The exciting and informative live chat #MasteryChat that takes place on Twitter between 8 and 9PM on Thursdays discussed the topic of “Visual Thinking” on January 10th, 2019. I’ve always held the belief that the more connections students make to a lesson, the more they will remember. Also, the more emotionally attached they become to their learning, the more they will get out of it.
Teaching nonfiction text can seem like a boring topic. Here is a way I get kids creative about their learning: They make mini booklets about the text features that help them navigate through nonfiction texts.
This is great because it gives them a reason for listening: They need to know what to include in their books. Each page models and defines a different text feature or part of a nonfiction book.
The learning tool becomes a toy. Students love looking through their creations all year long. They are proud of what they produce, and show them to their peers and parents.
Here’s how it works. First, I spark the class’s excitement by showing telling them they are going to make books. Then I show them a mini book. Everyone loves that! They begin antsing to make one. That is when I share a unique style of nonfiction text; The “instructional text” that tells how to make a mini book. I point out the sequence words, and we picture in our minds what is happening to the paper.
After students display good listening skills, it is time to hand out paper. I walk around and model as well as help make the folds. The cutting from fold to the center of the paper is tricky. There is always, without fail, a couple of kids who mess it up and have to start over.
Once they have their booklets made, students number the pages. This year, to get everyone back on track, listening carefully, I made this process hilarious by acting like the students couldn’t possibly guess what the next number was going to be. For some of them, I made up riddles and algorithms. Even though the kids obviously knew that the numbers were simply chronological order, they loved it. They were recreating my jokes days afterward in new contexts.
The next thing that we do is put the vital information on the cover of the book. The project usually takes several days to complete, and I don’t want any books to get lost. The “Locating Info Mini Booklet” by (name of student) is placed in “Unfinished Work” folders, to be continued later.
When we work on the mini booklets again, I have students label each page. They look at the list that I post on the board for them. Then we make a “Table of Contents”. Finally, students write explanations for each text feature on its page. Some of them, like the “Title Page”, are virtually self-explanatory. Others, like “Graphic Organizers”, require many examples. Students are only permitted to decorate, which they are all iching to do, AFTER all of the information is completed.
This project is more than just visual. The crafty nature of creating your own learning tool is sure to coat axons with much myelin.
Every year, on the first day back to school after the winter break, I initiate a competition between two teams in my classroom. The contest is to see who reads more, but the purpose is to make reading a habit and instill an excitement for text consumption. I call it “The Reading Super Bowl”, and it lasts until the actual football game.
The class is broken up into two equal groups. I’ve done girls versus boys, odd student numbers versus even student numbers, and broken the class up according to desk arrangements; Doesn’t matter how you do it. The NFL teams that are entering the playoffs are listed on the board. Kids get the lunch/recess time to decide on their group’s team. Then the players are passed out. I usually project a few pictures of each team’s jerseys on the wall for kids to model the coloring of their figure after.
Before all of this, first thing in the morning, I will have the students sit on the carpet while I explain the rules and how the contest works. Students bring home a paper that has images of footballs on it. Each football represents 20 minutes of reading outside of school. They must be initialed by an adult; parent, caretaker, daycare worker, babysitter, anyone. Each football is one yard. It takes one hundred footballs to score a touchdown, but with the whole team working together, it happens faster than you think. If each kid reads 1 football each night for a week, and there are 12 kids on a team, you are looking at midfield (48 yards) by Friday! As you can see, there is lots of math in this contest. Each touchdown is worth 7 points. Field goals can be scored by students completing book reports.
In addition to the classroom contest, each of the five 3rd grade classrooms compete against each other in a grade-level competition to see who will be MVP. We celebrate the students’ successes with a “Reading Super Bowl Party” the Friday before the NFL’s big game. That is when our contest ends.
The students always love friendly competition. They get into coloring and cutting out their footballs. I have them tape them to the classroom football field that I post in the back of the room. Counting their team’s footballs seriously energizes the students to go home and produce multiple footballs for the next day’s taping session.
