A walk in the woods

One of the things that I love about our school is the wonderful outdoor areas that we have on our property. From the simplicity of the outdoor amphitheater that could be an awesome place to take your class to change up the learning environment, to the trails, river, and prairie area we have just a short walk from the doors of our building. Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend Ditch that Conference at Turkey Run State Park with several of the teachers in our building. This conference was put on by Matt Miller, the author of Ditch that Textbook and co-author of Ditch that Homework. One of the ongoing themes of the conference was “An Analog Conference in a Digital World.” This is the first conference I have ever attended that actually told us in advance not to bring digital devices. I left my computer and iPad at home, and took along my journal (little did I know that I wouldn’t even need mine, because when we checked in we got an awesome Ditch That Textbook journal!).

Ditch Journal
This is the front cover of the cool journal that every attendee who was at the conference received!

 

There were so many awesome things that I could share with you, but I just wanted to talk about one idea in particular. During one of the sessions, Jed Dearybury took us on a walk on the “Art”side! At the very beginning of the session, Jed had us all pick a leaf from along the trail. We were told that while we were walking, we should be thinking about a story involving the leaf. The reality is that you could have kids pick anything that you want (or you could even allow them to pick whatever they wanted to carry with them). Jed shared that if he was doing this activity, he would encourage students to jot down as many details as they could while they were walking – things they saw, things they heard, etc. Then, when they return to class, students would write a story about their leaf. They would use as many of the details they wrote down to include in their story.

There are some variations you could do with this activity as well:

  • Working on persuasion? Have the student’s object be trying to convince you of something.
  • Social studies? Tell students they need to set the story in the context of the unit you are currently studying.
  • Science? Have the story tie into the biome that students have been studying.
  • Math? Can we figure out a way to find the area of the leaf we picked? What about the volume of a walnut on the ground?
  • Collaboration? Have two students partner up and create a shared story involving both the objects they selected.

These are just a couple of ideas I came up with in just a few minutes of brainstorming. With as many smart and talented people as we have in this building, there could be a multitude of others that never yet crossed my mind!

In our 50 minutes together, Jed shared 2 other awesome ideas that could easily be integrated into activities for any classroom. Want to know about them? Ask me and I’ll share – I don’t want this post to get too long!

I walked away from this short session wanting to encourage you, once again, to find as many ways as you can think of to get your kids outside of the concrete box that is the typical classroom. So many of our kids don’t get the opportunity to spend much time in nature – seeing what happens in the woods, listening to the sounds of nature, and learning from those experiences. Make use of our beautiful campus and great outdoor spaces!

Do you have any ideas for variations on the leaf activity above? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Using outdoor spaces

Today I was reading a recent blog post by John Spencer about the ways that nature helps us to be more creative (check it out here).  Personally I love to be out in nature, so the post really caught my attention.  The gist of the post was about the fact that time in nature can lead us to greater levels of creativity.  His 5 ways that nature makes us more creative are listed in bold below, with my own thoughts added:

