Conversing with Cardboard

photo 2 (1)

First iteration of a student desk.

A bias towards action.  That’s my new motto.  It also happens to be the mantra of design thinking.

When originally crafting the math rubrics I’ve been mentioning recently, I struggled immensely.  In fact, the final product that I’ve posted to this blog was the result of several iterations and reorganizations of the same set of targets.  I felt extremely frustrated by the feat and, at times, completely quit altogether, because I simply could not find a way to make my vision for multi-grade learning come to fruition.  But each time I’d end up sitting down, a new piece would form, even if it was a piece that I knew I’d never use again.  And therein lies the power of iteration: We won’t know what doesn’t work until we see it not working.

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 7.11.45 PM

This will be a rack for our backpacks!

After all, the form of anything comes functionality the form with which we intend to create it, and by constantly reevaluating my purpose for building these rubrics–by failing fast, getting frustrated, and failing again–I ended up coming to an acceptable product, one on top of which I can build future iterations and applications to different standards and contexts.  In fact, I already feel like I’ve been able to apply this new form to other math, reading, and writing targets.

And if this strategy is good enough for me to learn on my own, it certainly will be good enough for my students.

In fact, I think iteration is even more powerful when put in the hands of students.  When we started the design project, I did as I normally do, and tried to exercise too much control over their creative process.  We created a classroom map, which was successful to help them orient themselves into the room; after which, we began sketching and planning our designs.  This element of the design process was not bad, in and of itself.  It’s good to have an idea of what you’re going to try before you actually try it.  My pitfall, however, was doing too much talking, and not enough acting.

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 7.12.09 PM

A prototype for our new shelves in the art studio.

But one day, when our site lead came in to help, she asked where we were in the process.  I mentioned we were designing using sketches, and that it’d be good to continue with that.  I can’t remember what it was that made me change my plans; perhaps it was something she said, or perhaps it was because I felt absolutely befuddled by this crazy process upon which my class had embarked.  Regardless, we changed the plans for the day and decided to just start building.  She cut a bunch of cardboard, I prepped the kids, and then we started.

We started iterating.

The classroom seemed to burst with activity, and the kids milled about beginning to build their designs.  One group, in particular, was constructing a rack for backpacks out of cardboard, while another began building individual desks.  Others began working on a study space, while one final group began designing shelves for the art studio.

photo 1 (1)

Looks like we might need another iteration of this one.

It seemed to be one of the first times that I wasn’t constantly putting out fires in the classroom.  The kids were engaged, and the classroom had achieved its own level of flow.  In this instance, in particular, it wasn’t because I was exercising my best classroom management skills (because, believe me, that’s necessary at times) or because I had bribed the kids to get work done with a reward.  Instead, the kids were engaged because they were involved in complex interpersonal conversations–conversations where they problem-solved with each other and built upon the ideas of others.  Not only that, they were involved in complex conversations with the cardboard itself. The cardboard served as a medium through which they were making our vision come to life; it served as yet another language for their hopes and dreams for a learning environment.

They spoke through the cardboard, standing it up straight, slicing it in half, and adhering it to other pieces, making it take on its own life form.  It spoke back to them, showing them that they’d built too tall a structure, too wide a structure, or too weak a structure–and what would they do in return?

They’d iterate… and they’d try something new.

ADHD . Working Memory . Brain Research

Turns out me getting strep was quite a blessing.

I’ll admit, I caught it early, so it wasn’t that bad.  It blessed me with two days to catch up on work while sequestered with my highly contagious disease.  This morning, while living out the last 4 hours of my sentence, I started to do a little research.  Here’s what happened:

I realized the other day that my old methods for teaching weren’t going to make the cut.  I was used to my 24+ students, who would, for the most part, sit, listen, and interact with text during my reading lessons.  However, with my new group, I’m noticing quite the opposite.  They need to get out of their seats, they need to wiggle, and they need other modes of processing information than the traditional shared reading modes that I’ve been providing.

For a while, I was in denial.

I didn’t want to admit that my well-researched and well-practiced methods were not the best fit for this group, in particular. But once I put my ego to the side, I found the new challenge to be quite enticing.  I wanted to find out what exactly was inhibiting these kids from engaging with the text an engaging with me during a shared reading lesson.  One of my most frequent observations of them was that they seemed to be extremely engaged when there was a video in front of them. I know what you’re thinking: It’s animated or it’s funny… or something of that nature.  But that doesn’t seem to fully be the case.  While BrainPop! is engaging, a number of them have watched videos from LearnZillion, or even videos of me explaining concepts.  They somehow still have managed to remain engaged.

