Sunday, March 3, 2019

Game Changer: 3 Quick Questions


Two years ago, I started asking my students to voluntarily fill out a course evaluation Google Form at the end of each semester. I allowed the students anonymity, if that was their preference, to encourage honesty. I was terrified of to do this, but I'm also a big believer in being a reflective teacher. To be our best teaching selves, we must look back at the work we've done, find the strong points we want to hit again next time, and identify the problematic areas and design solutions for those problems. The teacher perspective is different from the student perspective, though, and at the end of the day it is the student that I am trying to reach! So I had them evaluate the course and allowed them the opportunity to pass judgement on literature selections, activities, tests, and more. I also included an instructor evaluation, so students were able to assess my teaching strategies, my personality as a teacher, my organization, and various other facets of my educator persona. In addition to rating scale questions, I allowed students the space to write comments. I was a little afraid some students would take advantage of the opportunity and bash me to pieces. I was a lot afraid they would all point out my glaring mistakes and negative attributes, and that the things they saw would be incredibly difficult or even impossible to fix.

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What happened, instead, was an incredibly enlightening experience for both myself and the students who participated (which was nearly all of them). The students who struggled the most in class (and who I feared would bash me to bits) quite often ended up saying they realized (far too late) that they had dug their own graves in class, that the course and instructor had offered them everything they needed to be successful, and they had not used those resources. The all-star students offered keen insight into my classroom management, ranging from appreciation for the grace I tend to allow students in their mistakes to requests for more built-in quiet time. I could see what was rated most highly ("the teacher shows genuine interest in students and their well-being") and what my weak points were ("the assignments are clear to me; I know what the task is").

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Was this whole experience rainbows and butterflies? Of course not. There were some things I had to come to terms with. There were always 2-3 students who rated me very poorly on most everything, students with whom I could never make the connection happen. The students put their names with their forms, so they didn't mind me knowing what they thought of me. It was hard not to take some of those low scores personally. Some students would make comments about the class being better if I quit giving them work, made all tests open book, never asked them to read (in my literature class, mind you), and I quit asking them to do more than one thing at a time. While these seemed ludicrous at first, I did recognize these students needed something from me. I couldn't quit giving them work, but I could structure my class to offer them more time to work with me there to assist them. I wasn't going to move to all open book tests, but I did move away from most of my content-based lessons to skills-based, where the book can't really assist that much. I had to build in more reading time in class, and I needed to teach them how to do more than one thing at a time.

The problem with my end of semester evaluations was that this practice was akin to an autopsy.

I was opening up the course after the fact and poking around at it to figure out what went wrong. True, I was able to learn what may have contributed to the death of my class for some students so that didn't happen again, but it would have been more effective if I had learned this stuff much earlier in the course. The autopsy was useful, but a diagnostic tool would have more immediate impact.

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This year, I have made two changes to this reflective practice. The first is the Richardson Report Card.

The students give me and my class a grade at the end of each quarter, the same time they receive their final quarterly grade. 

The students like the idea of grading me. We talk about best practices in evaluating and how to justify earned grades (DOK Level 4, anybody??). Now, instead of getting two autopsy reports a year, I get four. The first one shows up in October, which means I am empowered with my students' thoughts and can make immediate changes that will hopefully result in a better outcome over the next seven months. It is my hope that my first quarter report card will be my worst one. So far, that has proven to be the case.

The other big change this year is what I call 3 Quick Questions. Every once in a while, I'll throw a Google Form into Classroom and just tell the kids, "Hey, when you have a minute, I have 3 Quick Questions. If you could answer those for me, I appreciate it!"

3 Quick Questions is voluntary. I just come up with three questions that relate to something we are doing right now and I give the kids the opportunity to leave me feedback. It is a way for me to take the temperature of the class right away, to diagnose any problems, and to fix those problems now instead of waiting until the problem has killed off the class for a student.

Here are some examples of questions I have asked so far this year in 3 Quick Questions.

  • Why does reading suck? (Even if you don't think it sucks, why do you think some people think reading sucks?)
  • When is reading amazing? (Even if you don't think reading is amazing, why do you think some people think reading is amazing?)
  • We've been together for ___ weeks now. How can I be a better teacher for you?
  • What was your favorite lesson we have done so far?
  • Why was that lesson your favorite?
  • What needs to happen in this classroom that would help you be more successful in class?
  • How comfortable are you with the topic you've chosen to write about?
  • How happy are you with your thesis statement at this point?
  • ISTEP/ILEARN testing is coming up. How do these types of tests make you feel?
  • How can I help you do your best on these tests?
  • What is something you want to learn about or learn how to do before the end of the school year? (It does not have to be English class related).
  • Anything else you want Mrs. Richardson to know?
That last question is a big one. I always include that question at the end of any sort of feedback form I ever ask my students to fill out. Sometimes the kids will use that question as an opportunity to wish me good morning or say something kind that they are too embarrassed or shy to say in person. Sometimes they'll be funny and tell me a joke (some of my best clean jokes come from this question). Sometimes kids will tell me what they are struggling with in class, or they will share an idea they had for something. And sometimes, the kids will tell me about the horrible stuff they have going on in their personal lives. This box can become a bit of a confessional, where kids talk about family members who have recently died, how they feel about mom or dad getting out of jail that day, if they went to bed hungry last night, they need lunch money or a snack, someone at school is picking on them... 

