Saturday, February 28, 2015

You Matter

We started working on a window design yesterday. Our old window design was called What Makes Us Happy? I loved it, it included students' drawings of the things that gasp make them happy. But you know how it is when artwork doesn't change for a long time - it becomes part of the landscape and no one pays attention to it.

Initially I had thought of a photo project with pictures of kids holding signs saying things like, "I want to be valued," and "I have a voice." I love classroom photo projects. My pal Katie (@mrskusiak on Twitter) always has cool photos in her window. The more I thought about it though, that wasn't the thing. Saying, "I have a voice," empowers me. Saying,"You have a voice," empowers both of us. By giving you value, I create value in myself. Everybody grows. That's where Angela Maiers' ( @AngelaMaiers on Twitter) amazing You Matter Manifesto ( came in.

On Friday morning, as I talked with students about the project, student voice joined in. Ben said, "In videos where people hold cards, the people never smile." He was so right! We agreed to look serious, as we were sharing an important message. As we were taking photos and sharing them, the idea came to have our last cardholder smile. After all that seriousness, doesn't the message, "YOU MATTER," merit a smile after all?

As we took the photos, we tweeted them out on our class accounts (@mrfarnumsclass on Twitter and on Instagram). The last one went out during recess, so I thought I should share them with the kids afterward. As we looked at the photos, the students started asking, "Can we make a slideshow?" Yes!

With the kids watching, so they could see how it works, I popped the pictures into Movie Maker, explaining the process as I went. Next came time to add music. I showed them - a website where you can download (for free!) music that creators share solely for credit given. We worked our way through several instrumental samples. We talked about how some songs wouldn't work - the songs were too slow, too sad. If we combined them with the solemn faces in our photos, it'd be depressing. Some were too upbeat, too lighthearted. We settled on Goodbye War, Hello Peace by an artist named teru. The kids and I agreed that it felt like music that was sharing a hopeful and positive feeling. As we wrapped up the video, we credited the kids alphabetically - I don't like to put a name under a face online. We credited teru - because you don't use other peoples' work without permission, and without giving them credit.

Then we pipped the video up on YouTube, and started sharing. I'm really pleased with the way it turned out, and I'm very proud of my students and their role in our project.

Our goal is still to print the photos, and hang them in our window as a message to other students in our school. I'm so happy that on our way, we were able to make something worth sharing with everybody, because if you're reading this, You Matter.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Our First (Good) Maker Club Wednesday

After several weeks of NOT doing maker club, we've finally had a blast taking things apart! Let's rewind.

At the start of every year, I start collecting students' and friends' old electronics with the sole purpose of taking things apart. You could talk about all of the things that students learn from taking apart electronics, from the elements of design and engineering, to teamwork, to tool use, but I don't want to sully the experience by talking about such things. Taking things apart is cool. Playing with screwdrivers is fun, and there are lots of neat things inside. The circuit boards look like cities!

Anyway, it takes a while, but by mid-year, we usually have a computer or two, some VCRs, a toaster, or a TV. Maybe more, maybe less. I keep my eye out on trash day, too. It's better if things don't work anymore, because they sure aren't when we get done with them! This year, I got all high minded. I made a cool booklet, My Robot Journal, that had a spot for kids to write before they did anything. It had spots that covered several modes of writing. I was so proud of my work. There was only one problem with it. It was teacher designed based on teacher desires. And it killed it. The kids who like to write were gonna get to have fun, and the ones who are overwhelmed by writing were going to be frustrated. That's not what I wanted this lesson to be like.

So today, I decided to take down the pay wall, and put the trust in the hands of my students. I told them they should still hang on to the robot journal. I'd left them with lots of valuable tools that they could use in constructing blog posts and stories from this project. Then I told them, the journals are YOURS, use them how you like. I distributed a limited number of screwdrivers, and said they would need to share with their partners, or bring some in from home. And then magic happened.

The kids were - no surprise here - totally engaged in their work. I had boys taking apart a refrigerator, girls dismantling a VCR, kids taking apart phones, computers, and peripherals. It was awesome! They were cooperative, they were working safely, and they were thrumming with excitement. As I circled around the room, I heard kids saying things like, "I'm gonna use this wire for hair", "These will be cool eyes!", and "Oh good, there's a fan in here for each of us!"

When it was time to clean up, they were disappointed but cooperative. I asked them as we were on our way to lunch, "You had a good time, right?" Yeses, smiles, and nods. "Is it fair to ask you to make it worth my time by writing some great blog posts about taking apart your tech?" More smiling nods. "Do you think you can come up with 200 words based on what you did today?" More affirmatives! On future Wednesdays, we'll be designing robots with our tech parts, we'll assemble them, photograph them, 'shop them into pictures, and write stories about them. I love doing this project with my students, but I have to say, even if it was just today, it was worth it to have the kids taking things apart to find out what's inside.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Top Ten Ways to Take Your Classroom from Good to Great

Last summer, as I was planning out my classroom layout for the year, I realized that I wanted to model my teaching style off of good business leadership. After all, a great classroom is like a creative business. What do creatives do for a living? They learn things at an impressive rate, they produce content, and they share with as large a market as they can. Students in a great classroom do the same thing. They learn impressively, they create content, and they share with as large of a market as possible. Because of this, I’ve been trolling business leadership blogs and sites for teaching ideas. I came across this article by Peter Economy The Leadership Guy, @bizzwriter at Inc. online, Top 10 Ways to Take Your Leadership From Good to Great. I thought that I’d take all ten ideas and apply them to my class.

