Friday, January 13, 2012

My First 30 Day Challenge

Towards the end of December, I shared this post about a 30 day challenge. My first challenge was something that 3 friends and I have been planning for a while, an exercise challenge. But first, a little bit of a back story.

In October, 2007 I embarked on a journey to improve my health. Over the course of the next two years I lost about 60 pounds using a combination of Weight Watchers online and exercising. This was my first experience with making online connections because I met several dear, supportive, amazing friends with whom I am still close today. While I had my online support across the country and had in person friends who cheered me on, I did all my exercising on my own. Unlike most people who want or need a workout buddy, I never wanted one and kept my exercising private.

With all the stressors of the past year I've gained back about 25 pounds. I still have my online friends supporting me, but now I have some friends in real life helping me out as well. Starting in October a small group of us have been exercising after school, and these little sessions have led us to my first challenge: completing 30 days of the Insanity Asylum program. I will say that I am modifying lots of the exercises, and we are doing cardio on our own on the weekends. But we are doing this program together.

As with any new experience I'm having good days, and I'm having bad days. On the good days I'm proud of myself for stepping out of my box, exercising with other people, and doing things I REALLY can't believe I'm doing. On the bad days I get frustrated with what I can't do and have to modify. Whether good or bad, I am growing (and shrinking) and that is what's important. Maybe when all is said and done, I'll have shrunk enough that my original potato chip challenge won't seem so daunting!

7 days down, 23 more to go! I'll let you know what happens! :)

Seven Days In

We're seven days in to our Pennsylvania projects so I thought it would be a good time for a little update on how our PBL experience was going. When we last left off we had just gotten started with the projects by doing a culture building day, and the kids were raring to go! So what happened next?

Unfortunately, because of previously scheduled professional days, I was out of my classroom two of the next three days. The first day I was out of the classroom the students used our work on the 5 Themes of Geography and the Peidmont Region examples that we did together, and they developed their own sets of questions about their region. Each group had three questions from our curriculum that they were required to answer:

1. What is the climate of the region?
2. What landforms are in the region?
3. What are the natural resources in the region?

The groups were tasked with brainstorming other questions that would fit into the 5 themes and would provide people viewing our projects with enough information so they could learn about the different parts of our state. After doing their brainstorming group members worked together and decided which of the questions were going to be part of their projects.

Here is the first change I will make next time we do this project: I will go over the group's questions with them to talk about the information that the answers will give to our viewers and to make sure they fit with the 5 themes of geography. It got to the point, on day 4 or 5, where I had to go back with some groups to reword and change their questions. I know this was taking away some of their self-directed learning, but the groups were struggling with their research, and their answers weren't going to give our viewers any information about the region.

The research has been another challenge. As expected the kids jumped right on to the iPads and laptops and started googling and using random sites. If I had $5 for every time I said, "But how do you know that is about the ___________ region in PA?" and a student said, "Ummmmmmmmm...." Even though I started my model research in our text book and got almost all of my demo information from our book and links on our class websites, the kids still went right for google. It's been interesting to see the light bulbs click when the groups have asked for help, and we've found exactly what they've been looking for in their text book. One student actually said to me, "Wow. We wasted a lot of time, and it was right here the whole time."

The draw of the tech tools is strong, but unfortunately their tech skills are not so strong... at least not when it comes to searching. So another thing I will change for our next project is to review searching skills with the kids. It's frustrating that they aren't getting those skills in their tech class, but that's a WHOLE other post for a different day!

Our biggest challenges, which will probably not be a surprise if you've been following my blog, has been teamwork and staying focused. And if you check out our blogs here and here (look for posts by the regions) you'll see that the kids recognize it, too. While they recognize it, they aren't quite sure exactly what to do to fix it. I'm circulating but trying not to hover. I'm being a mediator when a group asks for help, but I'm trying to stay out of disputes unless it becomes really problematic. And I'm trying not to redirect students, but I do provide them with daily reminders about how much more work time they have left and the requirements listed on their project rubric.