I got this idea from John Burger, my mentor in 2010 at Willow Lane. It was his last year, and we were teaching second grade. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got the idea from someone else. That’s how teaching works. If you like the idea, use it, go for it. Good luck!
Appreciating the past is classy. That sentence was worded carefully. Being stuck in the past is not classy. In fact being stuck in general is not classy. Glorifying the past is not classy, either; It says, “Those times were far better than today.” With advances in medicine, technology, and transportation, no time in history can compare to modern times.
To appreciate something is to recognize its worth.
The opposite of “Appreciating the Past” is when a person thinks that things are the way they are because of his or her efforts alone. If you make a scientific breakthrough, that is great, but I guarantee that there were hundreds, if not thousands of scientists and scientific works, not to mention your teachers, parents, and even environmental situation that all lended to you being able to perform your accomplishment.
On the other hand, while age isn’t everything, the older the wine or cheese, the more expensive the bottle or package. There is value in something maintaining its importance, if not even growing its influence, over time.
A lesson that I have been doing for years explores this hypothesis. Every year, after Thanksgiving, an army of nutcrackers marches into the American commercial and decorative landscape. They are everywhere, decorated in every imaginable theme. There are Philadelphia Eagles nutcrackers, stormtrooper nutcrackers, teddybears, ninjas, knights, historical figures, bright pink Breast Cancer Awareness nutcrackers, etc. There is no limit. Where does this army come from? There is a famous, seasonal ballet with a terrific Tchaikovsky score. There are mountains of books. Where did it all begin, and why is it so popular?
In 2012 I dug up the original novel by ETA Hoffman and gave it a read. The 1816 text (translated to English from German) was difficult to comprehend and full of robust vocabulary, so, naturally, I decided to share it with my students. (Challenge is classy; future blog.)
Before beginning, however, I came up with what has proved to be a clever way to record our findings. I projected an image of a nutcracker onto the wall. Using different pieces of paper (eight in all), I traced the outline of the nutcracker. I photocopied and stapled the pages into packets. Students were instructed to write their notes within the outlines, but “Do not go ahead”. In the same way the mysterious nutcracker comes to life within the tale and eventually is set free from his spell by Marie, our paper packets start to reveal themselves once the students get to the image of a face, one of the last pages.
My friend and co-teacher Lori Merrill combined her class with mine, and we would take turns reading the original text to the class. We came across a copy that Maurice Sendak penned and illustrated. It is slightly easier to read than the Dover edition, published 1967. Plus, the Sendak pictures are amazing. This year we had the advantage of a school Youtube channel, “Willow Lane Read Alouds” that allowed us to videotape the read alouds and publish them to the web for kids who missed a chapter to catch up. They could share with family members, as well.
Throughout the read aloud, students record vocabulary, write down key events, and draw illustrations inside the outlines of their soon to be nutcrackers. After finishing the story, students complete their notes, drawing visualizations of the toy-mouse war, the Mouse Queen placing a spell on Princess Pirlipat, Marie giving up her toys and sweets to save Nutcracker, and of course the trek through The Land of the Dolls. Then the students lightly color in all of the sections, cut them out, and assemble their very own nutcrackers. We tape them together, and get them laminated, usually and hopefully just in time to bring home for the holidays.
Now, these third grade students have a tool that they can use to retell the real story (or at least, the original story) of The Nutcracker. They are also beautiful decorations!
If you look at reviews of the original “Nutcracker”, you will find Fritzes scolding the text for inconsistencies, flaws, and poor quality. There are Madame Mouserinks waiting to bite the Nutcracker’s head off with criticisms. There is no end to the naysayers who demean the text. So, again, why has “The Nutcracker” remained and even grown in popularity?
Perhaps, it is because the characters are so unique. Nutcracker is not just a toy that comes to life. He is the Superman of toys. Judge Drosselmeier is a lawyer, tinkerer, seeming villain, and finally patriarch. Fritz displays the same militaristic attitude that his stiff soldiers show when he sentences Nutcracker’s fait. And, the noble, sweet Marie is about to sacrifice her most precious possession to save the Nutcracker. And, is there a more sadistic nemesis in literature than the seven-headed Mouse King?