In addition to seeing my students academic needs, this question gives the students a free pass to either reach out and make a positive connection with me via a compliment, well wish, or joke, or they can tell me about something going on in their lives that might cause them to struggle in school.

I would encourage any educator reading this to give 3 Quick Questions a try tomorrow. It takes no time at all to implement this practice, and the feedback you'll get from these questions is better than any formative data could ever hope to be.

tim meadows mr glascott GIF by The Goldbergs
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If you want a jumpstart at incorporating your own teacher report card and 3 Quick Questions, here are some Google Forms templates to help you get started!


Happy Teaching!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Making Choice Seating Work for You (Plus a Free Guide to Help You Get Started!)


When I applied for a teaching position with my current school, I knew they placed a lot of value on creativity and out-of-the-box thinking from their teachers, so when they asked me during my interview what completely crazy thing I would love to do, I didn't hesitate.

"I want to create a classroom that feels like a coffee shop combined with the work space of library. I want a room where students can comfortably collaborate in large groups, small groups, pairs, or work independently. In the real world, people don't usually sit in small cramped desks in rows. When possible, we choose a spot where we will be both comfortable and productive. Seventh grade is a perfect time for students to start learning how to make the choices that meet their needs, and I think having a room like this would be the perfect opportunity to teach them this skill, and it would be so much more convenient for me as the teacher."

When I was offered the job, I asked if I could make my coffee shop classroom happen, and I was given an emphatic, "Absolutely."


Making my coffee shop classroom happen was an involved process to be sure. I have been fascinated by classroom design pretty much since the beginning of my teaching career, and choice or flexible seating has occupied a lot of my summertime research for the last three years. This was one of those rare instances in my teaching that I didn't just dive in. I sat on the side of the pool for a long time, really wanting to jump in but not having the freedom to do so. While I watched from the sidelines, I observed and made notes and planned. When I was finally given the chance to jump in, I had already given this thing serious thought and planned it all out. Thus far, I would say the implementation of this type of choice seating in my classroom has been a resounding success.

Here's the thing, though. You want to make choice seating work for you, not make more work for you.

Today, I'm going to take you through the process I followed when preparing for my deep dive into flexible seating and how I've made this work for my classes. I'll be sharing my successes and my failures, because I'm a believer in stealing other people's best ideas and learning from their worst. If this is something you really want to do, I've prepared a free guide for you to use as you plan in order to make choice seating work for you.

Step 1: Your Why

Before you even begin planning your choice seating revolution, make sure you understand why you're doing it. You should have very clear goals in mind. It's just as important to remember what you do not want as much as what you do want. Here's a broken down list of my goals for my classroom.
  • I wanted to create an environment in which my students could be comfortable, creative, and productive. 
  • I wanted to allow students agency. 
  • I wanted a room that I could quickly and easily transform to meet whatever conditions the learning needed that day.
  • I wanted a room that would hold up to the typical wear-and-tear that comes along with hosting 90+ students every day.
  • I did not want a room that caused me stress, anxiety, or a daily headache.
  • I did not want furniture that would be a distraction.
  • I did not want to could not spend a ton of money.
Actionable step: make a list of wants and don't wants for your flexible seating classroom. Be very clear and very intentional in making this list.


Step 2: Reality Check

Once you have your "why" in mind, honestly ask yourself if it is a good enough reason for you to completely disrupt your current mindset and to take on the challenges associated with this major change. Personally, I don't think that a teacher should pursue flexible seating because it is trendy or because they want a beautiful classroom. If you're merely following a trend, chances are your resolve won't hold up the first time this adventure goes a way you didn't plan for it to go. As for beauty, I can appreciate a teacher's need to be in a beautiful classroom since we spend so much time in this one room. However, it's worth remembering that kids are kids, and kids can be destructive (intentionally or not). Dropping a lot of money on a gorgeous classroom is great if that's your thing, but it could be incredibly devastating the first time a kid pukes on that adorable rug or an ink pen bursts all over your cute white chairs.

Actionable step: step away from Pinterest and Instagram and ask yourself, very seriously, is it worth it. You guys, this whole flexible seating or choice seating movement is a mindset shift. In many ways, you are taking some of the control away from the teacher and giving it to the students. Go back to your list of goals that you made. As you read each one, ask yourself if it is going to worth it to invest the time and effort and money into this new adventure. For me, it was totally worth the impending challenges to make this room happen.


