Planning for Classroom Shifts

by Ashli Breit & Cheryl Bledsoe, 6th Grade Teachers

While contemplating how to best meet the needs of students, we read Shift This: How to Implement Gradual Changes for Massive Impact in Your Classroom by Joy Kirr.  The ideas seem so simple, yet are far-reaching and exciting for the possibilities in the classroom.  Five small shifts were selected to begin the year: the Daily Question, virtual space, no homework (combined with choice boards) and feedback.  These shifts were incorporated into the plans, rooms were rearranged and syllabi have been updated.  Let the year begin!

The Daily Question will set the tone for the classroom: I am interested in you as a person and what you think matters.  Some of the questions are low investment (what is your favorite ice cream topping), while others ask the kids to be more introspective (Which do you think would be the hardest to live without: eyesight, hearing , smell?).  ‘What percentage (of your waking hours) did you spend outside this weekend?’ provides insight into who the student is outside the classroom, and ‘How many tries will you give yourself before you give up trying?’ provides a window into the work ethic being faced in the classroom.  This small shift will take minimal time as students enter the room, placing their magnet on the answer, but can have significant impact on relationships built within those four walls.

In a perfect classroom, students would have complete choice and voice in what they learn each day and how they learn it; in a world of high-stakes testing, this may merely seem a pipe dream, but it doesn’t have to be.  Homework and choice boards seem like a logical place to begin shifting our mindset about student learning.  As we prepare learners to be college and career ready, we must reflect on our own experiences in those realms.  When we walk out of a college class, professional development, staff meeting, project meeting, etc., we determine what we do from that point: file the information, explore the topic more, or study and ponder what we have heard.  Why have we been unable to allow students that same choice in their own learning?  Assigning no homework seems an easy step in that direction and is another small shift being implemented.  

Joy is right, “Everything is worth a second glance.” When I read the section in chapter 4 about creating/updating your class website, the only thought I had was ‘been there, done that’. We had made multiple classroom sites to put on our district page. Parents looked at them the first week of school and that was about it. I’m glad I didn’t stop reading because of my bad experiences in the past. Everything is worth a second glance, and we are very excited about the shift that Joy inspired in our classroom sites.

The main job of sites this year will be to help us communicate with our parents. We will be including our mission, curriculum, standards and videos just like Joy encouraged us to. Our hope is to allow students to be the curators of the class calendar and photo pages as the year progresses. Right now our sites are at the beginning stages. We have a lot to add, and I’m sure a lot to tweak, but we are hoping that this shift in the role of our classroom site will be a bridge between our classrooms and our parents.

Nightly reading (with reading logs) has been assigned 5 nights a week every week in our classrooms, but we had to consider the actual effect of this homework.  Too often, students were not completing the reading and it was frustrating to them and to us.  It was decided that we would give the students a choice to read and participate in the classroom reading challenge, or not to do so.  That being said, there are still required reading projects (student selected novel) every quarter and students are responsible for deciding when and how to accomplish the reading to complete those tasks.  This small shift gives students power over their learning, while modeling real-life skills such as time management and organization.  

Along with that, is more student choice in what they do in the classroom as well.  There are standards that must be taught and even a curriculum map to guide us, but within that map are multiple opportunities for students to complete work in a manner of their choosing.  Choice boards have been developed to guide the process in some areas, and Genius Hour will be used to tap student interests in a long-term project about a topic they select.  This inclusion of student choice fuels engagement, lets learners shine in areas we may not otherwise see, and gives them a unique voice in the classroom.

All throughout the last school year, we worked tirelessly to give our students feedback on their writing assignments. We stayed up late and got up early to make sure that every student had comments made on their assignment. We thought we were really helping our students. There were only two little problems with our strategy. One, students weren’t reading our comments. Two, some students didn’t understand the changes we were suggesting. We hadn’t built in the time to discuss our feedback with the students so that they could truly grow as writers.

After reading chapter 7 of Shift This, a light bulb went off. We weren’t giving quality feedback to our students. We thought we were, but we weren’t. Then, the brainstorming began. How can we make this shift? How can we give students feedback that is meaningful to them? We decided on a two-step plan. First, we will give students time to collaborate and give each other feedback. We will model what quality feedback can look look like and give our students feedback starters like Joy suggested. Second, we will build in small group time where we will give skill-directed feedback and allow time for students to work on making corrections. Our hope is that not only will these shifts make our students stronger writers, but they will show our students that we truly care about them and helping them through the writing process.

Change 8.13.17Change is hard, but can be very effective.  Is every shift going to make a positive difference?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Will there be stumbling blocks and adjustments?  Probably. But the shifts will certainly move the classroom in a direction that is engaging and productive for students.  We are excited for our shifted class to begin!


Students Don’t Read at Home, So What Can I Do About It?

By: Lisa S. Bass, M.Ed, NBCT

Reading: What a wonderful way to open a world full of imagination, excitement, mystery, and fun! Reading is a favorite activity for me, but many students are not motivated to read at home. Many students decide that “reading is not for them” or that it is “not fun.” With so many distractions at home and outside school, motivating children to read outside the classroom is a huge task.