The Nutcracker might maintain its popularity because of its foreignness. Winter swoops in, bringing cold and snow and holidays. Initially, it is fun and exciting because it is so different from summer and fall. Similarly, Nutcrackers take over the turkey, Pilgrim, and Native American displays. They often have an Eastern European aura to them. Also, the ballet was produced by Russians; The story written by a German.
Maybe The Nutcracker is popular because he is a symbol of olden times; simpler times. Who cracks nuts, nowadays? What kid treasures wooden toys that have one moving part?
I don’t know why our culture is so fascinated with The Nutcracker, but visiting its conception is one of the highlights of the school year. I feel like a textual anthropologist when I lead students into reading, learning, and studying the first writings of this cultural icon. I hope that not only do they develop a deeper appreciation for this classic, but that they learn the importance of appreciating the past.
Earlier this year a student from my room hurt the feelings of a peer by pointing out a physical characteristic that contrasted the child’s appearance with the other kids in the classroom. The rudeness was unintentional (Whitman, n.d.), but painful nonetheless.
The only reason that I knew about this interaction was the hurt child came over and told me about it. It almost seemed like she wasn’t sure if she should be upset or not. As she told me her story, others, overhearing the tale, chimed in with their two-cents. This additional commentary seemed to spin the story into a negative frenzy, so that I put an end to the retelling in order to address the class.
I talked to my third grade students about the effect that pointing out differences among people can have. I explained that while the observant student may not have done anything overtly wrong, it wasn’t polite to focus on what makes someone different from you. It is great to be proud of what separates you from others; These characteristics make us unique and special, but don’t draw attention to how other people are different from you. Rather, we should celebrate our similarities.
What the boy did when he pointed out the way a little girl looked different from himself was a natural thing to do. We humans can’t help but categorize things (Vanderbilt, 2016). We have genres for music, books, movies, art, dance; You name it! It’s much easier to find things when they are labeled. When I’m in the mood to read a mystery, it’s much faster and easier to go to that section of the bookstore, rather than sift through every single shelf. But, what about those books that are very funny true stories about a person’s life that happen to also be highly mysterious? Now what? Often times, we simply create a new category.
Tom Vanderbilt (2016) goes a step further, suggesting that the more we like something, the more we want to categorize. A person who enjoys candy will separate a bag of treats into several groups of like sweets. How many times has the book-lover rearranged his or her library, recategorizing titles? I have grouped books that I read close in chronology, only to separate them after reading new texts.
The problem with doing this to people is that genre-making exaggerates differences (Kaufman, 2012). When we categorize things, we look for what makes them unique. When it comes to relationships, it is wise to seek similarities over identifying differences. Contrasting characteristics can create wedges and rifts between people. Locating, examining, celebrating, and strengthening the things we have in common will pull people closer together. This will build relationships that will be useful, helpful, comfortable, and enduring.
I came up with an activity to help reinforce this concept in my classroom. I call it “Building Bridges”. We have a snack/play time in the afternoons, when we give ourselves a brain break. I instituted a “constructive” play rule, where kids use items that can be connected or built upon in order to make things, rather than just mess around. We have Legos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, 30+ year-old Robotix toys from my childhood, and we also use the colorful interlocking blocks that came with our math curriculum. Because we have the most of this last medium, I chose to have the whole class use the colorful blocks in a contest. (The competition makes it more exciting.) Groups of kids–I not only let the kids pick their own groups, I didn’t limit the size of groups–arranged and connected blocks to form bridges that spanned distances between desks. I told them that the bridge had to be able to hold and transport a Thymio robot–This is a little robot that students can program to drive. The robot was the trick. Students worked to make their bridges wide enough, thick enough, and strong enough for the robot to use. Rather than drop robots on the floor during trial runs, we measured the weight with a simple scale. The robot was equal in weight to a half-full pencil box.
