Normally I try to post about generic resources and tips that can help any teacher regardless of subject area. Today, I'm going to get a little specific, but it's still applicable across curriculums, more on that in a minute.
I was very fortunate today to attend the inaugural conference on civic engagement and learning entitled, "Serving America: Promising Practices for Building Literacy and Civic Learning." The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education teamed up with the new Edward M Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. For those of you outside of Massachusetts, the Kennedy Institute is one of our newer resources that opened in March of 2015. The Institute sits adjacent to the John F Kennedy Library and our Commonwealth Museum, so it has really created an awesome resource for educators. Field trips are free, and they even have some money available to fund busses if transportation is an issue. If your an educator in Massachusetts it is definitely worth checking out, and if you are outside the state it's worth stopping into when traveling through Boston.
Anyways, the institute contains a replica of the Senate Chamber. I have to tell you, that alone was worth going to the conference for. I've been to Washington D.C. several times, but I have never been in the Senate, even though it was a replica, it definitely gave me goosebumps.
There was a ton of information provided at this conference but I'm going to highlight my two big takeaways. The first was a breakout session I attended on Service-Based Learning. Service-Based learning may immediately make you think "Community Service" or "Community Based Learning" but it actually goes a step beyond that. While we as educators are really great at utilizing resources in our communities and getting our kids involved in community projects, we are not always good at handing over the reigns. In service-based learning, students identify a problem organically as part of their studies. They then create a plan to solve that problem. It is through their research of the problem and their creation of the solution, that they learn various content pieces. Finally they share that solution with the community in some way. The teacher's role in this is more of a guiding one. We are not posing the problem or posing the "correct" solution. Rather we are enabling students to access resources and find community partners that they need in order to create their solution. In this model their are three key components; academic integrity, apprentice citizenship, and student ownership.
Academic integrity means that the project has clear learning objectives related to the standards and class curriculum. Apprentice Citizenship means that students forge partnerships with local resources and engage in civic participation. Finally, student ownership means that the students are making the decisions and that the adults are acting as partners and coaches.
I really loved this model and cannot wait to incorporate it into my history classes. The workshop I went to though demonstrated examples from all across the curriculum. One example they gave was that students through work in their science class discovered that where the busses parked at their school was reducing the air quality on one side of the building. The students researched this and performed tests on air quality using skills from their science class to determine that this was happening. They then wrote a grant to get covers for the busses to convert the emissions and improve air quality. The key to this was that it was student driven. The students were the ones doing the research and in the end it was their idea to write the grant. They were involved in the project from start to finish.
There are many opportunities to apply this in our classrooms regardless of what we teach, I will definitely be blogging about this in the future. For more information on service-based learning I recommend checking out the Kids Consortium, they provided some great resources.
My second takeaway from the conference was from a lecture given by Meira Levinson, PhD. Levinson is a Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and my newest educator crush). She spoke about why civics is important. While she made many, many amazing points and had some great information to share, I was really struck by her idea that civics should be practiced daily. She likened it to the fact that we as a society believe it's important to have students practice reading and writing daily (and it is) and we also believe that it is important to practice mathematics daily (and it is). However, we do not expect them to practice civics every day, when civics, regardless of what field they go into, or what they end up doing in life all grow up to have civic rights and responsibilities. She was in no way diminishing the importance of reading or mathematics, but was pointing out that we are failing to allow students to understand something that they will inevitably be part of.
This really struck me because it's true that we give student's a half-year course on government and then send them off into the world. Yet we're stunned when voter turn out is low, or people cannot name their representatives. It's no wonder students feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the American political process, they aren't being allowed to practice it. Levinson likened it to baseball. You aren't just born with a love of baseball, you develop it by practicing every day and finding a passion for it. If we don't allow students to practice civic discourse, they will never become passionate. She made an excellent point that we often involve student government in the planning of dances, but rarely the planning of curriculum. Again, similar to service-based learning, the take-away here is student autonomy and student voice. It definitely made me aware that I need to do more to implement civics into my curriculum not just once in a while, but on a consistent daily basis.
There were so many other great talks and workshops, and an amazing recreation of the senate debate on the Civil Rights Act. If you are a teacher in Massachusetts you should definitely consider attending next year. If you teach outside of Massachusetts, consider teaming up with some colleagues and thinking about what you can do to incorporate more civic education into your lessons. It is an area that we often gloss over in our pursuit of other topics. It definitely deserves more attention. Feel free to reach out to me as well, I'm happy to share any of the resources that I received today!
Have you ever tried service-based learning? How can we help student to develop a passion for civic life?
You can find more information about the Edward M. Kennedy Institute here.
