Rethinking the Classroom

What is the ideal learning environment for my high school students in a history class? That is a question that I have been asking myself.  I feel that is important to be detailed in my question.  Students in a high school science class, or 3rd graders probably have a different ideal learning environment.  For my students though, what type of classroom do they need to be in to get the most out of their educational experience while in my class?  I decided to ask them this question as part of a bigger survey.  The survey, found HERE, was an attempt at giving my students a voice in their education.  They are the ones who stand to get the most out of their time in school.  Why not ask them what they think the classroom should look like? I did ask them.  What I learned is kids are uncomfortable, stifled, uninspired, intimidated, and feel institutionalized in many classrooms.  Walls painted white, tile floors, rows of desks…you get the picture.  They made it clear to me that they are much more comfortable learning when they are at home.  At home the walls are painted or covered, there is carpet or rugs, they sit on couches, beds, or beanbags.  They told me that if schools could resemble their bedrooms they would be more excited to go school.

Could something as simple as making a classroom a more inviting, comfortable learning environment lead to more student engagement?  It’s an intriguing thought.  I know some of you reading this may be thinking schools are supposed to be an academic setting preparing kids for college and careers.  Most colleges and careers don’t typically have students or employees sitting in couches while doing their work while their neighbor sits in a beanbag with their shoes off.  That’s true in most cases, but I will point out that increasing numbers of companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook offer work environments similar to the ones I am describing.  In addition, many elementary school classrooms are much more inviting and offer some of the luxuries I have discussed.  It seems that by the time they get to high school the rooms have become void of comfort and rarely offer space for collaboration and creative thought.  Times have changed since the early 1900s, but the classroom hasn’t.  It is still very much a product of the industrial model it was modeled after in the late 1800s.  My reflecting, my research, and my student’s responses to my survey all lead me to believe that the classroom could be much more inviting and inspiring.

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A classroom then…

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A classroom now…

Funny video about education reform

I have decided to attempt to redesign my classroom to create an ideal learning environment for my high school history students.  After listening to their ideas, researching learning spaces, and thinking about what type of experience I want my students to have in my class, I have a rough idea of what I want to do.  To get on the same page as me, you have to forget everything you know about classrooms.  With a blank slate in your head, think about an environment where students are free to research, collaborate, discuss, and create.   Also, keep in my mind that students are in my room for 104 minutes at a time.  Would you want to sit in an individual metal desk for an hour and forty minutes? I didn’t think so.

 If you want to see a floor plan I made online for what I think the classroom could look like…

classroom

click HERE to view larger and in 3D

Now I just need to figure out how to raise $1800, without going too deep into my own pockets, because this IS happening!

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Engagement vs. Compliance, and Student Voice

So I went to an Instructional Rounds debriefing today during lunch, expecting to discuss what we observed and how we can use that to improve our own teaching.  The observation focus was Student Engagement.  The discussion started out as you would expect.  Teachers started sharing some of the strategies they saw and were discussing student engagement.  After hearing what they were saying, and reflecting on the observations I did, I spoke up…

I don’t know exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of, “I had a hard time figuring out if students were truly engaged, or if they were just being compliant.”  The comments people were making about students looking at the teacher and answering questions when asked to, didn’t convince me that we observed engaged students.  We observed compliant students; students who were just “doing” school (I stole that line from Shelley Burgess).  I’m not sure how many were truly engaged. It is so hard to get students truly engaged.  To make them want to learn, excited to learn, and passionate about school is something we all want, but how often do we accomplish it? It’s definitely something to think about and work towards.  I hope my comments got others in the room thinking.

A few minutes later in the same meeting, seating arrangements, classroom management, and cell phone policies were being discussed.  As I listened to teachers talking about their reasons for why they had seats in rows instead of pods, and why some allowed phones in class and others didn’t, another thought popped into my head.  What is the ideal learning environment in 2013? Clearly there is no single answer to this question, but in MY class, what is the ideal seating arrangement, cell phone policy, grading policy, etc. If the kids are the one’s learning in my classroom, shouldn’t I at least give them a voice? That’s not a groundbreaking idea.  I’ve seen numerous tweets and read several blogs about student voice, but listening to my colleagues talk about their rooms, and reflecting on my own setup, it was all about the teacher’s preferences.  It’s like a movie theater having plastic seats because they know people are going to spill soda and wipe popcorn butter on the seats.  If the seats are plastic, they just wipe ‘em, or hose ‘em down at the end of the day.  However, that’s not the case.  They realize that we won’t watch a 2 hour movie in a hard plastic seat.  We want to be comfy while we watch.  Shouldn’t the same way of thinking be applied to a classroom.  If we want them to learn for hours on end, shouldn’t we ask them what the ideal learning environment is instead of just doing what works for us and makes our job easier?

