Saturday, September 2, 2017

Kicked off the Year with an Identity Inquiry

I've committed this year to shift the focus in my class from the traditional historical figures to group/individual voices not typically heard within the American history narrative. I am anchoring my 5th grade American history curriculum with the theme connected to identity, labels, and power. With each unit from American Indians, slavery, colonization, American Revolution, Civil Rights the theme is designed to reveal different perspectives other than the typical dominate side.

We spent the first three weeks of school engaged in an inquiry based project, "Is identity connected to power?" In the process, it was the perfect way for us to get to know each other on a deeper level and a great way to build a sense of community. The theme was first staged by showing a couple of commercials. In small groups, students noted the emotions express by the individuals in the commercial as their Nigerian and American Indian ancestries were revealed. This led to discussions as to why the individuals reacted in the manner that they did.
In the identity inquiry phase, we began with the supporting question, "What shapes identity?" We started off by taking time to notice our classroom - how it felt, furniture, students, etc. Then, I showed a clip "Where Children Learn" (3:24min) to get the students thinking about how where you are from can shape your identity. Next year, I plan to have students work in small groups to analyze an image of different classrooms and note the similarities and differences within each learning environment. After each group shares their findings, then I'll show the clip. The video clip goes rather quickly, and it was difficult to catch some of the details.

We then shifted gears to exploring our own identities. I provided students with an identity social matrix I adapted from the Let's Get Real book by Caldwell & Oman. Each identity trait was then rated on the level of importance and how visible the trait was to others. I modeled filling out the matrix by sharing my own identity. Students began to realize that not all identity traits are visible to others. For instance, I am from Nicaraguan descent - which my students found surprising. Most did not know I was Latina. 

When I had students fill out their own identity matrix, I was surprised how many students had never thought about their race. I knew I would have to clear up the difference between race and ethnicity, but had not planned for racial uncertainty among my students. I had to backtrack and help them unpack it. Some students wanted to put American for race instead of white.  Next year, I will definitely create a more intentional way to help students understand the word race. 

I had students select six words from their identity matrix and other core identity descriptors not on the matrix to create identity swirls. The art teacher came in to give students a quick mini lesson on creating funky fonts and brought in a huge assortment of cool markers and gel pens. Students worked on their swirls for two class periods. Once completed, they uploaded the swirl to Seesaw (digital portfolio) and wrote a reflection.

Creating Identity Swirls

On day four, we moved to the next supporting question: How are we labeled by others/society? We started off by discussing how our bedrooms typically have identity clues everywhere. Students shared what we would see in their rooms would definitely reveal part of their identity. One student suggested that it would be interesting for them to bring in a photo of their own rooms to share. Not a bad idea! 

Then, I printed out images from the book Where Children Sleep by James Mollison.  First with the whole class, I modeled the see-think-wonder thinking routine with a bedroom image that was full of identity conflicting evidence.  Students were all over the place labeling who slept in the room. When I finally revealed the photo of the child with long hair, they assumed it was a girl. Then I started to read the short bio. When I read "he" they all screamed, "What?!" One by one, we eliminated the inaccurate labels they had recorded.

In small groups, students analyzed other bedrooms. The small groups presented their bedroom images to the class and shared their perceived labels. I then revealed the owner's photo and read the bio, again noticing how frequently labels were misrepresented. We discussed how hurtful and damaging labels can be too. Students were asked to spend the rest of the day detecting labels thrown their way by teachers, parents, siblings, friends, etc. They were asked to bring at least six labels and an object that made them feel powerful to class the next day.

See-Think-Wonder thinking routine with bedroom image.

                Bedroom Image
Owner of Bedroom

Day five
Where do we hold power in our lives? was the third and last supporting question. Our school counselor came in to do a lesson on power. Students brought to class an object or image that represented where they felt powerful.  Some examples of objects were: pencils, swimsuit, chess playbook, sculpture, martial arts belt, etc. Students then had to think of a "power word" that the object made them feel like creative, expressive, bold, etc. In small groups, students shared their power object and word. Then, they were asked to create a tableau - human sculpture - that incorporated their words. The rest of the class did a gallery walk and tried to guess their powers.  

Sharing Power Object

Power Group Tableau
The take away was everyone holds power in their lives no matter what their gender, race, age, etc. When harmful labels are used, we are all empowered in different ways to interrupt these labels. For next year, I need to make sure to circle back to the compelling question!