Pencils dropping, hands going up, good discussions, bad discussions, weird discussions...group work scares many teachers into straight rows and direct instruction. It shouldn't. I love having students work in small groups, in fact small group "pods" of four desks is the default setting in my classroom.
After years of experimenting and a little help from small group communication theory (love getting to use my Master's degree), I have found four to be the ideal number. Does that mean there can never be five students in a group, or three? No, of course not. It simply means I have found that four seems to be the magic number where students are able to have meaningful conversations, without beginning to divide into "leaders" and "followers." I find when I get over six students, it enables some students to take over and others to back off completely. When I have less than four, I find students can have trouble debating and conversing on certain topics simply because there is a lack of differing view points and opinions. Obviously this is unique to my students and my classroom, you should experiment with what works for you.
So we've established that the majority of the time my students are in class they are sitting in, and engaging in group work. I'm not going to pretend that when you have 26 students working on projects, grabbing supplies, and sharing information with each other it doesn't get chaotic- it does. What can sometimes happen in the process of students approaching me with different requests, is that I miss a student that is truly "stuck." The simplest way I have found to monitor group work, and assure that everyone has their needs met is the "flag system." I didn't invent this, but I have adapted it to my room.
At the center of each table or group of desks you place a cup or holder of some kind. In each holder are three flags; red, yellow, and green. Students decide which flag to place upright in the holder depending on their needs.
Green = Everyone at the table is okay and understands what they are doing.
Yellow = Someone has a question, but it is not urgent and can wait until you finish working with another student.
Red = Someone at the table is fully stopped and cannot continue working until you help them. A red flag indicates that the teacher should immediately stop what they are doing and go to that table.
The first year I did this, I used actual flags that i made out of construction paper. The second year I wanted something a little less "elementary" looking, and I switched to flowers. I went to the dollar store and purchased a vase for each table. I then bought bouquets of fake flowers; red flowers, yellow flowers, and purple (they didn't have green). I cut up the bouquets so that each group had one flower of each color. All in all I think the project cost me $15.00. I then made a poster explaining what each of the flowers meant and set each group up with a vase and flowers. At the start of class students take the flowers out and set themselves up. As they work, they can switch out the flower to let me know where they are at. Meanwhile I circulate checking in accordingly. At the end of class they "re-set" the flowers back in the vase for the next class.
I like that the flowers allow students to indicate that they need help, without having to ask in front of the whole class. If I see a red flower, I immediately go over to that group and check in with them. Often it's more than one student that has a question. It also helps students to assess their needs. Rarely do I see a red flower, most often I see yellows. This means that they are trying to problem solve, and continuing to work through materials but I will be there shortly to help and clarify.
I should note that I circulate throughout the class and check in with the "green" groups as well. The colors are merely a way to indicate if I need to alter my path, or change the order that I check in. Students seem to really respect the system, if I'm working with a "red" group they are very good about understanding that I may need to spend more time there on that particular day.
If you are looking for a way to streamline group work a bit, I recommend trying it out. You could use cups, flags, flowers, markers, anything that can act as a signal.
How do you prioritize while students are working in groups?
Here is the poster I use, feel free to adapt it for your own uses:
I posted this on my old blog (flippinghistory.blogspot.com) back in December of 2013. Three years later, although I now teach high school, it's still completely true. On this day where so many are offering such kind words to teachers, I'd like to share a few words about why we are so lucky to do what we do!
Here is the original post:
Sometimes my students ask me why I became a teacher, or if I like teaching, but few of them tell me they aspire to the profession (and it is a profession). Sometimes I see negative articles against teachers, and I can understand why my students may not consider it an option they wish to explore. Even more often I see lists of 'why it is tough being a teacher', or '37 reasons we have it hard'. These lists are often posted by my colleagues. I know these lists are in jest, and of course offer a good (and often much needed laugh) but I thought that since this is a time of year where we feel the need to share why we are thankful with others, I would take a minute to compose a list of why I love my job. So here it goes:
I freaking unequivocally love my job because:
1. I love my students. All of them. Even the challenging ones, even the ones that don't love me. I'm going to say the thing you're not supposed to say as an educator- I didn't get into it for the kids. I didn't have a higher calling to work with children, to spend my day educating, mentoring, and growing with them. No, I didn't "get into it for the kids" but let me be pretty damn clear- I have stayed in teaching, I have fallen in love with teaching, I have begun a never ending quest to continually revise my practice to be the best possible version- for the kids. They continue to inspire me, to push me, and to both zap and renew my energy day in and day out. I now relish the learning, growing, and mentoring. We all have identifiers- sister, brother, father, mother, husband, etc. For many an additional identifier is 'teacher'. Without my students, that identifier would not exist.
