When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade

Thursdays are hectic days in many ways.  There is no “special”, there is the turtle tank to be cleaned, and the day just seems long.  This Thursday was no exception to the crazy Thursday rule, with the exception of the fact we had a little curve ball thrown at us – -the Fire Chief decided our “cave’’ area would have to be dismantled and that we would have to make the passage between the Hourihan room, our room, and the Kauffman room to be 44 inches wide.  My desk chair, our bookcases, and our tubs would have to be moved.  Our ottomans and pillows in the cave would have to go.  I created this area for the students to have a quiet corner and now it would have to be taken apart.  By the end of the day, I did not have the energy to tackle the problem, but I spoke with Mario, one of our custodians about helping me move furniture.  Moving into this space 15 months later, I really struggled with arranging this room and ended up getting rid of several big pieces of furniture that just wouldn’t fit.  I was really not up for this puzzle again.

Leaving school on Thursday, I thought back to my last experience with the Fire Chief.  Back when we were at our swing space at the old Alcott, my room was declared out of compliance due to “excessive paper on the walls.”  I turned this into a math lesson, having the students actually measure the surface area of the room and measure the bulletin board space.  We found out that we were not out of compliance.  The students sent the Fire Chief a letter.  It turned out to be a great learning experience.  So why not let the students measure again and find out where the real 44 inch mark was located.

“The Lounge”

After several students were done with our math pre-test on unit 2, I gave the students a couple of yardsticks and a roll of masking tape and asked them to measure the “alley way”.  Much to my surprise, our bookcase would not need to be moved as they were at 44 inches exactly.  The students did find out I was several inches out of compliance with my chair and the tubs would also need to be moved.  As more and more students finished with the pre-test, they set out eagerly measuring.  Then, my museum “curator” came up to me and asked if the room could be totally rearranged.  It was Friday, I was tired, and so I thought “Why not?”  I told them the only thing that really couldn’t be moved was my desk due to the wiring of my Activboard.  And off they went like busy beavers, working on creating the classroom into their classroom.  My curator had now turned into an architect, designing out a new table arrangement.  Others were going around with yardsticks, measuring the furniture and moving it around.  One would think that perhaps this would be chaos, but surprisingly enough, the students worked incredibly well together and were supportive of one another and one another’s ideas.  Some students were done, and set to work organizing 20 rock bags, consisting of 24 samples.  I was pleased to see several of

Another view of the new arrangement

them stepping up and taking leadership roles.  The room was a beehive of activity.  One student went and sought out Debbie to even out the table heights.  Others washed down the chairs and tables with Lysol wipes.  This was an applied Open Circle lesson.  It combined all the elements that one teacher wants her students to exhibit.

At the end of this time frame, I asked the students to reflect on this experience; since I had overheard a lot of them saying this was the best experience ever.  Here are their comments:

  • It was a very different experience.  Now, the room feels bigger.
  • We experimented with area and volume – this was much more fun than sitting at a desk.
  • We now get to sit with more people.  We also got to work together to rearrange the room.
  • For math, we had to worry about the 44 inches, we had to worry about how big the room was and if it would fit.
  • Our room now looks like Hogwarts.
  • Everyone was working together, it was fun to work together, and everyone was rearranging the furniture.
  • The first part was good math practice, the other part was just fun.
  • It was a great activity to work as a team; how could we work together to create the room to make sure it fits the fire codes and to fit everything in it to make it fun.
  • We all worked as a team and we all relied on each other. We had to rely on each other to make it happen.
  • This was also like a geology lesson since a lot of things were moving just like the tectonic plates were moving before they moved back together.
  • It is like chemical weathering, chemicals mix up the minerals in a rock, and we are sort of mixing up the minerals into a massive rock.
  • It is like the rocks split, melted, and reformed.
And yes, we have 44 inches!

I talk a lot about “Who Owns the Learning?”  I guess I can now add “Who Owns the Room?”  It is now truly the students’ learning space.  They are proud of it evidence by the signs they created for the door and the fact that they asked me if they could all eat lunch there on Friday.  Lunch was an incredibly wonderful time.  Students ate leisurely, they talked to one another, and at the table I sat, and someone came up with the question “What would you do with 500 million dollars?”  Students have a way of stealing your heart when you least suspect it, and this day did that to this teacher.  An event that I was grumbling about turned into a transformative experience.  When life gives you lemons, this experience showed me that you can turn it into lemonade and really savor every last sip.


