Creating a Community of Learners

It’s been over a week since Lounsberry’s Second Annual Literacy Night, and it’s about time I did a bit of reflection about the event. Putting it all together was a lot of work, really a lot of work, and since the attendance wasn’t quite what we expected this year, you’d think I’d be asking if we should do it again next year. However, if you were there, and I hope you were, you wouldn’t be asking that question. There’s just something magical about the feeling generated when parents and students are learning together that makes it all worth while.

During our last Monday meeting, we presented Literacy Night to the staff at Lounsberry who weren’t involved. We left the gallery in tact, and participating teachers, without being asked, discussed their student lead workshops. I was blown away in learning how meaningful they found the experience. We discussed  inspired parents and the awesome possibilities for transferring learning. Since I had downloaded student video reflections to QR codes attached to projects, the conversation turned to reflection as a means for learning, and teachers even requested information about the kinds of questions I was asking students. Woot!

Some things to remember for next year:

  • Get invitation out to the newspaper early.
  • Attend Rolling Hills & Cedar Mountain (4th grade schools) SCA Meetings before event.
  • Advertise, advertise, advertise! (Send video invite to classrooms earlier).
  • Have teachers upload digital projects to wiki throughout the school year.
  • Start gallery at 6:30.
  • Create survey/wallwisher for participant reflection

Also, I still think people are confused about the term Literacy in relation to the event. Although Transliteracy, would be a more accurate term, I think that might confuse people even more!  Any ideas for a better name are up for consideration!





Are Centers Growing Up?

Center based learning, yes that old standby primary school philosophy, may happily be creeping its way into the middle school environment.  Leading its potential for adoption is Columbia Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s content based literacy learning, which centers on “centers”! And, if history repeats itself, whatever TCRWP models, for good reason, school’s adopt.

Last week I implemented a center based learning experience, to introduce students to next week’s visiting author, Paul Janeczko. I doubled the tables in the library into three larger tables, which hosted three different center based activities.

  1. Answering questions using Paul Janezcko’s website, to learn about the poet in addition to experience navigating a website.
  2. Three different coding activities, (in light of the author’s book  Top Secret), using Paul’s various other  books as sources for text. Students participated in one of the three activities at this center, which included speaking in Pig Latin, Found Poetry and keyboard coding.
  3. Reader’s Theater using poems from A Foot in the Mouth. Students worked in groups reading & acting out poems for two, three or group voices. We videoed their readings with the Ipads, and the plan is to put videos in QR codes for the front of school bulletin board (So need to get this finished!).

Why it worked and why I like centers: Students were engaged and learning valuable skills. Centers are a great, gradual way for teachers to move away from teacher centered, sage on stage type practices, closer to learner centric experiences. Often teachers fear the loss of control and the possibilities for time wasted in student based learning, however, centers offer a gradual shift from control, and keep students on task. In addition, teachers realize that students do not all need to be doing the same thing at the same time in order to be productive. This may encourage teaching practices which allow for student choice and differentiated learning options. Centers allow teachers to move around the class and work with students, one-on-one, something that I see as  desperately needed and often missing in the middle school classroom.  In addition, centers seem less competitive, mainly because students are working in smaller groups.  This structure allows for differentiated work that’s not obvious to everyone, since students are working on different things at the same time.

What do you think? Do you see a place for center based learning in middle school?


Ned’s Gr8 8

I have to share this awesome video, and I so want to hear what you think. Do you agree? Do you have something else to add? I think I’d add the concept of Inquiry,  maybe:  “We want the opportunity to explore our own questions and not only consume information, but also create knowledge”  but I’m not a kid! More about this video and the organization related to its production can be found here What Kids Can Do.

Thank You for the Learning

Lounsberry’s Video Creation Club, known to our students as the VCC, has been up and running for three years now.  I originally advertised the after school club as a “learning together opportunity” with zero promises; I honestly knew nothing about video creation, except that I wanted to learn more. I also knew and still believe that video creation is an extremely important means of expression that should be incorporated within content area curricula as a means for expressing learning. However, the reality is that the time needed, for student experimentation and the skill learning necessary for effective video creation, is difficult to find.

