Student Learning – It’s a Matter of Time

I’ve been over planning, and I don’t like what over planning has contributed to my class so far this year. As a fifth grade teacher, I have the following basic responsibilities:

  • Teach the Colorado Academic Standards in Reading, Writing, Communicating, Math, Science, and Social Studies
  • Participate in the second-year implementation of an elementary reading program
  • Integrate technology through the use of student netbooks, wireless access, SMART Board, and document camera

When all is said and done, we have about 3 hours and 40 minutes per day to do our work as a class. As it turns out, that’s not a lot of time.

I’ve planned to the minute to be sure to hit each content area and to integrate technology every day. The problem is, it takes time for students to settle in to learning, to be present in what we are doing. On our recent pace, the class often feels more like a series of hit-and-run activities than it does a rich learning environment. I’m watching the clock as much as I’m watching the learning.

Time is a funny thing. When students aren’t engaged in an activity, often when I’m trying to get through things rather than get into things, twenty minutes seems like an eternity. When students are actively interested and engaged, twenty minutes is just the beginning. Based on what I’ve seen so far this year, meaningful extended work will make a bigger difference for the kids.

So the challenge for me, and I know it’s not a new challenge, is to find ways to integrate the learning opportunities, the technology, and the standards so tightly that each our daily 220 minutes is engaging students in ways that will go beyond whether they were exposed to each of the content objectives for the day.

Rich learning takes time, and while there’s an urgency in education to get all kids to be adequately prepared now, we need to give them time to explore topics, build their understanding, and embrace their learning. If we do this well, we will help them to become adaptable, lifelong learners, and that would be time well spent.

I Don’t Know Prezi

Today I showed my 5th grade class the Prezi web site and a few sample presentations. They’re working on an independent study free-choice project, and I was offering possibilities for incorporating media into their final presentations. But I don’t know how to use Prezi. Never attempted it. Have no idea of the structure, layout, capabilities. Nothing.

We did a fairly quick walk through the Future Proof Your Education prezi by Maria Anderson. The kids were impressed. They wanted to do Prezi. But I don’t know Prezi.

When we had some time at the end of the day, I suggested they go to Prezi. They got to the site and asked what to do. I told them to read and see what they needed to do. One student said, “We need to create an account.” So they tried to create accounts. Some were successful; some weren’t. They asked me what they had to do. I told them that I didn’t really know. They continued to press forward.

Some needed some help with their e-mail addresses. I told them their addresses were student_id at ourschooldistrict.org. They tried it, and it didn’t work. They tried again, and it didn’t work. They asked again. I wrote on the board “student_id@ourschooldistrict.org.” I heard and excited response, “That’s what we’re doing wrong!. We got it now.” They didn’t know “at” meant “@.”

They got on, and repeatedly I heard, “What do I do now? How do I create a Prezi?” I didn’t know. I told them again, “I don’t know. I’ve never done a Prezi.” So they explored on their own. They found the button to create a new Prezi, and in a few minutes they were all messing around with it.

By not knowing Prezi, I found it much easier to let them struggle to figure things out by themselves. Although I could have gone through the process with them and figured out the answers much more quickly than they did, I didn’t feel compelled to. After all, we were on even ground with Prezi, and they were the ones who wanted to use it. And they figured it out.

As it turns out, they really like Prezi. I guess I’ll have to learn it, too. If I do learn it, I need to remember my lesson learned today. They can learn on their own when motivated; they can even learn things I don’t know. Imagine that.

Learning Target for FOSS Lessons

Today, we started the Full Option Science System (FOSS) Landforms module.  This is probably the 9th time I’ve done this unit with a class, but for the first time, I took some time to develop clear, standards-based direction for the work.

It’s going to take some time and consistency for students to use this guidance to activate and direct their learning, but it sure feels better to have some real clarity in the room as we do our work.

Big Questions for this unit:

  • How does Earth’s surface change?
  • How do changes on Earth’s surface impact humans?
  • What would happen if water were removed from an ecosystem?
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What will I be able to do when I’ve finished the lesson?

Understand why scientists use models to observe certain natural processes.

 To be able to do this, I must learn and understand:

  • What a model is
  • When scientists use models
  • How models are helpful and how they are limited

What will I do to show that I can do this, and how well will I have to do it?