When I mentioned the idea of asking the students how they would want the room setup, I was immediately shut up by another teacher.  I don’t remember his exact quote, but it was something along the lines of, “We teach in an industrialized system, asking kids how they would want school to look is pointless. We can’t give them what they want.” The words industrialized system, were actually said!  It’s not that I disagree.  Our current education system is still largely based on industrialized models from 100 years ago.  But what got at me was his acceptance, and the acceptance of others in the room.  One of my colleagues did jump in and defend my statements, but we were clearly the minority in the room.

After finishing my day I decided that I was going to do exactly what I said I was going to do.  I am going to ask my students several questions about their ideal learning environment.  While I do try to give them a lot of freedom and choice already, I want to know what they want school to be like.  I will start off my questions with the statement, ”Forget everything you know about school and education…”  We will then have a roundtable discussion as a class using THESE QUESTIONS I wrote up this afternoon.  It addresses their ideal learning environment and even tries to figure out the student apathy problem that I have been seeing increasingly over the past few years.  I’m very excited for tomorrow and the answers that they give me.

“We can’t give them what they want”…We sure as hell can listen and try!

Tech-O-Ween

On Halloween, my district put on an event called Tech-O-Ween.  It was a professional development opportunity similar to an EdCamp.  There were a variety of sessions, all led by teachers or others from within our district or other local districts.  Tech tips, tech tools, and teaching strategies were shared.  The event was organized by Chris Long (http://twitter.com/clonghb).  He did a great job.  I’m going to keep this post fairly short because I have already compiled my notes with a few other teachers notes and put together a Google Doc that I shared out at my school.  There are plenty of links in the document about the cool stuff that was shared at Tech-O-Ween.

You can find that document HERE!!!

Tech-O-Ween was a much needed day of professional development for me. After 2 months of school I needed a kick in the butt to remember that everyday I need to come with my A game.  I always try to keep that motivating me, but sometimes as a teacher you need to see others doing great things to inspire you to step it up.  There were so many great teachers sharing so many cool ideas.  It almost creates a sense of competition,  which I think is healthy.  The idea of Accountability Partners or EduRivals came up and that’s what I’m talking about.  As teachers, just like with any job, we need to strive to be our best everyday.  I want to be the best teacher.  I want students, parents, other teachers, and administrators to know it.  Tech-O-Ween was a great experience that re-lit my fuse.

A New School Year…Reflection

Well, here I am sitting down to reflect on how my first couple of weeks of school have been.  All in all I would have to say that I’m satisfied with things so far.  There have definitely been ups and downs already, but that’s the beauty of this job.  The unpredictability, the unforeseen challenges, and the unexpected surprises are what makes it exciting.  I think I’m just going to list pros and cons with short explanation/reflections.  I’m guessing some things will be both pros and cons.

Pros

  • The Staff Development Days Before School Started – These were different for me this year because I held two of the breakout sessions.  One was on the  Power of Twitter as Professional Development, and the other was on getting teachers excited about participating in Instructional Rounds. I’m proud of myself for stepping up and doing this and overall I think both went well.

  • Overall Class Vibe – I had changed my desks to groups and basically had re-arranged my classroom over the summer and it seems like a positive environment for the students.  My returning students like it over the old setup.

  • Student Blogs – First time I’ve ever done it, but after looking at the first few who have set them up, it seems like they are into it.  It’s new for most of them, so I know it may be weird for some of them at first, but I think writing for an audience, instead of just writing for me will lead to better results.  I’m excited.