I know what you’re thinking… it must be the technology, and yes, I’m sure that’s fun for them, but these kids are digital natives.  They see computers every day, and I find it hard to believe that the fact that this is simply delivered electronically makes it more engaging.  Instead, I think there is something the video is doing–something deeper than the electrons hitting the screen–that face-to-face instruction is not.

Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 7.28.22 PMAnd so here’s where I hit the books.

I started researching motivation, because I naturally thought it was it was something that was motivating them, but as I started to look more into things, I started to realize it had nothing to do with motivation. Of course, they want to learn.  Instead, it had to do with attention and processing.  While ADHD is a bit over-diagnosed, in my opinion, I think that we all, in a way, have characteristics of attention deficit, similar to how we are all learning a language when we read–just like ELLs.  Things lose our attention when they become difficult to process, and as teachers, it’s our job to constantly maintain our students’ attention.  My students have the ability to sit still.  I’ve seen it firsthand!  There are simply certain situations that do not hold their attention, causing them to wiggle and meander off-task.  In fact, after some research, catering to students with attention deficit issues merely sounds like good teaching, just like how grounding vocabulary in experiences and using a variety of modalities  helps expand an ELL’s vocabulary–and the vocabulary of all our kids.  Here’s what I found:

Kids with attention deficit issues have trouble with their working memory.  

The definition for working memory is a hard one.  From what I can find, it’s related to short-term memory, but it entails attending to tasks, as well. Regardless, there are tons of training tasks out there that you can use to train a child’s working memory.  These training tasks help with things like encoding, shifting and controlling attention, inhibition, dividing attention, maintenance, and manipulation.  Luckily, I’m working with a neuroscientist, so I’ll be looking forward to finding more about these!

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is critical to planning, attention, and executive functioning.  

A lot of you probably already knew this.  I didn’t.  But I found this to be important because it made me then look for ways to stimulate this part of the brain.  Clearly, the videos were stimulating this part of their brain in one way or another.  They were able to process the information–both visual and auditory–to the point where they were able to remain engaged for extended periods of time.  But clearly, this wasn’t happening in my reading lesson.

Working memory seems to be rooted in visuospatial processing and phonological processing.  

This was especially interesting to me, and helped me see just why children with ADHD generally have subpar spelling skills.  It would seem that phonological patterns and sounds are difficult for them to process, while semantic units are easier for them to process. Now, it totally makes sense why some of these children are extremely bright, but have trouble communicating in written language.  Spelling is hard because something within their working memory is inhibiting them from hearing certain sounds.  Moreover, the “visuospatial scratchpad” as Baddeley and Hitch call it, is where students process form, color, spatial stimuli, and movement.  It turns out that when visual tasks are paired with spatial tasks, that there is less interference in the brain, promoting success.

Finally, I found out about a strategy for improving attention and working memory called “High Intensity Interval Training.” 

This is similar to when someone works out.  It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it turns out that building “stamina” in mindfulness and meditation to more lengthy periods of time is actually counterproductive to helping them learn to focus and refocus their attention.  By creating “High Intensity Interval Training” (HIIT) periods where students practice mindfulness or meditation for approximately a minute, it has been shown to help students retain attention for longer and refocus themselves more easily.  Eventually, these intervals can be reduced even below the original minute, remaining in intensity.  Martin Boronson, author of “One Minute Mindfulness,” notes that “the point is to learn that you can change your state of mind quickly — that you can go from where you are to peacefulness in 60 seconds or less.”

And good golly, that would be helpful for our wiggly ones to learn how to do.

Needs, Constraints, and Solutions: Teaching Math Across Four Grade Levels

photo (21)Last week, I discussed our attempt at having students choose their own rubrics.  I promised a follow-up, and before I provide that, here’s a little background on the vision for this learning experience.

First and foremost, what were we trying to achieve?  What did we need to happen?

We needed to teach basic measurement skills, specifically within the customary system, in order to support our classroom design project, in which the students have been designing furniture for the classroom.  We needed to balance this experiential learning with some activities that helped to build skills in a more systematic manner.  Both of these modes of learning are useful in the classroom, and we wanted to be sure that both were available to students. We also wanted to be sure that we were holding our students accountable to the Common Core State Standards and monitoring their individual growth in these standards.

Finally, we needed to appeal to a wide range of skills and ability levels.  We have four grade-levels-worth of children, all of whom learn in different ways.  While no two children are ever alike, these differences are even more palpable in our classroom, due to the range of age levels and abilities.

And then, of course, there are always constraints.  So what were ours?