Create a detailed blog post discussing why scientists use models that includes an example of a scientific model. Discuss why the model is useful, and why the model is not as good as observing the real thing.

Trials in Student Engagement, Part 1: Embracing the Learning Process

So, I’m back in the classroom starting a school year for the first time in four years. I have all kinds of delusions about how effective a teacher I’ve been in my career, and I’m excited to test some of my theories about student learning that have evolved during my time in administration. That was August.

Reality set in in a number of ways. I had to learn and integrate a new (to me) literacy adoption. I had to learn the culture and expectations of a new school. I had to implement student netbooks and learn to use a Smartboard. I had to integrate Literacy Clubs and Math Clubs and interventionists with my planning. I have 27 students. Our school did not make AYP.

I did my best to plan instruction and get the year off to a good start. And it was a pretty good start. The kids enjoyed the technology, and I enjoyed teaching. There was a persistent feeling that the kids weren’t really as engaged in the learning as I wanted them to be, but I figured they’d come along soon enough. As time went on, I came to the realization that I was working harder than ever, teaching bell-to-bell, and not seeing the progress in engagement or quality of student work for which I’d hoped.

Trying to get them going, we had class meetings and conversations about how important an education was to their future. They had the right answers, saying they came to school to learn and that they wanted to graduate high school and go to college, but there was little change in their levels of engagement.

Along the way, there were attempts to reward them for effort through class paws (part of our school behavior program), extra recess, extra computer time, and Jolly Ranchers (pretty effective). This type of extrinsic motivation goes against my philosophy of developing life long learning habits that should be their own reward, but they did “work” to some degree.

Looking for ideas to overcome the inertia that had our class in a less than ideal state, I began reading Dylan William’s new book, Embedded Formative Assessment. The first thing that struck me was when he wrote about “the old joke that schools are places where children go to watch teachers work.” I’d heard him say this before, but it really struck home and reflected what I’d been feeling about my classroom. The next thing that struck me, the section that spurred me to action, was in Chapter 3, where he discusses learning intentions.

The chapter starts with raising the question of what the experience in the classroom looks like to the student. Is the student aware of what we’re trying to accomplish? Does the student understand his or her role in the learning? Sure, I’d been writing my learning objectives on the board and going over them with the students, but it didn’t seem to be making any difference in their engagement at all.

Given the points raised by William in his book, I rethought how I’d been approaching the student engagement question. I came in the next morning, stacked all of the student chairs and desks off to the side of the room and called a class meeting. We went through the normal motions of discussing how important education is and why students came to school. Then, I asked them directly, “What can you do to make sure you’re learning?”

It was quiet for a number of seconds. I waited. First response, “I can listen.” More silence. Another hand went up. “Pay attention?”  I waited. Longer. Then there was another “pay attention.” I asked again, “What can you do to make sure you’re learning?”  In the awkward silence, I realized that I had provided academic work and enthusiastic, quality teaching, but I had never worked with them to help them understand what it was all supposed to amount to or what they were supposed to do with it. Their best thinking about what they were supposed to do was to be obediently passive and receptive to what the teacher was saying or asking them to do.

I explained to them that no one really can sit and listen for very long and that learning came by actively engaging in and doing the work. Then I followed with a simple document:

Learning Process – Math Facts

I will be able to…

Know my math facts in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division

To do this well, I will need to…

  • Understand that counting numbers represent quantity
  • Show the multiples of a number as repeated addition
  • Show division as repeated subtraction
  • Complete fact families for multiplication and division

The goal for learning math facts is to complete at least 20 problems in one minute with no mistakes.

Have I met my goal for learning math facts?  Yes   No

How I think I’m doing with learning my math facts:

What will I do to improve my learning of math facts?

What do I need from my teachers or parents to help me learn my math facts?

I realize this isn’t the best learning progression around, but it is a simple, concrete learning outcome to which the students could relate. Each student completed these questions and had a brief conference with me about their responses. It really felt like they understood that they had to do something active in oder to get different results.

This was just yesterday morning. The rest of the day felt a little better, and I think I saw a difference in the class. Although at this point, I’m inclined to believe that it was probably wishful thinking, I’m going to invest time in creating more learning process documents in which students will be able to define what they will do, as individuals, to engage in their own learning…and I will continue to have a bag of Jolly Ranchers around just in case.