We made many mistakes our first year and most of our learning came in the form of “this is not as easy as it looks!”  Our cumulative project was a lib dub type motivational video, involving the whole student body and passing the state mandated NJ ASK test. What can I say? Sometimes you do what you have to when your school needs it, no matter how much you disagree with the premise. I will not show the video here, not only because our district requires that all students require a parent/caregiver OK to have their picture published, but also because it was really, really bad!

Second year running and the club, I’m afraid, was still in need of improvement. Students worked in groups on projects of their own design, including: a welcome to Lounsberry video for incoming fifth graders, a horror film, an anti bullying mini movie, a try at a documentary about Lounsberry’s annual Variety Show and a comedy, of some sort. Although our products were far from publishable, we learned:

To never touch a video camera until you’ve created a plan; it’s necessary to incorporate effective story boarding, shooting and editing techniques to get a polished project; that working collaboratively within groups is a necessity, but not always easy; that using and storing video equipment properly is nonnegotiable; and that a teacher can only handle so many kids at a time!

Now for the purpose for this post. This school year, I decided that the time and energy needed to run this club was was stipendablable, my sniglet for, “I really think I deserve to be paid for what I’m doing!” Much to my dismay, however, Vernon’s Board of Education members did not agree and the stipend request was denied during a Fall 2012 meeting. VCC members and their families were not happy, and boldly decided to appeal the decision. Three boys and their parents sat through an entire Board of Education Meeting, which is quite an accomplishment in itself for 10 & 11 year old’s, and spoke their minds.  Board members were not easily swayed, however, our district’s superintendent, Dr. John Alfieri, was. He not only recognized the benefits of the club for all its members, but also the possibility for an authentic and meaningful learning experience for three hard working students. He asked the boys to make an appointment to see him to further present their argument. They refined their arguments, citing evidence for their case, expressed their opinions and understandings to Dr. Alfieri, and at his request, presented their case once again at a closed, working Board of Education session. An e-mail message I received that night, written by a deservedly ecstatic 11 year old student read, “Get your cameras ready…”

We’ve just finished our third week of meetings for VCC and although there’s probably still way too many kids involved, we’re learning together and having a good time too!

Thank you Dr. Alfieri for allowing our students to make a difference!






Eracism Debate: A Powerful Learning Experience

Before our winter break, a group of diligent sixth grade students at Lounsberry participated in the Eracism Project, one of Julie Lindsay’s and Vicki Davis’ awesome global learning experiences known as the Flat Classroom Projects. According to the Flat Classroom Project blog, the Eracism Project, “joins diverse cultures and includes authentic debate for global competence and international mindedness”. In all honesty, the experience of debate was not my impetuous for joining this project; it’s the global connect piece that piqued my interest. As I’ve written before, it is imperative that our students connect with people of different cultures in order to participate effectively  in an increasingly flat world.

Characteristic of my impassioned and somewhat impulsive behavior, I requested to join the project, without plans for how it would be implemented. In most cases, a teacher needs a class to work on these projects, and without a class of my own, I needed to find a teacher that could fit a project like this into their already way too filled curricular requirements. The project began at the same time as our Critical Thinking class students had just finished a unit on questioning and were starting a unit on resource evaluation and a review of search; I consulted with Kathy Singerline, and we decided to have all students in all three classes first ask questions and then search and evaluate possible resources, and we’d figure things out from there. We were given the topic from the start as  “Global management of natural resources will cause conflict between cultures.” We were assigned the negative side for the first round and would bedebating The American International School of Guangzhou, China.

First Realization: Before finding resources about something that you know nothing about, find someone who’s an expert or at least somewhat knowledgeable about the topic to help  bring it down to a 6th grade level of understanding! We did contact our district’s science department administrator and a high school environmental science teacher, however we failed to realize that this was more of a political science issue. We desperately needed background knowledge and since part of our responsibility was to clearly define the topic, it was difficult to know where to start. Not only was this topic difficult to grasp, mainly because it could be defined in a multitude of ways, it was also extremely difficult to find information that was comprehensible for sixth graders with little to no background knowledge in this area. If they couldn’t understand the information, how could we ever expect the analysis and synthesis necessary to build a formative argument.

Second Realization: Don’t expect to teach students how to evaluate resources if they have little  background knowledge and can’t even  understand most of what they’re reading, and don’t expect to gather and access resources from 75 students, about a a multidimensional topic, with the hopes of finding 5-10 sources of information that can be used to support an aligned argument!

