The first week of school is in the books. In some ways, it was brand new, and in other ways, it was like riding a bike...you just never forget some things. This year, like every year, I kept some things that I always do, but I also did some editing and some tweaking. Here were some things that I did differently this year than in years past:
Emphasizing Procedures: One of my early goals for my class is for them to be able to carry out classroom procedures automatically...so much so that they could do them even if I wasn't there. From the first day of school, we modeled and practiced the things that the students should do from the moment they walked in the door. On the second day, I asked the children how much they thought they remembered from the previous day and had them evaluate themselves, reminding them that the first few days and weeks of school are practice. By the third day, nearly every student had remembered most of what we do!
Likewise, we have certain procedures that we practice in the afternoon. The end of the day had always been a little chaotic in years past, and I wanted to see if I could change that. I borrowed heavily from the methods the incomparable Paul Solarz outlines in his book Learn Like a Pirate to institute a new afternoon ritual...students will get their homework assignments; then join in a discussion that recaps what was learned and accomplished; evaluate how they acted that day (for example, were they kind to one another? Did they accomplish the work they set out to do?); and then reset and straighten up the room, retrieve their mail, do their classroom jobs, and finally line up for dismissal. The challenge? This all needs to be done in 15 to 20 minutes. In the first few days, I've been leading these discussions, but soon I plan on handing much of the responsibility off to the students.
Specifically Teaching Academic Conversations from Day 1: Student-to-student conversation is a key component of a lot of instruction in my class. It has become apparent to me that these skills should be specifically taught, practiced and reinforced from the first day of school. On the first day of school, we talked about what an academic conversation should look like and sound like and how it differs from a social conversation. Throughout the first three days, there were lots of opportunities to practice...as math instruction and reading and writing workshop all begin, these conversations will become critical ingredients.
A New Read-Aloud: Read-aloud is an important component in my reading instruction. It's a great way to model reading fluency practices as well as making explicit the kind of thinking that should be going on as students read. For the past few years, I had started with RJ Palacio's Wonder. It's a great book, but this year I decided to put it off until later in the year for a few reasons. First, I am planning to launch my first Reading Workshop unit soon, which ties with another fantastic book, Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. Also, in October, my class will be participating in the Global Read Aloud, in which we will be reading Pax by Sara Pennypacker with other 5th grade classes across North America. Since I wanted to make sure our slate was clear, I chose to read Zen Shorts, a wonderful short illustrated story by John J. Muth. The story is presented in a series of vignettes, with each one providing opportunities to practice those academic discussions!
There was a lot going on in our first three days together...the students loved creating "extended" name tags, which they later learned how to tag electronically on ThingLink; we opened our classroom library and learned the check in/out system; and we also launched our Writer's Workshop! I can't wait to see what happens when we have a full week to work with!
I had a bunch of ideas to blog about, but the end of the year caught up with me...so instead, I'll write them as a series of year-end reflections. This first one will review my second year of Mystery Skyping!
What Went Well:
- First of all, we definitely increased our volume of Mystery Skypes this year. In our first year of Skyping, we did maybe five or six. This year, we did 13, counting a Mystery Hangout (same concept, just using Google Hangouts instead) and a Skype we did with a 2nd grade class in Illinois for Read Across America Day. We set a goal of 10,000 miles, which we almost doubled in the course of the year.
-One real highlight for us was the Skypeathon, on December 3. We completed three separate Skypes on that day, one of which was all the way to Andhra Pradesh, India. We were treated to Indian students sharing examples of their dance and music, and just the idea that we were making contact with a school halfway across the world was a real eye-opening experience for my kids.
- My students became very adept at working in different roles, and shifting on the fly. There were several times during our Skype sessions when different students had to leave the classroom, and other students just filled their roles seamlessly.
- One thing that was really amazing to see was how the students themselves took control of many aspects of our Mystery Skypes. They made changes to the way we operated that worked best for them. At the beginning of the year, my Question Trackers had two separate Google Forms that they would enter questions into; one the questions we asked, and the other for the questions the other class asked. They would feed into two separate pages of one Google Sheet that the Researchers could use to track the questions. The students realized that there were only a few of them who could type fast enough to keep up with the questions, and Researchers constantly forgot to check the spreadsheet for what questions had been asked already. They decided among themselves that instead, the Question Trackers would simply write their questions on a dry-erase easel divided in half; one side for our questions, the other side for theirs. This fix made it a lot easier to follow the questions. The students also adapted how questions were relayed to the Questioners and also created the position of Research Captain, whose job it is to make sure that the researchers are staying focused and on task. Another student took it upon himself to track the distances we covered in each Skype session and tracked our progress to our mileage goal.