Rocks in My Head and “Boy, This Room is Messy!”

I may have had a case of “rocks in my head”!

This past Friday was almost like the “Perfect Storm” in a way.  End of a long week, indoor recess, and a full moon approaching.  Add a declared “FUF” (Finish Up Friday) with about six things to get done during the day and you can probably see where I am heading.  Mrs. Pettyjohn, our librarian, had given me a book called “Rocks in His Head”, and I was totally thinking by about 9:40, that I must have a serious case of rocks in my head.  What was I thinking by trying some of the projects that I was attempting?

As I have previously blogged about, this year, I am trying to have the students more “own the learning” and create stories that stick.  I am trying this particularly right now in science.  We had done a great inquiry lesson on growing crystals.  My resources came from You Tube.  After viewing these resources, I had a brainstorm on having the students create their own “DIY” videos on mineral testing.  So, I set up “home teams” and “expert groups”, based on a model that I use to do when teaching solar homes in 4th grade.  Another one of my goals this year was to flip the classroom in a little bit of a different manner this year; instead of my finding resources for the students to view at home, I wanted to put them in charge of finding these resources.  So, they had an assignment earlier in the week to find good web resources on rocks and minerals and then posting them on a page in Evernote.  This went fairly well, so the “experts” went to work by looking at resources to find out about the specific mineral tests of luster, hardness, streak, and acid testing.

On Friday, since the students had done the research, that they could quickly put together a storyboard, film their DIYs using iPads, and conduct the mineral testing.  However, due to conditions stated in the first paragraph of this blog, this was easier said than done.  The  first slight bottleneck was that some groups had a lot of difficulty deciding who was going to do what with their movies.  I describe this situation as “Applied Open Circle.”  Students need to learn how to compromise and work well with the other students in the room.  Writing the storyboards were also problematic with some groups in making sure all of the students were contributing to this project.  Also compounding the issues were that some of the groups were overwhelmed with the prospect of making an iMovie on the iPads.  They had all made iMovies on the laptops, but some were completely overwhelmed in doing it with a new tool.  Another issue was that I had signed up for the iPads pretty much a good part of the day, but another 5th grade class needed to use them, so the amount of time now decreased to get the project done.

One group in particular was very vocal about their dislike of the iPads for iMovie.  The problem with using the laptops was that we did not have enough digital cameras to go around, so I sought out Ms. Howard.  She was tied up in a meeting.  Our iMovie iPad “expert” was out of the room temporarily, so my main resource was also not available.  At this point, I really thought I had rocks in my head for undertaking this type of project and was debating to myself about whether I should forget about it.  I returned to the room, ready to abandon ship.

But a funny thing happened.  One of the students who had attended the Tech Boot Camp had been taught by his 6th grade mentor Amos, how to do iMovie on the iPad.  He had been helping out several groups with this.  Another group of two boys decided to figure it out themselves.  And then my other expert came back and quickly helped out another two groups.  All the sudden, what had been total chaos was now attainable.  It was time to break for a quick snack before heading for an hour long art class.  After that, we would have one hour to finish the project up.

Looks like a tornado blew through the room

After the students left, I looked around the classroom and couldn’t believe the mess.  On a good day, it usually doesn’t look that great.  But today, it looked as if a tornado had blown through.  Laptops, note papers, mineral samples, testing materials, and pencils lay strewn all over the room.   I knew it was bad when a little third grader walked in and said “Boy this room is messy.”  Messy was an understatement.  A disaster was more like it.

The students returned from art and set right to work, since there was under an hour to go before the iPads were to go to another class.  The groups that wanted to use the laptops figured out how to film without a digital camera.  The groups that were using the iPads kept on going.  And by George, by 1:05, all groups were done with their “first draft”.  We would just have to “fluff and buff” the videos on Monday before putting them up on our You Tube channel.

