Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Final Genius Hour Reflection and Wrap-Up

I've now wrapped up my first year implementing Genius Hour with my 8th graders. I jumped in with a few questions still on the table, but it was a risk I'm glad I took.

In the fall, students researched topics of their choosing, but I accidentally narrowed their output by giving too many specifics up front. In retrospect, I should have more work with some of the students to develop deeper questions.

With the second semester, I gave students a big goal - changing the world. I really enjoyed having a theme because it gave some focus to the projects, which we were missing previously. It also enabled me to do double duty with the argumentative research paper we needed to write third quarter.

The upside of the double duty was the students learned a lot about their topics leading up to the expo. The downside was that it sort of removed some of the "passion" for some of the students. Associating the project with the paper at all made it a challenge for some students to see the entire process in a positive light. Were I to do it again, this is something I would consider changing.

From the whole project, students gave the most positive feedback in regards to the actual Expo day. In my mind, the two (Genius Hour and the Genius Hour Expo) were one in the same. My students did not see it that way, and I'm not quite sure why that is.

I was really surprised by these results because I thought the two graphs would be more similar. I didn't quite get enough feedback from this survey, so I want to follow up with students. I need to understand the "why" behind some of their responses.

The most important part for me was seeing the importance of the "publishing" in action. Students need an audience beyond just their teacher. It was one of those things that though I've read it over and over again - seeing how much it changes the game for students made a real impact on me.

For the Expo, I had every one of my students give a presentation. Even students who have had a lot of struggles throughout the year gave great Expo presentations. One came to me prior to his class visiting and asked "Mrs. Reed, do you think I'm going to be successful at the Expo today? Have I done enough?" A different student who struggles in various areas with school had such a great project, I had two different teachers tell me how impressed they were with his work later on.

Did I have some students who didn't like the Expo? Yes. It certainly wasn't all sunshine and rainbows with all 77 of them, but with 8th graders, it's very difficult (if not impossible) to please all of them all of the time.

In the end, I don't think I've done a project in my teaching career that has allowed students to meet so many standards as once. Reading informational text - Check! Writing - Check! Research - Check! Speaking and listening - Check! I don't think students even realize just how much they've learned. That is something I would want to try to build in to future versions of Genius Hour.
One very rewarding thing was how many students reflected in their final blog post about how proud they were of the work they've done.

If I had the chance, I would certainly implement Genius Hour again next year. I would have a handful of things I'd want to change, but the overall premise is a very powerful idea. While I'm moving to a different position next year, I will work to involve as much student choice, project-based learning, and publishing of final products as I can. I was truly forever changed as an educator by this experience!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

'Twas the Night Before Expo

Tomorrow is my students' Genius Hour Expo. The day we've been talking about since we returned to school in January has arrived.

After our first round of Genius Hour last semester, I realized something needed to change. My students spent a lot of time and energy on something that only I saw. The "share out" element of the Genius Hour process was clearly missing. Unsure I could manage filming videos to post online and unclear of how blogs might work for us, I decided to create the Genius Hour Expo.

In my initial vision, students would be presenting something related to their projects to other students at our school. I wanted them to research something that could "change the world" and share outside of our classroom walls.

Since we launched in January, students have written argumentative research papers related to their topics, and then later decided how to take their project forward.

For many students, this just meant preparing a tri-fold poster with the information they already researched for their papers. Others did additional research to add information or pictures to what they were sharing out.

Some students created projects that they implemented prior to Expo day. I had two students sell raffle tickets to raise money for an animal shelter. Another student documented random acts of kindness she did around town. Another student created a mini softball camp for students in our life skills class.

Others have created videos to embed in their projects; some have created interactive components, like surveys, to their Expo presentations. I was purposely vague in my expectations because I didn't want to limit them. For some, that was a challenge - for others it became an opportunity.

So now, Expo day is here. Some students were not as prepared as I would have liked when they left class today.

All students at our school will have the opportunity to attend at least one of the Expo presentations. A schedule has been created, but I still have a lot of unknowns. How exactly will we set up in the library? Should I have gotten some additional tables? Will I get to everyone's stations during our class times? Is there enough time for the visiting classes to see enough of the presentations?

I have asked my students to work through adversity and deal with challenges during this project, so I have to expect the same from myself.

If nothing else, I had a student say to me today, "I am so excited for Expo tomorrow. Like, I have never been this excited for something at school before."

