Category Archives: engagement

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! 

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Filed under day-of-learning, engagement, ownership

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.

 

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Reflection on a Day in Sixth Grade

Today was one of those days in my sixth grade class that I wished I could have recorded.

My students were on fire!

In the past, I’ve had to spend an inordinate amount of time disciplining students, and although today was not necessarily unique in that sense, it was qualitatively different. Although I had to stop every so often to interrupt one-on-one conversations and small lapses in attention, I began to notice that most of these were not off topic but, instead, were attempts to continue the conversation.

My students had comments, opinions, and questions about the book we’re reading for #GRA14, One for the Murphys, and about the social studies lessons related to Early Peoples. I wish I could have recorded their comments (so insightful) and their questions (connected to the topic and digging deeper) so that I could savor the moment, over and over again.

Today I also made a short presentation for teachers at my school about what it means to be a connected educator. And, although I was nervous, much more so than when I’m teaching adolescents, I think it went well. I addressed social media tools that I use to become a better teacher.
It was a fast and furious session and, in some ways, I probably skimmed the surface of what being a connected educator is all about. If I would do this session again, I might zero in on one social media tool at a time and have teachers experiment by setting up an account and exploring its potential for themselves.

As I was telling my husband about my day, I kept coming back to my sixth graders. Even when class was over and it was time to go home, clusters of students stood about arguing a variety of issues. Who was more humane in their treatment of animals – the Natufians or modern day people? Was Carley, in One for the Murphys, a brat and mean to Mrs. Murphy or was she trying to defend her mother by her actions? How did the Early People’s know that hunting animals would provide food for them? How are Carley and Esperanza, in Esperanza Rising, similar and different?

I could go on and on about my students’ brilliance. However, the point of this post is to reflect on what was it that made my students so engaged in their learning, even as they were typically unable to sit still for long? As teachers we want to figure out what we did to help our students learn better and be excited about learning. We spend way too much time blaming ourselves when things don’t go well but not nearly enough time pinpointing what we contributed to make a lesson go well. So, I’m going to have a go at this right now.

I think that what hooked my students in the learning is that not only were the materials engaging – One for the Murphys is just an excellent book for adolescents that touches on so many universal themes about life, and learning about our ancestors is something kids are curious about – but at the end of our discussion of One for the Murphys and before our social studies time, I commented that I was genuinely amazed at their thinking. I told them that they were brilliant because they were thinking thoughtfully and helping the rest of us understand the novel on a deeper level. I told them that they were teaching me things that I hadn’t thought about until they shared their thinking. Now, what kid doesn’t like to one up their teacher? More importantly, what kid doesn’t like being recognized as “smart” by their teacher?

Yes, I know about Carole Dweck and others who caution against telling kids they’re “smart” because this could lead to a fixed mindset. However, I really do believe that my students are brilliant. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Some of them don’t think they are smart or have never been recognized as such. And, some know they’re smart but because they have quirky personalities, they get labeled as odd balls or even ignored by well-intentioned but misguided teachers.

I’m on a mission: to unleash my students’ potential. To bring out their brilliance, as imperfect and tentative as it may be. It’s going to be a wonderful year! As I said in a previous post, the reason I became a teacher is to inspire and be inspired. Today was one of those days.

Here we go!

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Filed under brilliance, Carole Dweck, engagement, smart