October 15, 2016

Mindset Work

I can pin-point the first time I heard the concept of a "fixed-mindset" -- I was in a psychology class in college and I remember thinking, "Uh-oh, I'm pretty sure I'm guilty of that!" I knew I had felt the pressure to "prove myself" at activities I thought I was innately good at.  Worse, I knew there were activities that I'd dropped or dismissed out of hand because I did not think I could be successful at them. It was an eye-opening realization, and since then I've been fascinated by the idea of mindsets.

It turns out that just teaching people about mindsets, achievement, and abilities can change how they approach challenging situations -- see here.  

When I taught Pre-K and 1st grade, I demonstrated malleable intelligence with a stretchy rubber-band.  I made comparisons and connections between learning how to walk, how to do the monkey bars, and how to read.  It didn't take long for my little guys to understand that you can "grow your brain," and it was exciting to see them recognize their own accomplishments as they reached new reading levels and masted new skills.

As a fourth grade teacher now, I still teach about growth mindset and see my kids take the concept to heart. However, I'm more aware that their experiences have shaped their beliefs and confirmed the picture they have of themselves.  They have seen hard work pay off in some ways, but they often still struggle to believe that it can make a difference in every area of their life.  Even those who are excited to learn a new math strategy, may shut down during a writing conference.  Even those who play multiple sports or instruments, may shy away from reading books in new genres or by unfamiliar authors.  I now try to focus more on the benefits of experiencing challenge, trying new things, and expanding your horizons.

In many ways I have been successful at cultivating my own growth-mindset -- I've learned to cook, to teach older students, and to do math in new ways {all things I once thought were "just not for me} -- but I've still had a few activities that felt off limits. Of course, I could be okay having a fixed-mindset about just a few things... but I wouldn't want that for my students. In order to constantly combat a fixed-mindset, you have to be able to recognize when you are "stuck" and take specific action -- see here. So, while I don't consider myself a runner YET... this year I'm trying to work on own my growth mindset.

Started running just 5 miles in March... set a goal of 32 miles in July

Not fast, but 5+ miles in the books.

July 19, 2016

What are we teaching?

I love to find cute pins on Pinterest and pictures on Instagram, but I admit I get antsy when I see endless crafts and clipart on teacher blogs and Pinterest boards. I cringe when I see writing lessons that involve cutting and pasting text boxes or reading lessons that are mostly tracing and coloring.  As a former Pre-K teacher, I know how tempting it is to want every lesson to include a Pinterest-worthy product.  Yet activities that involve perfectly painted handprints, marks inside the lines, and carefully-cut collages often lack genuine instruction or real content.  I have to question "lessons" that are essentially cutting, pasting, and coloring -- what are they really teaching?

This goes back to one of the Guiding Principles of the Responsive Classroom approach: How children learn is as important as what they learn.  I'm critical of how I have my kiddos practice skills and demonstrate their understanding because I want to ensure that they are always learning and creating in authentic ways. While I incorporate art in my classroom, I try to avoid "craftivities" that don't actually allow students to be creative, use teamwork, or demonstrate genuine learning.

My kiddos share their thinking through jotting in the margins of books (or on post-its), journaling, debating, or discussing.  They learn how to write short stories, articles, and letters to share their individual ideas and interests.  They sketch and draw to visualize concepts and capture observations. Sure, they also cut and paste into their notebooks, but I try to make sure they are also thinking and writing independently.

Readers make notes and discuss their books.
Scientists record observations of what they find in nature (after a field trip).
Mathematicians understand fractions by creating visual representations.
Authors share favorites sections from their books.

July 8, 2016

If ... Then... Journalism.

When I started teach fourth grade in the middle of the year, my class was in the middle of a nonfiction writing unit. As I observed my students' writing, I noticed that many of them were not using complex sentences or correct grammar, or even explaining themselves clearly through their writing.  In order to give them more practice developing an idea and writing with a formal tone, I decided to plan a new unit on Journalism using the Lucy Calkins "If... Then Guide."

The "If...Then Guide" is one of my favorite parts of the Writing Units of Study!  The guide offers ideas for conferring with individual or small groups of students, but also provides suggestions for additional units to supplement the four primary units of study.  The Journalism Unit is intended to give students an extra opinion writing unit for classes that need more work with this genre.  For my class, I also saw this unit as an opportunity for practice writing concisely, incorporating facts, and selecting relevant details.

