day-of-learning · engagement · ownership

Students Plan for a Day of Learning

This is the third in a series of blog posts about strategies I use to help my students take ownership of their learning. The first post was about class meetingsThe second post was about giving kids opportunities to determine their own writing and reading plans every Friday afternoon. (Coming soon is the fourth post in this series about using student surveys to provide feedback about the classroom.)

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“Yesterday I felt more independent than ever because I had to tell myself what to do.” – 5th grade boy

It did not come as a surprise that my students embraced the idea of planning their learning for an entire day. That is what being autonomous and self-directed is all about and what we all desire to be in our day-to-day experiences. Allowing students to create their own schedules for learning, albeit conditioned by specific parameters (reading, writing, math, science and/or social studies had to be addressed in the plans), allows them to challenge themselves about what matters to them, what they are curious about, or to work on self-selected areas that they want to get better at. 

“What went well was that I could work on something that I am not sure about [rather] than doing something with the teacher that I already know.” – 5th grade girl


My students were already accustomed to working on self-selected reading and writing projects on Friday afternoons during literacy block. Yet, despite my initial excitement about extending this opportunity for an entire day, I hesitated when the time finally arrived right at the end of the school year. Could my students handle the freedom they were being given? Would they stick to their plans? Would they make wise choices about whom to work with and what to do during that time? Would the classroom be noisy and chaotic? What would the other teachers say?

“Something that went well yesterday was that I got to be more responsible [for] making my own decisions.” – 5th grade boy


All classroom assessments and standardized testing were complete. We had a week left of school, but only two or three days without field trips, assemblies, or other special events. So, I took a deep breath and trusted that my students would take advantage of this opportunity.

What happened that day was a reminder that when we trust our students they will do great things that matter to them. 

“What went well is I did everything planned and it was super fun.” – 5th grade boy


My students were responsible for developing their plans for the day and following them carefully. When necessary, they could negotiate a change in their schedule. Usually this happened when students were so involved in an experiment or a piece of writing that they did not want to stop. Fine with me! 

“Don’t follow the plan ALL THE TIME. Sometimes, if needed, make changes.” – 5th grade girl  


As it turned out, it was an incredibly successful and productive day for them with a few aha moments slipped in here and there, some of which I’ve highlighted above. As a result, I am planning to do this at least after every marking period, or four times during the year.  

The steps the students took to create their learning plan were rather simple and contributed to making the day a success. 

First, I wrote the day’s schedule on the white board with specials blocked off. Next, students planned activities that would last for at least 30 minutes. They could work with one other classmate on any project during the day, if they so wished. Students had to address reading, writing, math and inquiry projects, the latter connected to social studies and science which are addressed through the Primary Years Program (PYP) of the International Baccalaureate (IB). Finally, at the end of each learning event, students wrote a brief description of what transpired. 

While students worked I walked around and served as a resource, facilitator, and encourager. Sometimes, students simply wanted to share what they were doing with me. Other times, they looked to me to help them solve the problems they were encountering, but I tried, as much as possible, to let them figure this out on their own. 

Next time, I plan to give students a paper copy of the schedule rather than writing it on the board. I will also allow time during the day for everyone to share either in a small group or whole class. 

If you’ve done something like this before or have suggestions for improvement that would allow students more choice and ownership, please be sure to leave a comment below. 

Disclaimer: I first heard about this idea during a Twitter chat. Unfortunately, I don’t remember during which chat or who tweeted about this, but I will be forever grateful for that moment in the conversation. So, thank you, whomever you are and wherever you are! 

#SOL · #TeachersWrite2016

Sitting in My Usual Spot

I am sitting in my usual spot.
At least it has been my usual spot for about a week now.
It has become my work space.
It’s where I sit to participate in online summer PD activities.
It’s where I read.
It’s where I write.

My usual spot is in a corner of the couch.
The arm rest is unusually wide.
I can pile my books, notebooks and even my laptop there.
And, I do.

I used to have a more conventional work space,
but then my husband, who works from home,
and was struggling to stick to his side of the desk,
finally spread out,
invading my work space.

One day, after many attempts at getting organized,
and not succeeding,
he told me that he was going to add an extension to our house,
so I could have my own work space.
I told him it was cheaper to tidy up.
That was months ago.

Before claiming my usual spot,
I set up a temporary, wobbly table against a wall in my bedroom
for a work space.
I used that for a few months.
Not ideal, but better than nothing.

