Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Organic World Language

The teaching of World Language has certainly changed since I was a 7th grader – and for the better.  When I joined a beginning French class last week, students were engaged in song, preparing a series of lyrics they would sing with their 8thgrade peers during a flashmob at the upcoming Pause Frances celebration, which would showcase their projects about French culture.  What is more fun in middle school than a sanctioned flashmob? J The teacher encouraged students to sing with charisma, even if they were still working on their French language.  Our world language teachers constantly teach to the philosophy that taking risks to communicate in the target language is the primary goal of language learning at WMS.  Communicating in French continued to be the focus as the class transitioned into an Organic World Language (OWL) circle activity.  Desks and chairs were pushed to the perimeter of the classroom, while students gathered in a community circle to ask and answer the question, "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a dans le panier?"   (What is in the basket?)  A large photo on the powerpoint of a series of school supplies prompted students to express what they saw, practicing listening and speaking French.
I eavesdropped on a paired conversation as one student offered to her partner, “Dans le panier, il y a une r├Ęgle." (There is a ruler in the basket.)  Keeping the conversation going, the teacher had students shift positions in the circle high-fiving neighbors as they moved to create new small groups.  Then, each student selected a card with a photo on it from a basket the teacher had placed on the floor in the center of the circle.  Students rotated through partner conversations, trading photos as they went to practice more vocabulary, describing what was now missing from the basket, “Il n'y a pas de papier.”  (There is no paper.) The energy was high and students were fully engaged in moving and speaking.  It was inspiring to watch.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Best of Both Worlds

I had the privilege of joining a sixth grade science class last week and observed a lesson that beautifully and seamless integrated technological tools for assessment and hands on learning in the lab.  Posted on the front easel was a list of the essential questions to frame the volume unit.  The overview provided a roadmap of how the unit progressed from developing skills to calculate area, then volume, to the day's objective of using displacement to calculate the volume of irregular solids.  After a focus lesson to preview the lab, students took out their chromebooks and logged into the Learning Management System (LMS),  itslearning, where they completed two quick formative assessments entitled “Metric Equivalents - Take 2" and "Volume Check-In." The assessment tool provided students with instantaneous feedback about their skills and helped the teacher identify who needed extra help.  The teacher circulated to confer with students individually, providing extra re-teaching where necessary, while those who were ready jumped into applying the concepts through a hands-on lab.  There they carefully read graduated cylinders, drew sketches of their observations and completed calculations of volume in a variety of situations - including measuring with metric rulers to using displacement of various metallic weights. 

I loved listening to students prompt each other to carefully lower the weight into the water-filled graduated cylinder to prevent the string from factoring into the displacement.  Our sixth grade scientists meticulously documented their findings and drew conclusions about relationships such as displacement of 50 gram weight vs. 100 gram weights.  The online assessment tools and hands on lab certainly married the best of both worlds for our sixth graders.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Eighth Graders Have Plenty of Opinions

How does an effective teacher engage students in the classroom? In a middle school ELA classroom the answer is, let them state their opinion on a subject that they know they are an expert. What would you say that middle school students know a lot about? Everything of course. There is no better way to get students creating and evaluating than with learning how to write opinion pieces!
I was excited to sit in on some eighth graders working on their op ed strategies for openings and closings this past week. This writing unit is comprised of fifteen lessons with the ultimate goal of producing a well crafted and supported opinion piece. The overarching unit objective is: “Writing is Powerful. Use it to change the world.” Students were learning how to express their opinions clearly and persuasively, in the hopes that they could sway hearts, change minds, and maybe, just maybe, change school policy?

The students focus on the process of inquiry, breaking down their writing and discovering what a reasoned argument looks like. You can see right away that this type of writing is different than most school writing. Students get to play with tone, sarcasm and humor in many ways that they cannot do with their usual writing.

Some essential questions and key points were relayed to the students:
  • What does an argument look like?
  • How do you use evidence persuasively?
  • Approach one reason at a time.
  • Each paragraph centers on a reason.
  • Evidence has to match reasons.
  • Evidence can come from a variety of resources: own lives are persuasive pieces of evidence.

