Thursday, October 31, 2013

Spooky Strategy Story Problems

We have been studying these strategies for solving word problems:

They have been working on problems like these:

Today's assignment:

First drafting:

Then creating!

This was a solid study follow-up and assessment disguised as a relaxing Halloween related activity.  Mwah-haha. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Paper Blog Preview

To launch our digital portfolio blogs we are starting with paper blog posts, an idea I borrowed from  

The overarching goal of our blogs is to create a digital portfolio where students will document, curate, and reflect on their work.  Paper blogs allow us to practice the roles of blog writers, readers, and commenters offline before we go online.  

The paper blog assignment was for students to share 3 goals they have for 4th grade.  I am shocked by how vulnerable they allowed themselves to be.  We talked all about audience and who we were writing for.  Instead of inhibiting their thoughts, I see many of them reaching out to their classmates, parents, and teachers to tell us how they really feel.  It was really touching what they wanted to share with us and that they felt our classroom was a safe space.  If we can keep it that way, I sense there are many great empathetic moments ahead.  

Next I wrote a comment back to each of my writing advisees. My coteacher did the same.  Then they responded back to our comments. Next week students will read each other's blogs and offer a comment to each one they read, using the post-its. 

I am excited to apply the ladder of feedback to teaching blog commenting.  The four rungs of clarifying, valuing, offering concerns, and offering suggestions seem to capture the range of meaningful responses one can have after reading a blog post. 

I feel these lessons are especially important given how many tacky and down right offensive comments appear online. I want our kids to grow up owning their online self as a reflection of their real life self. I want them to be respectful digital citizens who can participate in intelligent dialogue over the internet. This is feeling like a good first step. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I Gotta Stick in My Craw...

so I just wrote this:

The Social Studies working group recommends a school-wide transition from the terms “Western” and “Non-Western” to the terms “United States” and “Global”.  In our own discipline, this would mean cessation of language referring to “Western” and “Non-Western” history/social studies and the incorporation of “Unites States” and “Global” history/social studies in course descriptions and other curriculum materials.  At the very least we recommend a critical cross-divisional discussion to examine the problematic nature of these terms and their place in our institution.  

The terms “Western” and “Non-Western” have come under our scrutiny because they are:
  • antiquated
  • euphemisms for “white” and “non-white”
  • unrepresentative of the dichotomies presented in actual curriculum; “US” and “global” are more accurate
  • an impediment to goals for diversity and inclusiveness as they create an undesirable Eurocentric concept of “the other”
  • geographically incorrect i.e. placement of Latin American works/topics within the dichotomy

The committee understands that these terms are widely used in academia. However, as a cultivator of tomorrow’s thinkers Sidwell Friends School has an obligation to ensure our program is semantically representative of what we hope our students will contribute in the future.  We hope in the field of social studies and history our students will be thinking beyond “Western” and “Non-Western”, and as such, should name our programs accordingly.  

We'll see what happens.

Ladder of Feedback Part Deux

So here is my write-up of what happened with the ladder of feedback homework:

4th grade students are writing geography stories: personal narratives about a specific moment in a special geographical location or a description of the location's special qualities.

Many students have finished a first draft and revised it themselves for a checklist we created. Some students have showed their work to peers informally, but today we used the ladder of feedback to step up towards providing each other with a deeper level of feedback during the revising process.  This is a skill we practice over and over again with many different types of writing and different partners.  Students are still getting to know and trust one another as a writing community, and a formal feedback structure at this point can be helpful.

Students with complete first drafts met in pairs after hearing briefly about the 4 stages: clarify, value, concerns, suggestions. I was interested in how this age group would interpret these words.  They were familiar with the types of comments that might go in each category.

Students then reported back on the feedback they gave and received.  In these early days students said they find it hard to critique each other's work.  Many are afraid of offending one another and found the "concerns" section the hardest to offer.  However they felt the ladder overall made giving feedback easier.   Their conversations felt more directed (knowing what to say) and less awkward.  One student said he would not have thought to say what he liked, which helped him formulate ideas about and communicate what he did not like.

This framework worked well in our initial steps to organize critical peer conversations. We can continue modeling the types of conversations that might take place at each rung, deepening student understanding of how they look at and respond to each other's work and how they can offer meaningful advice for revising and editing.

Here is what I would do differently with more thought and better preparation:
  • Create a ladder of feedback visual 
  • Possibly change the language of the categories (clarify, value, concerns, suggestions worked)
  • Put the categories into the form of questions
  • Actually have them write down their feedback.  (The sharing could actually be done simultaneously if the stories and handwriting are in better shape. At this point it still made sense for them to read it aloud to each other since that is how they are catching their own mistakes and revisions)
  • Model a conversation (I definitely should have done this - it was a clear missing piece)
I actually think the ladder of feedback is a good tool and I would like to incorporate it more formally.  It reminds me of the compliment sandwich, but feels like a step up.  I am always game for a step up.