  1. Nature creates positive disruptions – Life draws us into the natural hustle and bustle of our world. Being in nature helps us get away from technology, current events, and everything else that makes it hard for our brain to stay focused.  That time away from all those distractions allows our brains to think more deeply.
  2. Nature encourages problem-solving – Almost every time I go for a hike, or spend some time in nature, I’m inspired to write a new blog post, or solve a problem, or be creative.
  3. Nature helps us embrace deep work – When do you do your best thinking? There is a lot of research that says that simply being active can lead to deeper thinking.  Simply going for a walk helps us activate our brain in different ways.  According to some research, throw nature into the mix and you multiply that effect.  So what does that mean for you?  Before teaching a particularly important skill, take your class for a walk in the woods outside of school.  Your students brains will be better prepared for deeper thinking when you return.
  4. Nature humbles us while also expanding our worldview – I’m not sure how many of you know this about me, but I was a 10 year 4-H member. I didn’t show animals (we weren’t on the farm), but I did lots of other projects over the years.  One of the projects I did required me to take multiple observations of a natural environment every day over multiple weeks.  I chose a small wooded area with a trail just a little over a mile from my home.  I had to observe at different times in the day, and I began to notice changes in what seemed like an untouched environment.  Some animals were more or less active at certain times of the day, some plants looked different depending on various factors.  The time I have spent in the natural world helps me realize that there are so many things happening in the world around us that we miss when we are in our cars, or on our devices.  Sometimes you really do have to slow down, look around, and smell the flowers in order to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and to realize how little control we have over so much of what’s around us.
  5. Nature can spark innovation – Did you know that Velcro was designed by a Swiss engineer after his dog was covered in burdock burrs after going on a hike? Or that the design of the nose of Japanese high-speed trains was meant to mimic the beak of a kingfisher?  These are just a couple of examples of innovations that came about because of things that people noticed in nature.  Imagine what the future scientists of the world (our students) may be able to develop if they learn to look to nature for ideas and solutions to our problems.

Reading Spencer’s post got me thinking about the natural wonders just waiting to be explored outside of our school.  By walking out the doors of our building, you can access a variety of outdoor environments.  Between the trails in the wooded areas, the stream running through the woods, the untended plain near the baseball fields, or the river, there are so many ways for us to access nature.  And the benefit doesn’t just stop with the kids being out in nature away from their devices.  Something they see while they are with you may inspire creativity and wonder in a way that is totally unexpected.

What have you done with your class in our outdoor areas?  Have you seen increased levels of creativity as a result of the time you have spent outside?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

#IMMOOC #IMMOOCB1: A culture of yes!

So we say we want innovation in our schools, in our classrooms.  Many of us feel that this is the best way to get our students past the point of engagement, and moving to the level of empowerment.  But there is one little word that can kill that process – no.

In the past couple of years, we have had many opportunities to interview potential teachers.  Every time we bring an interview team together, we all agree that we are looking for people who are “go-getters” – people who will do whatever it takes to make the learning experiences for their students new and exciting.  They have helped to bring exciting new learning opportunities into our school.  At the same time, many of the teachers in our building continue to learn and evolve – trying new formats of teaching, new activities, new technologies.  This innovation continues to spread, and is so exciting to watch!

If you know much about improvisational comedy, you know that during a scene the key is to not say no.  The mindset has to be to have an attitude of “yes, and…”  This is what we’re seeking for innovation.  When there are new and exciting ideas that will make learning better for students, I strive to say “yes, and…”

My hope is that this culture of yes will allow us all to continue to learn and grow.  Ultimately, our growth will allow us to make learning more innovative for every student!  Isn’t that the goal?

#BookSnaps

This is a BookSnap I created while reading the second chapter of the book Launch by John Spencer and AJ Juliani
This is a BookSnap I created while reading the second chapter of the book Launch by John Spencer and AJ Juliani

If you are on Twitter and follow any of the same people that I do, you have probably noticed people posting pictures of text, sometimes with highlighting, adding emojis, bitmojis, or text, and then posting it on Twitter with their own comments.  Normally if you look at the comments, you will see the hashtag #BookSnaps linked to it.  Even if you aren’t on Twitter, you can see what people are posting by clicking this link: Twitter #BookSnaps

If you go to Twitter and check this out, you will probably notice that most of the posts here are educators who are sharing their personalized professional reading with their Twitter followers.  If you look closely though, some of what you will find is teachers sharing BookSnaps that students created in their classroom.  It got me started thinking about how some of you might be able to use them in your classroom.  Check out this student created BookSnap that the teacher then added some additional comments to:

This BookSnap was created by a student on SeeSaw and then shared by a teacher.
This BookSnap was created by a student on SeeSaw and then shared by a teacher.

