learning that occurred. Rather it was an expected activity that made a memory.

In thinking about how to best meet the needs of my current students I knew deep in my heart bridge building would be fun for them, but there would be no spark ignited that causes students to want to learn more about something. My students get excited to create something BIG! They want to solve problems and persevere through challenges. I knew whatever we did the end of the year had to give them time to explore, tinker, collaborate, communicate, and think. The more I thought about it, the bridge building was just an example of students consuming information and creating something with teacher given guidelines. So I decided to come up with a way for students to create and design where they were in charge of their learning, and I facilitated.

It hit me like lightning. Our class could spend the end of the year working on Rube Goldberg machines. It was a giant AHA moment I should have had many years ago. Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist, like many students in my current class, who inspired a movement! The learning of physics concepts and engineering come alive in the construction of these machines. Using materials in our school science lab, students will start with a goal in mind and using backwards design figure out how to make it happen. We will talk about energy transfer, chain reactions, Newton’s Laws of motion, and simple machines.

I was excited about the possible shift in the end of the year tradition but wanted it to be the students’ choice. Today we spent some time talking about the bridge unit and tradition. I took a risk and explained to our class that I had an idea that would take us down a different path. Eyes got huge. I felt I truly understood them as learners and wanted to come up with an end of the year STEAM activity that would engage and empower them long after they left our classroom. I told them I wanted us to consider designing Rube Goldberg machines instead of bridges. This is something I would not be able to teach them how to design rather a problem they need to solve. Students would be the constructors of knowledge involved in active learning. Students who knew what this was immediately began jumping out of their seats while others questioned what on earth I was talking about.

So I showed them this

And after it was over I asked by a show of hands who wanted to make Rube Goldberg machines instead of bridges. Not only did every child’s hand go into the air some shot two hands and two feet into the air. Not one student raised his or her hand when I asked about making bridges. This is when I realized that it is okay to change tradition if it is going to ignite a student’s curiosity and passion for learning. Sometimes tradition does not meet the needs of the students sitting in front of you. Who knows what we will do next year? This year the power of student voice rules over tradition. They have spoken and chosen their STEAM activity, and I am sure it will be one they never forget.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Beyond the Number

This morning I greeted many agents at 7:30. I was ready to greet  them. We began testing promptly at 8:30 and some agents worked right until buses were dismissed. In the fall when you get your child's score back I need you to remember that the number does not define your child. Take a look at their growth percentile and see how much progress he or she has made. Your child is not just that number either but that is a much better number to look at.

Today I watched almost every agent work their hardest I have ever seen them work. I observed most students making graphic organizers for 2 open responses. I watched as students tirelessly checked their work over before handing it in. 

So your children are hard working students who try their best. Your children have empathy for others as those that finished early were respectful of others who were still working. They showed the value of strength and true friendship today that will hopefully last long after they leave their agent head quarters.

I am so proud of our students. So ask your agent how it went today and remind him or her of the amazing traits they all have that make our classroom a better place to be in. And when you get that score back in the fall . . . no matter what it is . . . remember your child is not defined by that number. They rose above any number today!

I will see the students tomorrow to do it all over again!

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Truth Will Set You Free

Our class has been listening to Rob Buyea’s story, The Perfect Score. I had timed the reading of this story alongside our MCAS. I had never read this book before, but its lessons are powerful and have caused some in depth discussions in our classroom.

The students in this book were pressured by the school to perform amazingly on their state tests, causing them to devise a cheating plan to relieve stress. There were students who were aware of this plan but were not thinking of cheating. This led to a rich conversation on the notion of a bystander. If you are aware something bad is happening (and involves your friends) are you guilty by association? Students were honest and their answers were split between yes and no. Some were afraid to rat on their friends while others felt they should not get roped into their friend’s actions. What a great dinner table discussion to have!

Another great discussion happened today. We talked about how “the truth will set you free.” Students discussed what this meant and how telling the truth is a great relief. They recognized the characters in the book were carrying a heavy burden, but telling the truth would lift that. We related this lesson to yesterday’s art class. There were many actions in art class that caused me to make some decisions that went against my pedagogical grain. Sometimes, as educators, we have to do things we do not like or even want to do. After the actions of many students yesterday our classroom has changed shape.