Step 2.5: Dot the i's and cross the t's

Hey, do yourself a favor at this stage. Before you go any further in your plans, you need to ensure that the powers that be are totally kosher with this wacky scheme of yours. You should probably check in with folks such as your building level administration, co-teachers (if you'll be sharing a classroom), and the person in your building that deals directly with school safety. Figure out now what your area's fire code will and will not allow. It seems like every school is different in this regard. Some fire marshals will let you put flame retardant filters on your fluorescent lighting; some will not. Some will be cool with hanging stuff from your ceiling. Some will insist that all paper is at least eighteen inches from the ceiling. Some administrators will be totally okay with that squishy couch you want to put in your room, while others cry "bedbugs" and "lice" and give that couch a big ole NOPE. Before you set your sights on that amazing reading chair in your parents' basement or those twinkle lights you plan to drape from the ceiling, make sure that those dreams can become reality without red tape getting in the way.

Actionable step: reach out, starting with building-level administration. Be prepared to share your clearly defined goals and to defend your plan for choice seating. Be honest and upfront in this conversation, and be willing to both make concessions and push for what is best for your students. It is likely that the conversation with your building level admin will lead you towards any other conversations that need to take place.

Step 3: Make Good Choices

Alright, you're doing this thing! Sweet. Now it's time to begin your research, and I don't just mean Pinning pictures of beautiful rooms (although, let's be honest, we should legit be getting professional development points for scouring Pinterest for amazing classroom ideas). No, if you're going to do this thing, do it right. Begin doing research on flexible seating gone right, flexible seating gone wrong, and the research behind classroom design. And, if you're using technology in the classroom, consider 21st century learning and how the classroom can support that. After doing loads of research, it is time to make some good choices. What kind of seating choices do you want to offer your students? I had to keep myself very disciplined when exploring all of the wonderful seating options. I would see these amazing classrooms with wobble stools and yoga balls, and they were so cool. But here's the deal: those did not fit my why. Check out my list again. That kind of seating was not going to work for my vision. In fact, I knew for certain that I would hate corralling yoga balls in a classroom full of 7th graders, and I definitely did not have time to make little rings out of pool noodles to house said yoga balls. I also didn't have the time to do a bunch of DIY seating (have you seen those seats made out of old tires?) and those cute DIY seats would fit neither my vision or the huge variety of growing bodies found in a middle school. So when you start choosing the seating options you would like to offer your students, take some of the following into consideration.
  • Your sanity - Will this choice make you completely bonkers? (If you can't handle bouncing, wiggling, rolling, squeaking, etc. make sure you choose seating that won't do those things.)
  • Your finances - How will you be acquiring these items? Are you buying out-of-pocket? Are you getting funding from a grant or a Donor's Choose project? Are you willing to pay to replace these things when they get broken?
  • Your age group - Different age groups have different needs. Keep the bodies of the humans in your classroom in mind before selecting that rickety dollar store stool.
  • Your classroom management style - This kind of ties in with your sanity. What can you handle? What can you not? Do not set your students up for failure by providing them with a source of chaos that you cannot manage!
  • Durability of the item - All it takes is a jab with a pencil to make a yoga ball pop, and one bodily fluids accident (ya'll, it's gross but it happens!) can completely ruin the upholstery on that papasan chair. How will you ensure these items last?
For the sake of real talk, I think you should know that so far this year I had one chair ruined due to a bodily fluids accident and two rolling desk chairs that have been broken and repaired due to being wheeled too quickly and the wheel breaking off when it slammed into something. I have a third rolling chair that I'm pretty sure won't survive until next year (but to be fair, it was a little broken when I got it), and I've resigned myself to the fact that I will have to put new contact paper on my tall table every school year. Lessons learned: Teflon coating is your friend, rolling chairs should be relegated to a certain zone of the room, and contact paper is a pain in the butt.

What if I can't replace all of my furniture? What if I must use the furniture my school provides? 
This is such an important topic. Ya'll. Choice seating does not mean you must have all of the special furniture in the world. Choice seating, at its heart, is giving your students agency over their seating. Choice seating means we are moving away from the traditional rows and columns and seating charts, and we are letting students choose where they sit while reconfiguring the seating to the best of our abilities to create a classroom space that best supports the learning. Are you, for whatever reason, "stuck" with those desk/chair combinations or school-provided tables and chairs? You can work with this! Ditch the seating chart and try out new ways of organizing your desk arrangement. If possible, add in a corner of the room that just has a rug and some pillows so kids can sit on the floor and work, or let your students use your rolling desk chair or that tall chair that you sit on occasionally. It's all about choices that support the learning, ya'll. Don't be blinded by all of the bring and shiny things; keep the why at the center of this whole process.

Actionable step: Do your research. Make a budget. Consider each option's pros and cons before adding it to your classroom. Take preventative measures. Tis better to be proactive than reactive.