Most of the ones that you see are using SnapChat in order to create and share.  For those of you that know what technology your students are using, SnapChat is a pretty popular app.  But here’s the thing, there are ways that BookSnaps could be created using other apps that don’t involve the social network aspect of SnapChat.  Any app that allows you to pull in your own pictures and add text, drawings, and emojis could be used in the same way.  The student created example to the left was created using SeeSaw.  Some other examples that come to mind are Skitch, Google Drawings, various PDF annotating apps, and even Instagram.

Think of the potential engagement for your students if you asked them to create their own BookSnaps.  Could you imagine what they would say if you told them to open SnapChat or Instagram in class?  In ELA classes, you could have students create a BookSnap when they run into a Notice and Note signpost.  You could have them create one to identify the climax in the book they’re reading, or create one based on their own writing, identifying specific plot points.

And don’t say “I’m not an ELA teacher, this doesn’t apply.”  I could see real potential for BookSnaps in nonfiction reading as well – identifying the main idea in a science article.  Sharing things that surprised them as they are reading about some historical figure.  Responding to the 3 Big Questions from Reading Nonfiction by Beers and Probst.

I could even see integration into math class – MathSnaps could be a thing (acutally I just checked, and it is a real thing on Twitter)!  You could have a kid snap a picture of the answer to a problem and then add text describing how they came to that answer.  Or there could be ArtSnapsMusicSnaps, or GymSnaps.  The limitations are only bound by the creativity of how to integrate this technology.

As for how to share, again, the options are probably endless.  If you’re already using SeeSaw, that’s an easy option.  Other ideas I’ve seen include Google Slide Decks, a class shared PowerPoint (these options allow everyone can see what BookSnaps other kids have created based on the same reading assignment), or even something as basic as emailing it to you (although a way to share with classmates would make the audience so much more authentic and meaningful).  Once kids have shared them with you, find a way to share beyond the walls of your classroom.  If you’re on Twitter, tweet it out with the #BookSnaps hashtag – others will see it.  You could also put it out on Instagram or Facebook – both have people actively using this hashtag.  If you don’t have social media, you could have students print them out and put on their locker, or create a BookSnaps bulletin board.

If you are still at a loss for how you even create a BookSnap, there are some great resources from Tara Martin.  You can find her on Twitter at @TaraMartinEDU or @BookSnapsREAL.

On Martin’s blog, she’s also created some how to videos that could be useful to see how she puts a BookSnap together.  Check it out here: http://www.tarammartin.com/resources/booksnaps-how-to-videos/

I know I’ve got some creative people in my audience.  If you have an idea for how BookSnaps could be used in the classroom, please share in the comments below.  My ideas above are simply ones that have come to me in the past couple of days.  You might have something that I haven’t thought of – or possibly never would.  Let us know!

If you begin using BookSnaps in the classroom, please share them!  Use the #RSIHawks or #RSIReads hashtag in your post!

#IMMOOC Week 1: The Power of Ice Cream

This week is the beginning of The Innovator’s Mindset Massive Open Online Course.  For the next five weeks, I look forward to the opportunity to reread a great book and interact with educators during the weekly YouTube Live sessions as well as the Twitter chats!  I love this format of PD, and look forward to creating new connections and growing my Personal Learning Network!  If this sounds like something you would be interested in, you can still sign up here: IMMOOC

curiousAs I was reading the introduction to The Innovator’s Mindset this week, there was one line that really stood out to me: “if students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them.”  Given the meaningfulness of that line, I was so glad that became a major topic during the YouTube Live event on Monday evening.  During this session, AJ Juliani talked about a self-audit based on 4 questions, and I felt that these questions could really help us think about what we do in the classroom that might encourage students to “play” school and take away some of their self-agency and curiosity.

  • What do I allow for in my classroom/school?
  • What do I make time for in my classroom/school?
  • What do I support in my classroom/school?
  • What do I praise, assess, look for in my classroom/school?