Research shows that the love of reading should be natural. This is not always the case for many students. They prefer listening to music, playing video games, texting, playing computer games, and interacting through social media.

I tried many solutions to help motivate my students to read at home. These young learners needed their intrinsic love for reading to be ignited! Hooking little readers into the creative world of reading was a challenge! I began my own research into why they weren’t as excited about reading as I was when I was their age.

First I realized they haven’t found the right book or type of book. I explain to my students that when I go to the library there are so many books that I am not interested in reading. They just aren’t my favorite genre or they are too long for my attention span. However, I explain that for every book I DON’T want to read, there may be a different book that I DO want to read. I am just pickier than some other readers. So, I encourage them to look at something new, different, exciting, and unique that they may not have considered reading. Suddenly there is a whole library full of books to be considered.

Next I examined students’ reading habits and thought about how I can “hook” students into realizing their own strengths in reading. I took pictures of them reading and guided them in examining their positive expressions on their faces. I Tweeted pictures of them reading various genres so their parents could see their reading success. I basically got them excited to see themselves reading and invited them to share this love of reading with their families.

Now finding the perfect place to read at home was the next challenge. I invited students to take pictures of comfy places at home: a quiet chair in the corner, a pillow and blanket curled up by the bed, grandma’s favorite rocking chair that is at home, the comfy couch by the lamp, the counter in the kitchen where dinner is being prepared, and any other creative location. Soon, students were sharing various locations and getting excited to read in the most creative, unique location in the house.

Students expressed a concern that they had “nobody to read with at home.” We solved this problem by lining up stuffed animals (We even asked for donations from others who had outgrown their stuffed animals.) and reading stories in the classroom to our new “reading buddy” animals. We practiced reading to the stuffed animals and taking them to our favorite reading spots in the classroom. The students’ love for reading aloud to the animals grew as they expanded their reading at home. They read to their stuffed animals before going to bed. They even recorded themselves reading to them and brought the recordings to school to play for the “class” stuffed animals. Suddenly those who had nobody to read to had a full audience!

Finally came the biggest challenge: “I don’t have time to read!” Creating a reading schedule with accountability (a reading calendar to be signed and returned for homework credit) helped solve this problem. This calendar was designed based on the student’s busy at-home life. Nights when soccer, dance, baseball, or other activities kept the students busy, reading in the car on the way to the events or on the bus after school was the solution for that day’s busy schedule. Other day, when time was more abundant, students made up the reading time they couldn’t get to on their busy nights. Somehow, with a more flexible schedule and unique accountability, more reading blossomed.

Be flexible, understanding, positive, and encouraging as motivating students to read at home. These solutions worked well for my students. Try some with yours, but remain understanding and creative when igniting the love for reading at home! Once the flame is lit, reading at home becomes a monumental moment that opens the doors for a lifetime of reading!

Sharing Expectations at Parent-Teacher Conferences

by Tricia Ebner

Parent-teacher conferences are going to begin within the next few weeks. These are an excellent opportunity to talk with parents about student progress, and it’s important to move that conversation beyond letter grades and report cards. A conference is a great time to talk with parents about how students are progressing on the standards.

One of the challenges teachers face in the classroom is how best to discuss student progress on the standards for the grade level and content area. Many of our students’ parents grew up in an era where the education standards were not the same as they are today, so it is not unusual for parents to have questions and concerns about the standards. Math teachers tend to hear these kinds of concerns frequently, but they are also expressed in other content areas.

Spending a bit of time preparing for the kinds of questions or concerns parents might express about student progress on grade-level expectations can be very helpful. There are some great resources available like these offered by Ohio Department of Education and PTA to help parents better understand what the standards are and how parents can support their children’s learning.

It also helps parents to have examples of student work as a reference point. For example, if a child’s writing performance is below expectations for a grade level, having an example of what on-level writing looks like can help a parent better understand the concerns. It’s not enough to show the comparison, though. As educators, we need to share what we’re doing in the classroom to address our concerns. We also need to invite parents to support their children’s learning by sharing strategies and resources they can use at home. Some of my son’s teachers have had a page of suggested resources, with their recommendations for my son’s particular learning needs highlighted, ready at our conferences. As a parent, I’ve appreciated receiving a page of great resource ideas, and it’s really helpful to know which ones they recommend for my son and his specific strengths and needs.

Today’s expectations are different from what our students’ parents remember from their own school years. By taking time to prepare resources and help parents better understand what the standards look like in student work, we can foster a clearer view of our standards and how they benefit our students. Using clear, effective examples and communication with parents is reassuring, encouraging, and helps build the teamwork we need to help our students grow and succeed. 

If you’re looking for a good source of sample student writing to share with parents, try the Achieve the Core site, which highlights a project called “In Common” and provides samples of student writing. You might also want to look at the Spring 2016 released scoring guides for Ohio’s assessments, which feature some released test items.