  • Self-Paced, Mastery Based – The students are doing things at their own pace and I am acting more like a mentor in the learning process.  I’m trying to teach them to learn how to learn.  It’s not what they are used to so I know its confusing for some at first, but in the end I think it will benefit them and help them become much better at time management.  I’ll post more about this after I get some feedback from the students.

  • Other teachers Around Me – It seems like there a lot of rejuvenated teachers in my hallway.  A lot of people are trying new things, taking risks, and have a sense of excitement.  Hopefully it is contagious and spreads throughout my entire campus.

  • 20% Time – I’m introducing this tomorrow to my classes.  I have 2 different projects that I am doing. 1 for my juniors and 1 for the sophomores. The juniors are doing a community based project in groups. The goal is to get them to do something that benefits the community.  The sophomores are doing more of a passion-based project.  I will then flip for the second semester.  I will post more about this in the future, but I’m really excited for this.

  • My Passion – It is stronger than ever and I have high hopes and expectations.

Cons

  • The Staff Development Days Before School Started – I have some major issues as to how these were setup and run, which is why I signed up for the staff development committee that same day.  Next time it will actually be a day full of DEVELOPMENT.

  • Seating Arrangements – The groups of 4 are different for me and at times classroom management has been more difficult.  I dont need all eyes on me for that much time with the way my class is run, but when I need it, it has been a bit more frustrating this year.  Students are facing each other and naturally that leads to more conversation.  Most times that will be encouraged. Sometimes it is not.

  • Self-Paced, Mastery Based – Some kids are moving very rapidly and some aren’t.  Defining mastery and checking for it will be the difficult part of this format.  Assigning the appropriate amount of classtime to satisfy most students may be difficult and will be a trial and error process these first couple of months.

  • My Passion – It is stronger than ever and I have high hopes and expectations. I am envisioning these kids doing great things and being super successful.  Sometimes I feel naive though.  I know some students will fall short of my expectations, and I’m ok with that…but maybe I’m not.  I want them all to be great and have a life-changing year.  Is that possible?

Ego or Ambition?

August is here and I’ve spent all summer preparing for this next school year.  School ended on June 13th, and on the 14th I was already scouring Twitter and racking my brain for ways to improve as a teacher.  I am always striving to be better and challenging myself to be creative and awesome and never fall in the cruise control rut that so many teachers can fall in.  I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am for school to start in the next couple of weeks.  However, with all of that excitement comes some nervousness.  I’m nervous because I’m doing things rather differently this year.  My class will be based on a self-paced, mastery-based model.  I will also be implementing 20% Time with a focus on community improvement.  Seating arrangements are different.  My schedule is different.  I could go on and on about me being nervous, but I should get to the point of this post.  I am most nervous because I have enrolled in an Admin Credential program.

Let me now explain the title of this post.  I am only entering my 7th year of teaching, but over the past year I started to have such a passion for education that I started spending more time researching education instead of focusing on my content area of history.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love teaching history.  However, I started having a feeling of “I want to do something bigger.” I felt that I was destined to do something big with my growing passion in the field of education.  When I told a colleague this, I felt arrogant saying it.  Like teachers aren’t a big deal.  They are.  We are.  Am I being egotistic thinking that I am destined for something bigger?  I don’t know.  I don’t know if it’s egotistic or ambitious.  Regardless, I feel passionate about education and I would like to try to have a bigger impact.  Therefore, I enrolled in the Admin program and I’m going to do it.  I am nervous as hell and don’t know what to expect.  It’s a great feeling!

“What Did He Just Say?” An Eye-Opening Experience

As I was sitting at a Common Core professional development this past week, something happened (Why was I at a Common Core PD??? While I don’t fully embrace this new era we are entering, and the implementation of Common Core assessment seems like a joke, I do like the focus on higher order skills, so I want to learn about it. Back to the story).  What happened was scary, funny, but more than anything it was enlightening.  One single question asked by one person, and the reaction that followed was all it took.  Are you ready? Here’s what was asked…

“Have you guys heard of a flipped classroom?”

(Before I go any further let me clarify that this post is not archived from a previous year.  This question was asked on July 9, 2013.)