Another big thing I'll change for next year (when we hopefully won't lose a week of school to historic flooding and odd smells)? More teamwork and collaboration. I'm envisioning spending the whole first month of school on team building, Daily 5 training, and individual assessments with kids to help prepare them for the rest of the year.

So where are we now? The kids have about three more total hours of work time next week, and their final projects are due next Friday. Of the 8 groups, 3 are already working on their presentations: 1 group is doing a podcast, and the other two are creating pages on our class blog. Today, I stood in the middle of my classroom, and just looked around in awe watching four groups work. It may have taken them six days, but today I felt like they finally "got it" and that was VERY exciting to me.

I also had a great conversation with my teammate today. She is not participating in PLP with me, but she has bravely agreed to try out my crazy schemes. Like many teachers, myself included, she said, "I just feel like I should have given them the questions so I know they're getting what they need." What they need = what's required by the curriculum. My response to her was that I know exactly how she feels because it is REALLY HARD to give up that control. And while we may not be able to guarantee that they are learning everything they "need" to know about the PA regions, we are giving them skills they really need in terms of teamwork and technology. I'm proud of her for going out on the limb and taking a risk with me, and I know that our next projects will only get better.

Look for our final update and the links to our final projects. I know the kids will love hearing what you think!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What Has PLP Meant to Me?

Today as we were together in our Year 2 PLP team, my teammate posted a discussion for our group. In part, she said:

Sometimes our thoughts and actions evolve slowly over time and we don't notice the changes because they seem subtle. If you think back to life before PLP, consider the technology you are using now that you weren't using then. Which Web 2.0 tools have you used in your classroom and involved your students in that you may not have been familiar with a year and a half ago? How have your attitudes and philosophy shifted? How has the PLP experience brought about change in your teaching? Have you gained a new perspective, new tools, new approaches to learning?

It really got me thinking, and here is how I responded:

The Web 2.0 tools that have most impacted me have been Twitter and blogging. I have learned so many different things from the people and conversations that I participate in on Twitter that I'm not sure what I would do without it. I've been in hour long Twitter conversations that have taught me more than any inservice day I've attended. These two things have also helped me make connections with people outside my faculty, and these connections have stretched my thinking far beyond any courses I've taken. Blogging with my students has also helped them make connections and have authentic audiences. It's gotten them excited about writing and giving them a purpose for writing.

My attitudes and philosophies have changed tremendously! Before last year, I didn't like the way I was teaching, but I wasn't really sure of what I could do to change things. I think very differently about my students, their motivation for learning, why we teach them what we teach them, and if I am truly preparing them for the lives they will live. I'm starting to think more about learning as a process and not just a product (or a test) and how I can help my students see the value in learning about things they love outside of school.

Before PLP I knew that I wasn't happy the way I was teaching, but I really didn't have any idea what I could do to change. I knew I wanted to do more with technology, but I wasn't exactly sure how to do it. Being part of our Year 1 team and now our Year 2 team has given me knowledge to recognize why I specifically wasn't happy with my classroom (I wasn't preparing my kids for the future) and the knowledge and skills to begin changing things (tools, TPAK) to match my new philosophy. I am giving the kids more of a voice in their learning and trying to help them make connections outside our school.

This whole experience has re-energized me, made me feel like I have a voice, and given me hope that we can change the state of education.

I wonder, my PLN friends, what have you experienced in the last year or two that has impacted your learning? I would love to hear about how you have changed and grown!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

PBL Round 2 - GO!

I decided that I wanted to use an integrated social studies / communication arts project for my next attempt at PBL in my classroom so today we started working on our Regions of Pennsylvania project.

There was a lot of prep work to get us to this point, and it started before our holiday break. In the two weeks leading up to break we learned about our region of Pennsylvania, the Piedmont region, as a class. Basically I modeled what I would do if I were in the students' shoes and had to do a project about a region of Pennsylvania. Through my modeling we talked about the 5 themes of geography, we talked about non-fiction reading skills and using a variety of text organization tools that help us work smarter, not harder. We talked about taking notes, doing effective searches on the Internet, making sure photographs can be legally used for our projects, and how to use tools like Google docs, Wordle, Fotobabble and Picnik.

