Sunday, February 26, 2017

Turning the Classroom Inside Out

It's been a while since I've cracked open my computer with the intention of posting on this blog. Over 2 years, in fact (which I'm not proud to share).  It's not that I've been uninspired, or bored with teaching, and it's not that I've just found better things to do.  The truth is that I've spent the last couple of years working to accomplish a huge goal I was striving towards: becoming a school administrator.  While leaving the classroom (and my absolutely amazing colleagues and students at Coolidge Middle School) was an incredibly hard decision, I'm excited to say that I am just as passionate about my work in this role as I was about my work in the classroom.  I am just as dedicated to leading a positive and innovative whole school environment as I was about doing so in room B7. 

As a teacher, this blog was an important way for me to reflect upon my work, and it served as a reminder for why I loved my job.  I have to admit that I've struggled as a brand new administrator to find where this blog fits into my practice.   It's February, and I finally feel like I have my feet under me in this complex role (sort of in the way a toddler just learning to walk does, but hey, growth mindset!) I've begun to be able to truly appreciate some of the amazing things happening in our middle school classrooms, and have started Tweeting a bit more regularly to an audience of both fellow educators and community members. I started to get that itch for writing again, but wanted to find just the right thing to write about...

Enter 6th grade science teachers at Galvin Middle School, my new (and wonderful) home away from home.

After a short workshop on using QR codes in the classroom, 6th grade science teacher Liz Doucette quickly saw the value (and fun) in incorporating QR codes into her instruction.  She started with a station based learning activity where students traveled around the room scanning QR codes and completing the activities as instructed at each station.  She discovered that though this is a small addition to her instructional repertoire, it was hugely beneficial in the student engagement category.  (On another non-instructional note, her whole team is now using QR codes linked to a time-stamped Google form as a way for students to sign out of the classroom-so easy!)

The time came around where students would begin to learn about cells and their makeup in their 6th grade science classes.  In an effort to help students connect what they're learning to the world around them, the analogy is often made between a cell and a school (main office=nucleus, so on and so forth).  Sometimes, this comparison is taken to the next level of engagement, where students draw a map of their school, and label each area as if it were a part of the cell.  While Liz and her counterparts (Jennifer Pierce and Kyrsten Atwater) knew this comparison would hook many students, they still had a burning question: how can we get students to truly understand and internalize the importance of each cell part? The answer: send students on a chaotic mission all over the school building.  Let them bring their cell phones.  Hide something in the principal's office.  While it may sound like an assistant principal's nightmare, it was a middle schooler's dream lesson.  For the 50 or so minutes it took to complete this activity, our 6th graders were wide awake and eager to keep learning.  Sometimes we have to loosen our grip a little bit and cut some slack in order to get our students to take the bait.  So, how did Liz, Jen and Kyrsten reel them in? 

The Work Before the Work
The science teachers created a notes page pre-populated with all of the cell parts students would be looking for.  They then took time finding meaningful resources to connect with each cell part.  In some cases, this was a brief article defining the cell part and its purpose.  In other cases, it was a short video students watched to learn about the cell part's function.  The QR codes provided an element of surprise and intrigue, and the variety of types of resources kept students on the edge of their seats wondering what would pop up next.  

The activity was run in 4 separate sessions (for each of the four sections each teacher teaches).  In order to make sure all students were hearing the same message, teachers brought all of their students together in the 6th grade project room to explain their mission and relay expectations for behavior.  This was a fun way for students to see their friends on other teams, and for the teachers to build community as "scientists" with this common experience.   

Monitor and Motivate
Jen, Liz, and Kyrsten, along with instructional support staff strategically placed themselves throughout the school, and monitored students' progress.  The hallways were filled with teachers saying things like, "You're doing a great job! Keep going!" and asking follow up questions to support student learning and check for understanding.  

Meet Students' Needs
If you teach middle school, you know students need to move while they're learning, and they're going to move whether we'd like them to or not.  Think about that chair that's tipping back and forth, that tapping on the desk that's driving you just a little bit crazy, or that student who couldn't possibly need to sharpen their pencil again.  This activity gives students the natural movement they so desperately need, without the interruption to their learning.  

If you teach middle school, you also know that students in your classroom very probably learn at incredibly different paces.  In most teacher centered learning, (think "note-taking") inevitably some students finish with the quickness and accuracy of a Tom Brady touchdown pass, while others may need a bit more processing time, repetition, or scaffolding to fully internalize what's being taught. This activity gives students the freedom to learn at their own speed, the access to experts when they need them (teachers placed strategically in the halls), and the freedom to pause, process, and repeat when they need to. Those students who finish more quickly are given a "bonus" question: where would the nucleolus of the school be? Those students could be seen thinking deeply, discussing with their peers, and after a "light bulb" moment, hustling to the principal's office to find the final QR code.  

Classrooms are designed and decorated to create an environment and learning conditions where students can acquire new skills and new content.   Content objectives are clearly written, word walls are maintained and updated to stay current with what students are learning, and visual aides are provided for students to use to support their understanding.  What I loved about this lesson was that these three teachers took the classroom out of the classroom, and recognized that student learning is not just about memorization and acquisition of content.  It's also about encouraging students to collaborate, giving them the chance to make discoveries, and most importantly, allowing them to connect with their learning in an exciting and challenging way.   

I love when learning looks like this! 

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