We all know that kids need to learn to read to succeed in life. It helps if they love reading. Unfortunately not everyone does. Teachers are constantly trying to come up with ways to encourage their students to read independently, usually at home. For years, reading logs, book reports and quizzes on what they read have been the norm. I was one of those who did all of it. Recently, I have discovered that not only were the kids to not loving reading, but for those who weren’t motivated on their own, these methods actually killed any desire to read on their own.
This year I tried something new. First, I ditched the idea that students had to read books within their own level. If the goal was to get the kids reading, then why did it matter if the book was too easy or too hard for them based on a test they took once? Second, I got rid of the idea of what types of books they read. No more “this month is (insert genre here)” ideas. Students are now reading graphic novels, short stories, picture books, and great novels by their choice. The point is that they are reading! Next I got rid of how long/how much they read each night. No more log meant I had no idea if they were reading for 5 minutes or three hours. I just want them to read. (Comprehension and vocabulary increases throughout the year would prove to me who was reading for longer periods.)
Last, I changed HOW they showed me they have read. “Book reports” now come in the form of Flipgrid videos (and responses to other student’s books!), posters, quizzes (some kids actually LIKE taking these!), tell me about the book (of course I was going to ask a few pointed questions!) or anything else they could think of. The level of student enthusiasm has increased dramatically over books being read. AND more students are reading than in the past where they felt the pressure to earn so many points in so many months. I found that students who were “failing” their reading quizzes were now reading longer books and were able to share about what they read.
Because I teach both a 5th grade class and a 6th grade class this year, I decided to create a competition between the two classes. Here’s the basics. First, read ANY book. Then complete an activity (see above). Create a flower for our bulletin board for every 100 pages you read in the book. For example, any of the Harry Potter books could earn 5-7 flowers for the student and class. Any book less than 100 pages still got 1 flower. Each class would put their flowers on their side of the “Garden” bulletin board. Since flowers had student names and book titles/authors, everyone could see what was being read in both classes and I had a record of the books. (This concept could be done with any interactive bulletin board. I spent WAY too much time this summer trying to think of the best one that would be easiest for the students to create an object for and would create buy-in by the kids.)
At the end of the quarter, flowers on both sides have been counted. The winning class (whichever side had the most flowers) is getting a prize. They get to find out which class gets it on Monday, and it’s going to be a pretty big deal. There were days in the 8 weeks we did the first competition where one of the classes would be way ahead. Since the students hate to lose, the other class would always do more the next few days. When it came down to the last week, suddenly many different students were finishing their books, completing activities and adding new flowers. The winning side came down to the last day.
It really doesn’t matter in the long run which class won the competition. (In my opinion they all did.) What mattered is that once the flowers were counted, the students had read over 12,000 pages! They were reading and enjoying it. Two of the students had taken quizzes and not passed them, one of them getting 0 questions correct. They were both defeated. However, when I explained to them that I was more thrilled that they had read such great books (Harry Potter and Frankenstein) and they were still able to contribute to the class competition, the looks of pure joy on their faces was exactly what teachers want when kids are talking about books. One of the boys decided to do a Flipgrid for the second book he read. The animation and details he was able to bring to his video were something that a quiz could never have measured.
My students are now more engaged and all it took from me was a little creativity and competition for the love of reading.
For the past month, my classes have doing history simulations. The 6th graders have become hunter-gatherers, early farmers and are now creating early civilizations. The 5th graders are learning what it felt like to be explorers in the time of Columbus and Vasco de Gama. I’ve always known that hands-on, real life experiences make the learning more relevant and interesting. What I forgot, though, is how much more fun they can be for everyone.
This week the 6th graders had a competition to start off their new early civilization unit. Each group was given the same directions, but different materials. The goal was to get the students to figure out how to trade for the correct materials, while creating laws, architecture, and a written language. Once a group had all of their materials, they were allowed to get the “secret plans” that would allow them to create their “weapon”, a catapult. Adults in each group stepped out of the action and just observed. The “winning” group made their catapult first. The other groups had to stop what they were doing as soon as any group had it made.
As adults it was very difficult to NOT get involved. We wanted to re-direct, remind them to read the directions more carefully or work better as a team. The reward of us staying out of it was seen in the class discussion afterwards. Teams figured out that the group that read ALL directions and split up into even smaller groups to accomplish their tasks was the only group to even come close to finishing. Many of the students were frustrated by the activity, not because they lost, but because they realized what they had done not so well as a team.
