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Scaffolding the Learning

It's getting pretty close to back to school time again (and it's already that time for some of you).  Don't panic.  I've gotten together with some of my best upper grade blogging friends to create a back to school survival guide full of our best tips and tricks for you.  So ... relax and breathe.  And then breathe again.  We're all in this together.

If you are a brand new teacher, or are starting a new grade level this year (like I am), one of the first things you do is start to scour the curriculum to see the expectations and standards you need to cover.  And usually the second thing you do is start to panic, wondering how you are going to fit it all in and tie it all together in a neat little package so that your students are demonstrating their learning in those perfect little constructed responses that are required. The most important thing to remember is that these standards and expectations and constructed responses are something that students should know by the END of the year (or by testing time, which is often sooner ... but that's a post for another day).  You (and your students) have TIME to get there.

Scaffold the Learning:
Although you do need to start out right away teaching the expectations and standards, you don't need to expect full constructed responses from your students right away.  Let them start slow - their brains are hard at work learning the new concepts - give them a chance to master the material first.

When I do start them on constructed responses, I start out with one simple step.  I introduce our first response learning goal by the second week of school - and I keep it easy by starting with "start with part of the question in your answer" in reading and "plan your organization" in math.  We talk about why each learning goal is an important part of the constructed response, and we color code these parts when practicing our responses.

I scaffold the learning by introducing one step at a time, and give them time to master it before adding a second step.  This way the students aren't struggling to remember all the steps to constructed responses as well as the lesson standards and expectations for the concepts taught.  I keep a bulletin board of these learning goals (our response learning goals) and we slowly add to them each time I introduce a new goal (adding a new goal about every two weeks or so).  By January, we have a complete set of learning goals for our constructed responses, giving the students the rest of the year to practice combining the concepts they've learned with their constructed responses learning goals.  And by keeping the learning goals posted (written in the color they should use to color code their responses) they have a reference they can use independently to improve their responses.  By having them color code their responses, I find it increases student accountability and accuracy incredibly - they know what is missing from their responses and have time to add to their answers before handing something in for assessment.

Our first learning goal for responses in reading is "start with the question".  It gets posted on our bulletin board.  As we continue to add learning goals over the coming weeks, I place each one on the bulletin board below the one before it.
Our first learning goal for constructed responses in math is to "plan your organization".  This starting point helps them think about how to show their solutions in a neat and organized way that makes it easy to read (and assess).  Again, like in the reading, we continue to add learning goals to this bulletin board.

By January, our boards are a lot fuller and look more like this ...

The wonderful thing about scaffolding the learning is that you can work at the pace your students need - they will not get left behind.  Because you have time, you can spend longer on a certain area that your students have not mastered yet.  And because everyone continues to work on the same goal, there can be a lot of peer collaboration and helping in the classroom.  I like to do a lot of "turn and talks" where the students discuss with a neighbor how they will include the new learning goal in their answer and show each other what they have written.

You can read a little more about the strategies I use and see some of our work along the way in other blog posts I have written about this step-by-step process to building better responses.  Click HERE to see our scaffolded reading goals in action, and HERE to see our scaffolded math goals in action.  Each blog post also contains links to other blog posts I have written about this process.

You can create your learning goals based on the needs in your classroom, or if you're interested, I have made ready-to-use resources for scaffolding the learning that contain all the learning goals, posters, book marks, reflection sheets, scaffolded handouts, assessment ideas and activities for the students.  These are some of my most favorite resources I've created and they are invaluable in my classroom.  Click on any of the resources below or on the picture to the right to see a preview of my Building Better Responses resources.

Another way we'd like to help you survive the beginning of the school year is to give you some chances to win $25.00 TpT gift cards.  Each of us below is giving away 2 gift cards and winners will be announced on August 3rd.  Enter through the rafflecopter below.

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Now be sure to visit the blogs below to read their best Survival Tips and grab a chance to enter their giveaways, as well.  Good luck!