Things to Work On:
- One thing I would like to improve next year is making sure all students are engaged. In every session, there would be several students who would sort of "check out" of the whole process. They were usually members of the Research team who would start to drift off. This in itself is somewhat inevitable, but in some situations, they would begin to distract other members of their team. I know that in any situation, there will be varying levels of engagement, but I'd like to try some ways to keep the maximum number of students involved. One idea I had would be to have two separate teams of Skypers, and with each Mystery Skype, the team that was "off" would watch the "on" team in action in a sort of fishbowl. I would imagine that this would provide a lot of opportunities for reflection and Quality Boosters. Also, less people on a team means more for each person to do.
- For each Skype session, there was a photographer and videographer whose job it was to record our team in action, but often these pictures just sat on Google Drive...I needed to do a better job of sharing these images. This year, I had a map displayed outside our classroom that tracked where we Skyped. Each location was tagged with its name and distance from our school, but it was hard to maintain. Perhaps combining these elements...sharing the photos and videos from each session (maybe combined with some reflection from the students)...and creating a QR code that could be scanned instead of just writing the name and distance of the town that would share these elements. Also, having a student blog about the session is something I'd like to get back to as well.
- Preparedness and flexibility was sometimes an issue. While my students devised a really neat strategy for narrowing down the state and town we were Skyping with, sometimes they would get stuck in a rut and only rely on that one strategy when other kinds of questions would serve them better. I would like to see research teams think one or two questions ahead, so that they would be ready with another question more quickly.
- Finally, I would like to create more lasting relationships with the classrooms we Skyped with. I know that it's hard in the midst of planning everything else, but this really could be an invaluable experience for students to collaborate across great distances.
Overall, Mystery Skype has been a great experience in my classroom for two years now. I'm looking forward to enhancing the experience for my students in Year 3! What have your experiences been? Any suggestions for tweaks and/or enhancements would be welcome!
I gave my students their first taste of BreakoutEDU last Friday! I had heard about BreakoutEDU through Twitter, and the premise sounded great. Students work together to gather and decipher hidden clues that give the combinations to a series of locks. The locks secure a box that contains the objective of the challenge. Since I wasn't sure I was ready to invest in the whole shebang, I decided to give it a try with a version that was shared with me by another 5th grade teacher.
In his version, six clues are hidden around a designated area...it could be limited to the classroom, or in this case, one floor of my school! Each clue contains a math problem for teams of students to solve. The solution to the problem is a password to one of six Word documents that are given to the students at the start of the activity. Each document contains part of a final code that students enter to complete the challenge.
To give a fun context for the challenge, the students were informed that Captain Doom, a mad genius, had invented a doomsday device that was set to go off in 60 minutes. The teams of students were each provided a map of Captain Doom's "lair" (actually, a map of the second floor of my school); a copy of his "demands," that if not met in the next 60 minutes, would cause him to trigger the device; and a USB drive containing the six password-locked Word documents and a link to a Google Form that would only allow the correct entry of the code. To get the students started, I had overlaid a coordinate map grid over the map of the school and color-coded certain letters and numbers in Captain Doom's demands that would point them to the locations of the clues.
I started off by handing out four "Top Secret" envelopes and showing the students a brief Google Slides presentation outlining the challenge and going over ground rules: Students were to leave the clues where they found them so that other teams could locate them; they were not allowed to enter any other room besides ours; and that they were to walk and speak quietly in the halls. They were also informed that I was not going to help them at all! They were then instructed to open their envelopes and the countdown began! To keep track of time, I projected a timer counting down from 60 minutes on the screen.
During the challenge, I noted some interesting observations. First, Many students assumed at first that the colored letters and numbers led to the code itself. It was one of my more reserved students who noticed that they pointed to certain locations on the map grid. I also found it really interesting that some of my so-called "weaker" students were the calmest under pressure and that some of my highest achievers were getting very jittery. In fact, at about the 45 minute mark, one student told me, "Mr. Ullman, that timer's really stressing me out!" The vast majority of the students were really engaged the entire time, although I noticed that some groups were deferring almost all of the math problems to one or two group members, assuming that they would come up with the right answers. This really affected one group who had the early lead in deciphering the code, but was letting one student do all the math work. He made a fundamental error on one of the problems, but none of the other three members of his group called him on it, and it caused them to run out of time. In the end, all but one of the groups stopped the device in time...this last group eventually did figure it out as well. All of the students were extremely enthusiastic about the experience and couldn't wait to do it again!