I’ve reclaimed my conventional work space this week.
I cajoled and threatened,
until finally my husband took everything off the table,
stuffed it somewhere or filled up the trash can with it.
It doesn’t really matter,
but now I have my work space back.

But, I’m in my usual spot tonight.
And, instead of taking 100 steps in any direction,
stopping and jotting down what I hear, see
and anything else that comes to my mind (the Teachers Write assignment for today),
I am sitting in my corner of the couch.

I am writing.
Anything.
Because I am trying to take risks.
That’s what I pledged to do yesterday.
Instead of worrying about not following the assignment as described,
I decided to take a leap.
Do something different.
Write.
Instead of making excuses,
that lead to not writing,
to not taking risks.

So here I am.

It was relatively quiet a few moments ago.
Now, my husband has turned on the TV to watch a local soccer match.
This is a treat, though you may not know this.
We’ve been without a television for about a year.
Until just a couple of weeks ago.
Really, we didn’t miss much.
Except the soccer matches and the occasional Netflix movie.

I hear the sports commentator on the television.
I don’t know what he’s saying,
nor do I care.

Someone has turned on a set of lights,
directed at my husband’s and my shared workspace.
It shines far away from me,
where I am sitting,
in my usual spot.

The curtains are drawn,
but I can see outside the window as the night
curtain starts to go down.
A large cloud blankets the still, blue sky.
There is a smattering of lights.
Across the ravine,
I watch the city light up.

The wind has died down, though it was loud and strong an hour ago.

My son has turned on the lights in the dining room.
I can’t see him from where I’m positioned,
but I bet he’s sitting on a stool, at the kitchen counter,
with his iPad or a book or a drawing notebook, nearby.

And, it’s just another summer evening.

It doesn’t matter whether I take 100 steps,
or just sit in my usual spot.

I observe.
I notice.
I write.

Crossposted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.

choice · reading workshop · writing workshop

Student Engagement in Writing and Reading Workshop

This is the second in a series of blog posts about different strategies I use to help my students take ownership of their learning. The first post was about class meetingsToday’s post is about giving kids opportunities to determine their own writing and reading plans every Friday afternoon. (Coming soon is the third post in this series about allowing kids to extend an afternoon of planning into an entire day!)

This year our school implemented the Lucy Calkins’ units of writing. Next year we will be doing the reading units. Although I have been doing reading and writing workshop for a long time, this is the first year where I felt my students had less choice, rather than more choice, in their writing. And, choice is one of the untouchables of a workshop approach to teaching anything, as well as an important element towards getting kids to take ownership of their learning. 

Of course, it’s not that my students had no choice at all, but their choices were certainly much more limited than in previous years. In fact, I noticed that my students would groan when it was time for writing workshop. Although, I have encountered students who didn’t like to write, I have never experienced such a resounding rejection of writing workshop as this school year. 

So, I decided to do something about it. 

I told my students that on Fridays they would be able to choose their writing and reading projects. This change had little impact on reading since kids have choice and control over their independent reading and most of them are usually focused on what they’re reading. Not true for writing. So, no matter what the current writing unit was at the time, the kids could choose to write outside of that unit on Fridays. 

What happened from that moment on confirmed the importance of continuing to give kids a say in their learning. 

When Friday rolled around the kids invariably chose to write first! And, that is still the case several months later. After witnessing this phenomenon a few times, I asked the kids why they were selecting to write first when in the past, every time I announced it was writing workshop time there would be a collective groan? Of course, their response was that now they had a choice in what they could work on and they loved that. During this choice time, I was still able to confer with students one-on-one about what they were interested in writing or reading

Some readers of this blog may be thinking: “Yes, they were happy because now they could choose what to write about. All kids are happy when they can choose.” OK. And, what is wrong with that? Aren’t adults happy when we can choose our projects or the focus of our work? Aren’t we more likely to learn when we can determine the topic(s) of our professional learning? Why is that wrong? 

One pair of students worked on a story together that is almost finished. They even solicited submissions from the class for an illustrator for their book. They are now working on inserting the pictures in the right places in their story. Their ultimate goal is to make several print copies of their book. And, in fact, all of the children wrote stories and shared them with their classmates.

From that moment on, Friday afternoon choice time was sacred in our class. Students learned how to manage their time, when to work alone and when to work with a classmate, and what project they wanted to spend their time on. 

This experiment was so successful that I decided to extend into a full day of planning. Stay tuned for the next post in this series.

