Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It’s May…Things Are Getting Good

May.  The last month of school for many of us. Some teachers spend the month of May in a post-state test hangover counting down the days until all the students are gone and summer vacation starts. I, on the other hand, do not want to spend the last days of the school year pushing my students out the door. I want to push them up not out. I strive to push them above and beyond what they think they can do. I want to provide them experiences that ask them to synthesize all the skills they’ve learned and honed throughout the year. I want my students to culminate, not coast.
Learning Menu students used

Today, I gave my students the entire afternoon to engage in a more personalized learning experience than they’ve experienced in the past. “Personalized learning” has many different definitions based on whom you ask. I’m still trying to grasp how personalized learning looks in a fifth grade classroom. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure what happened today was “personalized learning”— some may argue yes or no. But, today I witnessed students using the skills and knowledge they’d gathered over the course of this year.

We started just as we usually do. Students returned from their lunch/recess break and sat on the carpet ready for the reading workshop minilesson. “Raise your hand if you’ve always wanted to choose what you want to work on?” All hands fly into the air. “Raise your hand if you sometimes feel like reading in the morning when we are doing math workshop?” Hands quiver in a frenzy.

I continue by telling them that they are going to be able to choose what they want to work on AND decide how long they want to spend on their tasks. I projected a learning menu that students would be using to select their afternoon tasks. Some of the tasks were “required,” but most of their tasks were not. I go on to explain that this learning menu will be used over a number of days and by no means do they need to finish every required task.

You should know that fifth graders at my school are all immersed in a number of projects right now, including finishing our year-long capstone project, preparing for a student-run EdCamp and writing a fifth grade reflection essay. Of course, those fit in the “required” box because I wanted to emphasize the importance of these tasks. I told students they needed to work on two of the required tasks. Mainly, this was to keep students focused and provide some structure.

By the time I was finished explaining how this would work, and taking into account a 15-minute debriefing of this experience, students were left with about 80 minutes. My students are used to reading and writing for about 40 minutes each during our literacy block, so I figured twice as much time minutes would be a good challenge for them. Students selected their tasks and determine how long they wanted to spend on each task. I let them divvy up their time allotment. Some students chose two required tasks and spend 40 minutes on each. Others chose four tasks and spend 20 minutes on each. If they weren’t successful with this, it would be a great conversation during our debriefing.

Students got started and I looked around the room and observed quite a few students who were really taking this choice seriously. I saw Tyler, pencil pressed to his lips and eyebrows furrowed, truly contemplating his own path of learning. I saw Ayele and Emily whispering together as they were planning what time they wanted to meet up to work on their EdCamp presentation. I walked around the room and glanced at everyone’s plan. They were genuinely engrossed with their learning. Some students had iPads. Some students had their journals. Some had a book in their hand. Some students were collaborating. All students were involved and engaged.

Most of my time was spend circulating and checking in with students. I had a few reading conferences with students who were using iMovie to make book trailers. I spent quite a bit of time working with an ELL student who was having difficulty planning his EdCamp presentation on the Arabic culture. Everything was going smoothly until I hear the familiar ringtone associated with the iPhone FaceTime feature. My head darts up in shock as I look to see who would have dared FaceTime during class. “Sorry, I set a timer on my iPad, so I knew when to switch to my next task.”

At the end of this experience, my students and I had a very informative debriefing. We all agreed that this was a great experience and we definitely need to do it again. When asked to rate this experience all students gave it a 4 or 5 in our usual “Fist of 5” evaluation. Students’ feedback was this:

PLUSES (Positive Parts)
  • There was choice in what we get to do. We could work on something based on what mood we were in.
  • Got to do a variety of things.
  • I was more focused because I got to pick my task.
  • I got to make my own schedule.
  • I got to pick how long I could spend on a topic.
  • I got more accomplished.
  • I felt more organized.
  • I liked learning from each other because we had to ask our classmates questions if you (Mr. Jones) were busy.
  • I got to choose what I needed to work on and something that was a challenge.
  • It gave me time to catch up on work.
  • Felt good to be able to choose tasks that interested me.
  • I felt more mature and grown up working independently.
DELTAS (Things to change)
  • I lost track of time
  • I was trying to mutli-task and I got confused.
  • It was hard to coordinate if I had to work with a partner on a task.
  • There wasn’t enough time. We should spend longer so I can accomplish more.