Of course, as with all first tries, there is some tweaking to be had. One of the problems I came up with had several different ways to express the answer, which was frustrating. Also, one of the clues I had placed got picked up by another teacher...it was eventually found, but threw a bit of a monkey wrench into to proceedings. I also, as I am wont to do, set one of the letters of the code up incorrectly, which threw some groups for a loop as they had double- and triple-checked their work...luckily, I had set the code up as a Google Form, so all it took was for me to correct the data validation and they were fine.
The overall experience was so positive, I went out and ordered the components to an actual open-source Breakout EDU kit that very night! I can't wait to try it out on them. I would like to thank Mr. D. Zach Holden (@mrzholden) for sharing the components of his challenge with me...I never would have been able to do this without them. If you would like to try this challenge out in your own classes, please let me know. The challenges could be modified to suit a variety of grade levels...I'd like to hear what you do with it as well!
One of my biggest goals this year was to make my spring parent-teacher conferences student-led. While the traditional parent-teacher conference involves a lot of the teacher talking and the parent listening, student-led conferences have the students being the ones to show examples of their work, sharing areas of strength and laying out their goals for the rest of the year. The teacher’s role becomes more of a coach and guide. I had done a “trial run” of student-led conferences last year with several of my students, and the positive feedback I had gotten on those convinced me to take the leap with this year's class
Needless to say, the students were a little...nervous...when they were told that they would be leading their own conferences. Many of them were worried that they wouldn’t know what to say, or that they would rather have an adult tell them if they were doing “well” or “not.” I had anticipated these fears going in, and let them know that they would be ready by the time for their conferences came around.
First, I gave them a “script" that I adapted from Mary Wade’s fantastic blog at HonorsGradU. It provided them a framework for how their conference would go and what specifically they would be talking about. It also provided a checklist of sorts that have them an idea of what they should include in their digital portfolios.
This year, I was introduced to an app called Seesaw, and it has become an invaluable resource for maintaining a digital portfolio. Seesaw allows students to upload documents, images, links, and even voice and video recordings to their own personal folder. What makes Seesaw unique is that it has a companion app that enables parents to access and comment on their children's work. Using Seesaw, my students uploaded samples of their work, including writing, examples of math thinking and images from their science and social studies notebooks.
When conference time finally came around, I was very impressed with how the students presented themselves and their work. There were many honest discussions about what things they felt strong in and also things they needed to improve on. As we prepared, many students expressed concern about the dreaded “ride home,” where they would get the lecture about their performance and what their teacher said...but parents were very receptive and very proud not just of their students’ work, but also their ability to share it!
I’m looking forward to tweaking my system a bit next year...I would like the students to speak more about their reading data; things like their reading rates and accuracy and fluency. I think I would also like to prep my students more on knowing what points they want to get across, so they don’t ramble...on the first day of conferences I ran 30 minutes behind!
Overall, this has been a very positive change in my classroom. It sends the message that the students themselves can take charge of their learning, and that their education is not just something that happens to them. I’m already looking forward to next year’s conferences!
MinecraftEDU has been one of the most popular tools in my classroom for the past two years. When I wanted to do an activity with it, I usually accessed MinecraftEDU's extensive World Library, and found what I wanted to do there. After about a year of accessing maps and guiding my students through activities that other teachers had made, I decided to take the next step and create my own map to give my students an experience that was custom-built to their experiences in my classroom.
I decided to use an math activity that I had done in class in previous years. It dealt with the connection between sample size in a survey and the reliability of conclusions. In the past, I had students take handfuls of different-colored candy from a bowl and predict from their handfuls what the percentage of each color in the whole bowl was. In my first draft, I created in a Minecraft world where students would mine different colored blocks of wool from a huge central block. I created the large block with six platforms surrounding it where students could mine the blocks from different positions.
I had some issues with this first draft; mainly, how would I get the students up to the platforms once they spawned into the world, and then how would they get their blocks somewhere where they could count and graph them? I played around with MinecraftEDU's teleport blocks and having the students teleport from a central location, and then teleport back to that location. I also wanted to be able to regulate when students could enter the mining area by wiring the platforms with redstone, but I hadn't had a lot of experience with redstone and didn't realize until later how involved running redstone vertically was.