Step 4: Design Your Space with Purpose

Now that you know what kinds of seating you plan to offer, it's time to figure out your room configuration plan. This, again, needs to go back to your goals for the room. What are you trying to achieve with your space? When putting my room design together, I came up with the following requirements for the space.
  • The room would consist of zones for whole-group instruction, student collaboration, and independent work.
  • The room would progressively get quieter. The noisy zones would be in the front of the room, and the silent zones in the back. (This has actually changed since the year began, and now it's more like the room gets quieter as you cross from one side to the other.)
  • There would be many numbers of seat groupings possible. Some tables would seat up to six, while others would seat trios. Some spots would be individual spots.
  • There would be a space that could be reserved specifically for small-group lessons.
  • The room would be able to be reconfigured quickly.
  • The room would be able to comfortably seat all students + four others without taking advantage of floor seating.
As a result of this, my room has a "master layout" that is the typical formation (this has changed a little since these pictures were taken). However, I can easily shuffle furniture around to make the room more appropriate for stations or shared inquiry or playing Grudgeball or whatever we're up to.

I cannot more highly recommend listening to this episode of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast for inspiration on classroom design. There's a lot of food for thought here.

Actionable step: spend some quality time in your classroom and develop a basic floor plan. Figure out what cannot be moved and work around those things. How can you make the best use of your space? How can you make the space work for you, your students, and your vision?


Step 4.5: Make It Happen

This is either the fun part (if you're an abnormal human who likes this sort of torture, like myself) or the worst part. This is the part where you start pulling the room together. My garage became my found treasures warehouse for pretty much the entirety of last summer. It looked like a rummage sale in there. In the old days, when I worked just fifteen minutes from school, I would have pieced my room together slowly. My new school is forty-five minutes from home, though, so this wasn't an option. Fortunately, my dad has a truck and my uncle has a box trailer, so we literally had moving day. I called in the troops, and my family helped me load up this box trailer full of secondhand furniture plus all of my other classroom supplies that was making the move to my new school. We unloaded everything into my new classroom (which, fortunately, is in a single-story building and pretty close to an exterior door) and then started shuffling around the pieces. My floor plan worked out exactly as I'd hoped it would, so that made the process go much faster. But you guys know what a closed school building is like during the summer. It was a million degrees in there. We were hanging up brick wallpaper and putting together bar stools and adjusting furniture while my infant played with his grandma in one corner of the room and my preschooler watched PJ Masks on the Promethean board. This process, for me, is both Hell on Earth and one of my best memories.

Actionable step: Just do it. If your transformation is big, recruit help and pay them in food and adult beverages.


Step 5: The Rollout Plan and the Management Plan

Yay! You have an amazing room! Maybe it isn't the dream room yet, but you've made some serious progress. Oh, but honey... you're not done yet. Because now we've come to the most difficult part of this process: the Rollout Plan and the Management Plan.

Rollout Plan
This is your plan for introducing your students to the new world of your classroom. If you're a trailblazer in your building, chances are high that your classroom is going to completely throw off some students, especially the kids that are really good at The Game of School. Now, you guys know I'm a big fan of Harry Wong,* and in The First Days of School, he says that out students need to know where to sit on the first day of school. This provides the student with a sense of security amongst all of the uncertainty of the first day. It is comforting to know exactly where to go and what to do in a new environment. As someone who deals with social anxiety, I happen to agree with the Wongs on this point. Teachers roll out their choice seating in different ways. Some let the choice begin immediately. Some create a seating chart for that first day. My goal was for students to know where to go, find the seat quickly, and begin the provided first task while also letting them dip their toes into the waters of choice seating. Since my room is divided into zones, I labeled each zone with a sign featuring a creature (Mockingjays, Wookies, Ents, Bandersnatches, Drogons, and Hippogriffs) and the seating configuration for that zone. I printed and laminated playing card sized versions of these signs, with enough cards for each zone (so, for example, the Wookies zone seats six, so I printed six Wookies cards). When my students arrived the first day, I greeted them at the door and handed each one a card from the deck (I shuffled the deck prior to their entrance). Students were instructed to find the zone on their cards and to choose a seat within that zone. Then, for the next two weeks, I met students at the door every day and gave them a card. This allowed students to try out different zones and seats in the room with very little risk or social pressure, since I was assigning them their zones. This system worked beautifully, and I will definitely use it again next year.

The Rollout Plan also needs to include how you introduce choice seating to your students. How will you explain the concept to your students? What will the rules be, and who is coming up with these rules - you or your students? What choices are they allowed to make with their seats, and what are the non-negotiables? (For example, my students may move around the room freely during work time, but they must stay seated in place and facing the front during instructional time.)

