Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sometimes we just need time with our friends.

Occasionally it's good to share a few of the happy moments in the classroom.

Defend the Fort!

As part of our Civil War studies, we are doing some simulations. This week's simulation is based around defending a fort. It started with an activity in which the class measured calculated the size of all of the major objects in the classroom. 

Once we had a map of our classroom, aka the Fort, we started figuring out the ways to defend it. Each student was given a budget and a set of criteria to draw their own defenses. 

Using some calculators and some brain power they got to work!

The defense plans were not easy to decide on. Do you buys cannons but no walls? Or do you buys walls and food, but then have just a few cannonballs or low gunpowder? 

There were a lot of creative ideas.

Even more conversations about budget, costs, necessities, and strategies.

The best part...they all participating an hour of math work without even realizing it. Measuring, counting, calculating area and perimeter, balancing a budget and not one grumble or groan about how math is boring.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Value of a Bad Grade - Part 3

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” 
–  J.K. Rowling

Art stories and grades aside, there are two important things that come from getting bad grades.

1. A bad grade, when given for the right reasons, is a marker that students are being challenged.

If students takes a math test of 10 problems and gets them 100 percent correct, they have shown they know all of the information on the test. They've had no opportunities to push beyond what they know or to show the limits of their ability. Using tests simply to assess student progress is great. Using that assessment as the marker of a student's success can be a recipe for trouble.

2. A bad grade, when a result of appropriate expectations, can teach resiliency. There are few things that teach us how to perservere more than learning to have the confidence to keep at something even when we know we aren't always the best.

My advice is simple. Shelter your kids from harm, do not shelter your kids from failure. Teach your kids that a grade is nothing more than a marker for where they can go next. Encourage teachers to see grades as a way to mark progress not as a way to value students. While I wish I could say that adding my voice to the wave of teachers trying to change the way we evaluate student success would change the tides of grading, the reality is it won't. What I hope will happen is that I might remind others, and myself, to look at letter grades as oversimplified and misunderstood. And to echo the countless reminders that the value of our kid's educations should not be determined by letters and numbers.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Value of a Bad Grade - Part 2

“No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.” – Chris Hardwick

As I describe the impact of straight A's, anyone with experience with gifted education will begin to reminisce about countless experiences with their students. I'll start this part of my talk on bad grades with a small personal story.

I grew up in a small town. I was an artistic kid who drew tons of pictures and received nothing but compliments about it most of my early childhood. My drawings were met with blanket compliments from everyone around me. Each year that passed, I kept reproducing the same images knowing that they would elicit that always desirable "I like it." or "It's great." The adults around me believed they were being supportive. In so many important ways, they were. School continued and so did the compliments. The few peers I had who matched my ability level had very different styles and goals. Working with them was the childhood equivalent of parallel play. We worked around each other but never challenged each other. 

Then I moved for college. I was in my first real city. Instead of being surrounded by farmland and people I knew, I was surrounded by classrooms and students from around the state. Eagerly I signed up for every art class I could find. It wasn't long before my self-confidence hit rock bottom. Suddenly I was surrounded by artists of varying skill levels and teacher who were equipped to challenge me. Except I hadn't experienced challenge before with my art. I had no idea how to cope with the emotional impact. My first reaction was to consider dropping out. I didn't fortunately. But this put me up against a learning curve that should have been spread out over years of education. Suddenly I was making up for what should have been years of slowly adapting to rigor and challenge. 

If during my early artistic years, I had been pushed things might have gone differently. If I had been challenged instead of having the work I was given simply be smothered in kudos I might have been more resilient. If I had known how to brace myself for the reality of not being the best all the time, I would have made very different choices in my first year of college.

This sudden exposure to a wall of uncertainty happens at a much faster timeline for gifted kids. So often gifted kids have an easy time with early academics. Kindergarten and first grade can feel effortless for students who were early readers or grasp reading comprehension early. But as they move along they begin to encounter a place in school were their giftedness can't compensate for the simple need for work. Or worse, their giftedness has shielded them from the humility that comes with not being perfect all the time. Just consider the countless papers out now about perfectionism.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Value of a Bad Grade - Part 1

“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” - Eloise Ristad

Recently I've seen an increase of articles that address the importance of students learning to fail. There are a lot of really amazing writers addressing the overall topic in ways that are thoughtful and interesting. If you're interested, just do a search for "the benefits of failure in school." You'll get some great results.

I wanted to go a step further and talk about how this is reflected in grades. Much to the chagrin of peers and maybe a few teachers, I would rather my students get C's and B's on work than A's. You're probably already cringing at the idea. Don't worry, you're not alone. The culture around grades has been so ingrained in us that we internally assign these alphabet letters emotional value that goes well beyond academics. I'll counter with this question ... how easy would it be for me to ensure your kid gets an A? 

The answer is simple. It's too easy. Without much work I could assign work that ensures your students brings home A's, gold stars and tons of smiley faces. Voila! I look like an amazing teacher.

The problem is that while it seems grand, it means that each student is being set up for failure. These accolades make everyone feel great. At least in the moment they do. While these grades feel great in the moment and build initial confidence, they do not teach students the value of work. 

When a student gets an A, it tell me they knew 100 percent of the material they were tested on. This implies mastery. Mastery is an indication that the work is easy for the student. Work at school should rarely be easy. It should be fun. It should be interesting. It should not be easy.

At any given moment, we should be challenging students. That means that every time I see an A, I see a missed opportunity to challenge a student. Each A represents an area where the work is below the level needed to make it a learning opportunity. Each A is a note that students are doing work they already know. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Small Motor Projects - Learning Hands-On

Our most recent science project was to design and create something using a small motor. The term something is used intentionally. Students were encouraged to come up with a design for an object that interested them and showed their understanding of the motor. Having a an open theme for the final creations gave students a lot of freedom in design.

Objectives for this lesson included:
- Understanding how small motors worked
- Understanding the mechanics of the magnetic rotation
- Following the design process, start to finish
- Trying, fixing, and revising designs

We had a staff with a spinning start on top.

We had a mini-mounted submarine made with a water proof case.

There was a working elevator.

A "merch" gun. A machine built to shoot confetti. It was surprisingly effective.

We even had a rabbit that ate a spinning carrot. 

The designs were amazing. All in all we had some really well executed creations. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Question storming the Civil War

Freshly back from winter break, we are starting right in on our new topic. The American Civil War. 

We getting our footing by reading the Blastback to the Civil War book. 

We also did some brainstorming to identify things we wanted to know about the Civil War. The goal here is lay the foundation for a deeper understanding of the causes and effects of the war.

Evolution & Archaeology Overnight Field Study: Sun Banks Cabins

We roasted S'mores and told stories around the fire. The cabins were nice and we got great cabin mates. There was a lake that people ...