This last week I started my summer adventure with teaching Animations, Graphics and 3D Design in middle school summer school. I could write a full blog post on all the events that made the first day very interesting (students coming in at various times due to schedule issues, a power outage while the kids are on the computers, no AC on a day in the 90s, several students not remembering their school email/passwords to get into the computer, and a baby mouse running across the floor). However, this blog is about students finding the magic through exploring technology.
Many of the students taking my class have some experience using tech in the classroom. Others could probably teach many of the activities I am doing. Some of the students, though, seemed to know very little about how to go beyond turning the computer on or writing an essay in Google Docs. There are also a mix of reasons the students are taking the class. Being an elective class gives me a slight advantage over some of the traditional classes (math, science, English) in that students aren't taking it to make up credit from the school year. It is obvious that a few of the students are here because they had to have a second class to go with the one they are being "forced" to take by either their parents or the school. Some of the kids seem excited about learning new things they can do on the computer for possible future careers. No matter what their reasons for being here, I am trying to make it fun for all, including me.
By the end of the first two days, I was ahead of my schedule, and some of the kids were stepping up to help those who were struggling (YEAH!). I also noticed that some of the kids were already waiting for me to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. There was very little initiative to go beyond copy/paste in the activities. After having the class I was lucky enough to get during the school year, this was kind of frustrating for me. However, it was also an opportunity to show the students what could happen if they take a risk and try something new.
For the third day, we were beginning work on our Selfie Project. The idea is to get the students to take various pictures and use editing software to enhance them. They will culminate the project by creating a collage showing the different techniques they learned. Using selfies meant the students couldn't just copy/paste the project using someone else's pictures. It also made it more personal and meaningful.
As I introduced the students to the editing program, I again noticed that many of the kids were waiting for me to tell them what to do. Instead, we played. They were asked to make a "Fun Selfie". (See pic for mine, which I showed AFTER they were done.) They could do whatever they wanted to the picture, as long as they began with their selfie, tried different options and used various features found in the program. Some students said they were done in less than 5 minutes. When I asked what certain tools in the program did, they couldn't tell me. After more encouragement to "play", most of the class really got into it.
After exploring time finished, we got to the "real" assignment. They had to use a different selfie (the second of 5 they needed to take) and enhance it. (We had previously gone through examples of "bad" selfies to give them an idea of what was needed to make one better.) Because of their time spent exploring very few of the students needed me to stand in front of the room and give step by step instructions on how to make this picture better. They were able to take the assignment to a higher level than if I was telling them what to do.
Too often teachers get stuck in the need to get through the material in a certain amount of time that they forget kids learn by playing. Toddlers and preschoolers figure out the world around them by exploring both outside and inside activities. Why is it that once they get into the classroom, we take that time away? Technology is an even bigger opportunity to learn through exploration. After letting the class explore the editing software, they showed me a trick or two that I had not yet found. (Like adding a kaleidoscope to a swirl with a positive/negative reversal!) They certainly learned how to use the tools better than if I had showed them exactly what to do. I'm looking forward to seeing the results of their collages and see how they apply their learning.
Joy Kirr, in Shift This, says, "Exploring is where the learning takes place; it's where the magic happens!" Her context is about using Twitter for those who haven't discovered the wonderfulness that it is. However, her sentiment fits everything that should be happening in the classroom. Students should be exploring, learning about life by doing. This is where the magic is going to happen.
Summer has started and what I am doing? Learning of course. As part of our local Twitter chat, #SVTChat, we are reading Joy Kirr's Shift This. I am loving every minute of my summer reading. As I am finishing the book, I got to the chapter on Resistance. Having dealt with colleagues, friends and parents who have questioned what I am doing, this chapter was not something completely new to me. However, what I did this year with my students brought up the issue in a much different and unexpected way.
Let's back up a little. Earlier in the year, another teacher in the district (who through the power of Twitter has become one of my go-to people when I need to bounce an idea off of for math) George Carganilla , and I were involved in a chat that lead to the idea of having the students "grade" the teacher. He nicely shared with me a form he got from Classroom Chef. Although this was geared toward middle/high school teachers, the idea intrigued me. If I was making the shift toward being more student centered, I needed to find out how my students were liking (and adjusting to) the change.