P.S. I just had a brainflash.  We are creating paper blogs and will begin the process of learning how to become good blog readers and commenters.  I have been wondering how to discuss the different types of comments a blog reader can make and now realize that the Ladder of Feedback is perfect for structuring the way they read and respond to each other on their blogs!  Yay! 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Homework - Argh!

I am taking an online class called Teaching For Understanding 1: Focus on Student Understanding offered by Harvard Graduate School of Education through their WIDE program (still wondering what WIDE stands for; can't find it):

WIDE courses are developed using the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) Framework. The TfU Framework was developed by researchers and educators at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (1989-1996) as a tool to design, revise, and review curriculum and instruction that helps students develop understanding. 

The content is really interesting, but the format is driving me nuts.  Moreover, I don't really have time to process the information they are offering.  I am totally winging it.

Luckily I am on a team and we are saving each other.  But I have homework.  Due tomorrow.

Assignment: Apply the Ladder of Feedback in a NEW way. You have already used the Ladder of Feedback to provide feedback to each other here online. Now, we want you to use the Ladder of Feedback right in your own classroom or work setting or with a colleague. Teach the rungs of the ladder to your students--young children may only use the clarify and value rungs 
  1. Select an important assignment your students will do, one for which you or you and learners can develop a list of criteria. The criteria should describe "high quality" work on that assignment. 
  2. Teach the Ladder of Feedback to your students.  Help your students or colleague to see the Ladder of Feedback as a tool for offering support and constructive, supportive feedback to others so that the feedback can be used to improve a major assignment or work project. 
  3. Ask your students to work in pairs (using the Ladder of Feedback and the criteria you developed for "high quality" work to help improve the assignment/work project before it is to be formally assessed by the teacher or a supervisor.
Need a visual of the ladder?


This must be how my students feel some of the time.  When their parents' describe evenings where they did whatever they could to "just get it done". 

I forgive them as I am going to forgive myself.

Luckily our students are in the middle of writing geography stories.  And some of them are "done".  But I love telling them they are never really "done" because even our good writing can get better.   This ladder of feedback will be a nice step back, another opportunity to review their work with peers as we more thoughtfully set up a classroom culture that is safe for critical peer feedback.  

My question is should I do this exercise with a small of focus group of students who are in pretty good shape or subject students who really need more time to just write to all of my shenanigans?  Because lets be honest.  I just learned about this ladder of feedback and I am just using it to complete my homework. 

I should probably leave those kids out of it for now.  I can always share this model with them when they have more of their story written.  I only need a few kids to produce a write-up.  This course is trying to prove to us that this format works, and I will go ahead and just believe them.  

Phew okay.  I have a plan.  Thanks. Reflection on how it went and whether or not I finished my homework on time to come.  

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cooling It Down

My students would like me to:

For eight weeks we have been having a grand time exploring ancient civilizations, E.B. White, Geography, paragraph writing, sensory details, Chinese language and characters, factors, multiples, variables, and equations.  Specials classes in science, Spanish, art, PE, music, and chorus have been incredibly exciting and wonderful. We just had conferences and many parents talked about how their students are feeling engaged, challenged and resilient.

Which is exactly where we want them.   

But now that they are there, we need to slow down a bit.  

There are a few signs indicating this.  The first is an unfinished project that several children need more time on to finish.  Many children were finished two weeks ago, but a few want to do their most careful and thoughtful work, and we have not had time for them to be as deliberate as they would like.  School should have time for careful work.  

Another sign is a geography writing project that now needs a consistent amount of time allowing for individual conferences and writing instruction.   The part where we teach them all together is ending and the most important part, where students receive assistance and feedback designed just for them, is beginning.  School should have time for differentiation and individual instruction and feedback.  

School should have time and sometimes it feel like there just isn't time.  But we teachers sometimes make the beds we lie in.  When the signs start appearing, it is time to pull back, stop planning for the "next" thing, and support the thing that is happening right now.  It's too easy to get caught up in all that is to come, all that we have to do before the end of the year or the start of the break or the date of the test.  The children would like to live in the moment a little to enjoy and remember their work.  It will be nice for us to do that too.  

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Throwback Thursday: iBlog about iPads

Here are a few posts I wrote for our school iPad Blog at  It's kind of fun to see them collected here.  There are both more and less than I thought.  Our school blog is an amazing professional development opportunity that has allowed me to become more reflective, more responsive, and more creative in my practice.  It also led me to start this blog.  It's kind of like the Bible: AND BLOG BEGAT BLOG BEGAT BLOG BEGAT BLOG.