We discussed the concept of working together right after having experienced it first-hand. The kids loved constructing the creations.
The thing is, the blocks in our bridges were all different colors. Not only that, but they stuck together in varying strengths. Some had tight connections. Some were very loose. But every block had way more in common with the others than it did with the desk it rested on!
In the same way, humans are all different; We look, think, behave, talk, dress, and smell different. But, we have way more in common with each other than our differences would let on. Lets focus on our connectivity, building bridges, rather than tearing each other down.
The idea for this project surfaced this past summer. My wife Sonia plays keyboard and electric bass in a band that hosts an open mic in Allentown, PA. Sonia also sings.
An open mic is a different venue from a concert. It is more like a jam-style atmosphere. This is an opportunity for musicians to try new things and literally play, rather than perform. You can collaborate on projects, join other bands for a song or two without committing to membership, and meet new people.
Sonia had been going to and playing at this open mic for nearly a year. On a pretty regular basis, people thought that they should go up to Sonia and tell her what she could improve. It didn’t seem like these people were doing this to anyone else, and the pep talks, or whatever you want to call them, were unsolicited. It felt like Sonia was being bullied. She was new to the scene, and had quickly moved to center stage. Perhaps the bullies were jealous.
Whenever Sonia would tell me one of these stories, I tried to only listen, but I inevitably thought about what a classy response might be. It varied on the situation, but my favorite boiled down to asking the purveyor of symphonic wisdom, “What are you doing?” I thought up the idea of interrupting the (let’s presume) ignorant bully, and simply inquiring, “Why do you feel the need to push this lecture on to me?” It isn’t like Sonia had asked to be critiqued, so what was happening here?
Sonia is far from insecure, and she is very classy, so she nearly always let the ignoramus spout his advice. She, probably, rightly so, figured he wanted to feel important or knowledgeable. It’s not impossible the guy just wanted something to talk to my beautiful wife about. Wrong move. It was not providing Sonia with positive feelings.
I transferred all of this to a situation that I could imagine happening in a school setting. If an elementary student was being bullied, what would be the best response? Also, how could I communicate to 3rd graders appropriate ways to deal with verbal bullies? I came up with a lesson involving Cause and Effect that used Google Slides. I began by making a flowchart.
From each action (or inaction) a couple of different things might happen. From your next decision, new angles or issues would appear. What would be the best direction to take?
I made a Google Slideshow that has a simple, generic storyline for students to interact with. As they read each slide, they click on the box that they think will be best for dealing with the given situation. The boxes are all linked to slides within the slideshow, so depending on what is clicked, students will create their own narrative; like a “Choose Your Own Adventure”. There is a box on every slide that allows students to go all the way “Back to the Beginning” of the narrative to start over. There is also one that allows students to return to the “Previous Slide”.
Before using the slideshow, I recommend using yarn to form a story web. Index cards with elements of a story can be attached to a wall, placed on the floor, or read from desks. Yarn can begin at the start of the story and travel back and forth from causes to effects. The yarn is a timeline. This shows students that conflict is not linear. By definition, we do not deal with a bully once and done. Each variation in how we deal with the conflict is a science experiment. You think to yourself, “This time I will ignore the bully and see what happens.” You witness the outcome, analyzing how it worked out for you. Then next time, you tryout yelling, “Stop bullying me!!” Or, perhaps you give telling an adult a try. Never seeing the bully again or successfully dealing with the situation so that there is no more bullying could be represented by cutting the line of yarn. What would simply running out of yarnsymbolize?
After the yarn conflict web group exercise, students can independently or with partners participate in clicking through and reading the interactive Classy Conflict Management slideshow. This allows them to take control and explore the concept of cause and effect on their own.
Creativity is one of those things that everyone understands, but has a hard time defining. I think art, and especially music emulates the essence of creativity the best. Musical artists seem to tap heaven when coming up with completely new melodies.
