BLC 12: More “Questions” and “Stories”
This summer, I was once again fortunate to be given the opportunity to attend the BLC (Building Learning Communities) annual conference in Boston. These three days are chock full of incredible speakers, great ideas, and a pace that is life in the fast lane to say the least. There is no lunch break and you can pretty much count on going full throttle ahead from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. And as a good conference should do, it raised more questions in my head on how to do things differently for my students in the coming school year. If I had to describe BLC12 in two words, it would be “stories” and “questions”.
In fact, coming into BLC12, I had a lot of questions. When you switch grade levels as I did the past year, you are basically one step ahead of the students all year in learning the new curriculum. I was blessed with having the same students for a second year in a row, so at least I did not have that learning curve. But, with having the same students, we had a very close relationship and they were not happy with some of the approaches I was taking with the curriculum. We were skimming the surface in content areas, the assessments were not performance based, and the pace was very quick in order to finish all the content. I had already spent some time doing some reading this summer by Jeff Utecht, who I had heard during my first trip to BLC in 2010. Some of the articles that stuck with me were “Flipping History” (http://www.thethinkingstick.com/flipping-history/) , “The Evolution of the Lecture” (http://www.thethinkingstick.com/the-evolution-of-the-lecture/) and “Lecture as Content Delivery is Dead” (http://www.thethinkingstick.com/lecture-as-content-delivery-is-dead/) to help me with some of my questions. Jeff spoke about lectures that “don’t deliver content, but instead inspire, tell stories, and push ideas.” So, coming into July 18th, I had a lot of questions on how to better engage my students, how to integrate their questions more into the learning, and how to use stories more effectively, both by myself and my students. A pretty tall order to fill in three short days.
From Google Images
One of the recurring themes during the conference was “The First Five Days” and the importance of establishing a culture in your classroom during those first five days. Greg Whitby from Sydney Australia spoke about the importance of finding out “what’s your story?” Marco Torres followed that introduction by discussing about what matters the most to students is a relationship between students and teachers. What are the students passionate about? What matters to them? After this keynote, I went to a session by Marco Torres called “Lights…Camera…Learn!” As a longtime fan of creating videos in the classroom, this type of media can definitely tell many different stories. Some new story ideas that I may try as a result of this session would be to try the trailers in iMovie to create a teaser about coming events in the classroom, to create a “First Five Days” movie about what is important to the student, create a “One Day” 30 second video, and a math video.
From that session, I then went to a session called “Gaming in the Classroom” that was conducted by Michael Beilharz. Using Minecraft, a video game in the classroom, his students created video stories about cities and time periods in history. This would be another way for students to demonstrate their learning utilizing a technology that they find very appealing.
While these two sessions focused on using stories in your classroom, the last session of the day, “iSchool Initiative: Becoming a Mobile Learner” was an incredible story. Travis Allen, a mere 20 year old, is the President and CEO of the iSchool Initiative. This entirely student run company is based on the premise to inspire students to become lifelong learners. Travis spoke about as a learner, it was important for students to be able to find, filter, and apply. Students do not want to just memorize information; it is more valuable to find the information yourself and apply it than to be told the information. Travis also had a pretty great strategy for a 20 year old on what you can do to change the world:
- Work hard, fail a lot, but learn more.
- Have an absolute love of learning. This leads to a life of significance.
- Lead the way. You can’t always change others, but you can change yourself.
I felt that Travis’s story was really inspiring and it fell into my theory about children being the “Seekers of Knowledge.” This was an awesome story to end day one.
On Day Two, the “stories” theme continued. I went to a session called “Storyfinding” by Darren Kuroptwa. His talk reminded me of what Jeff Utecht had written about
Integrating stories into the classroom. Darren spoke of how students react to the line “Once upon a time…” and how important it is to make our teaching sticky and our students learning sticky. He spoke about that adding a picture to a fact increases the ability to remember the information dramatically. You can tell an awesome story with just one photo. You want a mundane subject to become a story that is worth watching or learning about. Darren showed a video of how to make walking up a flight of stairs at a subway station interesting (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SByymar3bds) In teaching, we need to search out way is a Trojan horse for learning, it opens the door to let in all types of learning.” We need to look at the history of the subjects that we teach, collect stories, and find out about the personalities of the people that you are teaching. I also took away that this year, I am going to assign one student a day to write about what we learned in math – to tell the story of that day in math so that we have a running journal on what we learned in math throughout the year.
In another session, “Teaching Empathy Through Literature and the Web”, I learned about to extend the stories that children are reading in the classroom. By doing this, it would create a richer experience for students as they are reading. Photopeach (http://photopeach.com/) is another resource to create digital stories. A great suggestion on how to expose students to different stories is to have the students create book trailers, then have them running on a flat screen television to promote kids to read more.
