Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fearless Gamification = Creative Collaboration!

 "Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success." - Henry Ford

When students walk into a classroom feeling less than confident and capable about their academic abilities, one MUST consider why.  What has happened in their lives as students that has created such cynicism?  As an educator myself, I do not believe there is one answer that can adequately bring clarity.  However, ALL answers are PART of the truth.  Perhaps assumptions were made and allowed misconceptions to slip by, perhaps the curriculum wasn't written well enough to ensure longevity in the students' memories, perhaps their personal lives at home are a larger focus for them than school is.  This is not a blame game.  The fact is, many students around our country feel this way and the finger can be pointed directly at ourselves.  You see, regardless of the reason for a child to be shut down, cynical, jaded, unengaged, and unenthusiastic, it is OUR JOB as their current teachers to reignite that flame of hope and excitement for learning; because WE ARE HERE TODAY and they matter.

I am often asked about how to do The Fearless Classroom rotations in ELAR when there is Reader's Workshop and Writer's workshop and they need sustained times for both skills to gain stamina and to really hone their skills.  To that, I am writing this post is to demonstrate one simple activity you can do with your students, the reluctant and the eager alike, to get them discussing reading, collaboratively working together, and writing for a purpose.

The Case of the Slain Green Dragon

Using a fifth grade level detective story from , students were grouped together heterogeneously based on academic reading levels.  I believe that there is a time and place for homogeneous groupings, but I also want my more skilled students to be an inspiration and support for my lesser skilled students because we ALL had skills we needs to work on and we are all in this together.  Students were charged with solving the crime of the slain endangered green dragon in the kingdom.  I am dressed as the head of the Department of SIOG (Significantly Important Operational Geniuses) who has come to the class to ask for their help and to brief them on their mission...

There were five suspects and several eye witnesses.  Students read through several pages of eye-witness accounts, testimony, and evidence, collaboratively took notes, asked questions, created charts and drawings, and worked together to make sense of what might have happened.  

Students of all reading levels were able to participate.  Some read the text part by part, some elicited excellent and thought-provoking questions, some provided possible angles and alternative explanations based on the testimony.  Whatever their contribution, everyone participated and felt successful.  

Some groups succeeded in figuring out the actual truth to what happened to the poor dragon.  Others did not.  However, the level of engagement, the level of conversation and negotiation with textual evidence, the respectful collaboration that occurred during this activity was far more important than the right answer.  

THIS is what I mean by being an "idea-driven" rather than an "answer-driven" classroom.  Sometimes, especially in learning situations, it is more about the journey and experience of the activity than the correct answer that makes the greatest impact on students.  

Notice where they are working, that all students are engaged and a variety of strategies and approaches are being used to solve the problem.

So be fearless in your approach, release the students to their own learning.  Set up an environment in which all students feel safe to take risks, supported by you and their peers in their thinking, and where effort and authentic chances are rewarded.  Answers aren't always the most important thing.  Sure they have their place…like on assessments…but if we don't teach kids to LOVE learning and to feel capable and free to explore EVERY angle of problems, then we are simply teaching them that there is always an answer and that if they can't figure it out, they must not be capable.  This unspoken and hopefully unintentional lesson happens daily in our classes… and we must not allow for it anymore.  Be fearless, let your students be fearless.  They deserve the chance.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Looking Back to Remember…Looking Forward in Hope to Honor

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."
--Marianne Williamson

When we ask of our students, "Who do you want to be?"  we often get answers like, "rich, famous, professional athlete, singer…"  Why not ask them who are you not to be? 
It is of no service to the world or oneself to pretend to be too small to make a significant impact.  There is no magnitude in shriveling into minute insignificant wisps because we are afraid that our light will be too powerful for others to appreciate and receive well.  Enlightenment is not about diminishing each other and ourselves.   The younger the child is the more they embrace and celebrate and believe in their light and genius.  They focus on it, create and sustain it, they play with it and cherish it.  They honor and protect it.  But somewhere along the line, they also lose it.  We were born to light this world and to share our genius with each other.  It is our purpose.  And when one of us accepts our own light, love, and genius within, we can begin to open the way for others to do the same.  Being fearless requires pushing forward with all of our light and abolishing self-doubt.  
On this, the 13th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, we look back to remember.  We look back not to dwell in the darkness of that day, but to study the light and the hope that manifested within that day.  As a 5th grade teacher, it is a difficult task to teach such a tragic and personally significant topic to children who weren't even born yet.  They don't have the heart-wrenching connection that kids do who were aware of the events on that day.  But nonetheless, empathy is something we can teach.  So we read stories, watched video clips that were age and school appropriate, but we also talked and shared concerns about why this happened and how we can help it from never happening again.  
Still, I pondered how to teach kids who were either not born yet or just, how impactful 9/11 was and how important it is that we remain humbled and grateful, vigilant to changing the world for the better, and steadfast in our charge and commitment to creating a world of compassionate genius. 