The Management Plan
Once you've rolled out your choice seating and everyone has agreed on the rules and procedures, you will now have to actively enforce these rules and procedures with appropriate consequences. Don't forget there is a difference between and rule and a procedure, and there is a difference in how we deal with those infractions. For example, you might expect that students not stake a claim to certain seats and that they switch up their seating frequently. When you see students assigning themselves seats and calling dibs on seats for friends, this is a break in procedure, but isn't really a breach in a rule. As a result, you'll need to reteach your students this procedure. However, if one of your firm rules is to respect the public space of the room, and you see students writing on a tabletop or leaving shreds of paper on the floor, a repercussion should follow (perhaps they must clean up their mess and serve a lunch detention). As will all classroom management plans, you must have a set of logical consequences and you must hold to them. You must be consistent in the management of your choice seating environment, and you must be very firm in the beginning. If the expectation is that students will not put their feet on the furniture, you must uphold the rule rigidly until students truly understand what is allowed in this new environment and what is not.

The structure and implementation of these two plans is absolutely critical to the success of your choice seating movement.

Actionable step: take the time to write out your Rollout Plan and your Management Plan, both very specific to your new classroom environment. Be extremely clear about your expectations. I strongly advise that you have a solid Rollout Plan before the first day of school, and you should have at least a general outline of your Management Plan in place. I recommend talking to the students about the Management Plan and having them come up with the rules for how to respect the classroom space. I'll share a mistake with you; I originally thought that telling my students to treat our classroom space the way they treat their personal belongings or home would suffice, but students were quick to bring to my attention that the expectations in their homes were completely different. Some students were allowed to have shoes on the furniture, and some were not. Some were allowed to draw on their bedroom walls, some were not. Some blatantly admitted to me that they are much more careful with belongings in a public space than they are with their own things. If I had not gotten student input and I'd just stuck with my "treat it like you treat your own things" mentality, I know the classroom would have been ruined in short order. Get student input. It is valuable.


There it is! Are you ready to make the change from traditional to choice seating? Download my free guide and get started!

Happy Teaching!





*Seriously, that joke will never get old.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

8 Sweet Free Tech Tools You Can Start Using Tomorrow

I had the privilege of attending the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando at the end of January and let me tell you, as a tech conference newb, my mind was blown! I dissected a dolphin using zSpace. I made a margarita by pedaling a stationary bike. I was the fastest and most accurate typist of the day at the Learning Without Tears booth. I learned about Novel Engineering on a makerspace bus. I got to tinker with some LEGO robotics. There were so many big name vendors on the floor showing off their amazing gadgets and services, but I was just as impressed with the immediate takeaways from the event. I was able to grab a ton of new tech tools and ideas that can be implemented immediately! Today I'm sharing with you eight of the sweet free tech tools I found at FETC that you can start using tomorrow!


Wakelet

You guys, I am seriously in love with Wakelet. Wakelet is a curation tool that allows you to create collections of web addresses, tweets, YouTube videos, images, PDFs, and textboxes. The process of adding to the collection is incredibly simple, and reorganizing the items in the collection is very easy. There are three viewing modes, all with different pros. Media view allows for videos to play within the Wakelet collection, compact view shows tiles and descriptions only for links, and grid view is organized into blocks. You can add collaborators to the Wakelet collection and sharing is simple. I'm currently using Wakelet to create a tech toolbox for our teachers, organized by tool utility (assessment, interactive learning, publishing, audiovisual, etc.). The simplicity of this tool is what makes it so awesome.



Symbaloo

Symbaloo is another very cool curation tool, but with the added benefit of having a free educator pro account that allows you to create learning paths! Not only can you curate content and create Symbaloo landing pages for students (imagine a world where every website your kids need is on one single page, neatly organized in a highly-visual tiles layout, so they don't have to try to type in a URL or find it in your Google Classroom stream somewhere), but you can design interactive lessons AND it will track student performance! I'm just getting started with Symbaloo but I can see the possibilities being endless with this powerful tool.



Adobe Spark

I knew a little about Adobe Spark before going to FETC thanks to a few students who had used it for video creation, but I had no idea of its true capabilities. Kasey Bell (Shake Up Learning) and Holly Clark (The Technology Infused Classroom) presented together, and they showed us the power of the Spark Page. My mind was blown! They presented this great idea of taking a traditional writing assignment and "shaking it up" by having them publish their writing as a Spark Page. I love this idea! Let's teach our essay genres and formatting as we need to, but then let's kick it up a notch by adding in this creative element. I can't wait to show my students what this tool can really do!



AutoDraw

At first, I thought this tool was kind of a cutesy, "oh that's pretty fun" kind of tool. Once I started messing with it, though, I realized just how useful this could be! AutoDraw uses AI to guess what you are drawing and then to clean it up and turn your drawing into something that looks cleaned up and professional. These drawings can be shared out, or they can be downloaded as png files! Students can do their own illustrations for stories and presentations with the help of AutoDraw instead of just searching for an image or a piece of clip art.