So often, as a profession, we treat our students as though they’re less than us. Sure, we know more than them, and we have the tools they need to advance, but they’re people too. I’m not always perfect at it, but I try to see my students as small coworkers, and myself as the project manager. Sure I need to keep them moving on the project, but we all work in the same office. If you click back to Peter’s original article, you’ll see that I’ve made very few changes. At first that made me a little nervous. Am I publishing my own ideas here? But with Peter’s blessing, and some more thought, I think that just highlights my point even more. Enjoy:

1. Create a culture that is open, trusting, and fun
Be sure to do what you say you are going to do, and to be honest and open with everyone. Encourage your students to make suggestions, to try new approaches to old problems, and to take risks. If someone makes a mistake, encourage your students to learn from it rather than punishing them.

2. Take the time to meet with and listen to your students
Don't put a limit on these meetings--engage your students as much as they want or need.

3. Personally thank students for doing a good job
Catch kids doing things right, and thank them for their good work. Thank them often, in a timely way, and sincerely--one on one, in writing, or both.

4. Teach your students how your classroom succeeds and fails
Ensure that your students know how what they do in class makes for a successful year, and how they have an effect on how the classroom looks when people have a negative opinion. Encourage your students to do more of the former and less of the latter.

5. Involve your students in decisions
When you involve your students in decisions that have a direct effect on them or their classroom, you will gain their commitment to the resulting solutions.

6. Provide students with a sense of ownership in their work
When your students feel like owners, they will act like owners. Ownership can be symbolic and simple (for example, giving students business cards), or it can be very real by providing employees with opportunities to earn rewards, extra responsibilities, and choices.

7. Provide your class with feedback
Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Make feedback on the performance of your students specific and frequent, and then support them in improving it.

8. Reward and promote high performers
Be sure you know who your high performers are, and then reward them for their high performance.

9. Train and encourage those who need help
Every classroom has students who aren't performing as well as their peers. Provide them with additional training, coaching, and attention until they are able to bring their performance up to standard--or above.

10. Celebrate successes
Take time to celebrate the success of your classroom, your class teams, and the individuals within it. Be fresh and innovative with your ideas, and make it fun and inspiring.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Good Student Phone Call of the Day

It started in a Twitter chat last fall - there was a challenge to make three or four good phone calls a week. The idea is an old one, too often, parents never hear from us unless there's a problem. If we continue in that way, we're not building a community with our parents and our students.

It sounds nice, but I'm terrible at scheduled activities. It got to be work, rather than a joyful, sharing thing. I already get home way too late because I can be horribly inefficient when the day's up. Then there was the matter of calling kids. Some kids seemed like they were deserving of good phone calls every day. And then there are the students who never seem to have a good day - and aren't those the kids who really need the good call?

I don't know if the change came during Breakfast Club 5:30 (#BFC530), an early morning Twitter chat, or before, but an important concept popped into my head. Don't do work for your students. Give your students opportunity to run things as much as possible. So I turned the responsibility over to the students, and now we have the Good Student Phone Call of the Day. It works like this: Students gather and nominate someone in class for a good phone call. A nomination can be for a number of reasons. A student may have been especially kind or helpful. Maybe they nailed it on a test. It might be that their behavior wasn't as bad as usual, or maybe everyone just feels like they needed a smile.

Once we have a nominee, they go over to my phone, we hit speakerphone, and they read the script. "Hi mom/dad, I'm calling on speakerphone to tell you that I was voted Good Phone Call Student of the Day." At this point, everybody in the class goes wild, cheering, and I pick up the handset so they can tell their parent more about it.

To allow freedom, you're allowed up to two phone calls before we've cycled through everyone. To make the kid who's picked last feel better, we make the last day of the cycle "KIDSNAME Day," and allow her/him to have preferrential searing, line leadership, and other perks for the day. Of course, they also get the phone call that day.

So far, response has been very positive. Students like recognizing nice things about their classmates, and several students have told me that Mom and Dad treated them like a VIP at home.

Like anything in elementary education, this isn't without problems. Sometimes the nominations are a little too, "I wanted to nominate my friend because she's nice to me," and not, "Here's why she's a good classmate." Sometimes we don't get done cleaning up in time. While I would love to do this every day, third graders don't always clean up the classroom efficiently. We look up, and it's time to leave. As I reflect on this, I realize that this problem solving, too, needs to be handed to my students. So there's my next step. Hand this off to the kids. Run the show, baby, and you'll learn to run the show.

Lastly, during one edchat, another Twitterer got very upset about parents getting called during work hours. I've never had a complaint from parents, but it is a concern worth noting.

So what do you do? How do you recognize, or help your students recognize greatness in your classroom? How do you ac-cen-tuate the positive?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Global School Play Day #GSPD

When I learned last week, in the middle of an ed chat, that today was Global School Play Day(GSPD), I was in before I even clicked the link.

Reading up on the movement (check out their website...), I learned that it was based on the idea that kids build their socialization skills through unstructured, face to face play time.

I talked with my students, and found out how right they were on the first part. So many hands went up when I asked how many students have more than one activity after school each day, then dinner, then homework, then bed. With music lessons, sports, martial arts, church, and so many other activities (and I'm not impugning any of these, they're all valuable), kids often don't have much time of their own during the week.

I thought about the face to face part - it made me think of a Louis CK bit where he mentions that kids don't learn empathy when they're on a device. If I say something mean to you in a text, or online, I don't get the sting of watching the pain on your face, I don't grow. If I say something awful to your face, and I see your face sink, it feels awful!

I was in - I love the GSPD idea that providing the students a chance to play together. I played the role of busy dad who doesn't want his kids on XBOX all day. "Go play, I'm busy," I told them. And while I made some videos for teacher friends of mine, I watched them. They played, they organized themselves, they included each other, they did problem solving, and they compromised. It was beautiful!

Of course, being a teacher, I want my kids to reflect, so tomorrow, look for some good blog posts about their Day of Play!