Day six and seven were spent on a booklet that tied everything together. Again, the art teacher came in to get students started on the final project. Overall, I found this project to be a powerful way to start the year and set the stage for more to come.

Booklet Covers

Identity Collage
- students had the choice to draw or use PicCollage app to print out images that represented their own identity.

- Student used different labels, stamps and wrote labels that people give them.


Power Object & Word - Students drew or printed out an image of their object and wrote their power word.

Display in hallway.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Diving into the Grade-less Sea!

After spending a summer reading and reflecting on the use of a traditional grading system, I've committed to make the shift over to eliminate grades as a way to evaluate the learning in my classroom. Honestly, I've had moments when I've felt anxious about the process. Then, that emotion is immediately followed up by excitement. I've had to make an intentional effort to reframe my way of thinking. Every book, tweet and conversation I've engaged in only confirms my decision to move forward. You will never know if you don't try it yourself, right? 

Seriously, who can argue with John Hattie's research on what raises student achievement. Formative teaching evaluations, feedback, metacognitive strategies top his list and are all components of the grade-less shift.

I began the process by reading "Hacking Assessments." I found it to read much like an easy to follow, useful instructional manual. Star Sackstein, @mssackstein provides you with the straightforward "nuts and bolts" of dropping grades. 

After reading Star's book, since letter grades are off the table, I've been on a mission to find tools to help in the implementation of dropping grades. One of my biggest fears is that parents will not feel plugged into their child's academic progress. However, I am realizing that I've been giving letter grades way too much credit. In reality, a letter grade tells virtually nothing about what the child actually knows!  It did not take long for me to figure out that there is not a "one size fits all" protocol for alternative ways to communicate the student's progress with parents. So this will be a year of piloting different tools. 

We are a GAFE school, so Drive & Google Classroom will be a way I plan for students to reflect and receive teacher feedback. It was suggested in a blog I read that Google Keep be used for recording student conferencing anecdotal notes. After looking at different platforms for digital portfolios, I decided for my 5th graders to use Seesaw. I particularly liked its simplicity of posting work and reflections. There is also a family version of the app so parents can also view their child's learning. I'm also going to try Flipgrid video discussions for reflections and Google Forms for exit tickets. 

My assessments are currently about 65% project/inquiry based learning projects. I quickly found out that people have mixed feelings about traditional assessments. For the time being, I will continue to use some traditional assessments, but I will reframe the way I evaluate them. First of all, I've learned to not call them tests. Joy Kirr refers to them as "check comprehension" and Monte Syrie calls them "performances." Teacher Sharleen Smith cleverly calls them "YOK," you outta know. Based on a form Catlin Tucker uses with her students, I reformatted the table to fit the needs of my 5th graders. I doubt this form is perfectly designed. I'm certain I will have to make adjustments - but it's a start!

I've been leaning heavily on Facebook Teachers Going Gradeless and Twitter @TG2chat groups for help. The wave of people that are knee deep in the process generously share the good, bad and ugly. There is no way I would be diving into the "grade-less sea" without their support.

If you are at all curious about this movement, you should check out the Twitter chat, #TG2Chat, on Sundays at 8pm CST. You will definitely find amazing educators to follow! Some of the educators whose blogs I frequently read are Monte SyrieJoy KirrCatlin TuckerAaron Blackwelder and Arthur Chiaravalli. I would highly recommend that you follow them on Twitter too. They are passionate about dropping grades and will respond to any questions you may encounter along the way. Another goldmine to check out is @Joykirr' s Livebinder, "Feedback in Lieu of Grades." 

On a final note, I'm sharing the letter my administrator sent to the parents. I am fortunate to have such an incredibly supportive administrator in my corner. While pockets of educators at my school are considering piloting dropping grades for an assignment, project or unit, I am the only one jumping in head first. It will undoubtedly be a learning curve for me, but hopefully my students will reap the benefits of it in the long run. Personally blogging about my experience is a way to pay back for all of the inspiration and support I've received from my PLN. It's also a constructive way for me to reflect on my experiences!

Dear 5th grade parents,

As you know from my email earlier this month, we will be piloting various alternatives to traditional grading this year in Middle School.  Our goal is to focus on learning.  As obvious as that sounds, there is an abundance of research indicating that traditional letter-grading practices, like the ones we've used for years, can have a detrimental effect on students in the long run.  Some research has shown that, with letter grading, over time natural curiosity wanes, external motivators overtake internal motivation (and this extends beyond one's formal education), interest in a topic can come to an abrupt end as soon as the final grade is received, and self-esteem gets closely tied up in the grade earned.