And that makes it all worth it.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

BYOD, Technology Integration and 8th Graders Loving Grammar Lessons

Grammar instruction isn't the most exciting thing in the world. In fact, people might argue that students don't really need to be able to identify subjects, verbs, and all other parts of the sentence. I do believe that being able to think metacognitively about language is a skill that students should be exposed to.

One of the 8th grade CCSS language standards deals with identifying the functions of verbals and their functions in a sentence. In order to be able to do that successfully, you need to understand the possible functions (ie- the parts of a sentence).

To liven up this material and to try to make it more accessible to students, I decided to use it for a technology integration unit for a graduate class I am taking. I allowed students to bring their own devices, and I had a few (old, slow, temperamental) school laptops for students without a personal device. I used EDpuzzle for video lectures, Kahoot! for in-class practice and Socrative for formative assessments.

To make a long story short, I am still shocked at just how well the technology worked. The students were engaged and, most importantly, they learned the material! 

The various lessons in the unit followed this timeline
1. At home video lecture
2. In class practice of material playing a Kahoot!
3. Targeted small group and whole group instruction
4. In class practice of material using a written worksheet
5. Targeted small group and whole group instruction
6.  Formative assessment using Socrative

At the end of the unit there was a study guide that was identical in format to the summative assessment. It did utilize different practice sentences. This was followed up by targeted small group instruction and differenentated practice prior to the summative assessment.

Overall, I feel that the results of the summative assessment are some of the best I've gotten on similar assessments. I don't have the data from past years, so this is anecdotal.

Below are the results of the survey I gave students at the end of the unit. They new we were trying this as an experiment for my class, and I told them I wanted their honest feedback for future planning.

Question: How helpful did you find the at home video assignments?
For me, the responses to this question were the biggest shock. Students had a lot of problems accessing the videos, and I did not think they enjoyed them at all. Based only on their reactions in class, I never would have guessed this would be the results to the question. When I drilled down on the data, the only students who rated the videos as "not helpful" or "worthless" were those who had not actually watched both of the video assignments.

Question: What do you prefer for the practice and review of concepts?

 Questions: How helpful were the in-class review technologies for this unit?
 Question: Which do you prefer?
Question: How effective were the technologies in this unit?

For me, the following feedback was the part of the survey with with most impact. I was quite impressed with how thoughtful their comments were. This level of reflection is sometimes difficult for 8th-grade students. This is a snapshot of some of the most detailed reflection statements.

 Overall, I would recommend trying these specific technologies to any educator looking to engage middle school students. They loved taking part in this experiment with me, and we all learned so much together.

The big lesson here - take a chance and try something new!

How as technology integration impacted your students' learning experiences?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Genius Hour - My Personal Mid-Check

Although I know the idea is controversial for some, my students wrote research-based argument papers as the first part of their 2016 Genius Hour projects. I was on the fence about this. Would I really be holding up the idea of Genius Hour with this kind of assignment? Would students really feel the passion about the project if they were required to cite sources using MLA?

While I'm still not sure about the answers to those two questions, I am sure about one thing.

The argument papers I'm reading are among some of the best I have ever gotten from students.

I do realize there could be any number of variables in play here. However, I have to believe that having students select topics that they care about and giving them the time and space in school to explore those topics had to have contributed to this product in some way.

Between the quality of this work and the quality of their reflections after writing the paper, I already feel the project this far was a valuable use of our time.

I cannot wait to see what they come up with for our Genius Hour Expo in May!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

One School, One World, One Teacher's Reflection #1S1W

Earlier this week I had a conversation about #1S1W with my 8th grade language arts students.

I was inspired by Pernille Ripp's post HERE  after she reflected on the day with her students. I also adapted the discussion questions (and used the classrooms around the world and Detriot, MI article links) from Ms. Korver HERE.

First we looked through the pictures from the Twitter feed. Many students expressed disappointment in what these classrooms have that we don't. I asked students to write about what similarities and differences they noticed between the classrooms we were seeing and ours, and if they noticed any "voices" missing from the conversation. I explained that this project was designed to be a snapshot of classrooms across the country and around the world. Did it seem like that is what happened?

We then looked at some photos from classrooms around the world (from the link shared by Ms. Korver above) and some of the pictures from the Detriot school's suit. I asked them to think about why more schools like this weren't part of the #1S1W project on Twitter.