At the end of the first semester I gave the students a chance to anonymously "grade" me on topics I felt were important to being a better teacher. These included pacing, knowing my students, understanding the class material, and making things fun in class. Overall the grades were what I expected. When I averaged them, I was about a 4 on a 5 scale. Not too bad for having a class that is not traditional. There were some students who ranked me higher than others, some categories that I was given a higher grade. I gave the students the chance to write in their own comments as well. These were the most important parts for me to read. The true feedback was coming from their own words. Even though the report card was anonymous, there were some comments that made it easy to identify who wrote it. Some of their responses were pretty generic. ("I love being in your class." "Nothing else to add") Some were more specific. ("Why can't we have more free time? Can we earn it?" "I wish we could do more art.") This type of feedback was helpful and something I could try to incorporate more into the class. (Hmmm, isn't this what we want the students to understand and apply?!) Since these are 9-12 year-olds (4/5 combo means WIDE range of ages!) I got about what I expected.
Since the process seemed to go pretty well, I decided to do it again at the end of the school year. I also decided to add a "grade the project" portion to help me adjust what I needed to shift for next year. The results I got this time were very difficult for me to understand. Overall my grades averaged lower than in the fall (earning 3.9 out of 5). Not a huge shift, but it was the comments that got to me. Again, even though it was anonymous some of the comments were obvious as to who wrote them (especially since I had many of the students for two years), and some were written by students who I felt really enjoyed my class. Many of the students wanted more fun, more free time, and more ability to choose. Wasn't this what I had tried to give them all year (ok, so maybe not the free time, although they had a lot more than they thought.)
When it came to the projects, many of the projects I thought were such great activities were actually scored very low! (They really didn't like the fractions hyperdocs/flipped learning activities, STEAM Buddies, or the fairytale unit. The last one doesn't surprise me though since my class was primarily boys.) Their favorite did surprise me though. They enjoyed the Iron Chef slides activity (Thanks, Jon Corippo!). Not because of the learning exactly, but because we had American Idol style peer judging. They WANTED peer feedback!
A line from Ms. Kirr's book, "We need some criticism to keep us grounded" is what set off the need to write this post. I was open to the students giving me feedback. What I wasn't ready for was the criticism they were inevitably going to give. I prided myself on being a fun class that allowed the students a lot of freedom. I know that I am never going to please all of the students, nor should I try to. This job would be a lot more stressful if that was my goal. What I got from the feedback though is that there are always ways to improve.
There was a lot of positive in both the fall and spring teacher report cards. Interesting that at the time I focused completely on the negative. (Some personal issues may have contributed to that.) Going back over the feedback the students gave me is going to help me for next year. (Being in a different frame of mind, I noticed it wasn't as negative as I originally thought!) Had I not been willing to open up myself to their comments, both positive and negative, I would not have had the chance to reflect on how to be better for the students.
I recommend giving your students a chance to give you a report card on how you are doing, even if it is a quick thumbs up/down, a couple of times a year. Just make sure you are ready to hear what they may have to say, even if means reading at a later date.
The end of a school year is always bittersweet. You’re losing your current class, but there is the excitement of a planning for next year’s students. The class I had this year was one of my best. They were willing to join me on my journey and often acted as willing guinea pigs. (See Love Letter to My Class blog post). Their excitement in trying new things and ability to adapt to my whatever I wanted to try was impressive. Our school district gives parents to ability to have their students remain at the elementary level for 6th grade or move onto the middle school. Most of my students are choosing to stay which means I will still get to see them, but they will no longer be mine.
This year was also one of the hardest to end because of many staff changes coming up for the fall. We had two retirees (one of which has been a close friend and amazing teacher who I got to work with daily!), a teacher moving out of the area for her family and another teacher who is changing her teaching assignment to different program. (She will be staying at our school so we aren’t really losing her, but my interaction with her will be different.) We have also grown in population for the first time in many years and are able to add another classroom teacher. This means quite a few changes!
Over the last couple of years, the reputation of the school has done a 180. We are no longer the school you send “those kids” to. We are becoming in demand not just by parents and students, but teachers. What we thought would be one or two people wanting to transfer in has become quite a few. Having the ability to choose what is right for our students and staff makes a big difference in what next year will look like.
Two of the changes will be happening in the same grade level range I work in. I will be the only returning teacher. While I have had some anxiety over who will be joining me next year, I am trying to focus on what possibilities are now open to our school. As the school has become more technology and “do it differently” focused, having new teachers means we can totally change up how we have always done it. My role as teacher-leader is becoming more important. I will get a chance to shape my grade levels in a way I had never considered. The hope is that we will be a very strong team that is able to incorporate innovation with best practices.
We won’t know what next year will look like until we get there, but the more I consider the possibilities, the more excited I’m getting. Hopefully everyone who comes will be a good fit and the school (and students!) will grow in all the positive ways!
20+ year teacher, mother of 2 kids and 2 dogs, wife, lover of all things M&M, interested in tech in the classroom, and changing up my teaching