Stupendous or Stupidity?

I think the hardest part of teaching is the letting go. We all talk about not being teacher centered, and for the most part we are all working towards that dance of when to step in and support and when to lean back and let the struggle happen. It’s hard, because even after many years of experience, it is always a scary call. Should I have leaned back sooner? Did I wait too long to step in? What is that super fine line between stretching and shut down frustration? It makes learning messy. And it is also where the deepest learning happens, where children build confidence and, yeah, where teachers get all gooey eyed about the job. Because when it works, all the frustrations and the fear of just how chaotic it looks, because, well it is, disappear.

So that is where I am right now with fourth grade. We just finished a project in Scratch. This was a goal oriented process, a mixture of direct instruction to build in background knowledge and some necessary skills and then the workshop time so students could play within the program. We culminated with students animating their names. A project I developed fifteen years ago when I first encountered Scratch and one that is still successful today. Students then created a WeVideo of one thing they learned in Scratch. As you can see, this was a unit with a lot of tech, a lot of teacher instruction and multiple points of assessment to see what the students learned and how well they could apply it. It is what I consider to be a concrete project, because I can point to all the learning and I have a shiny product at the end.
It was great.

Naturally, the next unit was going to be much messier. Loaded with feelings of success, I may have overreached. Presently the fourth grade are working in pairs or groups to research and then later debate two sides of an issue. I have done this before. Before the pandemic students were randomly placed on two different sides of the proposed soda tax in Philadelphia. It was a smashing success and I had several gooey eyed teacher moments around the whole project. Unfortunately, there was no such low hanging fruit this year. No new tax to debate and no issues that I thought were fourth grade friendly. So, in a moment of pure stupidity or inspiration, depending on your perspective, or my mood at the moment, I decided to let the students brainstorm their own ideas. What did they care about? What did they want to research and debate? I thought, for a split second, that I was a genius and I was having such a senior seasoned teacher epiphany. Pull from the students! Immediately we had teachable moments. For example, when a student wanted to have all plastic straws banned, I asked if she really wanted to research the other side of that, or did she just want a platform for her opinion. We decided that if you came up with a topic you had to be willing to debate both sides, as the side chosen would be random.
So here we are, fresh off spring break and the students are knee deep in research. The goal is to find facts and figures to support their opinion. And oh my is it messy and chaotic and I am seriously not feeling brilliant, or seasoned or anything remotely like a teacher at all. Instead I am running from one group to the next helping them to think of points to research. Because the sad reality is in fourth grade the student’s expectation is they would put a topic into the search engine and out would pop all the reasons they were right. So instead I am doing my dance. And it goes something like this:

“What is it that you want to say?” Me
“That football is dangerous.” Student.
The topic here is should football be allowed to be played in schools.
“Okay, how can you tell if something is dangerous?” Me
“Because you could get hurt?” Student
“Great, so what do you want to know?” Me.
“How many people get hurt playing football?” Student is hopeful they are on the right path.
“Absolutely. How about if we say students instead of people?” Me.
“Okay, should I google that?” Student.
“Sure, let’s see what happens.”

These conversations are taking place over and over again. And we are slowly getting somewhere. And students are learning that they have to think of a question from multiple perspectives and they have to dig a little. And then, sometimes, (okay, maybe more than sometimes,) the information is there but they need help pulling it out. So we read it together and think about what makes sense. And sometimes they find something that actually supports the opposite side of the argument. Which is really funny because they get quiet and beg me not to share it. Winning is apparently important here. And even though we have had several conversations about the difference between a debate and a fight or argument, and they can clearly tell me the difference, the information has been disdained. Sigh.

In five minutes, the fourth grade will hustle into the library, because they are super excited about this project. Even though they are all struggling they are also all incredibly invested. Some have been researching at home and the conversations continue in the halls, on the playground and at dismissal. They are learning how to form a question for research, how to take down information and in the next few weeks how to present the information. As I write this, I am excited for them and for me. In ninety minutes, after I have seen both groups of fourth graders I will be exhausted and stressed and questioning my teaching ability.

Because learning is messy.
For all of us.

