Sunday, March 25, 2018

Choosing quality resources: When "cute" doesn't cut it.

Let me start off by saying, who doesn't like cute stuff?

I do. I love cute stuff.

I love little apples and chunky frames on handouts.

I love craftivities that ask kids to cut and glue, color and bedazzle.

I love anchor charts that use color beautifully and include clever visuals to help kids remember.

Glitter... not so much. But buttons? I'm all about buttons.

But sometimes, "cute" just doesn't cut it.

Sometimes, you need a resource with some meat. By this, I mean, when you choose resources to use in your classroom, it's important to keep the purpose in mind. What's the point of any resource? That kids will learn.

So let's think about what this looks like in practice.

Let's say you're working on a unit for social studies. You want kids to learn about the important contributions made by people in the Civil Rights Movement.

If you look for resources for this online, you'll probably find 100,000 different lesson ideas, printables, and crafts to help you teach this idea.

Just to name a few, you'd probably find:
  • a printable "anchor chart" with the pictures of the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • a craftivity to craft Martin Luther King Jr. out of a paper plate
  • a slew of graphic organizers for brainstorming and organizing information
  • lists of books about historical figures who were active during this time
  • a craftivity where students make a dream bubble and write about their dreams
  • a PowerPoint presentation introducing several important events from the Civil Rights Movement
  • a timeline cut and paste activity of important events
  • partner plays about civil rights activists
So you'll have to be selective.

But how will you choose what resources to use in your unit?

1. Start with the thinking.

What kinds of thinking will kids have to think (in their brains) understand the causes, events and impact of the Civil Rights Movement? They'll have to...
- identify the concept of civil rights
- understand the laws in place at the time of the Civil Rights Movement
- visualize the way life was before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement
- identify important historical figures and explain the actions of the people responsible for fighting for their rights
- empathize with people who made sacrifices to achieve something for their communities
- evaluate the outcome of civil rights leaders' actions
- understand that there are still inequalities in our world

When you're choosing resources, think about whether that resource will help kids achieve that thinking. The "anchor chart" might be adorable and serve a great purpose elsewhere, but will printing out what is actually just a poster actually help students do the thinking you need them to? It's okay to challenge our kids. In fact, it's necessary! Cute resources might look nice in the hallway, but they don't often get kids to think deeply about the important kinds of learning we want them to do.

Tip: Think about what kinds of thinking kids need to do, and choose resources that will help them do it.

2. Think about your time frame.

If you've got a couple weeks to spend on this unit, a lot of "cute" has to go right out the window.

Depending on your daily schedule, you may be able to fit in one crafty lesson, or you may not even have enough time to finish your unit even without the cute stuff. Having students create a paper plate Martin Luther King, Jr. might make a great bulletin board, but it probably won't be a great use of time during your week-long unit.

Tip: Think about how much time you've got, and choose resources that will maximize it.

3. Think about the level of support students need.

Some kids need more explicit instruction than others. Some groups of kids might be ready to read a partner play about Jackie Robinson and begin to empathize with his experience. Some groups of kids will need more scaffolding and discussion to help them get to the same point.

If you have students who need a lot of scaffolding, will cutting out a dream bubble and writing about their dreams be a good use of their time? Will they make the connection between the kinds of ideas you're discussing and the paper plate? If students need a lot of support and explicit teaching, sometimes adding too much "cute" can actually muddle the experience of learning and confuse them. Sometimes a simple experience is more effective than a complicated one.

Tip: Think about the most effective way to teach students the content, and choose resources that will support it.

4. Think about age and grade appropriateness.

If you're working with second graders, that timeline cut and paste activity might be a great way to scaffold their understanding of important events. Your fifth graders might not get much out of it, though, and it's possibly not appropriate for their developmental level.

A PowerPoint presentation with videos and images from the civil rights movement will most likely overwhelm your kindergarteners (unless you scaffold it verrrry well), but it might be just right for fourth graders.

Just because you find it online, doesn't mean that you have to use it. Your time, and your kids' time, is limited, so be selective and choose the resource that will give you the biggest bang for your buck!

Does that mean that any of those resources I mentioned are bad? No! Nothing is inherently wrong with any of them! But with our limited time and unique community of learners, some resources will be more effective than others.