Get Up and Moving in Math Class

Get Moving in Math Class
Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, hopefully know I'm not much of a "worksheet teacher".  If there is a way to get my students to learn the material without a worksheet or textbook attached, I'm all over it.  And even when a worksheet is necessary to consolidate the learning, I try to make sure it has a certain collaborative or reflective nature to it to take it a step further.

The one area I've been trying to get my students more active in is in math.  Again, I'm not too tied to worksheets or the textbook in math.  My interactive math journals are just that - students INTERACTING with and reflecting on the material - not simply gluing a work sheet into a composition book and completing it with colored pencils (which I have seen way too much of lately ... but that's a post for another day).  We do collaborative problem-solving like my Stick-It Responses and group and paired work with Building Better Responses, and work with manipulatives all the time, but all of these still have my students sitting through the activity.  And that's just not good enough.  I want them moving.  I want them fully immersed in the concepts - mind AND bodies.

I've done a little of this in the past - some work with place value and having the students wear a number and then build different numbers based on questions I've asked them.  I've also done some in geometry where I've asked them to model certain concepts or shapes with their bodies.  And each time I've done something like this, the students have had a blast.  And they retained the information by the end of a unit.  Problem was, I haven't done it enough.

Students modelling an acute angle
And then, just about a month ago, when I was working on a drama circle, I had a great idea to turn these kinds of math activities into Math Circles - just like the drama circles my students enjoy.  I turned the questions I was already using into a more student-centered activity, where they need to collaborate with each other and follow along to complete the instructions on the cards.

Students modelling 3/6 (or 1/2) of the hands in fists
These math circles are just like the drama circles in which there are 40 cards - each one with a different direction or instruction.  Similar to the "I have / Who has" format, students follow the instructions on the card to know when to perform their card.  However, the math circles are more collaborative in that students must work with other students to perform the task.  Because of this, I encourage a little more "turn and talk" at the beginning of the activity - when they first get the cards - this also helps alleviate a little of the anxiety for students who are unsure of how to carry out the task they have.  Also, because the cards vary in difficulty, I can choose which students get which cards when I hand out the cards, so there's differentiation built in, too.

Students modelling an octagon with their feet.
I can't wait to bring these math circles into the classroom in September - starting with Place Value.  I'm going to continue to add sets through the year as we do the activities - I think they will be a perfect Friday activity for review.  You can click on the links below if you wish to see some of the math circles I have already finished:

If there are any other circles you would like to see, please leave a comment below.  I'm currently working on a few more, but I could always use some great ideas.  Also, if you have another way to get your students up and moving in math class, I'd LOVE for you to share your ideas below.

Learn Like a Pirate - Improvement Focus

Chapter 4 of Learn Like a Pirate is all about Improvement Focus versus Grade Focus.  "On-going descriptive feedback" is a phrase that is as common as reading and writing in my area, so I knew as soon as I read the chapter title that this would be a natural fit.

Early in the chapter, Paul states that his students don't take many tests or quizzes.  Instead, they spend the time working and learning more.  In my classroom, that ongoing descriptive feedback happens daily through our classroom work and formative assessments.  We regularly go back and improve work, and students engage in meaningful discussions and reflections on how to take their work to the next level.  However, summative assessments still happen - and are required to happen through data walls, evidence pieces required for PLC meetings, porfolio pieces ... the list goes on.   The formative work is where the learning happens, but the summative is where the learning is proven.  And in my opinion, there is too much focus on the summative which detracts from all the work and effort done through the formative ... but I'm not sure how to get admin and parents on board with that shift.

One of the things that I LOVE about this book is the QR codes Paul includes to further your understanding of the concepts he includes.  In this chapter he goes into depth discussing how he and his students use eportfolios - which I was very interested in learning more about.  And just as I was thinking about what they actually look like / include ... BAM ... a QR code that takes me to his blog where he has full examples and samples and links to more information.  I really LOVE the idea of eportfolios and want to dig a little deeper into this (and I love even more the fact that Paul says it eliminates all those homework excuses).  Last week I had a fabulous opportunity to visit my daughers' school where my middle daughter (in grade 3) led me through her student led conference.  Independently, she went through her portfolio and told me about her strengths, areas of need, and things she was most proud of.  I LOVED every single second of it.  (I will be writing more about it in an upcoming blog post).  I left there knowing this was definitely something I was going to do with my own students next year ... and now I'm thinking about how I can add eportfolios to this (just have to check up on our current technology situation / schedule for the year).  And it IS a tangible resource for showing student learning and mastery of goals (and embraces and celebrates student reflection which I already find invaluable).