Connie Fink, our 5th grade social studies teacher, is trying a new approach in her classroom this year when it comes to providing feedback on each student's learning.  Below is a note from Connie:

I am thrilled to make learning the central focus in my classroom, not grading. Please know that while I am prepared and committed to follow through on my new approach to providing students and parents feedback, I do expect to make adjustments along the way.

While the curriculum is similar to previous years', the main focus will be on reaching mastery with skills and content rather than on the grade earned. After completing their work, students will have multiple opportunities to move toward mastery with the assessed content/skills. Feedback and reflections are an essential part of the process. Count on me trying out different tools to provide you and your child with feedback. Throughout the year, feel free to share what it feels like on your end.  I will share more on Parents’ Night!

Your feedback to Connie and to me will be an important ingredient in helping us assess the effectiveness of her approach this year.  Please don't hesitate to share your thoughts as we move forward together.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Igniting Curiosity!

Always aiming to create an engaging learning environment, I kicked off my summer learning by reading The Curious Classroom by Harvey "Smokey" Daniels. Smokey mentions that it's "often acknowledged that kids' curiosity somehow disappears by about fourth grade." Smokey totally hits the mark with this book! He provides easy to implement ideas that are sure to ignite student curiosity way beyond the fourth grade.

Questions are at the core of all of the structures Smokey provides in his book. He suggests that in order to build empathy and a sense of justice, we have students ask "Where do we fit in?" (identity) and "What can we do to help?" (power).  Falls perfectly right in line with my goal of the overarching "identity" and "power" themes I plan to carry out this year. Most of the inquiry models featured are short, five to twenty minutes to a couple of days in length where students use research skills and strategies before digging into a long inquiry unit. Grades and rubrics are not suggested for these types of experiences. Below, I've shared some recommendations I plan to try out in my classroom.

Wonder Wall or Notebook 
Provide students with a place to record questions and wonders as they occur throughout the day. Then, reserve time once a week for students to explore these questions during a Wonder Workshop. Students with similar topics can be placed into small teams. However, working independently is fine too. During the workshop, students read articles and record their new learning to share with other classmates. Each member of the groups has to contribute at least one piece of new learning. Students are encouraged to take notes, make illustrations, or create diagrams in order to share their learning/thinking.

Soft Starts
The concepts involves reserving the first 10-15 minutes of class for a quite time so students can explore topics of interest, consider it a scaled down Genius Hour session. It's a way to begin your inquiry based class in a peaceful and individualized manner. The main idea of these soft starts are that they are simple and repeatable, paving the way for further inquiry. There are different ways to implement this concept. Here is how I plan to structure my "soft start" themes:
Mondays: New York Times "What's going on in this picture?" Use the provided prompts or simply do a See Think Wonder thinking routine with the class. You will be amazed how much time can be spent analyzing one picture! On Fridays, the details of the photo is revealed.

Tuesdays: "Talking Tuesdays" Students read an article, typically related to an upcoming unit, that's simply meant for pleasure reading. As they read, they mark important, interesting or puzzling details. Newslea and Commonlit are great sources for these types of articles.

Another option I'm considering is "Traveling Tuesdays." I am dropping my geography unit and plan to integrate it throughout all of my units. Darcy Nidey, a fourth grade teacher featured in Smokey's book, incorporates a "destination jar" in her class. She asks the students on the first week of school to "think about the one place in the whole wide world that they would most like to visit someday." Students record their personal dream destinations and drop it in a jar. Every Tuesday, Darcy pulls out a destination slip. This becomes a whole-class inquiry. Students are given a couple of minutes to take notes on a four-quadrant note-taking form recording:
  1. what they already know about the place
  2. some questions they have about it
Quickly, Darcy requests their research topics so she can partner them up with another student.  Then, a Padlet page is opened with boxes labeled for each research team's name & topic. Students move on to the other two boxes on the note-taking form to fill in information from at least two other different sources. The final step is to synthesize the most important information they have learned and type it up in the Padlet to share with the class.

Wednesdays: "Wonderopolis Wednesdays" Students read, listen to the article, watch the video clip and/or record questions. These questions can be springboards for future inquiries. Another website similar to Wonderopolis to checkout is the The Curiosity Workshop.