So naturally, once it was almost completely built, I decided to scrap the whole thing and start over. In my next iteration, I decided to use different kinds of blocks instead of wool (more on that issue later). I also put the platforms on the ground, eliminating the need for teleportation. I created a "spawn lobby" with student instructions and trapped chests that distribute journals and quills for students to write their observations down as well (I modeled this lobby after MinecraftEDU user MisterA's design...thanks!) and created paths for students to follow to their group's platform. I also created a system where each platform had an external gate that opened to the outside and an internal gate that opened to the block pile. After some research, I also managed to wire these gates to a central lever that would simultaneously open the outer gates and close the inner ones, and vice versa.
I was very proud of my work, and was happy to have my students run through it. Of course, as is the case with these things, I found some bugs that would need to be worked out in a future edition. First, and most importantly, I made the sampling block out of different amounts of iron ore, sandstone, cobblestone, gold ore, and regular stone. I forgot (duh) that when mined, stone becomes cobblestone. This, of course, affected my students' final counts. I'll have to substitute another block for stone next time around. Also, I didn't realize that even though the gates were wired with redstone, they could still be opened. Luckily, my students mostly were able to follow my instructions, so they didn't wander off. Next time, I'll have to use an iron door, or other object that can only be opened with a redstone signal.
I was very excited to create a map for my students. I learned a lot about Minecraft by doing this. I'm so thankful for recent MinecraftEDU updates that enabled things like WorldEdit and being able to copy chests with contents inside. I can't wait to design my next project!
Simply put, project-based learning (or PBL) is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge. I have been trying to work it into my instruction more and more this year and this service project proved to be the perfect opportunity! In years previous, when I had done this 100 Lunches project, the students helped raise money to purchase supplies to make the lunches and then I or another adult would simply go out and get them. This year, however, my colleagues and I decided to put the students in the lead. We tasked them with creating a proposal as to what and how much we should buy, and from where, all while staying within the budget dictated by the amount of money they had raised.
Here's an example of a proposal given by a group of students
One of the immediate effects of this project was how engaged the students were! Many of the students spent free time working on it as well as the time allotted to them, and were always reluctant to stop working for the day. As they searched for all the materials they needed, they covered a lot of important mathematics-related topics, including estimation, capacity, and unit prices! They also practiced persuasive speaking, as they argued the merits of a particular area grocery store over another; and speaking for an audience as they presented their proposals.
We were all very proud of our students throughout the process, and they clearly enjoyed the activity. I'm looking forward to infusing more PBL into my classroom teaching!
Our latest MinecraftEDU project was a collaboration with our school science teacher. Over the past few years, as part of our joint weather unit, his classes would research the historical architecture of different geographical areas of the United States and how those buildings had been adapted to fit their local climate. In the past, students would build models to reflect what they had learned, but often would become too time- and material-intensive. This year, we decided instead to make virtual models in Minecraft!
Students were grouped into teams of three or four and assigned a different region of the US and a representative example of its local architecture. This is known as "vernacular." The regions and architectural styles were:
Students spent time carrying out research on their different areas, noting climate and geographical features. They also noted the features of their assigned house type and how those features were built to adapt to that climate. Several groups made great use of Instagrok! During the students' research, I began setting up the Minecraft environment where the students would build their virtual houses. I used the Edumicator's "Six Group Area" map, a template from the MinecraftEDU world library. I designated five of the six groups as building areas for the groups. In each area, I put a chest with various building materials in it. I figured that I would allow the students to pick the correct materials for their models. (Side note: I created this environment just days before MinecraftEDU version 1.7.10 build 20 became available, which would allow you to copy chests with materials in them...I had to manually fill each chest!) In the sixth area, I created a series of trapped chests that would give students extra building materials and also other items they could use to furnish their houses once they were complete. Later, the students took to calling this area "IKEA."
Once the students had completed their houses, I wanted to present their projects in a way that could be shared beyond their classmates. Since our computer labs use Macs, the students learned how to use the "screen record" feature of QuickTime to create screencasts of them leading tours through their houses. The students really enjoyed this part. Several groups recorded themselves over and over again to get their timing just right! Here is a playlist of their screencasts:
The students really enjoyed this activity. I was amazed at some of the creativity they displayed in deciding how to represent certain features of their houses within the Minecraft environment. I'm also curious...is anyone out there from the regions we researched? Were we pretty accurate?
