Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Another day in regular school

At 1:30 I observed my students.  One student was diligently finishing her assessment.  Two others were working on theirs slowly, while looking around the room at nothing in particluar, five were looking at the Washington DC books that were loaned and given to us by Kathy Englehart, a colleague’s mom and the Mary Poppins of librarians, and they were also making their list of must-see destinations for our Washingto DC trip.  One student was fast asleep on her desk.  One student was playing with R0cky,  the class guinea pig, feeding it peanuts.  (Are guinea pigs even allowed to eat peanuts?)  And two others were just chatting even though they have work that they could be doing to “boost”   their grades on their report card.

I said to my students – this is like unschool- and I pointed out what everyone was doing.  They just shrugged their shoulders and went back to what they were doing.

I wonder if I allowed freedom and choice for the year what would they choose?  How long will they have to be “bored”  until something sparks their interest?  I had one student today beg me for little jobs because he did not know what to do with himself.  Nothing interested him (except video games).  I found that sad.

I am already thinking that I should plan sensory overload next year.  Schedule a week of field trips at he beginning of the year to museums, businesses, nature centers,…and perhaps  they will latch onto something.  Or is that me controlling again?

I am fearful because I am not quite sure how to balance  my responsibility for their education and my desire to free them from my teacher-centered disguised as student-centered ways.

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Evidence of our failure as teachers

Our school gets very high test scores, especially in reading.  We’d like to think that we are successfully growing readers.  However, today I saw the difference between growing readers and forcing kids to learn to read.

Every student in our school knows the meaning of SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) and a school requirement is that every student have 30 minutes every day to read self-chosen books.  Often the teachers also read during this time to present a powerful model of what engaged reading should look like.  We are pretty good at shooting the off-task student a look that silently says, start looking like you are reading.

At UDS, students may choose SSR if they want to, but no one will force them to do so.  Quite a few actually do choose this option.  However only a handful seem to do so because they really want to read.  Instead the SSR corner seems to be the preferred hangout.  It has been funny to watch the various permutations of what the kids do to “look like” they are reading.  Today one student cleverly propped up her book to cover her face and fell sound asleep.  Others wedge themselves into a tiny corner between two bookcases, just to be out of sight of the teacher.  The gang of three like to take the daily newspaper back there–more surface area behind which to chat.  This is all funny, because they could just write sleep, chat, gossip, or whatever they really want to do on their learning log.  One student was talking to the other teacher.  When I asked what she had written in her log, she said SSR.  When I pointed out that she was not reading, she proclaimed, “but I’m talking to the teacher.”  When I pointed out that she had not chosen that, she was quite indignant that she was reading.  Meanwhile, throughout the entire conversation, her book lay closed on the table.

My question to these students was “is that a book that you just love to read? One you just can’t put down?  If you want to do SSR, find that kind of book.”

There are a few who love to cozy up with a book and spend several learning blocks reading–but not enough.  We have become very good at enforcing reading behavior, but we surely have not grown lifelong readers.

I like it!

Yesterday at dismissal a student and I were sharing seating space on a rock waiting for her parents to pick her up. A teacher came by and asked me how are things going in the “unschool.” Before I could say anything, the student piped up, “I like it!”  Wow, I thought.   You do?  Why?   She said that she gets to choose what she wants to work on and then she can give herself little breaks throughout the day.  Her passion is writing,  so she chooses quite a few writing blocks throughout the day.  This student is not a problem student. She is well behaved and works well under any circumstances.  What urban democratic school  did for her was allow her the time to pursue her passion. As a result, instead of the  traditional  hour per day of writing workshop, she can have multiple times per day to visit and revisit her writing – just like a real writer would do.

Saved by the Bell…Not

We’re near the end of our read aloud book and the story is riveting and I am conscious of the time hoping that the bell will sound in a suspenseful moment. A student walks in and I ask did the bell go off. He said no one started the timer. YIKES! I stopped reading anyway and got the pleasure of hearing the groans.

What a difference a week makes

Today we started week 2 of UDS.  We were able to navigate through 8 learning blocks with only a couple of quick problem-solving meetings.  The teachers have developed “course offerings” that are announced at the beginning of daily planning time.  Students can sign up for those if they wish.

Today, I offered a review of “How to get all M’s on your report card.”  About 2/3 of the students signed up for one of the sessions.  After reviewing the criteria, one announced, “Wow, I have a lot to do.  I ‘m not going to make anymore non-academic choices.”  They were pretty impressed that by doing a science or social studies research project, they could accomplish reading goals, writing goals, and social studies or science goals all in one fell swoop.  When I pointed out to them that I had not been able to think of ANY topic that would not fit into one of those disciplines, they tried to come up with ideas that wouldn’t qualify.  They tried pencils.  I pointed out that they could investigate how pencils are made or how they have changed over time, and related that to  science.  One student pointed out that it could be considered history, if they looked at change over time.  They immediately began to suggest topics that they might choose:  the Cleveland CAVS (current events), chess (history or strategy), chemistry, video games, solar system, etc…  This is exactly what we are trying to achieve–to stimulate their own interest in learning!  Maybe that idea is beginning to take hold.

We also gave out the progress reports for last week.  Some students immediately tried to recount their learning blocks to show us that our tabulations were incorrect.  No one succeeded in that, but I think they were pretty shocked to see right there in black and white how their learning block choices had broken down between academic and non-academic.  The progress reports need to be taken home, shared with a parent, and returned signed.  It will be interesting to see if choices begin to change even more after those home conversations.