The beginning of our Rock Exhibit

After lunch, we had about 30 minutes to finish another item off of our “FUF” list:  to complete our rock museum.  Students had brought in a rock/mineral sample to write about as well as build our own rock/mineral exhibit.  After writing a detailed description on an exhibit card, students had to create a display box.  There was a lot of measuring that needed to be done to create a box with a blue inside and an gray outside.  As students finished up, they eagerly helped out their classmates who were not done yet.  I appointed one student the exhibit’s curator and he enthusiastically set up our museum.  Finished students filed over to view the display and the “Crystal Corner”.  They were proud because they had created it all, they owned it.  My curator said we should keep this area a museum all year.  I think it’s a good idea.

3:15 came and I led the students out into a cool rain.  It had been a long day, but a productive one in many aspects.  I loved how we had two “unsung” heroes who came to the rescue on the iPad iMovie fiasco.  Several students talked about why they persevered was because they, like Winston Churchill, “never, never give up.”  Looking forward to another great week ahead with these students!

At the end of the day, looks like nothing ever happened!

And BTW, here’s the “after” photo.  As a parent said to me years ago, they would much rather see a room like in picture one than one in this picture.  He said, it shows lots of great things going on in a messy room.


The Power of the Digital Refrigerator

Over the first 13 days of school, the students have been learning to make book trailers on a book that they read over summer vacation.  It hasn’t been the smoothest of processes as having to accomplish numerous beginning of the year assessments took precedent.  I started by showing the students some book trailers made by past students.  We talked about the goal of the project was not to write a summary, but to instead try to entice viewers to read by the book by making it exciting and/or suspenseful.  The tool to plan out these book trailers was a sequencing brain frame for their storyboards.  Students needed to have between 10 and 15 “slides”.

So, the project felt like it was dragging until this past Tuesday.  I needed to review each storyboard, and in many cases, needed to send the student back with some direction on revising their first storyboard.  On Tuesday, I was able to give a minilesson on finding

Our iMovie Genius helps out a fellow student

pictures.  I had some help with this; the students who aren’t in band, have been hard at work becoming iMovie geniuses.  So, they also had some good tips for the other students.  By Wednesday, about half of the students had moved onto the iMovie part of the project.  As a teacher, this was extremely hard since I needed to review storyboards and wasn’t able to provide a lot of instruction on iMovie.   But, that’s where the summer “Tech Boot Camp” paid off big time.  One of my new students had taken what she had learned from a now sixth grader and had gone home and spent a lot of time really perfecting iMovie.  So, I set EC5 off to being the iMovie consultant.  She was confident and took her teaching role very seriously.  She was invaluable.  She was able to give quick minilessons to students who had never used iMovie and she was able to problem solve.  So, the morning was very successful due to the help of our iMovie Genius.

The next day, Thursday, I declared this was the last day to get this project done as I needed to move onto new activities in writing and reading.  The room took on a room of seriousness as students were totally engaged in either trying to finish their storyboards, working on iMovie, or putting the finishing touches on by adding music from Incompetech.  I still had a huge line of students clutching laptops.  Now, we were onto the part where I needed to review/edit their movies.  Once the movie passed “muster”, I uploaded the movie onto our YouTube Channel.  When the students reached this point, I think I asked them to just read quietly.  I couldn’t take the time to figure out what the finished students were doing as I had too large a line of students to still edit their movies.  I looked in the back of the room where two students were looking at one of our desktop laptops.  What were they doing, I wondered.

This is were the magic came into play.  What those two girls were doing was that they were looking at our You Tube Channel.  These girls wanted to see what everyone else had done. One of them said,  “It was cool to see what everyone had done.”  Suddenly, the rest of the students as they finished, rushed over to the computers, or stayed with their laptops and were watching each other’s work.  It was a magical moment.  Suddenly these “newbies” weren’t

Looking at a classmate’s book trailer

consumers, but producers.

After lunch, we processed what the students were feeling about this experience.  Some of their comments included:

  • “The whole world could see our book trailer and it could go viral.”
  •  “It’s kind of cool to think that people all over the world could see our work.”
  •  “I liked it because you could see your work and others’ work and admire what you did or other people did. You could learn from them.”
  • “It made me really giddy to know that everyone out there could like it or not like it.  We are letting people look at our work, not just other peoples’ work.”
  • “It felt good making a book trailer, anyone in the world who has a computer can see it and maybe it would convince them to read the book.  A book publisher may like it if this convinces people to buy more of that book.”
  • “It feels good to have my book trailer on You Tube, It is really exciting to share something with the whole world.”
  • “When I grow up, I want to be a director, so this is good practice.”
Our youtube channel

As the afternoon went on, and Friday morning and afternoon came and went, students kept on going over to the desktops to see how many views they now had.  This type of “digital refrigerator” that was discussed at BLC12 had come to life in our classroom after 14 days.  I have to admit I feel “giddy” too with this type of response from the students.  This is a great start to our school year for sure!