I launched the unit by having the kiddos watch a short clip of a {mock} purse-snatching.  After watching the 15-second video, my "reporters" were assigned to write a 50-word summary of what happened.  Right away, they recognized the need to be critical of the words they chose and to revise in the moment (two important goals of mine).  It also got everyone invested, using language like "victim", "thief", and "incident"!

As the unit progressed, I taught specific ways to be include facts, create complexity, and write in 3rd person.  The kiddos really got into the grammar lessons, especially when we compared sample articles with and without clarifying phrases and essential commas. I also used a number of articles from Time for Kids, and other sources, to show how real journalists use these grammatical tools to inform and persuade their readers.

Not surprisingly, the kiddos loved finding and reporting on news stories from around the school -- they researched everything from the Spelling Bee to the School Play to the Stomach Bug!  I created interview templates and requisition forms that they could use to gather quotes and source materials for their articles.  Throughout the drafting process, I incorporated discussions about journalistic integrity and source credibility.  I encouraged the kiddos to reach out to staff members, parent organizers, and even community officials to get information for their stories, rather than relying on their friends to offer quotes.  I also invited in a parent who was a journalist to talk about the importance of correctly citing sources, getting facts straight, and proofreading.

I think this unit succeeded in investing my kiddos in drafting thoughtfully, using proper grammar, and editing carefully through authentic writing.  When it came time to publish the class newspaper, a few kiddos even volunteered to come in during lunch, before school, and after school for a few days to help with the final editing and page layout.  (Everyone had already typed up his or her own story in our library/computer lab and done the initial editing.)  The final product turned out great and I can't wait to do this unit again next year!

March 20, 2016

Why Math Games?

When I first started utilizing math games (as part of the Investigations Math Curriculum), I was rather skeptical about their efficacy.  For one, it was hard to tell if my kiddos were really doing any math while they were playing with dice and cards.  Secondly, even if they were doing math, they weren't producing any "evidence" that could be checked or graded so I couldn't know if they were correct.

As I learned more about how to instruct students to communicate while playing math games, I became more confident that my kiddos were actually doing math.  I also found ways to have them record their responses, like keeping score in other games, so I could confirm that they had done the math correctly.  In addition, I became more adept in matching students to partners who could provide appropriate challenge and support while playing together.

Nevertheless, I wasn't really convinced that all math classes should include math games until I switched to a school that did not use games at all.  I was initially looking forward to trying a direct-instruction approach to teaching math. I expected that my students would be better able to comprehend difficult concepts like "counting on" when they were explicitly taught.  I also thought that management during a direct-instruction lesson would be easier.

Here's what I realized... math is challenging no matter how it is taught and, just like other skills, like reading or riding a bike, kiddos need to have lots practice doing math to really get it.  After I taught a direct-instruction lesson, I noticed that my kiddos would solve a few problems and then get bored and tired. Management became more difficult when they felt overwhelmed by a packet of worksheets.

Despite the direct instruction approach my new school was using, I started introducing a few math games to my first graders.  I realized that there were many other benefits to math games that I'd previously taken for granted. Specifically, math games are fun!  Teaching a lesson on how to "count on" was only one part of having students understand and be able to use this strategy.  Playing math games, like "Roll and Record" with a number cube and a dot cube, gave my kiddos sufficient practice thinking of a number and counting up the dots in a fun way. Unlike simply completing more worksheets, math games also provided just enough variation to keep kiddos actively thinking about the new strategy they were using.

I'm now back at my previous school, teaching a new grade, and learning new math games.  Recently, two of my kiddos came over in the middle of a debate about a math game I'd just taught them -- a decimal version of the card game War.  One kiddo said that his card (0.81) had won and the other disagreed (he had 0.9).  As I listened to each of them explain his side, I heard them using the math language I'd taught them: hundredths, tenths, decimal, and equivalent.  Before I even had a chance to weigh in, the kiddo who had insisted he'd won said, "Oh yeah! You're right: 0.9 is greater! Okay, let's keep going!" and off they went to keep playing!  I feel confident that conversations like this, where kids are teaching each other and having new realizations, would not have surfaced had they been working independently to solve the same problem on a worksheet.