There are only two of us, and at any given moment, needs like these could entail as many lessons as there are children in the classroom.  While it is not common to have thirteen lessons running synchronously, it is common to have upwards of four different lessons occurring at any time.  Even within those ability groups, though, there are other needs.  Many of our students do not learn best when sitting and listening in a group lecture format.  They find themselves unable to sit still and participate constructively in this manner.  This also makes ability groups difficult to conduct, as students need to constantly be interacting with something.  Simply listening in a group format proves to be difficult, but sitting individually and engaging with technology seems to be preferred for these kids.

So how are we meeting these needs?  How did we attempt to solve this problem?

The first portion of this solution was creating vertically aligned rubrics, so that we could track student progress across the four grade-levels, meanwhile not confining students to a rubric based on grade-level.  In order to achieve both of these, it was necessarily to redistribute all math targets related to customary measurement into five lanes: estimation, measurement, calculation, conversion, and finally, interpreting and representing data, which can be seen here.

The second part of this solution entailed pairing videos from LearnZillion, Khan Academy, and BrainPop!, as well as videos made on Educreations (Check out one of the videos I created below.), in order to help children all receive instruction simultaneously—only on different topics. These videos, in turn, were then paired with follow-up activities on IXL or through probes created by Illustrative Mathematics, Everyday Math, or activities embedded within our classroom design project.

Finally, of course, was threading a common experience throughout all of these.  Personalization is a great thing, but not if it completely removes the common, social experience from the classroom.  Learning is social and cultural, and this is where our classroom design project served yet another purpose.  Through measuring spaces and designing furniture using inches and feet, all students have been able to connect with one another 

So is it working?  Yes, there are definitely parts that are working… Working very well, actually.

By preparing most of this ahead of time, we have been able to achieve a structured yet flexible and responsive unit of instruction that balances common goals with individualized and personalized objectives to help all students grow.  In fact, just this morning, I was able to reflect on data from the previous day and deliver new activities to students. 

But, of course, it’s not perfect.  What could be better?

With any new idea comes a learning curve, and I’m learning a ton about this one.  We had them choose rubrics, but I think that having them do so after simply reading student-friendly objectives wasn’t the wisest.  Next time, I’ll provide a pre-assessment and have them choose a rubric off of that pre-assessment.  I’m also seeing some alignment challenges.  Not all IXL skills align well with each of the Common Core Standards cleanly, even though many of them do.  However, this has paved the way for some more performance-based learning experiences, like data collection, organization, and interpretation, based off of real-world things like blades of grass and paper airplanes.

But I’ll save that for another post.  More to come on our super differentiated math experience.

Ogres, Onions, and Close Reading

Shrek would have been so proud on this day.  Really, he would have.

“Oh good golly, I almost forgot!” I shrieked, about to sit down with the 2nd and 3rd graders to start a reading lesson.  “I’m so glad you said that.  Thanks for reminding me.”

I called all of the kids over to the community area, where they sat on the still bare floor (We haven’t gotten around to getting a rug in our design project quite yet.), some visibly annoyed that I started and stopped them so quickly.

“Alright, get ready… Catch!”

IMG_2726And I started throwing onions at them.

Okay, I didn’t throw onions at them, per se, but I started tossing them to them so they could catch them.  The kids reluctantly began giggling, and one of the kids, in particular, said, “Oh, we’re doing the onion thing!”

On the Friday before, I was trying to get the older group of kids to “dig deeper” in the text.  I have some extremely bright and quick students, but one of the downsides of that, is that they are used to seeing reading as something passive, a task to be completed quickly and literally.  They’ve been trained to think that, if they read the text once, and they know all the words, that they get it, and they should move onto the next thing.

But I’m trying to change that.

“Ok, now that everyone’s got an onion, I want you to take some of the first layer off.”  The kids followed suit, and little pieces of translucent onion skin lied on the ground around the kids, making crinkling sounds as their feet moved them around on the floor.

“The first time you read a book,” I continued, “this is what happens.  We only peel off small, small layers.  We don’t really get to the meat of the book.”

“Yea!” one of my students surprisingly called out. “You need to read it like two or three or four times to get the real meaning!” And we proceeded to “read” the onion several more times.  We dug in, peeling off layer by layer and chunk by chunk.  By the time we finished, the room reeked of onion, there was a mess all over the floor, and all the kids were giggling, some of them even to the point of tears, which is exactly what happens when you read a good book a couple of times, right?

Or maybe it was just the onions.  I suppose I’ll never know.

Mobile Learning

Learning is messy.  Learning is dynamic. But most of all, learning is mobile.