Gimkit

Do you love using games in class, but your students are bored to death of Kahoot! and Quizlet Live? Throw Gimkit into your classroom gaming rotation! Gimkit is unique for two reasons. First, no projection required. All questions pop up on student devices and it is student-paced, based on how quickly they answer the questions (if they make it through the whole set of questions before time runs out, they just start answering the same questions again). Second, the points system is monetary. Students earn in-game money for correct answers, and that money can be used to purchase upgrades, power-ups, and even sabotage items! When one of our teachers tried this game last week, he remarked on how quiet and engaged the students were as they played. Unfortunately, you only get five free kits before you have to start paying, but if you don't mind creating temporary games, this is a great gaming option! Bonus: it integrates seamlessly with Quizlet, so your Quizlet decks can be turned into Gimkits with just a few clicks.


Bookshare

I cannot explain to you how excited I was to discover Bookshare! It is such a needed resource. Bookshare provided free ebooks for students with reading difficulties. Here's a direct quote from their landing page: "Bookshare makes reading easier. People with dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers can customize their experience to suit their learning style and find virtually any book they need for school, work, or the joy of reading." Schools can sign up for an organization account and add students who have reading difficulties due to disabilities (IEP, 504, or other documentation is required), and the Bookshare library becomes available to those students free of charge. They offer books using the dyslexia font, read-aloud, highlighting, large font, and other formatting options to customize the reading experience. I haven't had the chance to use this in my classroom yet, but I'm looking forward to giving it a go.



Flippity


Ya'll, Flippity is one spiffy tool! Flippity will take a regular old Google spreadsheet and Flippity it right on its head and turn it into something awesome, like flashcards, a quiz show, a randomizer, puzzles, artwork, a progress indicator, and more. There is a Flippity add-on for extra speed, and if you don't have a spreadsheet but you do have a list of things that need Flippityed (I just made that verb up), you can just input the list. As someone who has spent a painful amount of time trying to design my own tournament brackets before, I'm basically crying with relief at the discovery of Flippity.



PDF Candy

PDF Candy should be called PDF Freaking Magic! Take pretty much everything that Adobe wants to charge you to be able to do with a PDF, and PDF Candy will do it for free. Conversions, compressions, merges, splits, locking, editing... PDF Candy has you covered. I love PDFs for the fact that they cannot be easily manipulated, but sometimes there is a need to tinker with a PDF. This tool has you covered.



Hopefully there's something here that you'll be able to turn around and start using tomorrow to kick things up a notch in your classroom! What are your favorite free tech tools?


Saturday, January 26, 2019

4 Simple Tech Tools I Love Right Now

I am a lover of using technology in the classroom. While I do not believe that technology is the answer to all of our problems, I do believe in the power of technology to help us transform our classrooms and make our learning even stickier. When using a technology tool in the classroom, I like to ask myself two questions. The first is, "How will this tool support the already-planned objectives?" I won't plan to use a tool first and then try to figure out which standard I can teach with the tool. Instead, it's a matter of looking at the objective and figuring out if there is a tech tool that could support the learning. I also love to ask myself, "What can we do now with technology that wasn't really possible before?" With technology at our fingertips, my students can participate more in their learning than ever before. I no longer need to force feed them content; they can use technology to do the work and, therefore, do the learning. This love of technology in the classroom is why I am so incredibly excited to have the opportunity to attend FETC 2019! We'll be spending three days in Orlando this week exploring all of the latest in classroom technology. I hope to write a blog post next weekend about some tech tools that I discover while I'm there, so today I want to share with your four simple tech tools that I'm using right now in my classroom.

Canva

Graphic design is one of my favorite hobbies. I love taking a blank digital canvas and creating something beautiful with high utility. That being said, I don't always have time to start with a blank canvas. Sometimes I need something that looks well put-together and I need it pronto. I love Canva for this! They have so many amazing design templates (the free selection really is excellent), and you really can't mess them up. I needed a "menu" for a food symbolism activity my literature classes are doing next week, so I was able to use Canva to whip one up in no time.


I also use Canva to design the badges that I award students. Now that I have one badge template, I just swap out the background image, the border color, and the badge name for each new badge I create.


My students have had success using Canva this year too! They did a great job creating infographics for a mini research project.


Pear Deck (Add-On)

If you aren't familiar with them, Pear Deck and Nearpod are interactive presentation tools. They are both amazing tools for a one-to-one classroom. Both tools allow you to put the slides of your presentation directly onto the student devices, essentially eliminating the need for a projector (although I still love and use mine). Both tools allow you to do whole-class presentations that are controlled from the teacher device, or you can assign student-paced presentations. Finally, the trademark feature of both tools is that you can add interactive slides to your presentations that require students to answer a multiple choice question, write a response, take a poll, draw a picture, drag and drop... It is awesome. I'm fortunate to work in a school that has a paid subscription to Nearpod, and I really like it. The tool I am really loving the most right now, though, is the Pear Deck add-on for Google Slides. It is so incredibly easy to use. Once you get the add-on, it is as simple as opening a Google Slides presentation you've already created, opening the add-on, and plugging in some interactive slides. You can then launch your presentation from the add-on, or you can go to the Pear Deck website and begin the lesson. This week, we did a lesson on analyzing an author's tone. I was able to constantly cycle between I Do, We Do, and You Do using Pear Deck. I would teach them the analysis technique, together we would analyze a passage using the technique, and then students were required to do analysis on their own of a different passage and write a response on a Pear Deck interactive slide. This whole process makes for more engaging note-taking and I get immediate feedback to see if the kids are getting it. I would love to get my hands on the paid version of Pear Deck (you get more data and more interactivity options that way), but for now I'm enjoying what you get from the freebie. If you need to spice up your presentations and you are one-to-one, I highly recommend this add-on.