At this point, I realize that you’re probably pondering the positiveness of the title of this post; it does get better and although our experience was somewhat frustrating, the possibilities are now oh so clear!

Kathy Singerline’s Critical Thinking students needed to start their next unit on Game design, so this project soon became an extracurricular learning experience. Although our experience so far felt somewhat frustrating, a number of students were intrigued about the concept of an international debate and agreed to stay after school and work during enrichment periods, when possible, to continue participating. We would have loved to have had all students participate in the learning activities referenced on The Eracism Wiki but we simply ran out of time.

The first rounds were held in a simulated-synchronus fashion using Voicethread. We collaboratively prepared an opening statement, which included our definition of the topic, our argument statement (stating the case) and three reasons, with examples, to support our argument. ReadWriteThink has a graphic organizer that was helpful for our students.  We followed with a rebuttal and closing statement in response to the Affirmative team’s recordings from China. Much to our surprise, we won, and did so again in the second round against the Wellington School, in Columbus Ohio.  Note: Before the second round  Julie, Vicki and other organizers decided to simplify the topic to read, “Global control of natural resources cause more harm than good.”

The final round was recorded live using Blackboard/Collaborate and although the competition from the Quality Schools International Bratslavia, Slovakiawas fierce, we won; we actually won!

OK , here’s the important stuff, what we learned and what your students could also have the opportunity to learn, through the process of debate:

  • The CCSS’s emphasizes research and Information fluency skills, expressing  the need for questioning, refocusing inquiry when necessary, and assessing the credibility of resources. Covered in a big way!
  • I think________ because________. The CCSS  for Reading and Writing are all about argument and evidence and what better way to make this need real than through an authentic, real-world experience such as debate. Students were required to identify arguments, citing evidence from multiple authors and media sources, which they then synthesized to create and support their own arguments and evidence in their presentations.
  • CCSS emphasize collaborative speaking and listening skills; no need to explain how this project met those standards, right?!
  • More specific to the Eracism debate experience was that it fostered the “understanding of other perspectives and cultures” as expressed in the CCSS and well, just something that makes plain old good sense!
  • This learning experience also helped students foster habits of mind necessary for learning including:  curiosity, perseverance, flexibility, risk-taking, humility, and open-mindedness.

Most importantly, there was a reason for all this learning; it was purposeful. It gave this group of students a listened to voice and they knew that their voice mattered.





Living History= Real Life= Empowerment

My son’s elementary school participates in a living history immersion type program, which has come to be known as “The Encampment”.  The Encampment originated in a neighboring district and was introduced at my son’s elementary school, by his principal, Scott Blake.  The program itself is a collaborative project, accomplished with the support of the school community and the Fort Lee Historic Park, with its director John Muller.

On the day of the encampment, students become militia men encamped, during the Revolutionary War. They’re individually assigned military ranks and take on roles and responsibilities accordingly. They set up camp, cook, chop wood, wash dishes, build a campfire, march, make musket balls, shoot a canon, climb an enemy wall, and even play Rounders. Teachers and students spend weeks preparing for the event. Students hand sew hats, bags, and journals and  learn what life was like living in the thirteen colonies.

I was encouraged to write this post, by my son who took his learning one step further. The other day I asked for his help in placing a pile of collected weeds, sticks and branches into a garbage pail.  During the process he commented that some of the branches were too big to fit in the pail. He couldn’t break them apart with his hands, so he asked if he could use an axe.  As you can imagine, my reaction was a mix of surprise and concern; you see we live in the suburbs and there aren’t many 11 year old’s who have the need, desire, or skill set to swing an axe.  I answered with a tentative, “OK” , and before I knew it, I was thanking him for a job well done. (Yes, he still has all ten fingers!)

The smile on my son’s face more than reflected his feeling of accomplishment. Not only did he achieve the task at hand, but he figured out how to do it on his own.  He applied his learned skill to solve a real life problem, because his learning experience was hands on, engaging, and real.  Of course, an authentic understanding and appreciation of history and our forefather’s efforts was the ultimate and irreplaceable realization of the learning experience for all, but in the end, and hopefully for more than one boy, there too, was empowerment.