The Art of Feeding Turtles

Turtle 1029 eyes the pellets

We are lucky to be head-starting two Blanding’s turtle hatchlings once again this year.  And like students, the year three hatchlings are very different from Bowser and Yertle, and Kame and Kachua.  One is overly active, climbing on the log and rocks like a mountain climber scaling the Alps.  The other turtle likes to hang out on the heater, floating there like a small child who is holding onto the dock while practicing their flutter kicks.  Their tails seem much longer than the past hatchlings.  They seem to be getting use to the noise of 22 students in the classroom and are responding to my talking to them when it is quiet in the room.  But the one thing that is very different is that we have had them for ten days and they are not good eaters.

Turtle 1029 eyes the food

This year, when we received the hatchlings, we also received “turtle jello” that Bryan Windmiller made.  Turtle jello consists of  unsweetened gelatin, tuna fish, greens, turtle pellets and sweet potatoes.  The thought was that this mixture would be more appealing to young turtles.  Not our turtles, they swam away from it like it was a predator.  I initially had a lot of water in the tank, but was told to try a very small amount of water.  Still no luck.  I decided to try the straight pellets.  Turtle 1038, the mountain climbing turtle, swan to the direct opposite side of the tank.  Turtle 1029 was mildly interested, but not so to eat.

Almost have it!

As days went on, I became more anxious that they weren’t eating.  I know in the wild, the hatchlings don’t eat until spring, but this experience was different than what I had experienced before.  I had a couple of days that previous hatchlings had not eaten but never a week.  On Thursday afternoon, after the students had left, I tried putting a few pellets in the big aquarium and much to my surprise, turtle 1029 went after a pellet.  I went home that night pretty happy that one of the two tried eating.

On Friday, I received an e-mail from Bryan about “my fussy eaters”.  In addition to trying the “crawfish smelly jelly”, Bryan said I could try:

“Another possible direction is to make up your own batch of turtle jello with something more appetizing than the tuna that I used.  I would try canned salmon, maybe some chopped up earthworms, and if that still doesn’t get them (and yoiu don’t mind) some chopped up frozen baby mice.  Just make up as per the recipe that I attached to the protocols.”  

I decided to take the turtles home and try to do a little more experimenting with Juvenile Aquatic Turtle Diet that I had good experience with Kame.  So, after a walk and a talk about robotics, the turtles loaded were loaded up and came with me to get some more coaxing from me to eat.

So, how is the art of feeding turtles like teaching my 2012 – 2013 students?  Well for the first thing, for the first time since Bowser and Yertle arrived in 2010, I have a class of brand new students.  They all have very distinct personalities.  I need to try some different tricks to teach them since they are different students than the last two years.  The one thing that I really want them to do is to “own the learning.”  But, like feeding these fussy eaters, it will be a process to get to that point.

So, gently, I coax both my students and my turtles.  Little by little, I see both becoming more comfortable with me.  They both have their own distinct styles.  I have to put behind me how my past turtles ate and my past students learned.  On Friday, I declared it to be “FUF” short for Finish Up Friday.  There were four assignments I wanted to get done heading into next week.  After the students came in on Friday morning, I asked them what they thought “FUF” stood for.  One student thought it meant “fun”.  I responded that “There’s no time for fun in fifth grade.”  One boy’s eyes lit up and said, “Fifth grade is a lot of fun.”  My heart melted a bit.  Later that day, another student came up  and showed me what he and his partner had done regarding an air, soil and water contamination project.  On their own, they had taken an iPad and wrote their notes on Evernote, completely independent.  They were already starting to own their learning.  While I sat correcting their multiplication fact quizzes on Thursday night, I was struck at the rapid improvement in a week’s time.  Clearly these new students take learning pretty seriously.  I admire their work ethic and will work even harder to be the best teacher I can be for them.

Got It!