Thinglink


Thinglink is a very cool tool that allows you to turn any image into an interactive graphic. Using Thinglink, you can add hotspots to any image that will link the viewer to websites, videos, images, text boxes, and more. I created a Thinglink to provide contextual information to my students before reading Refugee. Instead of frontloading information by lecturing for forty-five minutes, students completed a Hyperdoc activity that included this Thinglink.



Kami

I'm late to the Kami party, but this is such a great tech tool. Kami allows you to easily annotate PDFs. You can highlight, underline, add text notes, drop comment bubbles, draw shapes, and more. It does integrate nicely with Google Drive, which is a bonus. I introduced Kami to my students during our note-taking stations activity, and I have several who have really latched onto this method. Since the students have access to a PDF of The Hunger Games, many are taking their reading notes by directly annotating their PDF of the novel.



There you have it! I love using these four tools in my student-centered classroom environment. Like all technology tools, you can burn your students (and yourself) out if you use them too frequently. Peardeck would lose its pizazz if I used it for every lesson, and Thinglink would get boring if I used it every time I needed to provide context. However, mixing and matching our tech tools will ensure that we keep our students wondering what we have up our sleeves next!

Is anyone else going to FETC this week? Let's connect! I'll be posting on both Twitter @eatwriteteach and Instagram @eatwriteteachblog during the conference.

Happy Teaching!



Saturday, January 19, 2019

5 Simple Ways to Offer Student Choice



I think a lot of teachers who aren't familiar with the concept believe that offering student choice is a recipe for disaster. It might seem like "lazy teaching." I would expect that teachers who subscribe to this idea would be less than impressed when they walk into my classroom on a typical day. They might see stations activities set up, with kids sitting in groups, and they are talking to each other, AND the teacher is just walking around chit-chatting with them! Or they may see all of the students sitting in a big circle having a heated discussion (albeit a civil one) without raising their hands, and all the teacher is doing is just fueling the fire by asking incendiary questions! Or even worse than all that (because at least there's the appearance of some sort of structure there), it might be a workshop day, where students are scattered all over the room (umm are those kids sitting on the floor?!) and some are whispering in groups while others are alone, some are plugged into their Chromebooks while others write feverishly on sticky notes, and then there are kids (7th graders!) who literally have crayons and are drawing pictures while reading a novel. And there's music playing (probably 80s cardio, classic rock, or Lindsey Stirling). And the teacher? She's sitting at a bar-height table with three kids, talking to them.

On a typical day, you won't see me lecturing from a PowerPoint. Not anymore... those days are gone (or at least very rare). You won't see everyone doing exactly the same thing. My students used to do that, especially in my early years in the classroom, but to be honest it got really boring grading the exact same paper 170 times. You won't see rows of desks either. I got rid of those this year, and I'll never go back as long as I have a say in it. You won't see me doing binder checks. You won't see packets. You probably won't even see homework (unless it is reading or working on a long-term project).

What is happening in this classroom? Where is the teaching? Where is the learning?

One of the best methods to increase student engagement in the classroom is to give the students choice in their learning. The simple act of allowing students to make choices about their learning can have a tremendous positive impact on engagement, behavior, and classroom culture. I have a student-centered teaching approach. I always have, though it hasn't always looked the way it does now. I will never forget how mortified my mentor teacher was during my student-teaching experience when I had students choose which character they liked best from A Midsummer Night's Dream for the purpose of character analysis. She couldn't believe I wouldn't have them all analyze the same character. I remember telling my sophomores they would get to choose an urban legend or conspiracy theory for their argumentative papers, and they would choose whether to prove or disprove it. Some of them were absolutely giddy with the freedom of choice, while others were at a total loss because they were so used to having limited decision-making in the classroom. There were a few students who were actually incredibly annoyed that I wouldn't just give them a topic to write about, because doing the early research and finding a topic that would actually meet the requirements of the paper was a lot of work on their part! When it was all said and done, though, every student analyzed a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I would say almost every student turned in an argumentative essay that they actually enjoyed writing.

Giving students agency in the classroom is so powerful, but it can be a daunting task. There are lots of "reasons" why a teacher might choose not to offer choices in their classroom.

Doesn't that make your workload so much heavier?

How do you objectively grade completely different work?

There's no way my kids could handle that.

They won't make good choices.