Henriksen, Mishra, & Fisser (2016) use three concepts to build a definition of creativity: novelty, effectiveness, and appropriateness. This is perfectly fine, if we are using creativity solely to solve specific problems within the context of an educational environment. In my opinion, the last two concepts flatten creativity into a two-dimensional word that can be explained away in a paper.
I think that you can stop after “novel”. The authors of “Infusing Creativity and Technology in 21st Century Education: A Systemic View for Change” (2016) take the magic of Willy Wonka and stick it into Henry Ford’s assembly line when they push productivity onto creative people. They, like many, seem to be looking for ways to harness creativity in order to power old machinery. Sticking art in the regular-ed classroom won’t transform it. We need to break down the walls!
Applying the limiting definition of Henriksen, Mishra, & Fisser (2016) to a problem like making Internet connections faster would make wires carry more and more information, faster and faster. Perhaps there brand of creativity could even think up Wifi. The most creative person might harness the Earth’s Mantle to transport information from one side to the other instantaneously without using energy. This is all super helpful, would benefit society, make money for companies, save money for others, create jobs, foster new research, etc. But, what about the kid who thinks about changing the information from the Internet in general. We praise the kid who builds the most amazing structure with Legos and punish the one who uses the Legos to form a picture. That is not how Legos work. You did not build anything. Another kid makes the Legos dance and sing. They put on a play. Still another builds with the Lego people a structure that the blocks live in. Whoa, that kid is reeeeeaaaally wrong!
Play for play sake. Be creative just to be creative. Come up with new ideas, just cuz.
This past summer I decided this would be the year that I explore a program that has evaded me for a while now: GarageBand. I watched a tutorial video that lit a fire in me to make my own music for the videos that I create. (I produce a lot of movies that I post on Youtube.)
I had a cool idea for how to use GarageBand: My class will take a song and change the lyrics, making a classroom song. I chose “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. I’m sure that you think this is a crazy choice for a 3rd grade classroom. It is, but let me explain with some A, B, Cs… and a D;)
A is for A+. I love the song. The music is catchy, singable, memorable, rhythmic, and fun. Also, it uses tons of different instruments. This would be great for my class, because everyone could have a “part” in its construction. If we were to perform the music live, literally every single kid could be playing a totally different instrument!
B is for Beginning. The song is sort of a riddle, asking listeners to “Guess my name”. At the beginning of the year (when I had thought about working on this) we are all getting to know one another. I had my students make “Who Am I Riddle Poems” to share things about themselves that are unique from others. We would take this concept and use it “whole group” to distinguish our class from other classes.
C is for simple, yet complex. The song is made up of 4 verses with a repeating chorus. The chord progression is E, D, A, E, with the change on the first beat of each of four measures. Dylan Peters (@DylanPetersedu), the brand new Technology Innovator Specialist hired to East Penn School District this past summer (2018) worked with me from the get go to teach my students (and me) how to use GarageBand. We used the “Autoplay” feature to have the instruments play simple rhythms. After guiding groups through creating the same set of four instruments playing the same four measures of music, we showed them how they could change the instruments, altering percussion styles, and fooling with some really funky disc jockey features.
And, D. is for “dynamic”. [Dynamic was the theme of a recent #livechat I participated in from #masterychat, @teachbetterteam. I looked up the word, and found that it means “change”.] The original song by The Rolling Stones changes throughout, progressively increasing the tempo, number of sounds, and musical involvement. This is not only fun, but would allow for my entire class to be hooting and howling by the end! (Give the song a listen, and you’ll see.)
So far, the groups have been working on changing the instruments within GarageBand to customize their four measures before we piece them all together. The aim is for four totally different styles of the same music to be joined just like the students of my third grade class came from different 2nd grade teachers, possessing very different styles of teaching, personalities, and methods.
This past week I began teaching poetry, in preparation for the class to write the lyrics that will accompany our music. Dylan Peters plans to bring in a professional-style microphone to record the class’s singing once our composition is complete. Check back with me to see and hear the final product.