What intrigued me the most about these questions is that students who play school well get there not because of their own desires.  Instead they get there due to the things that the adults in their lives (both educators and family members) value.  Watch kids of any age, and you will see curiosity – whether it’s on the playground, with their friends, or while playing a video game, our students our naturally curious.  But for many, when we put them into a classroom and ask them what makes them curious, the response is “I don’t know.”  If this is happening in your class, then your students are probably well trained to play school.

If we want our students to create, we have to model creativity (or at least a willingness to try).  If we want our students to be problem finders and solvers, that spark has to be modeled through our actions.  All of us have our interests and desires.  A lot of us keep those interests and desires separate from what is happening in our classrooms.  If we want to ignite the fire of curiosity in our students, we need to show them that their interests matter.

Recently in our school building, a student noticed that our cafeteria never served ice cream at lunch.  She knew from talking with friends at other intermediate schools that ours was the only one in the school district that did not ever serve ice cream as part of the school lunch.  Instead of just complaining about it, or even accepting that’s just the way it is, she went into action.  She did research.  She got friends and classmates involved.  She met with our school’s cafeteria manager to understand why we didn’t serve ice cream.  She met with our district facilities manager to learn about options to make ice cream a possibility at our school.  She got the student council on board to do a fundraiser.  All of this started last year with the question of why.

The Creamsicle may not be the fanciest of all ice cream treats, but it was a huge step forward in a school that had not served ice cream at lunch ever before!
The Creamsicle may not be the fanciest of all ice cream treats, but it was a huge step forward in a school that had not served ice cream at lunch ever before!

Last Friday at lunch, our school served ice cream for the first time.

I would argue that the learning that happened for this student, and her classmates who were part of this work, was some of the most meaningful learning in the past year.  All of this happened because the adults around this student saw the curiosity and the drive that this student had – for ice cream – and they let her run with it.

What are the ice cream moments that are happening in your classroom?  In your school?  How are you helping to ignite that curiosity?  What are the ice cream moments for you?  Are you modeling that curiosity with your students?  As the leaders of our classrooms and schools, we have the ability to choose a course for our students that inspires them, or we can choose a course that creates students who “play” school well.  Which course do you choose?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  Keep the conversation about innovation in learning going here, or hit me up on Twitter @brian_behrman.

This class just can’t handle it…

When I was in high school, I remember taking a physics class – I believe it was my sophomore year.  At my high school, physics classes were taught in the wing that had once been the area for “shop” classes.  My physics classroom was this huge open space.  One side had a large garage door that once allowed cars to come into the building for students to be able to learn how to work on them. By the time I was in high school, the “shop” classes had been shifted to the Hoosier Hills Career Center across town, and the shop classrooms had been converted for other uses.  On any given day, I would walk into this classroom, and around the outside of the class I would see various experiments in process.  There were large lab tables – at one point there were lasers on every table that were being used to make holograms.  Another time there were these air rails that were angled and allowed people to measure velocity and acceleration based on the time it took an object to travel across the rail.  In one corner, there was Newton’s Cradle built out of cable and bowling balls and hanging from the rafters high up in the room.  I could go on…largest-newtons-cradle2-500x334

As a sophomore, I would walk in and see these awesome experiments that would pique my curiosity.  I made it a point to arrive to physics class as early as possible to check out these things.  I remember wondering how you could use a laser to create a hologram, or just how the timing controllers worked on the air rails.  But then, the bell would ring, I would make my way over to my desk in the middle of the room in front of the chalk board, have a seat, and take out my textbook.  You see, as a sophomore, I was in the basic physics class.  Those experiments were not set up for our class, but were there for the AP Physics class that also met in the same classroom.  Now, I don’t want to imply that we never got to do experiments in my physics class that year, but it was nothing on the level of what the AP class was doing.