2. I get to start over. All of the time. I am given the awesome responsibility every year of getting to know 100 amazing, unique, and talented students. It is a challenge and a blessing. Regardless of whatever else happens in my life and in the world, there they are every September. Few people in life get the chance to hone their craft and revise it over and over again. Few people in life are guaranteed to meet 100 new awesome strangers every year. I do, and though they be in miniature middle school form, these strangers offer new perspective and teach me far more than I teach them. I don't get to have them in my charge for very long, and I only get a glimpse of the path they are going to embark on after leaving my class- but it is humbling and awesome to be a part of another human's journey.
3. I appreciate the beautiful quiet in being completely alone. Because we are interacting all day long, those times we are alone become more important. Though we are not the only profession that wakes up early, the life of a teacher most often includes early start times. Yes there are days I wish I could amble into the office at 9am after a morning run and an actual breakfast but then I would miss this: Those few fleeting moments before the sun comes up where you breathe in the energy of the morning. By the time the bell rings you won't be able to recall anything specific about those pre-dawn minutes, but that quiet, traffic free commute to work allows time for reflection, a few moments of being completely alone in a world (and a profession) where we spend all day long communicating and interacting with others. There is something about those few moments of communicating with one's self in the morning that make me feel completely human and completely connected.
4.I have gotten a glimpse into different cultures, family lives, religions, politics, and economic experiences via my students. Only traveling offers such insight into the human condition. Teaching allows us the insight, but even better it allows us to attempt to better the human condition. Enough said.
5. I get summer vacation. I know that sounds trivial, and I realize most of us work through the summer as well, but I still get the excited feeling of euphoria that kids have in June, and the nervous butterflies that come with the fall. I get to spend hot humid days meandering places of interest- learning, growing and experiencing. Adults often complain that they would love to travel more, to read more, to explore their passions more, to learn more. Too often though the 'real world' gets in the way and these pursuits are left behind in childhood. For a few weeks each year, I get to pursue those passions. I get to get lost in a book, visit places of interest and feel like a kid again. Adults spend tens of hundreds of dollars on creams, make ups, clothes, and fitness routines trying to feel young again. These things may help, but nothing makes you feel as young as a cool ice cream on a hot August night of 'Summer Vacation.'
6. I work with energetic amazing people. I'm not just referring to people in my immediate building. I have met great educators (and lets face it great human beings) within my district and on the inter webs. There are so many teachers in my district that inspire me and drive me to be a better person. As a profession we are sharers. We share of our time, our talents, and our materials. I know of no other profession where people are so willing to spend hours of their own time developing something, and then readily share it with their colleagues. I have seen colleagues give their lunch to students that were hungry, buy coats for students that were cold, and share hugs with those that needed them. These are not hyperbolic actions, but rather quiet acts that occur in classrooms every day. I have also met an amazing group of educators through virtual modes- through Twitter an Blogging I have come to know an additional crew of selfless individuals ready to help, share, and build a better education system for our country. If that doesn't speak to the beauty of the job I don't know what does.
7. I get to go to coach middle school field hockey, I get to go to high school football games, I get to wear silly T-shirts with school colors and participate in goofy staff acts in the talent show. Of course middle school and high school had their rough spots, but I get to relive the best of middle school and high school. I get to do it every day (and with significantly better hair thanks to the invention of hair straighteners).
8. I get to spend my days talking about history, and reading about history, and learning about history, and getting others talking, reading and learning about history. I get to spend my days immersed in the subject I love. Pretty. Freaking. Sweet.
9. I get notes telling me what students have learned and how they have grown over the year. I get to stop a parent in the grocery store and tell them about a random act of kindness that their child did. I get to see the best of humanity. I get to see the worst of it too, but I get to see both ends of the spectrum, and there is a renewing energy in that. I get talk to students that come back to visit, and see the contributions they are making to society- I get to see the product of my work- and I get to say that I am incredibly proud of the work that I do.
10. Sometimes, that tough student, the one that you thought didn't care, the one you thought you couldn't reach- sometimes they surprise you- and its awesome and incredible and moving and humbling. I get to experience that too.
11. I've gone to school my whole life. There are so many in the world (women in particular) that will never get that opportunity. How humbling that I get to return every year.
I could go on, there are so many great aspects to what I do. I hope that some of my students do go on to become teachers. I hope that they continue to learn every day. I hope that they get to see the best of humanity, not just the worst. I hope they get a chance to improve the human condition. I hope they get quiet moments to themselves. Most of all I hope they also find a profession that energizes them, that provides enough compensation to feed their families, but one that also feeds their soul. Mostly, I hope that they freakin love their job! Because I do.
What did I miss? Why do you LOVE teaching?