The 5th grade simulation was very exciting! Students were broken up into crewmates and were sailing to the New World from Spain or Portugal. They took their chances with supplies and navigation skills. Some of the ships even encountered diseases. Sadly one ship has already “lost” 4 out of 5 of it’s crew members due to disease. (Those who have lost their lives are now part of the Royal family and help the teacher!) Cheers and groans went around the room regularly as ships discovered their fates. I kind of felt sorry for the teacher next door who was testing her students, but not enough to stop the fun we were having. Students also got bored as they were waiting for others to determine what was happening next. While this is not a good goal normally, it helped to demonstrate what life on a ship would have been back before we had modern technology!
As we continued I noticed that some of the groups were starting to strategize more in deciding which child did what part of the action. This helped since each crewmember had different strengths and weaknesses. I look forward to see how they do with day 3 of our travels west.
Those of you who have read my previous posts know I am a big proponent of staying away from worksheets and textbooks. Using the simulations to learn history made it much more relevant to the class than if they had read a book about the topic or if the teacher did all the work. They are strengthening their communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills while having a LOT of fun. Isn’t this what school should be about? I can’t wait to see where our simulations are going to take them for the rest of the year. I’m also betting the students are going to be just as curious.
The beginning of the school year signals many different events. One I have always loved and hated is Back to School Night. I always want to meet the parents of my current students and get excited to share all of the great things I have planned for the year. However, the thought of standing in front of these adults always causes my stomach to do A LOT of flips and turns (even though I’ve done it more than 20 years!). It doesn’t seem to matter that I have started speaking in front of others as part of my professional development. It’s always that worry that I won’t have enough time to get through everything AND that these are the people that are going to be judging me all year. Whether teachers like it or not, parents judge you on how well their child likes you and what is learned. It’s a fact I have gotten accustomed to, but still not something I am comfortable with. This year, though I decided to try something new with the parents, just like I do with their kids. I flipped my Back to School Night!
For those of you not sure what the “flipped” concept is, it’s where (typically) students watch a video or learn something online.The teacher is then free to answer questions and work with the students on the concept 1-on-1 or in small groups instead of lecturing to the whole class. (Check out the Flipped Learning Network for more information.) I have tried this model a few times in my classroom with the students. Now was my chance to try it with the parents.
A week before the actual event, I sent out a QR code (made through the URL shortener Goo.gl) for parents to watch a video I had recorded about my classroom. Because I know 10 year olds pretty well, I also did an email blast about the video a few days later and included it on my website. These last two seemed to reach more of the parents.
The video was nothing fancy. I used Screencastify to walk parents through the basic presentation I would have shown them when they came to school. I loved that I could use the same presentation and include myself in the bottom of the screen so that parents could get a personalized feel. I had to record it more than once to get over a few nerves and technical difficulties. However, I didn’t spend as much time doing it as I thought I would. (Need to get over that I don’t like watching myself or hearing my voice online issue that is common with a lot of people!) I also created a Google Form for parents to fill out after they watched so they could tell me a little about their child and ask me any questions in advance. By using Goo.gl and the form, I was able to track how many views my video had and I had a chance to think about the parent questions. (More people have viewed the video than have regularly showed up for the night presentation every year.)
Back to School Night was finally here. The nerves were less than normal. I was still meeting with the parents, but they had already seen me talk about the classroom. The pressure had been taken off. Instead of standing in front of a bunch of parents this year, I got to talk to small groups of people about specific topics they wanted to know more about. I also got a chance to speak specifically about a few students with their parents one-on-one without waiting for our conferences in October. Usually none of this happens because I am so crunched for time that parents get less than 5 minutes to ask me questions and NEVER do you talk about the kids specifically! AND many of the parents told me how much they loved the video. I had set up computers around the room for those who hadn’t had a chance to watch the video. Once they were done, they found me to talk about their questions and comments. Parents who weren’t able to come for the event got a chance to watch it and still participate in their student’s education. A former student’s parent commented that she wished all teachers (including me back when I had each of her sons!) would do this. She has 4 kids and is never able to get to ALL of their Back to School Night presentations. Flipping it would have allowed her to be more involved in all of what they were doing.
Now that I have flipped my Back to School Night, I have no plans to go back to the way I have always done it. The ability to have conversations with the parents rather than me spewing information at them for 25 minutes made a huge difference for all of us. My biggest regret is that I didn’t figure all of this out sooner.
Please check out my video and let me know what you think!
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