You guys, I get it. I really do. I've said these things before myself! (I'm particularly guilty of that third one.) But offering choice in your classroom does not have to make you work harder. In fact, once you have shifted your mindset, I believe that student choice will lessen your workload. Alice Keeler often says, "Whoever is doing the work is doing the learning." Why are we killing ourselves doing all of the work for our students? They should be doing the work! You can objectively grade these assignments, and your kids can handle choice if you teach them how to make good choices. Allowing students the opportunity to make choices in the classroom transfers the workload and the responsibility, lessening the weight on our shoulders and putting more on theirs. This is a good thing. It is a good thing for selfish reasons (maybe we'll have a little more energy at the end of the day?), but it is a better thing for these people in our classrooms who will be going into the real world one day and will have to make good choices without us there to catch them when they fall.

Now, here's what I would never do. If you are ready to dip your toes into the water of student agency for the first time, I would never suggest that you start with choice seating. I would never suggest that you alter all of your assessments to be free choice. I would never suggest that you dive straight into a Genius Hour or 20% Time or Project-Based Learning format. I would never suggest you make enormous changes all at once, and I would definitely never suggest you model your classroom after someone else's.

Much like we scaffold our students' learning, I think we must also scaffold student choice. We must progressively teach our students how to make good choices and learn in a more independent manner, and we must allow ourselves the grace to progressively let go of that death grip we are holding on our traditional classroom structures.

Must your classroom look like mine? Absolutely not. Your classroom structure needs to suit you and your personality and your tastes, but it also needs to benefit your students. I think even the most traditional classroom can still give students agency.

Are you ready to begin? Here are five simple ways to get started with student choice in the classroom.

1. Topics

The easiest way to allow student choice is to simply allow them to choose their own topics. Are you teaching them how to write an argumentative essay? Choose an umbrella (ex: conspiracy theories, school rules, controversies, political platforms, etc.) and then let them choose from under the umbrella. Are the students studying medieval times (or any historical time period)? Let them choose to focus their studies on one element of the times (the food, the clothing, the religion, the government, etc.). Teach students how to choose a solid topics of study by showing them how to do early research, write focused research questions, and meet the requirements you have set forth.

2. Notes Style

I think one of the best things we can teach our students (at any grade level and in any subject) is how to take notes. This is a life skill. Not all notes are created equal, and it is a powerful thing to arm our students with a variety of note-taking skills so they can choose the style that best suits their needs. I recently did note-taking stations with my students so they could try out five different types of note-taking methods. Earlier in the year, I modeled some note-taking methods. Instead of having students copy down every single thing you have written on the board exactly as you've written it, try allowing them some freedom in how they take notes. Let them do Sketchnotes, Cornell notes, webs, outline notes, scaffolded notes... Allow students to choose whatever style most suits them, as long as they get the needed information written down in a format that works best for them.

3. Discussion Topics

I went on about this at length in my previous post, but an easy way to increase engagement in classroom discussion is to let the students lead the discussion. Start by asking them for their questions, but instead of answering them right away, record them on the board. After the first few brave souls ask a question, the others will get warmed up and you will soon have a really excellent list of things your students want to know! Once you've exhausted this activity, figure out which questions are mere comprehension questions and tackle those first. Let the students answer. Then use the rest to develop essential questions for whole-group discussion. Most of the time, this method will still allow you to get around to the questions you wanted to ask anyway, but the students are going to be more engaged because these are their questions, not yours.

4. Task Lists

It's amazing what you can accomplish by simply letting students decide in what order they want to accomplish something. If there are several tasks that students need to complete, but it doesn't matter in what order they are completed, let the kids decide! My students love task list days. I just give them a list and say, "Hey guys. These are the things you will be working on the next two days. You can do these items in whatever order you like, as long as the entire list is complete by the end of the day tomorrow. Have at it." The students are all doing the same thing, but allowing them to choose the order in which they do it makes it go down better and you are teaching them about prioritizing tasks!

5. Format

If offering choices on topics worked really well, you can kick it up a notch by offering students choices in format. Obviously there is a time and place to teach a specific format (teaching MLA for an essay, for example), but there may be times where you could tell students "Okay, you may choose to write an essay, create a Google Slides presentation, or design an infographic." For example, last semester my students did a mini research project. They had to choose a product and learn how it came into existence (how it was made, who created it, etc.). Students selected a wide variety of topics, from fireworks to chocolate chip cookies to Snapchat. Students were tasked with informing others about their topic, and they were allowed to choose the format. Many chose Google Slides, a few wrote essays, and a couple made web pages. You may be wondering about grading this project when there were so many formats. The fact is, I didn't actually care which format they used. I wasn't grading the format. I was assessing them on research and informative writing standards. I was looking for things like clear introduction of topic, organization of ideas, the use of facts from various sources, and their ability to follow the research process. They could do all of these things no matter what format they used. In fact, our state standards require that students use a variety of formats in their writing, so if I only assign essays, I'm actually not meeting all of the standards.

Pin the infographic for quick reference!

In what ways do you allow students to have agency in your classroom? Is there some small change you could make that could have a major impact?

Happy Teaching!