Thinking back to my experience as a sophomore in high school in my physics class, I know that some of those experiments probably were things that I did not yet have the true theoretical understanding to be able to carry out and understand, but that doesn’t take away how bummed I was to see cool things set up in my classroom and feel as though I could not participate.  The reality is though, there were probably variations on many of those experiments that would have tied to the standards that my basic physics class was expected to cover.  There were probably ways my teacher could have provided scaffolding and support to allow the students in my basic physics class to participate in those cool experiments.  Would we have gone as deep with the experiments?  No, but we would have had that hands-on experience that was sometimes lacking from my physics curriculum that year.

This memory comes to me when I occasionally hear teachers say things like “My regular class just isn’t ready for this.”  Or “this group is my resource group, so they may not be able to do that activity.”  (I’ll admit – I may have made statements like this when I was a classroom teacher).  That fear that students aren’t ready or aren’t capable can hold us back from such cool learning opportunities for our students.  If you’re worried about kids not being ready, you should know that there are some second-grade classes in this district that have been doing some of the same experiments that I have seen happening this year in some of our sixth-grade classrooms.  I’m sure there were adaptations to make the learning accessible for a second grader, but if a second grade student can successfully carry out activities that our sixth grade students are doing, isn’t it worth finding ways to adapt our activities so that all our fifth and sixth grade students can do them?

Whether we’re talking about a socrative seminar, a hands-on experience, an experiment, or a project, we need to makes sure that all our students have the opportunity to learn in exciting ways.  Think critically about how you might be able to adapt your class so that no matter what level your students are at, they have the opportunity to be challenged.  How could you scaffold and support those students that some might say just aren’t ready?  If you’re struggling to find ways to integrate some of these higher-level experiences into your classroom, find someone to collaborate with – it could be with a teammate, a teacher down the hall, a teacher in another grade level, a TDS, one of our resource teachers, or maybe it’s one of our related arts teachers.  We have lots of great people working in this building, and through working together, we can make sure that all our students are able to participate in amazing learning opportunities!

Also, just so that you aren’t too worried about my long-term well-being, I apparently liked that basic physics class enough to go on and take the AP Physics class the next year.  I was able to participate in all those cool experiments that I was so curious about as a sophomore.  I learned how to create a hologram of a die using a laser, I got to do those experiments with the air rails while learning about acceleration and velocity.  I also remember AP Physics as the most difficult class that I took that year, but at the same time it was the most interesting and rewarding because of the hands-on experiences that we had throughout the year.

The cool stuff, the fun stuff, those are the things that get students excited about learning.  Those are the things that students will talk to you about when they run into you in the future.  Those are the activities that stick with them as they get older, that they can go back to and recall what they learned while they were in your classroom.

Do you have memories similar to mine?  How did it make you feel to not be able to do some of the “cool” things that your teachers did with other classes?  Have you ever talked to your students who don’t get to do some of those things because they “just aren’t ready?”  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Active learning

the-only-source-of-knowledge-is-experience

The HSE21 Best Practice Model is such a great tool because it reminds us of the fundamental classroom conditions that will help our students be ready for their future.  I was recently reading the book Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz and he spent a lot of time talking about active learning.  In active learning, we see differentiation, authenticity, relevancy, choice, and collaboration – all important pieces of the best practice model.  Think back to your favorite moments when you were in school.  What stands out?  It’s probably an example of active learning.

When I was in elementary school, both of the 6th grade classes in our building collaborated to write, produce, and perform a musical.  I vividly remember working with classmates to write the script, to advertise the show, and to plan the costumes and props for the show.  The skills and strategies that I developed in activities like this were ones that I believe helped set me up for success in middle school, high school, and beyond.  While I remember moments of passive learning when I was in sixth grade (one of my teachers was the queen of having us copy notes from her beloved transparencies), I can’t recall any details that I may have learned in that format of lesson.