My other favorite part of this chapter was his discussion about critical peer feedback (and yes, that's a positive thing).  ;)  We do A LOT of peer conferencing and peer feedback in my classroom - especially during writing.  And I, like Paul, see the value in it, but struggle when I don't a lot of value in the peer feedback.  I have done things like "two stars and a wish" which has evolved into  "SWAP Conferences" (where they swap writing pieces for feedback to provide: a  star, wonder (3 questions), advice for the writer, and plans for revision, but I often found that the advice was lacking from their peers.  I think my students' worried a lot about hurting their peers' feelings, instead of looking at it as an opportunity to improve.  Paul writes about a "Quality Booster" lesson he now does with his students to improve feedback - and this is DEFINITELY going to happen in my class next year.  (If you'd like a copy of this SWAP conference sheet I made, you can grab one by clicking HERE or on the picture.)
One chapter ... so many ideas ... so perfect.  :)  Happy Thursday!

Introducing the Student-Led Classroom

Reading Chapter 3 of Learn Like a Pirate (you can see my blog post HERE) got me so excited about next year.  Changes are in the air ... I'm switching grades (I'll have a 4/5 split with mostly fives), switching rooms (moving to the room next door and am so excited to get to decorate with a new theme and color scheme), and switching teaching styles (HELLO student-led classroom)!  SO excited.

Not 5 minutes after I finished writing my blog post for chapter 3 of Learn Like a Pirate, a fabulous idea for introducing our student-led classroom to my students popped into my head and I started writing a new blog post (and as an added bonus, I got to put off doing the dishes for a little while longer).

The Activity:

One of my favorite team-building activities to do on the first day is a cup-stacking challenge - you can read more about it HERE and HERE.  Collaborating like this is a great way to get your students working together to solve problems and helps set up great whole group discussions about how to work together to meet goals and learn from your mistakes.  Right away, I knew how I could use this group activity to introduce the ideas behind the student-led classroom.  You need 6 stacking cups (I use solo cups), one elastic, and enough string for one piece per person in the group (I usually do groups of 4).  Students need to move the cups from one formation to another using only the elastic and string - at no time can their hands (or any body parts, for that matter) touch the cups.  Teachers should give no hints or instruction about how to move the cups - groups need to figure out what strategies work for them as part of their team-building.

How I Will Change the Activity:

The first thing is to change the way the cups were stacked at the beginning.  Instead of having 2 rows of 3, the cups will first be stacked in a pyramid.  I wrote a "T" on the top cup.

They will have to break down the pyramid, starting from the top, before they can rebuild the stack (which will be the six cups fitting together in one stack with the T cup on the bottom).

If the stack falls while they are making it, they will have to work together to get it standing again.  All of this will happen without any teacher instruction or input outside of showing them what the final stack should look like and instructing them at the beginning that at no time can their hands touch the cups - they have to figure out how to move the cups using only string and elastics.

Explaining the Student-Led Classroom:

OK - here's where I turn it into our introduction to the student-led classroom.  After all groups have finished, we'll come together in a class meeting.  I'll stack the cups back into the pyramid shape from the beginning and explain that the formation represents the "old way" of how my classroom used to run.  The cup on top is the teacher (me) with the cups underneath representing the students (them).

The activity (like all activities in the "old" classroom) had to start with the teacher first (just like they had to move that cup first).  Through the activity, the students worked together, solved problems, and came up with strategies to change the formation (while I say this I will move the cups into the ending formation - the stack of 6 cups with the top cup now on the bottom).  I will explain that what used to be the top cup (the teacher) is now on the bottom - supporting all the other cups (the students).  All the cups fit perfectly together in the new formation (our "new" classroom).  The bottom cup (the teacher) is the strong foundation and the support for the students - who are now on top - forming a student-led classroom.