For every resource that's out there, there's probably an appropriate time and group of kids to use it with! But not every resource is created equally, and our job is to choose the resources that will help our kids really, truly learn. Sometimes, it might be the right time for cute! And sometimes, "cute" doesn't cut it. It's our job to know the difference!
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Sunday, March 4, 2018

4 Reasons Why Instructional Coaches Visit Classrooms

How do you feel when people walk into your classroom?

Are you nervous? Immediately stressed? Get a bad case of dropsy?

This is pretty normal, unfortunately. In a lot of schools and communities, teachers tend to teach in a bubble. They spend all day with the minions, only looking someone eye-to-eye while walking to the car after school.

But this isn't ok. Bubble teaching is the opposite of collaboration. This isn't a commentary on teachers or coaches; rather it's about school culture. If your school promotes a culture of collaboration, you'll see teachers working together in different ways: PLCs, book studies, planning sessions, teacher-led sessions, and teachers visiting each other.

And yes, you'll see instructional coaches in classrooms, too.

In some schools, people visiting classrooms are a threat. They're there to "catch" you doing something "wrong". But that's not a good reason for coaches (or anyone) to visit classrooms. 

Here's what you should know: If I don't visit classrooms, I'm like a teacher who doesn't watch her students while they work. You can hand out an assignment and sit back. And then you'll have absolutely no idea what kids do, how or why they do it, and you've missed an opportunity to see how someone thinks.

Here are a few good reasons instructional coaches visit classrooms:

1. To see how the curriculum is going.

When I walk into a classroom and I see a lesson we planned (or didn't plan) during PLC going on, I should know what it's trying to accomplish. As an instructional coach, I know the standards for the subject areas I'm responsible for very well. And part of my job is to watch a bit of that lesson and see: are the lessons we're planning achieving their goals?

If not, then I need to make adjustments to the work I'm doing during planning with teachers. What's missing? Is the standard not being taught to an appropriate level or degree? Is it misaligned to the way we planned to assess the kids? Are the materials not serving the lesson purpose?

There's a lot to think about in curriculum. We can make all the most beautiful plans on paper, but if they don't pan out in the classroom for kids, then we've got to make some adjustments to our approach.

2. To see what training support they need to provide.

If I visit four third grade classrooms and see the same need, then maybe that's an appropriate topic for training. Training needs to be supportive of teachers' needs and wants for professional growth. If teachers are experts in questioning, then I'm not going to waste their time with an hour and a half session on higher-order questions. But if that's an area that many teachers can grow in, it's a good use of our time.

3. To figure out what kinds of support teachers can benefit from.

It's easy to sit around a table and talk about the support teachers need or want. But until I see it in action, I don't really know what that support needs to look like. As the instructional coach, it was my responsibility to meet teachers where they are and support them in increments. Just like in the classroom, everyone needs something different. What's equitable isn't what's "fair". I won't put everyone through the same support plan because that's a waste of their time.

In the classroom, I can really see what's happening. I visit the teacher who mentioned that her students are struggling with test-taking skills during a test to see what the kids are actually doing. I visit the teacher who is struggling with classroom management to see what's already in place. And I visit the teacher who hasn't asked for support to see what I can do to actually do my job: support her in areas she can grow in.

I take notes for myself, so I know where to go next. I use them to create a support plan for the teachers I've seen. Of course, I talk to the teacher, offer the support, and see what they think before proceeding.

4. To see who can help us grow.

Some teachers have a knack for something. They don't always know it, though. For example, I've walked into a classroom and seen a really great strategy for helping kids figure out main idea. I've told the teacher, "That's a great strategy! Could you share it with your colleagues?" and the teacher says, "Oh, everybody does that."

Nope. Everybody doesn't. We think everybody came up with the same ideas, but they didn't. Everybody has strengths and everybody has areas to grow in. So sometimes, in visiting a classroom I see one of those strengths that the teacher doesn't even know she or he has. And I use that as an opportunity to say, "Help us! Help your colleagues!"

I might ask them to share during PLC or another grade level meeting. We may set up a mini-training, or we may have an opportunity for colleagues to come in and watch a lesson in action. I might record the lesson and share it via Google Drive. Either way, if I don't visit classrooms, I can't help teachers share their ideas with each other.

We need to get out of our bubbles and work together to create the best possible collaborative professional environment for teachers. Sometimes that's a little uncomfortable, but discomfort is an opportunity for growth.

How do you feel about having people in your classroom?
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