The iPrep for iPads series about starting a new year of our 1:1 program focusing on:
On digital balance in the classroom:
On math problem solving projects like screencasts:
On Goal setting:
And my first public blog post on launching a 1:1 iPad program:

Monday, October 21, 2013

New Books and Old Friends in NYC

Yesterday I traveled to New York City for the day to surprise someone very special: my dear friend Monica Edinger.  She was reading and signing her new book, Africa Is My Home, a historical fiction story about Sarah Margru Kinson who was a child on the Amistad.

I taught with Monica for five years at The Dalton School, during the time she was writing this book.  We actually used preview versions to teach forced immigration as part of a larger immigration curriculum.  Monica mentored and supported me in the early years of my teaching career, and I owe a lot of what I know to her!  

The publishing of this book is a great accomplishment that took years of research, writing, and waiting.  It is a wonderful story with beautiful illustrations.  If you teach about forced immigration or the Atlantic slave trade, this text is essential.  Perfect for upper elementary students it brings to life the horror and the hope of the Amistad captives' experience, while emphasizing the resilient strength of the human spirit. 

Yay Monica! I am so proud of you!  And I am making everyone buy a copy.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Proactively Teaching Digital Citizenship

The children are connected and online.   And now they are connected not just at home, but in school too.  With powerful tools, students are ever more able to find out what they want to know, to share that knowledge with people around the world, and to actualize their own ideas.   How does the role of the teacher evolve in the connected classroom?  Teaching with iPads has challenged me in ways I wasn't expecting and keeps me on my toes because while it's reasonable to expect a 10 year old to teach themselves to use a camera or an app, it is our job to teach them how to do what they are capable of well and responsibly.

I feel this responsibility most when we are discussing digital citizenship.  In the fourth grade we want our kids to be online in ways that are meaningful, but "Safety" and "Privacy" are illusions.  We can't promise to protect our students from all of the possible troubles being online brings, as much as we would like to.  We can teach students to proactively use technology in a wise and kind way.  We can teach them to decide what kind of mark they want to leave before saving, sending, or posting.  We can teach them to be good digital citizen.

Our fourth grade curriculum has a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, digital citizenship program that is co-taught by classroom teachers, our technology coordinator, and our librarian.  Good digital citizenship is not just an individual aspiration, it is a community necessity.   Ideas and norms are reinforced by all of the other adults and students in the building as we all work with the same lessons and language. Consistency is important in a connected school.  The expectations have to be the same for everyone whether they are 4 or 40.

 iPad Rollout Training Sessions and "Just In Time" Lessons

Our first sessions with the iPad are designed to introduce the technology (without assuming every child has had the same level of experience with the device) and its power.  After exploring the buttons and icons, we talk about what our tech coordinator calls "the most powerful app", the camera.  We spend time role playing different scenarios where a photo of someone might need to be taken and how to gain permission from others to take those photos.  Children are given the power and language to say no: they don't want to be photographed or they don't approve of an image or they aren't comfortable with how the photographer intends to use it.  Our class came up with norms and an agreement that we have posted and will refer to throughout the year.

This exercise made the teachers rethink how we document what is happening in the class (often taking pictures of kids in action without asking their permission).  We also developed a contract and those children who don't mind us taking their pictures for our Haiku page or this blog have signed it.  Those who are not comfortable did not and we do not feature them in any photos or video.

We are now preparing for training in Google Drive and our school Email system.  We will spend some time explaining how to use these accounts for our work flows, but we will also touch on the idea that these are their "professional" accounts to be used for school business.  We will review the major points of our school's responsible use policy, and we will practice email etiquette.

Our classroom generally suggests that students not email other students with their Sidwell Friends account unless it is school and work related.  We don't have the capacity to truly restrict their access so we do it on an honor system, and last year it worked fairly well.  This recommendation is always a debate, but it exists out of respect for different policies about email access among our families and to discourage writing and answering personal emails during the school day.  Fourth graders are also still learning to manage offline relationships and need to practice asking for playdates, joking, and apologizing in person.

Our technology coordinator is also developing a series of "just in time" lessons that will be touchstones throughout the year.  The topics include integrity, balance, and digital sharing.  With this model in place we are prepared to address any new situations that arise.  We hope that starting this dialogue in elementary school will impact our students' choices later on and that common language and experiences will enable them to navigate future opportunities with compassion and respect.

Project Redwood Literacy Connection

For the past two years, we have developed an interdisciplinary literature unit using a book called Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French, a SFS alum.