Through these sessions and by doing some other reading this summer, I feel that I need to integrate more stories into my everyday teaching. It is important to know your students’ stories, for the teacher to tell more stories, and for the students to also create stories to display their knowledge. So, storytelling will be one of my own goals for the upcoming school year.
from Google images
On Day One of BLC, I attended “A Flipped Classroom” which was presented by Aaron Sams. Mr. Sams and his teaching partner were one of the first teachers to “flip” their classroom. After doing some flipping myself with my partner this past year, I had a lot of questions about this approach. We utilized Discovery Education videos for our students to watch at home on a variety of topics. However, I learned that Sams and his colleague create their own videos as he feels that students prefer to hear the teacher’s voice. He also raised the point that the videos can be used at different times in the learning process. They can be used to engage and inspire students and kick start a unit. They also could be used in the middle of a unit after the students have done some inquiry about a topic. But what I found really intriguing was the concept of Universal Design Learning. In this type of model, the teacher needs to give the students multiple ways of doing things and they can demonstrate, using different means of what they learned. I wondered how this could be used in a classroom where the current trends seem to be moving towards common assessments where all students take the same test. I was also questioning the teacher being the creator of all of the “flipped” content. I had wanted to have the students find more content last year. I remember when my students went nuts finding articles and resources about Blanding’s turtles. How could I engage them more in finding resources to support learning? A question to ponder for sure.
On Day Two, Alan November’s talk “Who Owns the Learning?” further created more questions for me. Alan is a master at creating chaos in my mind (in a good way) and this talk certainly accomplished that. In this talk, Alan continually emphasized that students need to own more of the learning. Some of his questions were:
- What does it mean to own the learning?
- Who is working harder – the teacher or the students?
- Who should be working harder?
- How can we shift the workload? What can we off-load?
All of these are really great questions, questions that should be talked about as a faculty and as a system. According to November, “Owning the learning does not mean that you are not teaching to the standards. You are also not teaching to a test. It is all about control and the shift of control from the teacher to the students. Students should be finding their own answers as well as asking themselves deeper and deeper questions.” I also found November’s suggestion about teacher evaluations really intriguing. He said that when an evaluation is being done, the teacher should be asked to leave the room. The evaluator should see if the students are self-directed without the teacher being present, that everything is still operational, and that learning does not stop jut because the teacher is not present in the classroom. In November’s talk, he also discussed that kids need to be able to effectively use search engines. He talked about Google’s own customized search engine, as well as Diigo, where students can read information and build their own customized library. Students should be introducing content as well as being peer instructors, and have a global voice. In this type of environment, students will truly “own their learning” and as Kuroptwa said, it will make the learning “sticky.” I am a true believer in having kids own their own learning and November’s talk re-emphasized that point as well as put some good questions into my own thinking on how to continue to do this better with my students.
Day Three brought another session that raised a lot of questions about my own practice. In “Creating 21st Century Assignments: Self-Paced Mastery Learning in a Flipped Digital Environment”, Garth Holman and Mike Pennington described an environment where team teaching took place 40 miles apart; where students created their own knowledge; where students were more concerned about learning than grades; and where wrote the essential questions that guided their learning. This talk almost seemed like the perfect culmination of all of the talks that I have highlighted in this post. These two teachers created a vessel (a wiki) where the students built their own resources. There was autonomous mastery learning where students move through at their own pace (seems much like the Parker Charter School model). I loved how they stated that you “want to instill passion, it is much greater than just knowing facts. You want students to think beyond facts.” The students would move through a web-quest from a certain point of view. I tried this during our colony unit, where each pair represented a specific colony and it worked well. Students would blog about their learning as they went along and they had “blog buddies”. They too utilized Diigo (I need to ask my CCHS media specialist friend for a good primer on this!) to build their own learning networks. I loved how they had the students develop all of the big questions. I have used this technique when I use to do topic work as well as during our past two DPC projects and it works really well since the students have developed the questions, they own them. This talk was really wonderful and I left it by thanking both presenters and then thinking how I could replicate this type of learning in my fifth grade classroom.
So, as usual, I left BLC completely drained, but brimming with questions. Here’s my To-Do List to ponder on the summer days I have left:
- How can my classroom be “flipped” where it is more in control of the students?
- How can I better integrate stories into my curriculum that excites the students to independently want to learn more about the topic?
- What is Universal Design Learning and how can we use this strategy in our classrooms?
- With a new class coming in, what can I do during “The First Five Days”’ to really set the tone for a year of “Questions” and “Stories”?
- How does one cover all the content while creating a learning community that is built on student questions?
I have to give kudos to BLC 12 for once again causing me to walk away with more questions than answers on how to create a true learning community for my classroom. “Questions” and “Stories” will indeed be my theme of the coming year.