Over the summer, my teaching partner sent me a video of what looked like a class on wheels.  The tables were mobile whiteboards that turned upward when the students needed a white-board display, but collapsed downward when students still needed a table of some sort to write upon.

photo (15)It immediately transformed my vision of what a classroom truly should be, and now I can’t imagine it being any other way.  And it makes perfect sense.  Just as learning doesn’t have one language, learning also doesn’t have one form in which it can take place, and the classroom environment should be representative of that, too.  It should be flexible, responsive, and dynamic, just as our lessons should be, so that all learning styles can be maximized at a moment’s notice.

So how did we try to achieve this?  Well, we have whiteboard tables, which is awesome, and now we’ve trained the kids in the routine of rearranging the room for different purposes.  Of course, we’ve coined some super cute names for each of the arrangements, too.   We have the studio, the gallery, the study, conference room, and of course, the lecture hall.

Because sometimes you just have to get those little buggers to sit still.

We tried this for the first time last week, where kids closely studied the maps of our classrooms, left over from the initial stage of our design project, with tables strategically placed throughout the room.  On the count of three, the kids began scurrying about the classroom, working well as a team, and rearranging the tables in under a minute.  I suppose they liked the idea of rearranging the classroom, too.

Now, all I’ve got to do is get casters on those tables, and we’ll be good to go.  More to come on this.

Million-Word Memories

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I believe that to be true, too.

I’ve valued pictures all of my life.  I’m the kind of person who routinely runs out of space on his phone, due to the sheer number of pictures and videos that it holds, hanging on to my memories for me, one megabyte at a time.  In fact, as I was getting ready to leave for San Francisco, I found boxes and boxes of developed pictures in my closet.  Stacks and stacks of two-dimensional memories, piled atop one another, keeping each other company in their transparent bins.  Pictures have always been a way for me to preserve my memories, and I’ve felt that I’ve needed them for that reason.

photo (17)But today I felt something different.  

We meandered our way up to the Golden Gate Bridge, switching from high to low gears as we wound our way up the steep paths.  We reached the top of the hill, the international orange of the Golden Gate screaming against the pale blue sky and through the translucent fog of the bay.  We stopped for a second, snapped a few pictures, and continued on our way.

The bridge was packed with people when we started, making it hard to advance on our bikes, but we continued onward, weaving our way in and out, until there was finally a clearing, and we began traveling faster through the people.  We stopped at the first large support, situated just one-third of the way through the bridge, snapped a few more pictures, and continued again, the fog still hovering over us like a guardian.  We reached the half-way point, where the thick curved cable that defines the silhouette of the bridge met the road, creating the iconic wide-U shape of the Golden Gate.

We stopped, I looked out at the city, patiently waiting across the bay and snapped yet a few more pictures to store for eternity.  I turned to my left and looked upward.  Our faces came towards each other, and his arms wrapped around the small of my back tightly.  Our lips touched, and in that moment, all I could see were the black insides of my eyelids.  No images dyed my retinas, and I took no photos.  I saw nothing, but my heart fluttered in that fleeting moment, the winds from Pacific blowing gently across my face.  There was no image for me to see, even though in that moment, I had hoped I could capture it forever and cling to it, just as the other pictures clung to the electronic memory in my phone.  But the inability of capturing it made it all the more special.

In fact, never had a moment so void of color and image evoked more in me than that one did.  While each one of the pictures I take are worth their thousand-word salary, the fleeting memories I make–the ones I cannot capture and the ones that can live only in my memory–those memories are worth more than a thousand words.

They’re worth a million.

Listening Closely to the World Around Us

It wasn’t really by choice, but one night last week, I ended up leaving my headphones out of my ears.

I usually walk, work, and ride my bike with my headphones in.  I’ve wondered before if I do this for reasons greater than just the background music.  I wonder if, perhaps, I do it because I’m trying to not listen to something.  And by listening to music, my thoughts, doubts, and wonderings are somewhat drowned out by the monotonous songs to which I’m always listening on repeat.

photo (16)And so, as I noticed that the music had literally stopped while crossing Bay and Fillmore that night, I thought that, perhaps, I should stop the music more… and listen to what’s going on around me.

I heard the sounds of engines running, the wind blowing softly into my ear canals, and my bike tires rumbling a low roar against the pavement.  I heard the sounds of grateful thoughts rummaging through my mind, and feelings of hope as I continue this new phase in my life–this new phase that is slowly becoming a constant reality.  I heard the sounds of the day’s excitement, of children running amok in my room, enjoying bring at school and enjoying learning.

We live in a world of distractions, and it seems that, with every corner we turn, we find, yet, another distraction to take us away from the joy of simplicity, from the elation that comes with the basics of our simple realities.

I think I’m going to leave my headphones out more often.