I was waiting for a variety of responses.  There were none.  A few people sat silently (in a common core coma), and everyone else said no or shook their head as if they were completely confused by the question (You know the look/head shake I’m referring to).  After 5 seconds of that, and processing what just happened, I jumped in and offered a few thoughts on flipped classrooms.  I’m not what you would call a flipped classroom teacher, but I definitely have embraced aspects of it, use it periodically, and understand it and multiple interpretations of it.  The people I was with had no idea what it was, and aside from the guy who asked the question, they had never even heard the term.  I’m sure a lot of you now understand why I thought this was scary and funny at the same time.  You can also maybe see why I thought this moment was enlightening.

Our colleagues need our help.  How can a room of teachers be in the dark about something that is common knowledge to a lot of us.  I’m not saying they are bad teachers and I am superior to them because I knew about flipped classrooms. What I am saying is that a flipped classroom is a new teaching strategy, along with hundreds of other new strategies and ideas being shared online, and rarely in traditional PD, that teachers need to be aware of.  So what about the teachers that are not on Twitter?  The teachers that have never heard of an edcamp, or a coffeecue?  These teachers should be exposed to the new and exciting things going on in education, and if they’re not on Twitter or into reading blogs, we need to share things in other ways with them.  While we can try to sign them up for Twitter, it’s not for everyone, and we need to understand that.  That doesn’t make them bad teachers.  It just means we need to find a way to share with them.

Make an effort to share cool ideas, new teaching theories, awesome lessons, and anything worth sharing.  Shoot out an email to your department or staff once a month with a list of cool things you’ve learned via your online PLN.  Speak up at department or all staff meetings and share things.  Let them know that there is a network of teachers online that are constantly sharing and supporting.  Little constant reminders will serve two purposes.  First, it will be a way to share the awesome things we are getting from our online PLNs.  Second, the more times they hear “I saw this on Twitter” or “I read this on another teacher’s blog,” the more likely they are to go and check those tools out.  It may take someone hearing that 5 times before they finally go sign up for Twitter.  Don’t force feed anything, just let our colleagues know the value that you find in online, free professional development.

The eye-opening experience that I had, while scary, helped me realize that I want to share more; That I have to share more; That more teachers need to be aware of the teaching (R)Evolution that is going on right now.  Spread the word!!!

Mr. Floyd Version 2.0 – A Rebuilt Teacher

This is my first blog post.  Will anyone read it?  I’m sure my wife will. Oh well.  I guess only time will tell.  I guess the writing of this blog is more for me and my reflection purposes anyways.  Although, with the thought of having an audience, I will write it with one in mind.  Mr.David Theriault @davidtedu teaches his students to write for an audience, so I will take that advice and run with it.  Ok…enough rambling (I guess I’m already figuring out that my blogging style is more of a ramble and rant style than a poetic, flowing style.  That sounds about right if you know me)

I titled this post Mr. Floyd Version 2.0 because I feel that is who I have become over the past few months.  I have been a teacher for 6 years.  Still considered a rookie by some, but a veteran to others.  Regardless, I have been reborn as a teacher over these past few months.  I can’t really pinpoint a specific event or time when it happened.  I think it was a slow realization over the past 2 years that I can be better.  A realization that I was teaching students in a very similar way to how I was taught.  I thought I was good.  Kids usually say my class is their favorite.  I think that satisfied me. The difference is that when I was in high school (mid to late 90s), I had a pager, I used encyclopedias and books in the library, and transparencies on an overhead projector were considered edtech.  The world has changed so much, but it took me until now to realize that the 15-17 year olds sitting in front of me are wired differently than I was when I was their age.  They learn differently.  They interact and communicate differently.  Simply put, they are different.  So I had to change.  I had to adapt.  I had to relearn how to teach.  I’m doing that now.  I can’t believe how much fun it is!

Version 2.0 has been built using Twitter, networking, reading other teacher’s blogs, and reading books like Teach Like a Pirate and Drive.  Where Mr. Floyd Version 1.0 relied on content, lecture, retention of facts, percentages, one size fits all, and rows of desks; Version 2.0 is all about teaching skills, coaching life-long learners, mastery, self-paced learning, problem solving, and inspiring creativity.  I think I’m going to like Version 2.0 better, and I think the students will too.  I’ll let you know as this blog continues into the next school year.  Until next time.