I've really started getting into flipping my lessons this year, especially in science and social studies. My schedule this year only leaves 30 minutes most days for either science or social studies, and I want to leave that time open for activities and discussions. I've kind of settled into a rhythm of how I do it, but I'm still looking for ways to perfect my technique.
Over the years, I've converted a lot of my social studies and science content lessons into PowerPoints and Google Slides presentations. So to flip them, I just recorded myself teaching those presentations. I experimented with a few screencasting apps like Screencast-O-Matic, Jing, and Explain Everything, but I've settled on Doceri as my recording app of choice. I like how you can transition in Doceri between slides and stay in annotation mode, as well as its simple interface with YouTube, where I end up posting much of my content. Here's an example of a lesson I taught using a "Doceri-fied" PowerPoint presentation:
To go along with the video, I print out and distribute guided notes to my students. I used to just ask them to take notes, but I noticed that they would key in on less important details, or not be able to keep up. These guided notes provide a frame to direct students' attention, and also use a fill-in-the-blank format to decrease the amount of writing they have to do. Here's the guided notes for this lesson:
These notes are formatted so they can be trimmed and taped on a page of a composition book. On the facing side, students are supposed to create some kind of reflection to better internalize their thinking about what they learned. Many of my students have created wonderful reflections and they have sparked some interesting discussions in class!
This system has worked so far this year. Like I said, I'm always looking for ways to enhance my technique. I'd like to make my presentations more dynamic and animated, so the students aren't just staring at the words on a page. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them...I'm still a novice flipper and any advice would be most welcome!
I had a long list of blog posts that I wanted to get caught up on this long weekend. But as I sit surrounded by family and great food, I feel such gratitude. So, while I am of course thankful for my family and friends and all they do, I thought I'd list out some things I'm thankful for professionally.
• My third grade teacher, Mrs. Orzechowski. One of the most unforgettable teachers I have ever had. Even 30 years later, I still remember the humor and way she infused hands-on learning into her instruction. I’ll never forget how we built almost life-size cardboard dinosaur skeletons by scaling them up from those small wooden models!
• Robin Levy, my first supervisor when I worked as a counselor at Harbor Hills Day Camp. She really was my first inspiration for teaching. She taught me so much about being proactive, about genuinely caring for and being with children, and making sure that each one is noticed and recognized for what they do well.
• Penn State College of Communications and the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. While I didn’t exactly enter the field that I got my college degree in, I did gain a great amount of technical knowledge at Penn State that I have been able to utilize in my teaching career. That career was given a great start from some exceptional professors at Rutgers. I am especially thankful for my mentor, Lesley Mandel Morrow, who really took me under her wing and exposed me to some of the literacy concepts that I still incorporate today.
• Conover Road School, where I taught third grade for the first two years of my career. To be honest, I wasn’t very successful in my first two years, and I was eventually not rehired. I am thankful for this time because it formed a mindset for me that I didn’t know everything, and that I could always improve my practice. Fourteen years later, I am still always working to get better.
• My colleagues, both at Community Park and online at #5thchat. I tell everyone that I have learned more in a year of #5thchats than in I am especially thankful for my grade-level colleagues, who I am constantly picking up ideas from and learning from.
• Finally, the administration, both at my school and in my district. In this age of school reform and obsession with test scores, they remain committed to supporting innovation and experimentation in the classroom. I feel very fortunate to have an administration that I know supports my efforts, and also tries to provide me as much as they can with the training and equipment necessary to achieve my goals.
I am thankful for so much in my life, both professionally and personally. What are you thankful for?
Today marked an important milestone in the class's Genius Hour journeys! Each student delivered an "elevator pitch" to introduce their topic to the class...and now to the world!
What is an elevator pitch? The students only get 30 seconds or so to introduce their topic, and "sell" us on it! The name comes from the idea that someone would only have the time it takes for an elevator to go from the lobby to the top floor to sell an investor on an idea. Being concise, enthusiastic, and clear are definite musts!
The students took turns by random draw delivering their pitches, while the rest of the class gave feedback. I adapted myfeedback rubric from one that I found on Joy Kirr's amazing LiveBinder (you can find a lot of other great Genius Hour resources there as well!).
Here are my students' first attempts at elevator pitches as a YouTube playlist. For many of these students, it's the first time presenting anything like this in front of a camera. I welcome your comments and suggestions...what else can I do to prepare my students to pitch their projects? Additionally, the students will be posting their individual pitches on their blogfolios. I encourage you to visit them as well!
5th grade teacher in Princeton, NJ. Passionate about education, technology, and the New York Giants!