Starting a Student-Centered Classroom

You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. -Rabindranath Tagore

medium_8536426262I recently wrote about incorporating a more personalized approach to learning in my classroom here and how that meant building the plane while I fly it.  I’ve always believed in student-centered classrooms and in many ways, my classroom already had many aspects of voice and choice.  So perhaps I wasn’t starting the plane from scratch after all.

It can be intimidating and sometimes, downright paralyzing, to consider changing an entire classroom management system.  At the core of it all, you have to decide what you truly believe about teaching and learning before making any kind of shift.  Once you have made the decision to make meaningful change, start small.  Look at what you are already doing and see if anything resonates with student choice.  One of the biggest concerns of many educators is what to do with the other students while you are working with small groups.  These choice boards for centers were already in place in my room:

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These center boards for morning and afternoon help me begin choice in kindergarten.  Students are in center teams and they are assigned these centers during 3 rotations in the morning while my assistant and I teach small reading groups and during 3 rotations in the afternoon while we work with small groups of writers. The rotations last 20 minutes each. Even though they are assigned their centers on these boards, once they get to those centers, they have multiple choices of activities to work with.  At the ABC center, they have 8 hands-on activities and one cubby has 2 iPad passes that allow the students who choose them to work on their iPads on ABC/phonics activities.  The math and games center works similarly.  They have 8 math manipulatives and fine motor activities to choose from as well as 2 math iPad passes that allow those students to work on math apps.  Here are photos of those 2 centers:

ABC center

ABC center

Math and Games

Math and Games

So in a given day, each team would rotate through these centers: ABC, writing, math, reading, and 2 rotations of choice.  Choice centers are housekeeping, blocks, legos, science, art, and painting. (I’m not a huge fan of the paint so they often have markers or chalk here.)  This controlled-choice helps students learn through a gradual release of responsibility.  It’s not chaotic and the kids start learning how to handle multiple choices in a structured way.

As we get a few weeks of school under our belts, and expectations, routines and procedures are more established, I start adding some choice into other areas of the day.  Students may choose books in the book center, or iPads for reading.  They may also choose writing on paper in the writing center or on the iPad.  (Note: with my kindergarten students, we still use paper and pencil for Writer’s Workshop all year.  I want them to develop those writing skills.)

By early January, we are able to move away from those choice boards and move into students planning their day and making their own schedules.  I will write more about this a little later.

Standing on the edge and trying to wrap your head around change is a little scary but I also find it a bit exhilarating.  When I saw my students embracing choice in the classroom, I found I was eager to incorporate their voice and choice in other ways.  It made it a lot easier for me to push forward and try new things.

Don’t stand back and look at the water…stick your big toe in and wade around a bit.  Come on in…the water’s fine!

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it!

Initial photo credit: Creative Commons

 

Let There Be Light

Technology is anything invented after you were born. -Alan Kay

At this moment, I’m in the airport in Portland, Maine waiting to fly home.  I have been at the Leveraging Learning in Primary Grades Institute as a presenter and keynote speaker for their annual conference in Auburn. This institute is all about customizing learning in the early grades with the use of iPads. As a presenter, it is often difficult to find time to get into another session to hear someone else speak but I was very fortunate to be able to sit in on the final keynote today given by one of Apple’s employees, who serves as Director of Learning.

As the speaker was talking, he showed this graphic on screen by Dr. Eric Mazur:

Brain Activity

This graphic represents a 24 hour period of EEG’s taken on the brains of students.  It is to be noted that their brains are more active during sleep than during class.  This is because learning is passive during lecture.  You will notice a similar wave pattern (or non-wave, as the case may be) during the time the student was watching television.  Learning simply must be more than the transfer of information.  We must focus on creation, curation and collaboration in our classrooms.  The richer the experience a student has, the more likely he/she is to learn.  The speaker emphatically pointed out that the last thing we need is a monoculture in schools that produces the exact same product.  Content without context and community is not an efficient way of learning.

As the opening quote by Alan Kay states, technology is anything invented after you were born.  Think about what technologies have been invented since you were born.  Many of our students have grown up with some kind of computer technology in their homes.  For them, turning on those devices and using them are as natural as using the switch to turn on the lights.  Think about it…few of us would think of “lights” as technology at this point.  Back in the day, you would see signs such as this posted: Edison-Electric-Light-Sign

 So what do we do now? We know that “the way we’ve always done education” is as outdated as that sign.  It was encouraging to see the faces of the educators at the conference in Maine…to see their determination to move beyond using the iPad as a substitution for paper and pencil or as a gaming device.  As advocates for our students, we must speak up about creating real change.  It starts with each one of us.  Plant a seed, watch it grow, change the world. Let there be light!

