Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Inspiration to Application: What have we noticed?

As Celina said, our new teaching assignment this year has been a chance for us to strike out into new territories and also to synthesize what we have learned previously in order to meet the needs of our students.  What a journey and we are only 1/3 of the way through (our first year).   In order to meet the needs of 51 students, within 3 age levels and even more developmental levels, there was no other option but to differentiate.  Here was our chance to channel our inspiration into application!

Our multiage philosophy of meeting students’ needs based on building blocks required a lot of background work in creating a community of learners. Students had to feel safe in sharing what they know and don’t know, and how to learn without comparing themselves to others.  We had to teach them how to be engaged, responsible and respectful to everyone within the community, and from this we could all grow.  What have we noticed?  Students across all grade level bands are working together for the success of all.  It is ok to “need” a target, and to seek out resources or partners to help you.  It is also ok to be an expert and teach others, even when you are the youngest in the class!  It is ok to hit the target on one assessment but have to move your sticker back on the next assessment, this means you need to keep practicing and keep this target active in your mind.  It is ok to work on targets that are below your grade level and even above.  There is no ceiling and there is no floor.  Suddenly this recognition that we are a community of learners allowed students the chance to let go of notions of being just like their classmates.  Each of us is different and that is to be celebrated!

Our brain based learning led us to create a learning environment that uses connections, novelty and timing to meet student needs.  No longer do students read and recite, but they actively seek out what they need to know, often with essential questions or targets in mind.  Novel ideas for gaining their attention abound, from dressing like Monkeys to make a point, to wearing a symbol of every genre to start a study of literature.  What have we noticed?  Time is always of the essence, and yet teaching students to continually practice targets, even mastered ones, has helped the learning to move into long term storage in the brain.   Making connections between topics and to overall big ideas helped new learning “hook” onto learning that is already in the brain.  Students began to see our overall big idea of STRUCTURES in everything that we did, from the structure of a book to the structure of an essay, from place value as the structure of math, to variables and the scientific process as the structure of our science experiments.  With connections our classroom day was no longer a random collection of subjects, but a sustained learning opportunity.  We could practice a topic for a day and then revisit it two days later with little gap in understanding. Novelty is so often our mantra that our students no longer bat an eye at us dressed up in costume, from the Genre Genies to the Queen Bees, we believe in grabbing the attention of our kids from the get go.  The brain as our focus became our greatest ally in the learning process as each student came to appreciate their own unique qualities!

Learning about meeting the needs of the gifted and talented students within our room led us beyond basic academics to meeting students’ affective needs as well.  We contemplated how we could help even our highest kids excel with confidence, bounce back from emotional setbacks and learn the necessary skills, like organization and time management, for success in all areas of life not just school.  What have we noticed?  Students began to discuss and connect with like talented peers and from this developed new friendships.  Given our multiage groupings they were able to learn from and teach to others who are talented in areas different from their own.  Our desire to meet the affective needs of our gifted and talented learners has helped us to meet the same need in all our students.  No matter what academic level, all students need to feel safe, appreciated for who they are, and accepted for their needs and talents. 

We have both taught with themes, and have recognized those flimsy connections we have tried to make between topics.  Yet we knew that we wanted a central organizing principle to bring it all together, that learning is not a separate process but a fluid one of using skills in all situations.  Our organizing principle became THINKING SKILLS.  What have we noticed?  The thinking processes of making connections, determining importance and asking questions apply in all academic areas.  Using schema in science was as relevant as using background knowledge in reading.  Thinking processes and skills became our common thread, our guiding work through all topic areas.  Kids have begun to effortlessly use these processes across content areas, no longer seeing math as separate from social studies, or writing separate from science. They are beginning to articulate what they know through the use of analogies and metaphors, applying even higher order skills.  What a moment to celebrate when there are five glowing children intent on sharing their analogies at the end of a work session.  A gem shared by one: “Hearing is to listening as thinking is to knowing!”

Self-assessment has also been a driving force within our classroom.  Formative assessments push our instruction every day, as well as how students spend their time learning and practicing their targets.  What have we noticed?  Students have far greater motivation and ownership in their learning when they can easily see what they know and what they need to learn.  It is no longer a mysterious process; grades are truly earned based on the evidence that is provided at a given point in time, rather than a summary of work/effort over time.  Students are more aware of what they need to do to take charge of their learning and are focused on meeting their own goals.  Our classroom has become a place of empowerment!

Again a “Full Circle” moment, appreciating that our inspiration has become application, and with that application we are seeing an amazing community of learners continue to grow.  What’s next? The sky is the limit!

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