If you have given up more ownership of writing and reading to students, I would love to hear what you have done. Share it here! 






engagement · ownership of learning

Class Meetings

This is the first in a series of blog posts about different strategies I use to help my students take ownership of their learning. Today’s post is about class meetings.

Recently there was an online debate about what comes first, ownership of learning or engagement? Although I don’t think we came to a consensus on this, we did agree that both are important and need to be cultivated with equal force. As for me, some days I think engagement must come first and other days I am convinced that giving kids control over their learning is what will get them engaged. Therefore, I try to strike a balance between the two because I think some kids may not ready to take control of their learning. They have been too coddled or never given the opportunity to make even simple decisions in the classroom. Therefore, they become entirely dependent on the teacher to make all decisions for them. It takes a long time to break that dependency, but it’s well worth it for the children and the health of the classroom community. Even though these students may recognize the freedom that ownership of their own learning can offer them, they are not yet ready to take the first steps towards becoming active, independent learners. That’s why I introduce a variety of structures in the classroom to help facilitate this process.

In my classroom this year, my grade 5 students conducted weekly class meetings. On some weeks, they were able to have a total of two or three class meetings lasting 15 – 20 minutes each and, on other weeks, our schedule made that prohibitive. Either way, the kids ran the class meetings by setting the agenda (addressing problems that they had identified throughout the week); having class “referees” to lead the meetings (the referees changed on a regular basis); and making decisions through a self-made process that included discussion, offering solutions, and voting. The results of the vote would then be implemented in our classroom. Although I tried to stay out of these discussions as much as possible, I wasn’t always successful. Sometimes I would intervene when it seemed that things were getting out of hand. To be honest, I think I may have talked too much. My goals for next year are to (1) help kids set norms and expectations for the meetings and (2) to teach the first set of referees how to run a meeting effectively. This first pair would then teach the next two referees and so on. My hope is that by doing this backstage work early, I will not get too involved in their discussions.

The list that follows gives an idea of the kinds of problems that the kids addressed during these meetings:

  • how to take turns talking during class meeting in an orderly manner
  • how to make sure that devices are handled with care when stored
  • how to address the lack of pencils and other writing tools because students were being careless
  • deciding which class jobs were needed or not (this conversation happened at least three times during the school year)
  • how to take turns with the two bean bags in the class so that everyone has a fair turn
  • using the bathroom without asking for permission from the teacher
  • listening to music during class time
  • soliciting ideas for the newly minted grades 3 – 5 student leadership council

I did stress that whatever decision the class came up with had to be something that we could all implement and live with. For the most part, this wasn’t a problem although they definitely tested the waters at the beginning of the year.

Next school year, I plan to implement class meetings again. They give kids some control right from the beginning of the year about what happens in the classroom. They allow all students to have a voice without the teacher interfering too much. They help students engage in the day-to-day workings of the classroom. They set the stage for further involvement in learning. They give kids experience with democratic structures.

I would love to hear from others who have tried class meetings in their classroom. How did it go? What worked? What didn’t work? Or, if you have other examples of how you engage and/or give kids ownership of their learning, please share here. I would love to try new strategies in the fall.

 

Uncategorized

End Of the Year Rumination

The end of the school year is typically a stressful time. Report cards need to be written, assessments need to be completed and final projects need to be turned in, and not necessarily in that order. Nevertheless, I have always had time to enjoy my students before we say goodbye on the last day of school.

This year feels different.

I feel rushed and more stressed than usual. Part of it is that I am just recovering from a very bad cold that kept me bed ridden for four days, the longest number of consecutive days I’ve ever missed school in 30 years of teaching. Another part of it is that the amount of things that need to be completed is greater this year than in previous years. Being in a school environment that is actively implementing new projects is exciting, but it can also be exhausting.

As I finish assessments and the kids turn in final assignments, I am looking forward to our last week of school where we can slow things down just a bit and have some fun before we say goodbye for the summer.

So, on the last day of school I will be taking some time to reflect on the year before it becomes a distant memory. I will think about what went well and what could have gone better. I will take notes so that I can make intentional plans in August to change and/or enhance the teaching and learning in my classroom. I will make a list of routines and activities I want to keep for next year’s class and those I want to tweak or change completely.

Summer is always a time to rejuvenate, spend time with family, read and write a lot and just relax. The first day of school will come much too soon. But by then I will be ready to set out on a new challenge with a new group of students.

Here’s wishing that your summer break is all that and much more.

Cross posted to Two Writing Teachers Tuesday Slice of Life Challenge.