They Still Can

“They can’t write sentences.” I was completely stunned by this statement. Sitting in a meeting with other teachers, the group was talking about the challenges our students were facing due to Covid. Now admittedly, I had only seen these students several times since March of 2020, but still, really? And, well, they already had. In the library I had been working with the third graders on research skills. Each student wrote sentences with a range of sophistication, but all within the realm of early third graders. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe I had not read closely enough over their work, perhaps only some had written sentences. And of course, we were still in the beginning of the unit, so all of the students were working together with me studying the same topic, Big Ben, on Pebble Go. Perhaps I was not seeing clearly enough.
I spoke with the teacher who made the comment and shared my experience. They were surprised and encouraged. Their own experience was that when asked for work students were not producing. So I checked in with the teacher from the previous year, who affirmed that they absolutely could write sentences. Yes, there were some things that were not studied in the usual depth last year but the basic skills were firmly covered.
I continued with the unit, and in the second half each student chose their own topic on PebbleGo to research. They pulled five facts in their own words and then wrote sentences from the facts. We stressed that the notes should not be in full sentences, thus helping to prevent them from copying the text word for word, and then we talked about pulling the information together into their own words. This is hard, not just because it is a hard skill, but the reading level on PebbleGo is low enough that the sentences are simple and straightforward. How many ways can you actually say an animal can grow to be a certain weight? The students then worked to organize their sentences into paragraphs, which they needed substantial support with, but that is to be expected at this point in their development.
I write all this not to brag, although let’s face it, I am always thrilled when students work hard and achieve their goals, but to remind us not to make assumptions about student abilities. We have spent so much time in my school around trauma-informed teaching, making sure that we are sensitive to student needs. I think we may have forgotten that stretching, struggling and then achieving is also a student need. Students didn’t write this in the library because I was a better teacher, this particular teacher is outstanding and always in demand. I think it just never occurred to me that they couldn’t do the work. And students so often rise when they know people believe in them.
This is not to discount the difficulty of the virus for everyone. We are all struggling all the time. It is because of this that these self affirming triumphs are so important. The students were just so proud of themselves and their work. Every single one wanted to take it home to share with their parents. What I learned from this is to constantly check my own lens around what students can and can’t do. To remember that even in challenging situations and maybe because of them, student achievement and the self confidence this produces is another layer to trauma informed teaching.

Research Project

The Next Logical Step

Our third graders have officially entered into the realm of coding in the library. Many students have experience either through summer camp programs or on their own at home with coding, but few have explored the basic skills of coding,  namely logic and problem solving. If you search the Internet for coding activities your browser will burst with new online programs, some free some not, that teach young students how to program. However, often a very important skill is overlooked, that of really thinking like a programmer. To become true coders students need to learn to think logically and to problem solve. Students who lack these skills will often become frustrated as the programs they envision do not become reality. This is because students consider programming bugs to be problems within the computer instead of what they are, a mistake made by the person writing the code, the programmer.

This means that we start coding off the computer. Our third graders are working on their logical thinking and problem solving skills. In addition we emphasize that computers are not really smart, rather it is the person creating the program with the real brains. A computer will do nothing it is not instructed to do. Our first lesson was having students create simple pictures using lines and colors. They then had to create instruction cards for another member of the class to replicate the same picture. This lead to much laughing but through the merriment students were lead to understand that it was not the person following the instructions, but rather the instructions themselves which were bugged. This lead to interesting conversation about how they could have made the code simpler, easier to follow and was the order of the directions correct? How did a person know where to put the yellow line?

We followed this activity with another short pairing we called Caller and Drawer. Paired students were given a picture made with shapes. Sitting back to back, one student called out instructions on how to create the picture, while the other student drew the shapes with the directions. Again, there was much hilarity as the students shared their pictures, however, this time students were working much harder to get their ideas across. We discussed how clear, short directions were most effective. As a bonus, this also lead to a discussion about how we all communicate a little differently and that we need to be open to each other and seek to listen to understand.

Presently, the students are applying their skills to board games. We have grouped the students into fours with some groups playing Mouse Mania while others are playing Make’n’Break. The Mouse Mania is a simple straight forward coding game, however, we have used the adapted version of the rules for Make’n’Break. Similar to the Caller and Drawer game. Students played in pairs and worked to have their partner build the image they were assigned on the card.

The students are really enjoying the game play even as I continue to circle back emphasizing the skills they are learning through the play. Because students want to become better players, they are listening to advice and thinking more about how they can more logically approach their tasks. The students will be moving onto the online coding application, Scratch, in a few weeks, once they have time to establish and build some basic skills.

As with all skill development and mastery, some students will cement the skills very quickly while others will establish mastery at their own rate. Giving ample opportunity for the game play followed by discussion provides practice for students. This is a new way of introducing coding skills for me, so I am excited to see how these students approach Scratch, compared with classes I’ve taught in the past.

