Learn Like a Pirate - Improvement Focus

25 June 2015
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

19 June 2015
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

18 June 2015

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.  ***


Learn Like a Pirate - Common Concerns

11 June 2015

This second chapter of Learn Like a Pirate, by Paul Solarz, dispells any concerns you may have about making the transition to a student-led classroom.  Yes, it may not be smooth sailing at the very start, but "handling challenges that arise in a student-led classroom is better than dealing with a lack of motivation, poor behavior, and student apathy any day!"

Paul starts out by addressing concerns such as "worried about giving up control", "afraid to make mistakes", "it will be too much work or too time-consuming", "the classroom will be too loud and chaotic", "I won't be able to ensure all the curriculum is taught", "my students won't be able to handle it", and more.  I'm sure at least one of these resonates with you.  For me, worrying about ensuring all the curriculum is covered, and wondering how some of my students who face challenges will cope are at the top of the list.

Paul discusses each concern, validating why teachers may feel that way, but then goes on to challenge the concern by reminding you why you and your students CAN do this.  I will be able to still fit in all the demands of my curriculum because I still plan for the learning that happens daily - I lay out the curriculum and the students become responsible for the learning (and when the motivation is increased, the students will be able to take on the learning (and go past what is expected) much quicker.  And my students WILL be able to do this, because it will be the expectation - students rise to high expectations (which is something I truly believe).  "Raise the bar" is a daily utterance in my room (and after the first month or so, it is often heard coming from my students' mouths more than my own).  My concerns aren't about behaviour - it's the learning challenges some of my students face that had me more worried.  But the more I read, the more I'm convinced that WE'LL be able to meet the challenge by allowing me more time to work with these students in smaller groups or individually, because I won't be spending as much time delivering and directing (and controlling) the whole group learning.

Paul ends this chapter with laying out the benefits of a student-led classroom, and reading through these really helps erase all those doubts.  And even if your doubts still linger, you'll be so persuaded by the benefits that you'll just have to give it a go.  Reading through these really started to make my mind spin (and spin in a good way).  :)  Even as I sat for HOURS at the orthodontist office today (my two oldest girls got braces today ... sniff), my mind was racing with ideas ... which was a great thing.  And those benefits are directly correlated to the concerns - the main benefits being increased student retention and allowing more time for student feedback.  Hello!  I want this.

I'm convinced ... and excited ... and I couldn't wait to dive into the next chapter already (remember - HOURS at the orthodontist today) - peer collaboration - one of my absolute favourite strategies in the classroom.  Sail on, book buddies.  :)


Learn Like a Pirate - What is a Student-Led Classroom?

04 June 2015
I'm not quite sure who was more excited when my copy of Learn Like a Pirate came in the mail - me because I had read so many wonderful things about it already, or my husband, who thought I had finally bought a book about actual pirates.  ;)  bahahaha

So, diving in, the first chapter gets right to it - What is a student-led classroom?  The author, Paul Solarz, writes that "A student-led classroom is one in which students make decisions and choices throughout the day without consulting the teacher."

I'm not going to lie - the thought of that a few years ago would have struck fear into my control-freak self.  But, over the last few years, I've seen excitement, engagement, and learning GROW when I've learned to take a step back and let students collaborate and work through material on their own.  I'm not a worksheet teacher.  I'm not a textbook teacher.  In our classroom, we collaborated ALL the time, we embraced Genius Hour, we researched and presented and taught others ... and I liked the direction we were going in my classroom ... a lot.  But, even through it all, I still had the control.  I still directed the learning and activities, the students followed my instructions, and THEN they would get the chance to really explore the material and absorb themselves in the learning.  But, when difficulties (with behaviour or with material) arose, they always looked to me to solve the problem.  And I would.

But I knew something was still missing ... I saw it every time I visited my co-worker's classroom (and I have to admit, I visited it a lot). She has an amazing classroom environment and does a marvelous job of encouraging a student-led classroom.  Her students worked in groups or individually on different tasks, often finishing them up (and quite well, I might add) with enough time to work on little projects they were interested in ... like writing their own novels and making up their own math problems ... for fun!!!  Their "on-task-ness" freed her up so that she had more time to work one-on-one or in very small groups with students as they needed it.  I used to convince myself that it must be easier to do in a primary classroom (did I mention these were grade 2 and 3 students); that some of my more challenging students wouldn't be able to handle it, or that my older students needed more direction to stay on task and more lesson delivery from me to comprehend more difficult material.  But I also knew that I wanted what she had.  I just didn't know how to make it happen.  In the upcoming chapter, Paul addresses all these concerns I had.  (Are you starting to see why I was SO excited to read this book?)

In this first chapter, Paul stresses the importance of practice - it will take time and a lot of modelling to develop the mindset and skills needed for a student-led classroom (for both the students AND the teacher).  Don't give up after the first week or two ... (which may be what I would be tempted to do if I felt it wasn't "working").  And keep building those relationships with ALL students in the school (which is something I already find easy to do in my wonderfully small school).  When your students feel you value them, they will work harder for you, and it's those hard workers we'll need in our student-led classrooms.

Paul writes that even in a student-led classroom, everyone still understands that the teacher's word is final, and yes, most lessons will still include a component of teacher-led instruction (which makes my control-freak side happy), but the methods change - lessons are planned and delivered in a way that students are rarely passive learners, but instead gives them the power and opportunity to guide and lead one another.

A student-led classroom has students excited about their learning, encouraging and supporting others, challenging themselves, and creating habits that will set them up to be life-long learners and explorers.  Ummmm .... sounds like everything I could ever want for my students.  Perfection.

You can read more about this chapter by visiting the blogs listed below.  And be sure to check out The Primary Girl's blog for a little giveaway to kick off this book study.


Learn Like a Pirate Book Study

02 June 2015
Ahoy!  Arrrrre you ready?  It's another summer book study!

I have fallen in love with Paul Solarz' book, Learn Like a Pirate.  THIS is the classroom I want to have next year.  So, I'm joining up with The Primary Gal and other bloggers for a fabulous book study starting June 4th.

If you don't have a copy of the book already, you've got to pick one up and join in on the fun.  We'll be posting every Thursday until the end of July.  Read along with us and join in on the comments with your own thoughts and ideas.

So, batten down the hatches and get ready to set sail.  This is going to be a great book study!!!  See you Thursday!