I mention this GarageBand project not just to share a pretty creative idea, but because of a question my wife posed: What are the learning outcomes for this? At first, I thought about justifying the time, energy, thought, and work by suggesting ELA, Art, or Math standards. Then I thought about explaining to her the camaraderie-constructing merit of the project. I settled on “We are just doing it for fun.” Why does this seem so wrong in today’s educational climate?
Henriksen, D., Mishra, P., & Fisser, P. (2016). Infusing Creativity and Technology in 21st Century Education: A Systemic View for Change. Educational Technology & Society, 19 (3), 27–37.
Just over a week ago I produced the coolest off-the-cuff formative assessment using Google Slides. Students accessed a slideshow that I threw together right before getting them from recess. There was a picture in it that I wanted them to use to identify arrays.
My 3rd graders have struggled with learning multiplication at the very beginning of the year, as I have struggled teaching it right out of the gate. See, my district just signed on to use iReady math, and everyone is experiencing some growing pains.
We have been looking at arrays, frontwards and backwards. I had brought some connecting blocks home to take pictures for a quiz I would administer, when an idea hit me. My daughter Scarlet was enjoying constructing shapes with the blocks, and she built a robot. Rather than making nice neat rectangles for my students, I’d have them find the arrays that lay hidden in this robot. I love combining life experiences and teaching moments, so I told my students about the robot’s inception and their assignment. They loved it and jumped right in.
I had taken a picture of the simple combination of blocks and uploaded it to a Google slideshow. Students were to find the slideshow (a copy per student) waiting for them in their Math Google Classroom. They were to identify different arrays by circling them. I also told them to label the arrays appropriately; Putting the number of rows first, and then the number of columns.
My classroom has a mishmash of different devices. I literally did not know how they were going to outline their arrays, but I did know that there was more than one way. The iPads are pretty easy. Kids can click on the assigned Google slideshow and immediately start drawing and writing all over the slides, without opening it in the Google Slides App. When students are done they can save/submit the work as a PDF.
On the Chromebooks and Macs, students could put shapes on top of the arrays, but then they would have to adjust the shape to be transparent. Students found a tool called “Scribble” under the “Line” icon within slides that worked the best. They could draw (using two hands) a rectangle around the arrays they found. Then they used the regular “Line” to connect the array to a “Text Box” that they typed the array inside. These lines were very thin and black, so students worked out a way to change the color and thicken up the lines. They also used this experience to find out how to change the font size, color, etc. of text. I witnessed my students teaching themselves the technology, problem-solving in many more ways than one, using creativity for practical reasons, and experiencing tremendous success, both practically and mathematically!
All in all, the lesson was a smashing success. I was very happy with how well my students did identifying the arrays. And I was incredibly impressed with the ingenuity they showed in figuring out the best ways to show their work, using the tools at their disposal.
Now, this is where the title of this blog comes into play. The aforementioned lesson took place on the Thursday before Columbus Day Weekend. On Monday (Columbus day) my school district had a professional development inservice. I attended an incredible session titled “iPads Untethered”, taught by East Penn Tech Instructional Assistant, Heather Moser. She started out the teacher learning time with an app called “Sketches”. Kids can use this app to easily draw all over images that are either shared with them or they generate from taking a picture. The sketches can be saved in organized folders, shared, or submitted. We then moved on to doodling all over images in Notes, another easy to use app that comes preinstalled on iPads. It was as though Heather knew about my lesson and was saying, “Gee, Captain, you could have simply used one of these.”
The catch is that both my students and myself grew threw our productive struggle. Problem-solving ways to show arrays within Google Slides helped us learn all kinds of things. Also, I liked my ability to link comments to student work when it came time for me to provide feedback and grades for this assessment on the fly. In the future, when my students have one iPad/kid I can use the awesome apps that Mrs. Moser showed teachers during professional development.
Those simple-to-use drawing tools would make it much easier and faster to perform an assessment like the one I had planned, but would this rob my students of the opportunity for productive struggle? As digital tools make life easier and easier, we teachers will have to be creative in finding ways to make tasks challenging.