Fourth Grade Takes a Stand

Earlier in the year, the fourth grade worked on their first research/media literacy project. We talked about how to find information and that media contains messages, has a purpose, voices that are heard and voices that aren’t heard. Below are my reflections during the process. Looking back several months later I can think of few projects that ignited such passion in the students that inspired the focused and high level of work. Constantly through the process I had to remind myself that these were fourth graders because of the level of work and the commitment to the project. Here are the reflections in the moment:

“Wait, what do we need to know?” This is the question that was shouted across the library as students gathered with urgency around a computer. Normally yelling across the room makes me close my eyes and breathe deeply, but this time I lit up with joy. This was the exact right question for the group and the passion is something teachers dream of their students bringing to their learning. The fourth grade was working on their first in depth media literacy project. The parameters of the project are simple: each class is split into two groups and given one side of a topic to research and support. One class is debating the Philadelphia soda tax, one class is debating bear hunting in Pennsylvania and one class is taking on Inuit whaling. The groups must organize themselves, and their information. Students must find a minimum of three facts to support their argument and the facts must come from a reliable source, read they can’t simply say “I already know this.” They must point to a reliable source, whether it be from a text or online. They also must cite their source at the end of the project.

Some of the skills embedded in this project are how to:

  • find information
  • create a good research question
  • vet information
  • get back on track
  • work together
  • resolve conflict
  • present information 

Below is a link to a short movie with snippets from some of the conversations students are having. In the first two videos students can be heard finding focusing questions to begin research. Students in the third video discuss using Wikipedia, and then make a face because they know they will have to find two other sources. After the video, students question if they are moving in the right direction. You can see the students sharing what they learned if they ever run into a bear, but is this relevant to their argument? In the final video students are extrapolating information about the effects of the soda tax in Philadelphia. They are forming arguments and asking questions based on what they are learning. Click here to see the video,

Time for a Throwback

When I was younger most of my projects came in the forms of book reports, posters and the occasional diorama. Today, our students are creating movies, podcasts and slideshows to share what they know. The skills they develop from collaborating and problems solving together are invaluable. And of course they become more facile with the tools they will need for their future. But there is something so satisfying in creating with your own two hands. It was with this in mind that we decided to create dioramas in third grade. Students were challenged to pick a part of the book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin and recreate it in a shoebox. This is a book the entire third grade reads, so it gave us a common ground.

Before we started we discussed the importance of setting in a story. We read Dogteam by Gary Paulsen, a story of a dogsled ride through the woods on winter night. We found the words and phrases in the story that described the setting and helped to convey the feel of the ride. The students then shifted their attention to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Since this is a chapter book, we discussed how the images we see in our mind are similar but still different. In this way the book, like all stories, is a unique and personal experience. The students then chose a scene from the story they could clearly visualize in their head and then set to work recreating the scene in the shoebox.

Right away it was obvious the different skills this project demanded. Students had to problem solve differently. Instead of seeking and finding different parts of a program they had to create from scratch using paper, scissors, glue and clay. They could not choose from a vast array of colors, they had to find ways to develop the colors in the clay. What colors and how much do you add to get the exact shade you need? What happens when you have limited materials and you make a mistake? When working digitally there is much more room for error, for discarding something that didn’t work. When working with physical materials, we needed to discuss conserving, sharing and adapting when there is a mistake. Digitally we can bring in images that we don’t create, but rather use something someone else created. In this project every aspect was created by hand. For some, those who maybe struggled with fine motor skills this was more challenging. And yet, not one person complained, checked out or asked for someone else to do it for them.

Some aspects of the process were very similar to working with computers. Although each student was creating their own diorama, there was a sharing of ideas, of technique and much discussion on how to create a certain vision. In this way, the collaborating and group problem solving was the same as when the students work with technology. Although there was some roaming as students checked out each other’s work, mostly students were absorbed in their own process or stuck with the students near their own work space.

For me, this was a reminder that technology is awesome and students love to work on computers. And there is legitimate value to working off computers and working in the throwback project.