Students were allowed to choose their own topics for their op-eds. I asked some students what they chose. Here is a short list:
  • Homework  - get too much; some say we are ok
  • Later school start times
  • Value of violent video games
  • School lunch
  • Macbooks vs Chromebooks
  • Low fat milk vs whole milk
  • Why we shouldn’t write op eds

I loved the last one. Why not write an op-ed about why they shouldn’t write an op-ed? It was great to see all of these students focused on the task at hand. In this unit alone, students were generating ideas, drafting their op-eds, researching their topics, and revising and editing their pieces. I look forward to hearing their final arguments and presentation of their evidence!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Using Images to Think Deeply

I had the pleasure of watching our 8th grade social studies students build analytical skills that will serve them today, tomorrow, and years into the future.  When I joined the class last week, students were exploring the big idea that the Constitution of the United States is set up with three branches of government - Legislative, Executive, and Judicial - to spread the power out. To think more deeply about this distribution of power the teacher asked students to consider artistic images.  This image yielded interesting insights: 

"I wonder if this has to do with women’s equality."

"I wonder if they are not at some ceremony because they are all dressed up in capes."

“I wonder abut the title in Latin.”

"She has the reigns, so is that representing controlling the power?"

“I wonder what the painter is trying to say about this.  It looks like a grave."

With each image, the teacher continually prompted students to pause and notice.  He referenced the following series of questions (which were posted on each student table) to help students deeply consider the images:
  •         What do I see?
  •        What do I think is going on?
  •        What do I wonder about this image? Questions? Connections?
Later in class, students were then asked to sketch images themselves to summarize big ideas in their reading.  For each paragraph the student would draw a picture to represent the main idea.  For example, one student used the document camera to share her drawing of a tree with Congress as the trunk and the Senate and House of Representatives branching off.  By studying and creating images, students are seeking ways to deeply understand our system of government.

I am excited that our 8th grade students and staff will be heading to the Kennedy Institute this week and next to participate as "senators" in a simulation about the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act. Students will randomly be assigned a state and a political party to represent.  They will take the oath-of-office and for the next 2.5 hours, they will need to represent the needs of their constituents and their political party. It should be an engaging opportunity to experience first hand aspects of the system of government they have been studying in the classroom.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Metacognition in Math

Metacognition in Math

I had the pleasure of sitting in on part of a sixth grade math class last Monday as students were getting back their first POW of the year (Problem of the Week) - The Palindrome POW.  The class was celebrating powerful POWs.  Kool in the Gang was playing "Celebration" in the background, so I had to restrain myself from busting out some dance moves. In this joyous atmosphere the teacher engaged in the effective teaching technique of "think aloud" to help students' build metacognitive self-reflection skills.  The teacher displayed successful, student-written POWs on the document camera and named several features of the POW that made them effective:

- succinct problem statement
- alternating between showing the math in numbers and then explaining it in words
- use of a table
- seeking a pattern in the data (explaining that a palindrome was occurring every ten minutes in the hour for single digit hours)

Students then studied their own POWs, the standards based feedback the teacher had given, and identified in writing at least one strength in their own POWs and one area that they would look to improve upon when writing up their next POW (or re-writing this POW). As a means of ongoing support, the teacher had posted successful POWs on the back bulletin board for students to reference. Additionally, he had included sentence starters and POW vocabulary that might be helpful scaffolds for students to use in their explanatory, non-fiction mathematical writing:
  • To solve this problem...
  • I need to (find out, solve, determine)...
  • The solution is ______.  I know this because _______.
These metacognitive strategies are ones that students can apply across the disciplines. It was terrific to see students engaging in this higher order thinking.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Peek at Life Sciences:

While the rain kept seventh grade scientists from their outdoor field research on Wednesday, it did not prevent them from rich learning about creatures native to Massachusetts.  During my visit, I came into the class during the tail end of a focus lesson around research strategies. The teacher was explaining how to effectively use Wikipedia as a tool for identifying keywords to help students craft an effective web search for their creatures.  She then transitioned into student research time.  One student was quick to brief me on the creature feature project they were researching.  He explained that students were choosing one reptile, one amphibian and one insect native to Massachusetts to study. They would ultimately be writing a paragraph about each and making a model of one, including and explaining an adaptation of that creature.   He then went on to tell me several spot-on reasons why the Mass Audubon site was an excellent source for his research.  Another seventh grader was excited to share with me about the spring peeper frogs she was studying. She explained, “They are cool and make a really high pitch sound, kind of like a whistle. They have very big vocal sacs under their chin that allows them to make that sound.”  She showed me her research template, and how this google doc allowed her to organize her notes easily. While I chatted with students, the teacher conferred with each child, having conversations about critters, such as rattle snakes and interesting creature features like mandibles. She also had conversations about note taking, citing resources, and strategies to prevent plagiarism.  It was a sea of learning.  
Check out the images of creatures found outside Thursday morning: