Sunday, 23 November 2014

Going Global - Making Connections

One of the things I never really did last year was reach out to other schools in other countries. As an international teacher with students from around the globe, it's something I feel is important. Students should have an understanding that the world is bigger than they are and that there are others who can help their learning grow outside of just your school community.

In our first unit of inquiry about communication systems, I was talking to my class about how I communicate with my family and friends back home by using Skype and FaceTime even though it was hard with the time differences. So of course, my students wanted to call my family. We set up a time to FaceTime at the start of one of my days and my students fired a ton of questions at my dad, and also my sister and niece who had a guest appearance during the call. Instantly, they loved being able to connect with the other side of the world.

We started mapping our connections we made using Google Maps Engine and plopped down my home onto the map.

Next, I arranged a Mystery Skype call with another school in Thailand. Each class prepared 10 questions to ask the other class. With each question, the class would gather more information and tried to furiously figure out where the other class was from and used their laptops to help them. In the end, we both successfully guessed where the other one was and onto our map went another point.

The students wanted to do another one but I had a harder time arranging one within a time zone we could call during school hours. In conjunction with the other teacher in New Zealand, we decided to create videos for the other class to watch. We each created a video with 10 clues and similarly we had to try and guess where the other school was located. These clues were quite tricky actually and really made students use their mapping skills and research skills online to successfully locate the school. It required a lot of collaboration and discussion amongst my students as well. Once we had guessed, the other school sent us more questions they wanted to know about our class, school and Singapore in a Google Document. With the collaborative feature of Google Apps for Education, we were able to respond easily and then generate some more questions about New Zealand and so on. This was really great to get some dialogue going with students and could be done whenever it was convenient in our class, not just a one time Skype call.

Our last connection so far this year was this past week to a school in Malaysia. This time we decided to mix it up a bit and play a math game between students at each school in small groups. We set up Padlets for each group and the students played a type of 'Guess Our Number' game using place and value. This one had some small bumps with lag time when the students posted responses but still was a fun way to connect and we are hoping we can play again with the school in a similar fashion later in the year.

I love the excitement my students get when trying to figure out where the other class is. Our technology allows us to connect students that never would've been able to connect before with as much ease. It's brought up a lot of discussion about different cultures, countries and quite simply geography. We are looking forward to our next global connection in any form it comes in.

We Have A New Addition... Chubby

It's always hard when a student moves away but it is very much the reality of teaching in an international school setting. It's not always the case though that they leave your class a present either that changes the dynamic of the classroom and takes the class community in a whole new direction.

About a month or so ago, I had a few students ask me if we could get a class pet. I didn't say no but I didn't say yes either. I told them to come up with a plan and then we'd talk, which seems to be my go to line. I should also know by now that my particular group of students will always do that though.

It just so happened that one of my other students was leaving our school due to a parent's job relocation and needed to find a home for his pet hamster. In an instant, that proposal and research went into double speed.

First, a survey was created for the type of pet they wanted. Then, the students collaborated in making a Google Presentation for their proposal to the Head of Primary. In addition, an email was drafted to the Head of Primary to invite him to our proposal meeting and a letter was drafted to the parents to ask for volunteers to take the pet home on weekends. Each student researched a different part of the presentation.

When it came time to the proposal day, we again talked about the need to be persuasive and what that meant. We had the Head of Primary listen to our proposal with each student doing a portion of the presentation. Then came the green light to go forward with having a pet! So the only logical thing to do was to put on the Hamster Dance song and celebrate.

On Monday, we received our brand new addition to our class, our hamster Chubby. She is a very cute little hamster who my students have grown to love after only 1 week. We now have a Chubby Chart to split up the responsibilities each day and track who is on weekend duty. My students have also started a Chubby Scrapbook to document her adventures in Year 5.

Already, they have instantly become more responsible and really care about the well-being of our furry friend. They make sure she has enough food and water, clean her cage and let her run around in the ball on the floor during reading and writing time. They love Chubby and it is so sweet to see how the want to care for her and make her new life in our classroom enjoyable.

This is the first weekend Chubby has gone home with a family and even got to attend a sleepover with 4 of my students. I hope she comes back on Monday not too overwhelmed!

When It All Comes Together...

Sometimes when you start out a project, you're not sure of where it will end up. For our personal projects for our inventions unit, this was very much the case. I had an idea of how to go about it. But how it would actually unfold, that was a big question mark.

On Friday, I was a very proud teacher of my students. They showcased their personal projects including their process journals and a variety of ways to present their findings as products to parents, students and administrators.

Before we shared our work with the wider school community, each student had the opportunity to share to their classmates. Was I ever blown away by the level of thought and effort my students had put into their projects. As each student stood up to share their work, there was a very evident sense of pride in their work. They each shared their work with confidence in a way they hadn't done before. They spoke about their research, their findings, their passion for learning.

No two projects were alike, no two students had shared the same learning journey but yet the amount of knowledge and understanding was phenomenal.

I loved seeing the students so excited to share their work with their parents and the parents were just as proud of them as I was. One of my favourite moments of the day was when a mother approached me with teary eyes to tell me how incredible it was to see how much work her daughter had done on the project and how much she had grown through the process. It made my heart warm.

My students are so proud of it that they don't want to stop sharing and we are going to continue to share with our buddy class on Monday.

This project has made me come away with some important lessons:

1. Student choice is a way to get students to buy-in to learning. When students choose what they learn, how they will learn it and how they will present their findings, they often do more and to a higher quality. When they feel the internal want to learn, it doesn't even feel like work. Sometimes simply giving students a framework is all they need. I told them they had to pick a topic, show their learning process and create a product in the end but beyond that, their learning choices were completely in their hands.

2.  Focskills leads to better results. This unit of inquiry, I spent less time focused on content and more time on skills. My students learned about different ways to gather research and the importance of process vs. product. They explored different technology tools and ways of presenting their work. We discussed time management, organization and how others can be critical friends for each others. We looked at making small manageable goals each day and each week rather than taking on the project as a whole. We focused on gathering research questions that drive your learning, rather than just looking at everything.  Through all of these conversations and discussions, not once did I say you have to tell me the past, present and future of your invention or why we need that invention or who invented it or when was it invented. While a lot of those things were discovered through the project, so was a lot of other information.

3. An unknown direction can work. I've always been taught plan with the end in mind. However, this time, I wasn't sure what the end would look like or even what the project would be like week by week or even if it would be a multiple week project. This project became larger than expected and better than expected. It never meant to be an exhibition or a project the students spent hours on. Sometimes its okay to go with the flow and have something evolve as you go. Sometimes I don't have to plan everything (which I feel more comfortable doing) and still know that the final result will work out in the end.

After 5 weeks of learning, it all came together on one day in one room. Everyone left that Friday beaming with pride and excitement. Not every day does what you are doing make sense, but on that day, the final piece of the puzzle as we ended our unit fit perfectly.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Cancel Everything This Afternoon, Let's Just Continue

There's something to be said about students doing what they want to do. When students are engaged their learning is far superior. My Tuesday was all planned out as usual but I wasn't sure if we were going to be able to Skype another class or not so I simply left a question mark on the schedule for the day. Of course when the kids came in that morning, they asked what the question mark was and I said I wasn't sure yet and we could decide later. What I didn't expect was to be greeted with pleas of doing their 'home learning' work for a period. Of course sticking with the attitude I've taken on this year (Go With What The Students Want), I said sure. Little did I know what would transpire.

Let's take it back 3 weeks ago though before I get there. I had gotten back from my trip to Vietnam and inspired to change up my homework from my visit to a friend's classroom at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to try this 'home learning' approach but wanted to take it a little slower the first time round to see what would happen.

The first week I gave my students the question "How have inventions changed to impact our lives?". From there, I asked them what they thought about that question and what they already knew. We decided to focus our question a little bit more individually and each of them came up with an overarching question they wanted to explore. Topics included how makeup changed to impact our lives, food colouring and even refrigerators. Then we explored where we could gather our information from using our new MISO Charts. Media - videos, websites, pictures, books, magazines, etc., Interviews - family, friends, teachers, experts. Survey - what survey questions would gather good data. Observations - what could we see and learn about. It was amazing that the students weren't familiar with resources outside of the internet really. So one of the first things we did was take a trip to the library and learn how to find books using the online catalogue and the dewy decimal system. This week we also brainstormed a list of other questions that would help them answer their larger question.

As we began week 2, we had some serious discussions about our mountain analogy of needing to help everyone get to the top of the mountain but more importantly, the process of getting to the top was more important than actually being at the top. As we explored the topic of process journals, my students explored our DP students Art Books and added postits in it of ideas and strategies of how we could present the information we found in our process journals. This included things like various charts, labels of pictures, timelines, more than one draft, building lists of ideas etc. Then it was time for them to be like the DP students and begin their own journey through the process. We had some time in class but primarily it was something they could work on at home. To be honest, by the end of the 2nd week when we checked in as a class and reflected on our work, I was a little disappointed my students hadn't gotten into more. I thought for sure if they had chosen their topic they would want to learn more about it. Puzzled by it, I decided to forge on and give them another week of exploring their topic with research. I was curious to understand if it was just because this was the first time we were doing it or if I just wasn't putting the right spin on in.

The third week I tried something a little different. I had more checkins daily. Each day we would check in to see what they had accomplished the night/day before in class. I started sharing more of what some students had produced with the class and sharing more about different strategies they could use. Instantly, I had students coming into school each morning wanting to show me what they had done in school so I could show the class their work. I also had students begging me to give them more time in class to work on it. By the end of the week, I was flipped in my thinking and completely amazed by the depth some students had gone into. The students were learning with their parents too asking them question about the project but more importantly sharing what they were learning and developing that home school connection.

So now we are into our fourth week where students have now turned their process into a product and what an array of assignments that have started to take form! We have PowToons, bulletin boards, books, models, presentations, documents, Wordles, diagrams, iMovie, pictures and so much more. The quality of their work has gone up and the students are really excited to share what they've learnt. It also gave me a lot of opportunity to have discussions with students about the presentation of their work. How does the sizes of their titles impact its effect? What about colour and organization? How fast should the speed of text on a slide be in order for the reader to view the presentation/video?

That question mark on Tuesday that barely found it's way into the schedule that day for a period turned into an entire afternoon. When it was time for break, my students just wanted to keep going. When break ended and I said it was time for our Math Battle, they begged to keep going... and going... and going... right until the end of the day. Who am I to get in the way of their learning? Every child was engaged in 2.5 hours of work that they wanted to do. They are learning more than I could have planned for and will ultimately teach each other more than I could cover. They are inspired to research, take notes and then share their knowledge.

Next week we plan on presenting our findings to the class with our final products. My class would like to hold an exhibition and invite other classes in. Again, not something I had thought of at all but will go with what they want and see where it goes. I am excited to see what the final products turn out to be after 4 weeks of hard work from them.

At the end of the day, cancelling a few lessons for the sake of student choice and voice was just what my kids needed. Perhaps what I need more of is just a few more afternoons of those amazing little question marks.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Connecting Instagram to Blogger to Eportfolios - The Story Continues...

So I can't help myself but be the proudest teacher in the world right now!

The same student who has struggled to process information, sequence events and get thoughts from pen to paper the past few years wrote a story today that pretty much blew me away. We were doing our pre-assessment for our new Writer's Workshop fantasy unit. The task was simple - show me as much as you know about fantasy writing in a small moment story in one period, try your best and let's see what you can come up with.

Well, I wandered the room ensuring my ESL students understood and redirecting another student or two back on task and didn't notice the student writing away. About 15 minutes in, I wandered over to him and he had four lines written on. I gave him a high five and off he kept going. After about 45 minutes it was time to break and I asked if he was done. He said he wasn't but almost and asked if he could finish. I figured he wanted to write and he is allowed the extra time as an accommodation so I was happy to let him finish.

When he handed his work to me that was almost a page long, I was beaming with excitement. He had done it completely independently as well. We exchanged our class secret handshake (which I did wrong, so we had a redo) and I gave him a ton of praise for his hard work and perseverance. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but for our personal narrative pre-assessment, I got a blank page in 45 minutes so this is a major step forward.

Then he reached for the iPod, took a picture of his work and continued to write another sentence about his work before posting his blog. His fiction story was sequenced and had a beginning, middle and end. It had some descriptive language and he even wrote some of his words creatively to help create a feeling for his haunted story.

Is it having the blog that is similar to Instagram that he loves that made things click? Was it sharing the positive feedback about his blog I got from his family with him? Was it the positive encouragement that has finally sunk in? Was it just everything aligning in one go? I'm not sure but I will do whatever I can to keep him on this path.

It's simply a great reminder we really need to be these kids biggest cheerleaders and never give up on them. There is always something that might motivate a child. The student may not have the best progress every day, and likely many setbacks along the way but there is always something else that could work - so don't stop trying.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Connecting Instagram to Blogger to Eportfolios

I have one student in my class who has difficulty processing information. He works incredibly hard but his brain just doesn't allow him to make connections from taking in information to processing the information and doing a task with ease. I have been struggling to get him to write and often produce any form of work. Even with one on one instruction, he could spend an entire period and still only have a few sentences on a page. We have tried a variety of different strategies to help him communicate his ideas in whatever way he can but often, we still come up short... until this past week.

Our E-portfolios our a big part of my class as it promotes self-reflection, showcases their work and can be shared with parents, friends and our community. As you might have imagined, this would be a task that would become difficult for the child mentioned above. In the first unit, all of the pieces he inserted required me sitting next to him talking him through it step by step until he finished. While he is still very tech savvy, the processing all of the steps becomes too much at some point and the task wouldn't get finished.

I had a meeting with the parent and we were just discussing the child's overall ability when he mentioned he had an Instagram account he was always on outside of school. As I walked out of the meeting, I thought to myself "Why not let him do what he enjoys doing? Why not give him the platform that works best for him?"

So off I went barging into the tech office with this idea of using Instagram for his E-portfolio now. Unfortunately, Instagram is blocked on our server I found out but using an alternate program that essentially mimics this idea was our next option - Blogger.

When I talked to the student he was interested in 'trialling' this special idea I had that only he could help me with. So together, we set up a blog and linked it to an iPod. The idea was simple - take pictures as you work throughout the day and write a comment about it. This was to be his modified portfolio. If the idea was to reflect on his work, perhaps this was a way he would be able to connect what he was already doing outside of school with Instagram to what he did inside the classroom.

Instantly we saw results! This past week we had only 3 days of teaching, and he already has 7 posts. Not bad for someone who only had 3 posts total of reflection for the current section of his portfolio. Not only did he capture moments of his work, he made others capture him in action too so he could include that. The boy who had struggle putting together a single sentence on paper now was able to put at least a sentence or two together for each picture he posted.

What else improved? He self image. When he knew he could succeed, he wanted to do more. A single sentence and picture was enough.

So I guess now I ask myself - how are we differentiating our e-portfolios to meet our student's needs? How do we ensure they can reflect on a work that is meaningful to them? I am wondering how other students will feel after a while and if they will want to take on this model as well? I wonder how my student's writing will progress moving forward.

It seems so simple. Taking a picture, posting it to the internet and making a comment but yet to me, this has been one of the biggest successes for me all year. We are trialling this idea for the next month with him and I am so excited to see where he takes it. In three days, he has transformed in the classroom and as a writer both digitally and on paper. I am incredibly proud of his progress and the best part is - he is too!

Choosing How You Grow

This year started off quite rocky for me with many personal and professional challenges. I found myself not being at my best and not feeling inspired in the way I normally am and found things that never before bogged me down doing just that.

I was doing what I had to do each day and doing my best to make the students my focus. Feeling a little lost, I was trudging on hoping to find the internal spark that had dimmed a bit.

On a whim, I decided I needed to get away from Singapore and the life it encompasses and travels on mid-break somewhere different than I was experiencing. I booked a ticket to Vietnam to visit some past colleagues and dear friends and wasn't really sure what I was in for. I had no plans, barely had a Visa in time and had thrown a few things in a backpack on the morning of my flight. Little did I know, what an eye-opening and inspiring trip it would be for me personally, and professionally. 

Ho Chi Minh City itself was such an adventure and reminded me so much of my experience in China where culture swirled around you and everything became a challenge. I began to realise how much I crave and thrive in situations where I am challenged. It became very apparent to myself that if I am not being challenged, I am not learning to my fullest potential. An interesting thought as a teacher, where my job is to challenge and support students in these challenges every day. It made me reflect in thinking - who is doing this for me? Am I  doing this for myself? Am I waiting for others to challenge me? Do I need others to be the one challenging me? I'd say I'm often pretty self motivated but at times I need someone there as well. As I'm still new to teaching, often I'm just doing what I 'think' is right and not necessarily the best way of doing it. I need others to challenge my thinking. 

I visited the International School of Ho Chi Minh City where some of my friends worked and was truly inspired by the teachers and work environment. In addition, they also had a visiting math consultant which I was able to learn from for the day and a half I was there. It was such an eye-opener to see how other educators do things in other schools.  I spent most of my time just watching, trying to take it all in and learn from others. I furiously would scribble down notes as I went and just tried to soak up the experience for what it was. I came away with so many ideas that I instantly wanted to implement in my own classroom such as the bubblecatchers and the way they view home learning. I know that when I take my learning into my own hands, I get a much richer learning experience. Interesting enough - isn't that what we want our kids to do too? 

One of the biggest things I took away was the power of observation. So much of our time we spend worrying about getting paperwork done, marking or a variety of other things that have to get done that we don't make time for the things we should be doing. This year alone, I know I have not been into enough other classrooms to see what they are doing. Yet, I went to another school and that's all I wanted to do. We all have so many amazing things that we are doing but unfortunately they don't always get shared. I went to Vietnam and was so inspired by the way others looked and acted towards education in a way that was similar to how I feel about my job. 

I also recently found out I was accepted into the Google Teacher Academy (GTA)- another professional development opportunity I have taken into my own hands. Last year I was introduced to Google Apps for Education and the GTA and instantly thought it was something I would like to work towards. My first year was all about developing the skills to use them and then I felt this year should really be able using them more effectively before I apply for the GTA the following year. However, something in the summer kickstarted my want to learn more and try for this year. So this past summer, I did all of the online courses that I could with Google and became a Google Educator by doing 5 Google Apps courses and exams and also did the Youtube Digital Citizenship course. From there, I decided I needed to develop my professional learning network through Twitter and began connecting with other educators and sharing what I do in my class. And then tried for Google Teacher Academy. I didn't get in the first time.... or the second time... but with perseverance, the third time did the trick. This is something I wanted to do, learn about and be able to apply into my teaching - not something someone is telling me I have to do.

There is something about having agency over your own professional development that truly adds to the learning itself. When you are choosing to learn, the learning seems to be richer and the excitement and inspiration seems to flow. The question then becomes, how do we best transfer this knowledge into the classes we teach?