So, how can we integrate more active learning into our classrooms?  Here are just a few ideas based on Learn Like a Pirate book:

  • Simulations – What’s a better way to learn about the Boston Tea Party?  Read about it, or take your classroom back to 1773 and have your students simulate the circumstances that led the Sons of Liberty to throw cases of tea into the Boston Harbor?  Or you could integrate some science into your social studies by having your students set up a colony in outer space.  They can experience creating a government for their colony while also learning about the needs for their planet.
  • Debates – The collaboration that goes with a debate can be amazing. If you pick a topic that would have more than 2 sides, you can break your class up into several different groups with different topics, keeping the groups small enough that all play a role, while also large enough that you can put mixed ability students together.  Solarz does alternative energy debates with his students.  He plays the role of President, while his students are the advisors trying to convince him that their energy plan is the best.  While this topic may not resonate with you or your curriculum, there are many other debatable topics that could tie to your standards.
  • Science Fair – This is something that has gone out of style, but why? In a time where we are shifting to STEM classes, and at a period in time when so many of our kids don’t do hands on science projects like previous generations, this seems like a no brainer.  The issue I had with the science fair’s old style was that it was typically done as homework.  The last time I had my students do a science fair, we did everything at school.  Students were asked to bring in poster boards, but I tried to provide most of the other resources they needed (sometimes we had to get creative).  Kids assisted one another on their projects, and were truly excited to share their findings at the end.  I was able to provide feedback, help with data collection, and teach mini-lessons as necessary.  The best part – I knew it was all done by the student on a relevant topic of their own choosing.  A variation on this could be an invention fair, or a coding fair, or anything else you might imagine that lets students be actively involved in inquiry.
  • Project-Based Learning – A trend in education, and one that I was guilty of when I was still in my classroom, is that we teach a unit, and then at the end of the unit students complete a project to show their learning. What PBL asks is that we teach through the project.  Once you have your basic idea planned, students choose their more specific project and dig in.  Throughout the unit, mini-lessons can be taught on content, procedures, or skills that students need to go further in the process.  As a teacher, you are continuously checking in with students, seeing where they are and where they are going next, providing feedback, and deciding if there are topics that you need to build a mini-lesson around.  While we’re giving students choice and freedom, you are allowed to set some parameters up front.  PBL doesn’t mean setting the students free to do whatever they want, there have to be some class norms and expectations in place first.  Think of these expectations as the guardrails to keep your students in the right lane, and heading in the correct direction!  If you’re looking for good PBL resources, the Buck Institute for Education (bie.org) is a great resource!
  • Technology – Sometimes integrating some tech into a passive lesson is just what it takes to up the level into an active learning opportunity. Don’t just use technology for the sake of saying that you’re using technology.  Use technology when it is the best tool for the job.  Remember, HSE21 is not, and has never been, about technology, the iPad, OneDrive, or any of the many apps that are used around school.  However, when we find technology that truly improves or transforms what we’ve been doing, don’t hesitate to add it to your lessons.
  • Reader’s Theater – This is such a great way to work on oral reading fluency.  Students get to practice their part several times with their group.  During that time they can practice pronouncing difficult words, learn to project their voice, add inflection, and enunciate.  Depending on your goals, it could be a single day activity, although students don’t have as many opportunities to practice and they may not be able to create props to go with their performance.  On the other hand, you could do a multi-day activity where students are put into groups and roles one day, have time for rehearsals and planning for the performance (props, costumes, etc.) on a second day, dress rehearsals where you can give feedback on props and costumes that aren’t appropriate or necessary on a third day, and then performance day on the last day.  If you’re really brave, you could record the performances to put on a YouTube page so that parents can see what their kids are up to at school.

This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list of active learning activities, but is meant to give you some ideas of how to create more active learning opportunities for your students.  What am I missing?  Are there active learning examples that you use that I didn’t mention?  Have you tried (or are you thinking about trying) any of the ideas above?  Tell us about your experiences, your thoughts, or your plans in the comments below!