They had lots of valuable things to say, but a few things have remained with me now that we are a few days away from the conversation.

1. They recognized that people choose to share parts of their school that they were proud of on the #1S1W Twitter feed. They suggested letting students and/or parents choose what to photograph to maybe get a different view of the school.

2. As we were looking at the Twitter feed, one student said, "Where are the black kids?" 8th graders aren't known for their tact; however, that student was right. For a nation that's quickly becoming a majority minority, there wasn't a whole lot of diversity in the photographs we saw.

3. They were very astute in recognizing that teachers could get in trouble for posting pictures of their school if it were seen in a negative light. I'm not sure that I realized so many of them would understand this.

And finally, this is the one that is staying with me most of all...

4. One of the students, in the best way, (I so wish I could remember the words used exactly) explained that perhaps this is making kids who are in schools that are less that desirable feel bad. "Isn't it like we're bragging? or just putting them down to make ourselves look good?"

And so, this is where I am today. I feel so grateful to teach in a school that is safe where we have the things we need. As we talked about this week, do we have everything we want to have? No. But, we have a lot to be thankful for. I want to help my students recognize this fact. I want to continually remind myself of this fact. But how can you look at everything you have, without seeing what others do not have? And how can you look at what others are so lucky to have, without feeling badly that you do not have those things?

Now, I am looking for ways to continue this conversation - to keep thinking and learning from the wisdom of 8th graders.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Literature Circles - Updated for Middle School

For our January novel study, I wanted to test out a new type of literature circle activity. For 8th graders, the "jobs" version of literature circles never worked quite as well as I would have liked it to. Plus, it's a lot of work to set up, and the kids never seemed to know what they were supposed to do when.

After hearing Kelly Gallagher speak this summer, I tested out a new version of literature circles. I think that this would work well with all ages of middle school and up through high school. I don't have much experience with elementary, but I don't see why it wouldn't work for them too.

To begin, I sorted through the books available to me through my school's library. I selected eight that had themes loosely around the topic of prejudice.

After finding this super valuable resource from Daniels and Stieneke on literature circle mini-lessons, I used the "Book Pass" activity to have students select the books they were interested in. Essentially, they read all 8 options for 2 minutes, then selected the two or three books they would like to continue reading. There were no first or second choices, only choices they would read.

I then sifted through the options grouping students according to their selections, my understanding of their reading levels and group dynamics. We ended up with six different novel choices.

Students then got together to divide their book and decide which pages they would read for each meeting. Kelly Gallagher suggested that students should be able to read a book over the course of four weeks, but in retrospect, I should have gone with five or six for my students.

Students then completed "reading notebook" activities for each meeting. Based loosely off of this handout from Kelly Gallagher, students were supposed to track their thinking over time. With the goal of getting to the author's big idea(s). I assessed each reading notebook on five criteria:
1. They used one of the three "track your thinking" stems
2. They included their thinking about the book.
3. They included how their thinking had changed over time.
4. They included a "lit circle moment" that they wanted to share at the meeting. Something that was funny, interesting, confusing etc.
5. They included details in a way that showed they read the assigned pages.

I didn't require any specific amount of writing, and students completed their journals in a variety of ways. I had some students included sketches, but mot students wrote in sentences.

When the students met in their lit circle groups, they shared their "moments" as well as analyzed the character development through their novel.

In the last few meetings, they also used the "Save the Last Word for Me" strategy from the Daniels and Stieneke book. That was really successful in ensuring they had an actual conversation about the moments and didn't just take turns reading from their notebooks. Check it out if your students are struggling with this part of literary discussions!

In the end, students did a theme analysis activity for their novels. They analyzed the central conflicts to determine any possible messages the author might be trying to get across, and selected one that they could support its development throughout their novel with text evidence. They then had to create a symbolic representation of this theme to take the message beyond the pages of their novel. Students gave short presentations to share their themes with the class.

These presentations enabled students to see the shared themes between the novels. Many of the books had similar theme statements in the end, and we'll be able to come back to these during our Holocaust unit study later this year. I would have liked to have students record the themes of their classmates, then decide if this theme could also apply to their novel, but I didn't get that part off the ground. There's always next year!

All in all, it was a successful implementation of literature circles.

Next time, I will have students practice the reading notebook technique with a short story before we begin the lit circles.