So Saturday came and I tried talking and encouraging the hatchlings to eat.  1029 clearly is now eating pellets.  1038 still is not interested in the pellets, despite climbing up the rocks and the floating log in their “home” tank.  While buying the juvenile turtle formula for them, I did spy the frozen mice.  I hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it needs to happen, I will do it.  Just like I will do with my new students.  I will do whatever I have to do to engage them fully in their learning.  New turtles and new students.  It’s going to be a fun year!


The two hatchlings enjoying a Sunday morning breakfast.

Post Script:  On Sunday, I tried a new “trick” to try and feed the turtles.  I noticed that when feeding 1029 in the tank, the turtle liked to hang onto the floating plants to grab the food.  So, I put both turtles into a small feeding tank, added some floating green plants and added a few pellets.  Suddenly, my not so interested in eating turtle began to snap at the pellets.  Finally success!  1038 also seemed to enjoy some of the turtle diet as well.  As I sit down to plan for the upcoming week, I look forward to trying out some new tricks with my new students as well.

Just What the Doctor Ordered: Thoreau School Genius Bar aka Tech Boot Camp

From Google images

After what seemed like years of doing as my son Christopher describes as “scut work”, today was what the doctor ordered for this teacher who is not quite ready to give up summer.  Students.  Engaged Students.  Students owning the learning.  I was jazzed about this morning all day long.

Today, my teaching partner and myself decided to introduce a Genius Bar training or a Teh Boot Camp.  Our departing students were tech whizzes.  We decided to hold kind of a boot camp to introduce our “newbies” to some of the tech tools that we frequently use in fifth grade.  But the twist was that instead of us doing the teaching, the departing fifth graders would mentor the incoming fifth graders.  I love the model of students teaching students, so we thought that this would be a success.

And a success it was.  After some initial awkwardness, you would have never known that the two groups of students did not know one another before this morning.  The room was buzzing with excited students, both the “teachers” and the “students”.  It was like my nine new fifth graders who were able to attend jumped in to a new situation without missing a beat.  And my nine sixth graders were equally engaged in being mentors.  It was a magical two hours.  Students excitedly wanted me to view their iMovies, their SAM animations, their scratch games.  I saw a wonderful team player, learning the iPad.  I was suddenly re-energized and totally jazzed.  It was students owning their own learning big time.

With 15 minutes to go, I had the students reflect on the experience.  This was a newer experience for the fifth graders.  They definitely thought the two hours was really worthwhile.  One student said she felt coming into this morning, that she didn’t feel confident in technology, but after her “mentor Zoe” worked with her, she felt really confident.  (she went on to make several i-Movies).  They all want to be involved as a mentor in next year’s training.  They already got this model after two short hours.  Students teaching students.  The 6th graders were more use to reflecting.  Some said it felt good to be back in the room.  They liked being the teacher.  Another felt that it was a good way for the fifth graders to preview what the year would be like.  And another said that it was really fun teaching these students and she felt that they picked up the technology faster than they did. This statement stayed with me after everyone left and I was reflecting on the morning.

I kept thinking why did these students learn more quickly?  Probably number one, was I taught them some of these tools as a whole class.  So, instead of a 1 to 1 or 1 to 2 ratio, it was a 1 to 22 ratio.  So, being able to individualize learning seems to be a key component on student engagement.  Ms. Howard, our tech specialist, has gone to this model more and more.  No longer does she do whole class instruction, she teaches a few students and lets them teach others.  I think the other real key is that the “mentor” students owned the learning and passed it onto the new 5th graders.  The new 5th graders chose what tool they wanted to learn.  They were invested in learning from the year older students.  They were proud of their accomplishments.  You can check out some of the projects at our Erickson LC You Tube Channel (and some of you have already done this!)  and a cool Scratch project.

You are going to hear me talk a lot this year about “Who Owns the Learning?”  I think that we are off to a really great start in determining the answer to that question.

Before signing off, I would like to thank the nine 6th graders who donated their time this morning.  As I have said all along, you guys are rock stars.  Become the tech leaders at the middle school.  The world awaits you.  Do good things.  Continue to ask good questions.  Continue to push yourself to get the best out of yourselves.

For my new 5th graders, after today, I am so excited about the possibilities.  I will be writing you all a blog this weekend about my hopes and expectations for you.

Thank you all!