We can also talk (notice I didn't say "I'll tell them" - I'm working on these changes already) about challenges - sometimes the stack fell, just like we will sometimes encounter problems with this new way of doing things, but by working together, we can build it back up again.  We can end with a student-created anchor chart about our learning and insights from this activity.

I am SO excited about this.  It ties in the ideals of growth mindset AND introduces the methods of the student-led classroom.  I think it's going to be a GREAT year!

Learn Like a Pirate - Peer Collaboration

Peer Collaboration

We're a pirate-loving family.  :)
Today's first lesson is an easy one ... the "P" in pirate stands for Peer Collaboration.  And if you've ever stepped foot in my classroom (or I hope you have gleaned from my blog and fb posts), you will know how much I already embrace this concept.

Let's face it - I teach chatty kids.  It comes with the territory when you teach the older kids (and I'm quite sure the same holds true for the younger kids, too).  And I'm OK with that (although, it did take a few years before I could say that).  Chat away, my dears.  The secret is in making sure that talk is purposeful.  And the opportunities are plentiful.  But, the key to successful collaboration happens in the very first minutes and days of the year - the students need to see themselves as part of a community - a collaborative community - where they all feel respected, safe, and valued.

Right away I read something I knew I was going to use in my classroom.  You know those little "attention getters" we use as teachers (such as "give me five" or clapping, or whatever you use) ... well, imagine the empowerment students will feel if you hand over that tool to them, as well.  I get goosebumps just thinking about this.  I clap a rhythm pattern when I want my students to focus, and they clap it back to me (a very small way of integrating a little music theory here and there).  And the time I use this most often is when the students are collaborating with their peers and I think I have something important or relevant to tell them.  Can you imagine how cool it would be for students to do this?  They come up with so many wonderful and insightful ideas during their collaborations, that it only seems fair that they should be able to use the attention getters to share their thoughts, too.  I used to wait until the end of the lesson to let students share with the class, but in a student-led classroom, the students should have the power to decide when they want to share (and they will learn the best times to do this through feedback from you).  Seriously awesome.  Paul also gives other suggestions for the student-led attention getters - reminding the class when it's time to transition to another subject, improving tasks or solving problems, asking questions they can't find an answer to, or demonstrating skills they are learning.  With students taking on these little leadership roles, the teacher remains free to continue working with other students or providing feedback.

Paul continues by explaining how to teach students to use this power properly - because I know some of you may be thinking, this would get SO out of control in the classroom.  But it won't.  Not if the time is taken to set it up correctly, and consistent feedback is provided to students who misuse it, and who use it correctly.  And a little chaos during the beginning days is well worth the benefits the rest of the year will provide.  And that chaos can be turned into teachable moments - reminding students why it's important to work TOGETHER to find the best way that works for them - and teaching them the difference between active and passive leadership.
The chapter goes on to discuss learning spaces and classroom set-up, student partnerships (one thing that stood out here is that Paul almost never lets his students choose their own partners - I already do this, but when I started this book I was certain I would have to lose this - not so - he uses popsicle sticks and I can keep my name jar), responsibility partners (which are accountability partners), strategies to dealing with conflict, classroom meetings (includes suggestions for topics - and I will definitely use The Marble Theory meeting at the beginning of the year), and so much more.

And THEN ... he goes on to explain how he uses the novel, Wonder, to really get his collaborative community working ... and I just knew this was perfect.  I was already planning to use Wonder as my first read aloud / shared reading ... so the pieces are falling into place all around me.  Happy, happy, happy.

This is definitely a chapter I will go back and reread in the days before school begins, and probably a few more times during the year.  It is packed full of goodness and leaves my mind spinning (in a good way).

*** Edit:  I told you my mind was spinning - lol.  Not 5 minutes after I finished this post I started to write a new blog post because I thought of a great idea of how to use one of the team-building activities I do at the beginning of the year to introduce the whole idea of a student-led classroom to my students on the first day of school.  Check back in tomorrow to read all about it.  ***

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