Independence, passion for learning, curiosity about our world, and creating/respecting community are things I pride myself on, providing a foundation in our classroom home. I try everything to get students to work well as a community even if it means changing how I love to teach. Ask my now 26-year-old 3rd graders. They will tell you all about how we went back to log cabin school! We sat in rows. I took everything I personally bought away from them. I remember the tears one student had over how hard using the crank pencil sharpener was. The common cliché still rings true: You do not realize what you have until it was gone. They had to work together to earn things back, debating over what privilege they wanted to be returned. Something similar happened last year and our class had a Great Debate. These students learned to appreciate what they have, the importance of prioritizing, and valuable debate skills. I often still wonder if I did the right thing, but in my heart I know I did. We all became better people because of that.

If your student did not talk to you about art class yesterday, I hope he or she will today. The truth will set them free.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Building Confidence Through Struggle

I want to thank my students and parent volunteer for a math lesson today that was so powerful for us all as a community. I jumped up and told them today was one of my favorite days with them, and they looked at me like I had ten heads. They were persevering through problem solving, writing out work, getting the wrong answers, and going back to the drawing board. So why would this be amazing? Students saw the value of writing out their work, explaining their thinking, and having math conversations.  

Math is often a subject people say they are not good at or they do not have a math mind. Let me tell you a secret. There is NO SUCH THING as having a math mind. What we need to develop are mathematical practices to help us struggle through the challenging problems. Today students used several of those practices to solve complex, real- world volume problems.

What we discovered was everyone understood what volume was and how to apply it to problem solving. However, taking the time to persevere through problem solving was a hurdle. Not every answer comes quickly. What we deduced over math class was multiplication or addition calculations and place value errors held them back from getting the right answer.

If students came to me with no work it was difficult to see their mistakes. They learned if they came up with their work together we could see where the breakdown was. Student confidence was built through struggling. We did not finish all the word problems. We did not get all the right answers. There were no tears. I believed in all my students. We did do the following:
  • Made sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  •   Reasoned abstractly and quantitatively.
  •  Constructed viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  •  Modeled with mathematics
  •  Used appropriate tools strategically.
  •  Attended to precision.

And it was beautiful to watch! One student summed it all up. "When something frustrates you it feels so good to get it right!"

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Google Calendar is like Two Beautiful Worlds Colliding

Calendar Man - Students have a lot to manage in their daily lives  no matter how old they are.

After school activities, family responsibilities, and school assignments are just a few examples students have shared that they have to juggle.

A classroom Google Calendar was created for assignments, events, school spirit days, and other important information. This link was shared on our parent portal. The calendar is updated in real time from any device and is a great way for parents to help support their child. However, isn’t it the child I want to help learn management skills?

I had shared the classroom calendar link with students in an email at the beginning of the year, but then we never discussed it again. Recently, a student happened to ask me if we had any more reading letters due this year because she went two weeks ahead and saw no assignment. She did not know how to move from February to March.

In a teachable moment I shared the parent portal link with students via an email and had them open the site. Then I asked them to click on the classroom calendar link. At the bottom right hand corner of the calendar was a blue plus sign. Like magic, when students clicked the plus sign our classroom calendar opened right on their personal calendar. Lots of OOOOS and AHHHS were heard around the room.

As a class we learned to navigate through the calendar, add an event, and discover some settings. The calendar is something I use every day, but was new to most 5th grade students. By linking my classroom calendar to their individual calendars I have now put the responsibility back in the student’s hands. Several were already discussing adding birthdays and activities while others wanted to explore what future events we had going on in our classroom.

Lessons learned:
  •  It is important to continually discuss things as the year moves forward.
  •  Students need to be linked to a classroom calendar to begin to learn or hone time management skills. They also get excited about upcoming events and feel more in the know, which builds confidence.
  • We, as educators, are already updating the calendar and adding things to it. It is an efficient and effective communication tool. Make the transition to share it with students and parents! You will not regret it. In 2015 when I began sharing the calendar with parents, one mother said, “It's like two beautiful worlds colliding.” This year I decided to make that world collide for students. And it sure is beautiful! I am just not sure what took me so long to realize that.