Right before break the students and I took a brief look at the four other regions of Pennsylvania. Based on what the students previewed I asked them to order the regions from 1 to 4: 1 was the region they would most like to learn about, and 4 was the one they found least interesting. Over the break I assigned the students to groups based on their choices. In an effort to help each group have an equal work load I did try to keep a similar number of students in each group, but I did not consider student abilities or personalities when grouping. I gave each student their first or second choice.

Today was our first day working together, and I looked at it as a culture building day. Just like our PBL activity about the Iditarod I started by asking the kids some questions. We discussed the answers and shared these in a whole group setting, and the students recorded answers on our white board. Their answers looked like this (the second group's answers will be added tomorrow!):

After we talked about these questions as a class, the students broke into their groups and had to make these decisions:

1. What jobs do the people in our group need to do to meet our goals?
2. Who will fill each job?
3. Will we keep the same jobs for the whole project or will we switch?
4. What do we think we want to do for our project?

To help with this the students were given a folder that included a list of everybody's name and spots to fill in jobs, the rubric we use to grade this particular project (it is a social studies common assessment), and a set of blogging guidelines.

As I was planning for this project over the break, I was participating in several different discussions in my PLP community. One discussion in particular made me stop and think about fact that my emphasis, and consequently that of my students, was entirely on the product they create. I really want to change this to get the focus on the process as well. So one job I decided to require in each group is a Blogger, hence the blogging guidelines.

Each day one group member will be the Blogger. Their job will be to report out about what their group accomplished, what went well, what didn't do so well, and what the group's next steps will be. I selected the first students to fill this position tomorrow since I will not be in class to support them, but after this it will be up to the groups to decide who will fill this role each day. I'm looking forward to reading the first posts tomorrow to see how things go, and I'm looking forward to hearing whether or not having this role helps them start reflecting on what they are learning and how they are working each day.

As seems to be the norm this year, I'm not sure how this project will turn out. I think we're off to a good start, and I think the kids have the background knowledge that they need so I guess we will see what happens! Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Growing Already

A few months ago, I saw this post from Pernille Ripp, and it immediately touched my heart for many reasons.

I am a huge hockey fan (Go Blackhawks!) so I know how passionate people can be for their teams, but that isn't why I felt so compelled to do something. My brother, a helicopter pilot, and my sister-in-law, formerly a chemical weapons specialist, served during the early years of the war in Iraq. This post took me back to those two years while they were away, and I remembered exactly how much we missed them, how much we wanted to make their time away more bearable, and how much we wanted to give them a homecoming they would never forget. I knew I had to do something to help Pernille have an amazing homecoming for her brother.

In the past "do something" probably would have meant writing a letter or trying to figure out exactly how to call somebody in Canada, but today things are a little bit different. A quick google search gave me an email address to contact the Maple Leafs, and I also found the Maple Leafs' twitter page and sent out some tweets. I wasn't the only one to do it, either, based on the tweets that I was seeing. And then I saw this pop up:

I felt pretty confident that something good would come from that so I waited patiently to hear what would happen. I was so excited for Pernille the day she tweeted that her brother was back on American soil - I remember that day for our family, too. I was actually celebrating Christmas with my brother, sister-in-law and parents 1,100 miles from home when Pernille posted about what happened so I didn't find out until this morning. You can check out Pernille's video to see the surprise!

While I already knew that I could learn amazing things from the people I've met online, today I saw exactly what people can do when they come together. Even though we may all be "strangers" being online is teaching me that we are all more connected than we ever realized, and we need to take care of one another.

My word for 2012 is grow. I grew today because, while I sometimes wonder about it, I can see that the voices of just a few CAN make a difference. I grew because it makes me want to continue helping people in many different ways. And most importantly I grew my appreciation for the amazing soldiers, like Paul, and their families who continue to sacrifice for our country and our freedom.