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it!

1:1 iPads and Student Centered Classrooms

And no, we don’t know where it will lead.  We just know there’s something much bigger than any of us here. -Steve Jobs

It never gets old.  Even after 3 years of 1:1 iPads, the magic and wonder of my students’ engagement and learning excites and motivates me daily.  Having a student-centered classroom makes my job so much more interesting and meaningful.

Trent's photosynthesisWe have been learning about fall and fall leaves this week. Living by the ocean in the south, we have about 2 weeks of fall.  The leaves are green, then they are a little yellow, then brown and on the ground.  We don’t get to enjoy the rich colors of our northern neighbors.

Today,  I was reading a non-fiction book about leaves and it briefly touched on photosynthesis.  Knowing this concept was a bit advanced, I kept reading, and didn’t stop to discuss photosynthesis.  However, just like our recess snail episode, the children were fascinated with this large word and had many questions.  We started a wonder chart on this concept.  How does the tree live through the winter if there aren’t leaves on it to make food?  Is the sugar that the leaf makes during photosynthesis the same as the sugar we eat?  We looked at other books and found pictures on the internet.  We talked and wondered, wondered, and talked.  During their free choice time today in centers, several drew pictures about this concept.  Some chose drawing paper, some our Drawing Pad app. (See drawing at the top of this post.) Some even put their drawing into Explain Everything and talked about it there.  Here is one of those examples:

The only planned part of this day was the reading of that initial book.  The rest was courtesy of my curious children.  By being in tune with my students, I was able to go with their flow (which, by the way, was far better and more meaningful than anything I would have had them do.) As I look back on our fall unit in previous years, before iPads, the learning wasn’t nearly as rich or in-depth.  Of course, the iPads alone didn’t do anything.  They have served as a conduit of change for ME.  Over the last 3 years, I’ve changed and in turn, my teaching has been transformed.  It’s not about the iPad, but it is about a shift in the way my classroom works.  The learning environment is completely different and it continues to evolve.

Just like Steve Jobs, I have no idea where this will all lead.  I just know there is something bigger than all of us here…and THAT is exciting!

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it!

 

The Choice is Yours!

Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand. -Chinese Proverb

Would you want to work in a place that gave you no voice? Would you want to teach in a school that allowed you no autonomy in how you teach? What if your every day was prescribed as to what you would do, what you would say and how you would say it…

medium_2699584043As professionals, we become offended when the “higher ups” in education make decisions that affect us without including us in the decision making.  Even professional development is terribly ineffective when we just “sit and get” without any input.  Would an artist paint very often or very well if the subject of the painting was always assigned? Of course not. So why are we so reluctant to give our students choice in how they learn?

Choice.  It’s meaning is clear: an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities. Choice.  It’s not just for adults.  Alfie Kohn writes a good article here about choices for children in learning.

To be clear, there is a difference between choice and free reign.  Without some control and teacher facilitation, it can be pure anarchy. Setting up the learning environment to allow for student choice is critical.  You would never open a closet to a 3 year old and ask them what they want to wear.  You would ask, “Do you want to wear this or this?”  In my room, we begin with simple choices and through a gradual release of responsibility, students eventually have multiple choices all throughout the day.

Last week we were working on the pumpkin life cycle.  By Friday, everyone was ready to show me what they had learned.  They were given 2 choices.  They could show me in Pic Collage or in Explain Everything.  Later, they will have other choices, but for now, 2 is all they need.

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Instructions were on the Smartboard and everyone was hard at work!

photoThis is one of the examples from Pic Collage.

This is one of the examples from Explain Everything.

When given choices, students engage and take ownership.  By learning how to make choices and make decisions at a young age, they are better equipped at these skills as they get older.  When children learn to think for themselves, they are also less likely to be easily led by others whose choices may not be as desirable.

We want our students to love the content…to love learning.  By giving choices we lessen the chance of burnout (for both students and teachers), and we increase the chances of engaged, independent thinkers.  None of us like to be told, “You have no choice in the matter.” Instead, let’s work toward, “The choice is yours!”

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it!

One Way Sign Photo Credit:  Creative Commons