Thursdays: "Throwback Thursdays" A fifth-grade teacher, Julie Eisenhauer, in Smokey's book projects a primary source using Padlet. Once projected, students can post virtual stickies of their thinking. Students work in groups of four or five to process the image posting questions, responding to each other, and sharing theories. This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight content that may not be part of my curriculum. I think This Day in History would be a good source and quick way (one minute videos) to implement this theme.  Of course there is no shortage of digital primary sources either, the Library of Congress is a good place to start.

Fridays: "Friday Headlines" A perfect way to catch up and discuss what's going on in the world. There also always seems to be a historical connection we can make to the content we are learning in class. Again Newsela is a good source for current events. Also, try checking out TweenTribune. Students LOVE the Week in Rap. While it's the only source I've provided in this post that's not free, it is well worth the subscription cost.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Recreating History Using Spatial Skills

Finding waypoints.
A couple of years ago, the Obama's ConnectEd initiative provided schools with the opportunity to have free access to the online GIS mapping tool ArcGis.  I jumped on the opportunity not realizing that the learning curve would be a steep one for me. However, the project-based learning possibilities involving problem solving, data analysis, and technology integration encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone. 

Fortunately, it was not a journey I had to take without guidance. Vanderbilt professors, Janey Camp and Steve Baskauf (also a USN alumni dad), generously provided their time and expertise so our 5th graders could dip their toes in GIS mapping. Janey and Steve's passion in this field was inspiring. Their collaboration was instrumental in helping me design a project that would be engaging, yet developmentally age appropriate for 5th graders. The objective of the project was to develop a core set of skills to get students thinking of maps they could design in the future.     
Recreating primary source image with iPad.

Recording changes in the landscape. 
I also wanted the project to be connected in some way to history. In comes collaborator number three, Jenny Winston, USN archivist. Jenny pieced together a collection of images 

Analyzing primary source.
from the USN archives taken on Vanderbilt's Magnolia Lawn from the 1930's to the 1990's. Students, in groups of three to four, spent time in class analyzing the different images using the thinking routine, See, Think, Wonder. Students were told they would take a walk over to Magnolia Lawn to determine the original spot their image was taken and recreate it. Using the iPad, students marked up distinct landmarks on the digital images. It was no surprise that all of the students identified the trees as targeted landmarks. 

                  Using Explain Everything app to mark up primary source.

Our next step was for students to learn how to collect data by locating waypoints (latitude and longitude) using GPS devices and to record their observations on field notes. So, off we went across the street to Magnolia Lawn with GPS devices, iPads and clipboards in hand. At first, following the multiple steps required to use the GPS devices brought on a few challenges.  After reading their reflections, what they considered to be a focal point, the trees, in reality became somewhat of an obstacle. Here are some of the student reflections noting the different ways the landscape of Magnolia Lawn & the USN Edgehill entrance have changed over the years: 

Maya: "The tree in my picture was much more decayed and broken down. There was more foliage, so it was hard to identify the location of the photographer."
Eva:  "So much has changed on Magnolia Lawn. Things like trees, bushes, and things that might have otherwise been keys to finding the spot where the picture was taken are no longer there."

Townsend: "There were bike racks along the grass at USN. There are a lot more trees today than in 1950. The doors of the school are brown today, not white.  A lot of the trees in my photo are not there, so it was very hard to find the right place to take the photo."

Lindsey: "I was looking for a crack in the road, but since the road had been fixed, the crack was not there. I was looking for a tree split in half at the bottom with ivy all over it, but the tree was not there. I had a lot of fun doing this project, and I think that you should do it next year. I had fun trying to find the spot and the angle of the picture. Also, it was a little bit of a challenge because a lot of the characteristics that were there in the 1980’s were not there when I recreated the picture. It was like a puzzle, and I had fun finding the pieces."

Philip: "One of the human characteristics that was in my photo and is not around anymore is the white paint on the front of USN. A physical characteristic that is not around today is the extremely heavy foliage of the trees in one of the photos. We ran into many look alike trees, and other things that were confusing, such as which building to choose, as they all had columns. I think we worked very well together, seeing as we found all three photographs. We had a good time in the process, all cooperating together and checking the others' views of where the photograph might be taken from, and often agreeing with each other."

Myla: "There are no longer ridges on the stone wall as seen in the primary source, now it's now just a flat stone wall. We had a hard time finding the exact waypoint of the 1942 photo because there were trees blocking the building, so we couldn't see where we needed to stand. Finding the 1992 image location was challenging because now there is a tree that is blocking the direct view of the building. We found a tree that was in the primary source, but now it is much bigger."