Looking For A Holiday

It is hard to believe that we are already heading into winter break. Every year the fall goes faster and faster. Before I know it, Thanksgiving is on the horizon and I am stressing about writing reports. I always have the initial first duh moment where I wonder, what I have been doing for the last three months. I know I have been here every day working, but what am I really doing? As a former classroom teacher, I continue to struggle with crafting curriculum that fits into forty five minutes twice a week. Sometimes, as I am planning I think I am pure genius. This should be my first clue that it is going to blow up in my face. What appears so perfect in my imagination, just doesn’t always apply to reality. An example of this is my use of PebbleGo recently. A first grade teacher requested that I do holidays with her students. Since I just finished character and setting and exposing students to different religions and cultures is a perfect tie in to our mission I thought it was an okay idea. I normally try to stay away from looking at cultures solely through celebrations, however, I convinced myself this was an easy entryway into bigger conversations. Also, it was the perfect chance to introduce research in the most gentle way. Students were directed to find one way the holiday was celebrated. Using technology to have the information read to the students, plus videos, plus pictures. Woo Hoo! Win! Win! Win! Except when it isn’t. Since I have the luxury of seeing the first grade in small groups I decided to split them into pairs and have them each research a fall or winter holiday. As this is the first time I have the class on computers independently, I chose the holidays: Diwali, Chinese New Year, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. I knew the students already knew a lot about Christmas and I wanted them to explore something new. After the students had the opportunity to learn about a holiday in PebbleGo, I invited the students to draw a picture about something they learned and then write one sentence in their best kids spelling. So here is where pure foolishness was masquerading as genius. These students did NOT want to learn about a holiday different from their own. Students who celebrated Diwali didn’t want to learn about Kwanzaa, and students that celebrated Hanukkah did not care about Chinese New Year. Students who celebrated Christmas begged to be able to research Christmas the next time. Which makes total sense. Children, especially young children, get so excited when something from their personal lives comes up in the school day. The connection with home is just too delicious and everything else fades from view. So of course it makes much more sense to have the students read about holidays they celebrate and then share them with a friend.
So this week I am letting the students choose the holiday they want to investigate. Then I am going to ask the students to compare the holidays for similarities and differences. I’m going to do this with a four corners activity first and then a classroom discussion. I already know I am in trouble because as I’m writing this, I’m already thinking, “This is going to be great!!!”


Trouble With Simple Advice

Never teach something that will need to be unlearned later. This seems like such simple advice, and in today’s world never more important. In a diverse world still searching for social justice, we cling to our myths and the traditions we have around them. As the Lower School Library and Technology Teacher as well as the Lower School Diversity Coordinator at a progressive Quaker school the myths and half-truths from my own education are constantly crowded in my head as I select books for the library, teach media literacy, create workshops for teachers and most importantly build lessons for my students. And yet, there are times that I wonder about how to best approach preparing students to be the kind of compassionate, empathetic truth seekers we strive to help nourish. 

All schools work to value the light within each child, and as a librarian, I take very seriously the need to not only have a wide range of books that reflect our population but just as important, the faces that aren’t represented in our student body. Finding books from diverse authors, representing a range of people in all of their humanity, has become somewhat easier over the years. I have a growing list of resources to support me in this endeavor which includes The School Library Journal, Embrace Race, Teaching Tolerance, The Brown Bookshelf, and The Advocate to name a few. It is a task I enjoy. It allows me to feel as though I am having a positive impact, I know how to find the books, and I know how to order them. I am lucky enough to work in a school where this is the expectation so there is nothing revolutionary about my actions.

Buying new books is easier than revisiting old favorites. Often when I pull out a cherished book from my childhood or even a newer favorite book, I find stumbling blocks. How am I supporting the myths, stereotypes and simplistic narratives that are playing out over and over again in our society? Even if I am not overtly teaching them, am I allowing them to go unchallenged, even supported through the books and materials I have? And although I can stand in front of adults and talk about the power of teachable moments, this hard line becomes blurred when I look out into the young faces in front of me. A diverse group of learners also means representing various levels of awareness. For instance, some of my first graders think boys wearing pink shoes is a non-event, while others would find it uncomfortable to the point of silliness.

The truth is in any one day I can have a fabulous discussion about stereotypes with the fourth grade, using the book A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy, and inadvertently reinforce the same gender stereotypes with a younger audience by reading a book about a boy putting on his friend’s pink shoes. This causes great hilarity in my one of my younger classes. Except for the child who didn’t find it funny.  That child simply became quiet. And I don’t know why. Could this child be gender fluid?  I felt ill prepared to facilitate a conversation about gender stereotypes. I made some weak points about how pink sparkles can be for everyone, but this was greeted mostly by giggles.

And therein lies the problem. Much like our student body, our library represents society over years of development, with all of its stops and starts. For older students, this very much feels like an inroad to difficult conversations. For younger students, students that are sheltered and think of the eighties the way we think of ancient times, this perspective seems elusive.  And a strong part of me feels they have the right to giggle at pink shoes, as much as they have the right to laugh at girls going in the boy’s bathroom by mistake. It is meant to be silly. Except when I look into that one student’s eyes. And then it doesn’t feel so funny.