More students definitely chose to work on academics today.  One problem is brewing.  Students choose SSR (sustained silent reading) but then do more chatting than reading.  This is a violation of the rule that what you are doing has to match what you have chosen.  (If you really want to chat, just choose that!) This tells me that they really don’t want to read–but they think they should be choosing that.  Given that they can read anything they choose, this is curious.  It will be interesting to see if students begin to make choices based on what they think they ought to do, but not what they really want to do.  This will quickly backfire though because students who are not on task end up distracting others and that is a PROBLEM!

An interesting development during class meetings is the realization that making a suggestion and opening it for discussion is often more effective than jumping right away to making a motion. Some students now ask the motion-maker if they will amend their motion when they see that a subtle change could solve the problem more effectively.  Much more efficient and cooperative problem solving is happening!

Our aide teachers, who are only in the classroom a few times a week, are also noticing the difference.  I asked one how she thought things were going.  She said that last week she really wondered if we were crazy to be doing this, but she was pretty impressed with the improvement in just one week.  She felt students were organized, following procedures, and more engaged in their chosen activities and not bothering others.

Progress feels pretty good!

Sharing computers: An example of effective problem solving

We have 3 computers in the quiet classroom, two of which have internet access.  As expected, there was competition over who would get to use this scare resource.  The teachers made only one stipulation, based on the guideline we established initially, that academics get priority.  As you can imagine, email or other entertaining web sites, not academics, were requested. (Note:  even in this circumstance all computer use must still be consistent with the school’s Acceptable Use Policy.)

Well, that was a problem.  At the community meeting, initial suggestions involved the usual teacher-type mechanisms for allocating scare resources such as sign up sheets, keeping track of who had used it when, and so on.  Then one student suggested solving this with rock-paper-scissors.  Bingo–problem solved!

So now the procedure is simple and quick.  The teacher in charge during planning time asks who is interested in using the computer during each learning block.  Academic uses get first choice.  No one can have 2 blocks if others are waiting for a chance.  And if there are more requests than computers, a quick game of rock-paper-scissors decides–with no grumbling, complaining, or exclamations of “that’s not fair” directed toward the teacher.

Another evolution is occuring.  Students know that academic uses get priority.  We have gone from no academic requests, to many.  Students can work on science or social studies on a website called Study Island. They can claim the computer to research a topic for a writing project.  They can get first dibs by using a computer to type up a project.  I expect they will become quite creative in thinking up ways to get computer time for things that can qualify as academic use.  We have not yet had to choose among academic requests with rock-paper-scissors, but that may be in the cards for next week!

How did the first week go? Reviewing the learning logs.

It took us over two hours after school to review each student’s learning log and record the data for a parent report to go home on Monday.  But it was enlightening.

The learning log is the mechanism for each student to play their day.  They write down what they intend to do in each 30-minute learning block.  When we started, we had a rule to reconvene the entire class after each block to plan the next one.  This took up so much time that it became a “problem” and the solution chosen was to plan the entire day’s learning during the first community meeting.  Our hope is that eventually this would be done by the student ahead of time, maybe even in consultation with parents.  Since another rule is that you have to stick with whatever you choose for that 30 minutes (and the class settled on the length of time based on their belief that they could all stick with something they wanted to do for 30 minutes), we had developed yet another problem of students erasing what they had chosen (be truthful being another rule).  Ultimately the procedure became that the learning plan was checked by a teacher.  Once everyone’s plan was checked, we were ready to go!  This process still takes a fair amount of time, but will become more efficient with practice.

The learning log then is a record of what was chosen and completed by each student.  At the end of the week, we tally (eventually the students will do this) the choices:  how many reading, math, etc. and how many non-academic, which has included such things as extra recess, chess, other games, and our personal favorites:  sleeping, chips & pop & chat.

Aside:  Yesterday, I was just walking through the room and saw one students watching two others playing chess.  Since it is a rule that what you are doing must match what you said you were going to do, I asked to see his learning log.  He had written “relax.”  He definitely was relaxing, and wasn’t interferring with anyone else’s learning.  So no “problem.”

The log also has the reset sheet.  If a student is breaking one of the established rules, they receive a reset.  This is simply feedback to the student that they are breaking a rule and there is no further consequence. Resets may be given by anyone in the class, teachers or students.  If someone gives a reset that you don’t think you deserve,that is a “problem” and can be addressed by calling a community meeting.  When giving a reset, the giver writes the number of the rule that was broken and their name.  Thus there is a written record of rule breaking.

The first thing we noticed was that nearly every student showed clear progress toward complying with the rules.  Most rules are broken during community meetings, where side conversations and other distracting behaviors slow down the meeting process.  From Monday to Friday, the number of resets received declined dramatically, in one case from 10 the first day to 1 the last day.  Students dislike these meetings and are realizing that they can solve a problem and get it over with more quickly if they just listen, talk one at a time, and get the job done.  They are feeling the wrath of their own peers if they do otherwise–taking teachers much more out of that behavior equation. (Hallelujah)

The second thing we noticed was that, as expected, most students chose more non-academic choices than academic ones.  This appears to be in evolution, with some students moving toward more academic time as the week went on.  In a few notable cases, the student is clearly totally focussed on achieving certain academic goals.  One student, who is quite good in math, worked diligently at writing math assessments.  Another student, who finds math a challenge, spent the majority of his time reviewing and practicing in that area. Most importantly, those students who were attending to their academics were not bothered or interrupted by those who weren’t.  There have been practically NO behavior issues during learning blocks, although transition times still need work.

So which is a better choice for a reluctant student–fool around and disrupt a required math class or spend a couple of hours totally engaged in playing chess?

We think the frequency of non-academic choices will wane as the novelty of being able to make those choices wears off.  We also hope that the learning report that goes home Monday will encourage parents and students to discuss these learning choices and perhaps make some plans together.  We are eager to see if there is a shift in this as the 2nd week progresses.