In the end, I did have several students tell me they really enjoyed their books - so that in itself is a success!

The books we read were
A Wrinkle in Time
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Across Five Aprils
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Please share any ideas or questions you have about literature circles!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

We are Changing the World!

I am excited to announce that for 2016 - my classes have adopted a "Change the World" mindset for our Genius Hour.

We are currently deep into the topic selection process, and students will begin researching soon! (Would have been today...but then, snow day ❄.)

 THIS is the website I created for this project. I have combined our argument writing unit into this project. I know this is controversial for some Genius Hour advocates, but it is how I can tie it to the standards and make it happen in my school. We are calling this "Phase One".

Students have also created websites for their projects, which are viewable to each other. My district does not allow them to be visible to the world. Hopefully, I'll be able to share some screenshots as we get going.

 I am most excited about Phase Two of the projects. This is where students will take action! I cannot wait to see what students will come up with. Another exciting element of our new Genius Hour is the Change the World Expo. Here students will be sharing their projects (and the action they've taken) with other students in our school.

I can't wait to keep everyone update on how the projects are progressing!

Genius Hour - A Reflection of Sorts

Egads! I drafted this post two months ago, but I forgot to post it. Better late than never!

This year (2015) I jumped into Genius Hour. I didn't have everything completely planned ahead of time, which normally isn't how I operate. I thought I would get started and see where the kids took the project.

See this post for my thoughts about one month (halfway) in.

Now that we've wrapped our first round for the year, I have a few more ideas to add.

1. If I know what my goal is, I have to help students develop the skills to reach it.
I tied this to my curriculum standards by using Genius Hour as my informational text research and writing unit. At the end of the day, I wanted students to read some informational text and cite it appropriately.

I grossly underestimated how much work that would require upfront. I assumed some of the students had background knowledge in the area of citing their sources, but most were not able to draw from that.

I made available videos (flipped classroom style) for students to access if they needed help and support with MLA format. I provided mini-lessons to students who felt like they needed more direct instruction from me. I was available for students while they were working on their projects to answer questions related to citing sources.

In my end of project survey for students, a number of them expressed the project would have been better if they didn't have to worry about MLA. I was trying to mini-lesson on this as went along, but it clearly didn't work here.

Solution - Next year, I'm going to develop a pre-assessment for students to see where they are at on MLA format and citing sources well before the project even begins. Students who already have an understanding will be named experts to help their classmates. I will provide pre-teaching lessons whole group to have some exposure to MLA citations and works cited pages. I will still provide the videos and mini-lessons, but I will have a mid-check assessment to see where students are at before the project is due. This will enable me to see who needs a more direct check in.

I need to  do a better job at making clear the purpose of MLA and problems with plagiarism. I also plan to talk to our 7th grade ELA teachers to ask them to use the terminology MLA and Works Cited page so that it is familiar and consistent for students.

2. Give fewer specifics up front.
After we launched Genius Hour, I gave students the option to write a paper and/or create a video at the conclusion of their project.  Part way through the research process, I encouraged other options. A number of students expressed in my end of project survey that they wished they had known all of the options up front. Even though I thought I made clear they could do whatever they wanted to meet the criteria, I confused them by at the same time giving the options of paper or video.

Solution -  I will simply give them the requirements that they need to meet, and then allow them to create whatever they think will best meet those. I will want them to access their own creativity before I provide any specifics and/or sample products.

3. Embrace the idea that some students will get more out of Genius Hour than others.

This seems to be something that is difficult for  most teachers. We want all students to achieve at high levels, but we have to accept that that high level is going to be something that is different for all students. Also, as usual, there will be different levels of buy-in from all students.

I had this idealistic vision of what my students would achieve, but in reality, I didn't create the environment for that to happen for them.

Solution - I need to trust that each student will meet me where they are, and that I am able to help them grow from that point. I also need to do a better job of creating the environment I truly want - one of exploration and discovery. If I put too many constraints on the process, it is likely to hamper this process. I didn't let students struggle through enough, which I need to remember for next time.

I also tried to do too much in a short time frame. I had intended to have our projects stretch a semester, but I didn't get started soon enough. So, we worked twice a week for 9 weeks, instead of once a week for 18. In retrospect, we would have been better off with it stretched out for the semester to allow more time for thought and mini-lesson support between our workdays.