Found the flowering dogwood tree, still standing.
Used PicCollage app to create before/after shots.

                               Street between Magnolia Lawn and USN
                             made this picture tricky to recreate.

After collecting the data, students created maps with location pins, before/after photo images, and text explaining some of the changes. When mapping their latitude and longitude points, some groups quickly realized the importance of accurately recording waypoints. A pinpoint on the map in Alabama or Antarctica was a sure sign something was off!

Final student ArcGis map project.

Judging from the student reflections, everyone contributed towards the common goal using their unique talents for the good of the entire group and had fun in the process! 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Library of Congress, Hits it Out of the Ballpark!

My week at the Library of Congress Summer Institute for Civil Rights has been one of the best weeks of professional development I've experienced. I will not lie, it was extremely intense! I am certain I used up every ounce of brain juice. The analysis of primary sources was a total hook for an organic engagement of inquiry, collaboration and reflection.

Using the Project Zero thinking routines as a framework, each analysis activity had us actively invested in the process in so many different ways.

I was fortunate that I was familiar with the routines and had attended a Project Zero Casie conference all about thinking routines just 3 months before attending the Institute. Visible thinking strategies provide a framework to prompt students to be deep thinkers and synthesize new knowledge. The visible thinking, most importantly, shows the process of thinking not just a final answer. The book provides a menu of critical thinking activities that work with just about any learning opportunity. It's a wonderful way to keep the learning low-risk and open-ended. Visible thinking strategies also dovetailed perfectly with the analysis of primary sources. Some of the routines we used while analyzing primary sources were Headlines (great for synthesis) and Circle of ViewPoints (powerful way to tackle perspectives). 

Map Group Activity Ending with a Creation of a Headline

Another automatic go-to are the Library of Congress primary source analysis tools which scaffold the inquiry process for just about any possible primary source. There is also a web version available.

One of the perks to attending the Institute was the after hours tour of the Jefferson Building's Reading Room. We had total VIP access! I wish I could have bottled up the excitement as we entered the Reading Room, total giddiness. It reminded me of just a few months ago when I was at the Washington Memorial with eighty 8th grade students, and we ran into Usher doing a soundcheck for an Earth Day concert. 


We also had the incredible fortune to hear a panel made up of Rosa Parks' dear friends from the Rosa Parks Institute in Detroit: Elaine Steele, Lila Cabbil, Anita Peek, Dr. Roberta McLeod, Ella McCall-Haygen and other friends June Jeffries and Joe Madison. They shared with us Parks' courage and how she valued relationships. The ladies then hung out with us for part of the week. It was a truly surreal experience. 

Ella McCall-Haygen, me & Dr. Roberta McLeod
Panel of Rosa Parks' Friends
One of my favorite parts of the institute was the opportunity to tour the Library of Congress exhibit The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom. We were partnered up and were assigned to an exhibit case. We were then asked to select something that we connected with in the case and later present it to the group. We had questions to guide us in the process. It was jigsaw at its best! I'm totally stealing this idea next time we take our students to a museum.

Some of my major primary source takeaways I plan on using to ignite inquiry are:

  • Focus on the voices behind the movement. I plan on highlighting Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man, that was the mastermind behind the March on Washington but is rarely noted.
  • Include raw, unfiltered primary sources throughout the year as much as possible. Coming across a Daisy Bates letter regarding the poor treatments of black students at Central High, specifically mentioning Minniejean (visits our school every year during our Civil Rights unit), I consider hitting the jackpot! There is a goldmine of sources available.
  • When teaching about the Civil Rights unit, I plan to include primary sources from slavery, Revolutionary War, to current events to represent the long and still much present struggle of social justice.
  • During my Native American unit, I will fold in powerful Indian boarding school primary sources . I'm thrilled that there is actually a "Nashville" connection too. Adding this slice of history makes a connection later on in the year with the Civil Rights unit's focus on school segregation and civil rights violations. 

I walked away from the Summer Institute with a better idea on how to maximize the access/usage of the Library of Congress digital sources. The experience has totally transformed me, and I cannot wait to implement new ideas with my students. I've walked away a better teacher with an arsenal of best practice pedagogy and a passion for learning with primary sources. During the Institute, I was in the company of other educators that share my passion for learning and history! I have a feeling some of those friendships will continue inspiring me beyond our time together in Washington D.C.