We have also used Nim's Island.  These books are taught as pieces of literature and we explore the characters, settings, plots, and themes. Sustainability and stewardship connections are made, and students do research about the plight of the California Redwoods.  The characters also engage in questionable digital activities, which gives our students a chance to collectively discuss and evaluate such behavior in a meaningful way.  With lessons co-developed and taught by our librarian, technology coordinator, and the classroom teachers, students are fully supported as they grow their sense of citizenship in our digital world.

Using Terrain Models to Teach Geography

One of the best things I took away from Bank Street College of Education was a plasticine terrain model I made in Sam Brian's class about teaching social studies. This unit and activity challenges me to make the mundane interactive and interesting. Through this work children can better understand the land and water around them.

I remember being not that small and imagining that the Hawaiian islands my family vacationed on were anchored by chains to keep them from floating away. I had no idea they were attached to the ocean floor. 

Last year I watched one of my students come to the same realization and was reminded of the importance of giving students a chance to understand even those most basic things we adults take for granted. 

Working together we examine mountain, river, and coastline phenomena, developing language to describe what we are looking at.  There were many debates and students worked hard to explain their reasoning, making connections and drawing on personal experiences and knowledge about real places in the world.  

We had a handy picture dictionary to help. 

My student's favorite part is to place little block houses on the model just before we flood it. They love seeing who gets washed away and who stays put against the tide. 

We are going to flood it again Monday. They are planning to bring in little trees and people to enhance it. They want to try a different colored water to make it brackish.  I am just thrilled they are seeing our little fake island as their own.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Art of Squares

First we made an array museum:

The we talked about squares:

Then we made them into art:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Teaching Without Ego

What would it mean to


Since returning from Lake Qinghai and the grasslands of Tibet. I have been contemplating this idea deeply, using it as a mantra to keep me grounded in a variety of scenarios.

Because, as a teacher, it's amazing how often I bump into my ego.  Not to mention the egos of my colleagues.  The worst is when you encounter two egos in the hallway duking it out, however politely. You know it's time to back away slowly.

What is "ego"?  It is a projection of the self, a self that is separate and different and special from the other selves in this world.  It is the source of identity and self esteem.  It is the driver of the question, "Who am I?"  Its importance is culturally constructed and particularly celebrated in modern America. 

It is also divisive and a barrier to compassion.  It is at the root of exclusion, indifference, and hate.  It breeds insecurity, fear, jealousy, and competition.   And as teachers,  it can be a detriment to our practice.

There are a good articles on this idea, from teachers of various disciplines:

"...the role of teacher is one in which you gain satisfaction through observing the learning of your pupils."

But it's hard.  Because don't we teach who we are?  Don't we need to "guide [students] with a strong sense of self?"

The danger is this:

The ego can exist in two states – one, wherein it is aligned with the higher consciousness and the other, where it is not in alignment with this consciousness.
When the ego is aligned with the higher consciousness, there is just a quiet assertion of the individual self in a particular direction, which it knows intuitively is right for the fulfilment of its life purpose. This assertion is based on love and faith and leads to a harmonious state of goodwill and cooperation for the greater common good. When it is not aligned with the higher consciousness, the ego can really wreak havoc. It can misguide and misinterpret. Propelled by emotions based on fear and insecurity, it can cause action motivated by the desire for applause, attention, getting ahead of competition, reaching the finishing line first, proving one’s superiority over others, etc. Here, the ego is intensely conscious of the other and derives its identity in comparison with the other. The individual self asserts itself purely from the need to create a position of unassailability from which it cannot be dislodged.
When I joined my current school I entered into a team teaching situation that I greatly underestimated for its difficulty.  I have come to realize that 99% of any angst I feel at work can be traced back to my ego.  Desires to be recognized, respected, and right can be strong. Self-preservation seems sensible and competition seems healthy.  A twinge of resentment over a close relationship or individually achieved success seems normal. Suspicion of new colleagues and initiatives seems expected. Giving priority to the activities and topics I prefer seems logical. But when these emotional responses interfere with my ability to focus on what is best for my students and their learning, my ego is the one that needs to back down.  

In those moments I am learning not to fight, not to defend, not to protect, not to promote.  I am learning to let go.  When "I" am at the center of my practice, the world my students and I are creating together feels fragile and destabilized, tilted in the direction of a self-concerned perspective.  When my students are at the center of my practice, our world seems infinitely more solid.

In pursuing this idea, I meditate on these questions:

  • In what ways does my ego support  the development of my teaching practice?
  • In what ways does my ego impede the development of my teaching practice?
  • In what ways does my ego improve my relationships with students and colleagues?
  • In what ways does my ego make relationships with students and colleagues more difficult?
  • In what ways can I work with greater compassion?