9/11 can be a tricky and scary topic to teach kids. They need to feel safe in their world while still made aware of the potential dangers. I need to be careful to keep it objective…maybe?
What is it that I REALLY want them to take away from these learning experiences? I started to see personal stories from surviving family members of victims of 9/11…maybe those could be our reading passages? But then again, I didn't want to focus on the sadness of that day…

I pondered on….

So my decision…I taught it through letter writing. I wanted my students to write letters to their future selves. To the leaders, the thinkers, the inventors, the changers that they will be. Thank them for the changes in our global culture…conceptualize the world they WANT and DESERVE. Thank the future "them" for the compassion and peaceful world they created. Thank them for tolerance and celebration of difference and uniqueness. Thank them for believing in human potential, human kindness, and love. I wanted them to see the world they want not only in their minds and written words but also in their hearts. I wanted them to conceptualize and hold fast to that image and feeling of having the world they will create, if only we just give them the chance.

I don't want them to be a generation of letter writers about how they lost someone in an attack. I don't want them to be a generation of letter writers questioning why this continues to happen. I wanted them to write letters explaining how and why they were the generation that figured it out…that changed the world…that created the world we've tried to destroy.

You may say I'm a dreamer (yeah yeah yeah I know the lyrics)…

but I DO believe in the genius of kids. And if we, with all our cynicism and jaded judgment, can listen and learn and get out of their way…to just love them and show them HOW to love each other by learning to LOVE each other too…we might just get this ball rolling…..I do believe it is THAT simple.

CHOOSE to matter. Because, in fact, YOU do.

Here are some of the resulting letters from 5th graders who have begun to see the glimmer of their light and the possible impact of their contribution to the world.
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for learning how to control your temper.  In fact, all you have control over is yourself and your reactions. Learning this has helped our world become more peaceful because when you don't get upset others don't get upset either.  This helps people who have sadness in their hearts believe in a more powerful emotion: hope.  Hope is so important to keep alive.  Hope is the change and LOVE is the way we give hope to others.  Thank you for always being an example of this.
D. C.

Dear Future Self,
Thank you for working hard and studying.  You have accomplished your dreams and the world is better for it.  Through your work as a medical researcher, you have not only come up with years of advancements in cancer treatment, but after persevering through failure after failure, you've found a cure!  You have shown people to never give up on their dreams and that with perseverance anything is possible.
N. A.

Dear Future Self,
Thank you for helping to create a world where special needs people are included and treated fairly.  Thank you for creating an organization that everyone wants to be a part of because everyone is included and loved.  Thank you for giving special needs people a chance to share their genius and light with the world.  Because of your example, you have changed the world for every person.
A. Y.
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for feeding hungry children by collecting canned food and making sandwiches.  No child should ever be hungry and because of you, no child who ever has known you has ever gone hungry.  You may not have changed the whole world, but you changed the world for those kids.  Thank you!
A. B.

Dear Future Self,
Thank you for becoming a police officer who doesn't just make sure people follow the laws, but who helps them to not break the laws again.  Police officers can be a lot like teachers.  They can teach people how to be better.  They can give them resources and show them better ways of thinking.  You have been a great example of how we can use our passions to create a more positive world.
C. D.
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for impacting other children by listening to them and allowing them to be who they are.  You have tried to experience every person's story.  The rich, the poor, the black, the white, Christian and atheist.  You have given everyone a chance to share who they are and made them feel like they mattered.  This changed the world.
J. O.
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for keeping kindness in your heart and the respect you have.  Thank you for living in love and never forgetting that you matter to the world.  You never doubted yourself which is why you accomplished more than you ever thought you could.  Thank you for not giving up on us.
A. C.
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for becoming a scientist.  Your contribution to children around the world who cannot afford care and medicine has created a world where no child dies from illness without a fighting chance.  Your work is important.  Your work matters.  
E. B. 
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for building a community park where the homeless can safely go to find shelters that are nice and make them feel like they are home.  Thank you for putting in a garden that feeds the homeless while they are there.  Thank you for giving them a chance to grow things in the garden so that they learn that they are important to this world too.  You have made a difference in their lives.
J. V.
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for becoming a veterinarian and rehabilitating rescued animals to be used as service pets for children who are sick, people with special needs, elderly people, and prisoners.  Animals are friends and they make people feel good and calm.  They can give children hope, help people with special needs feel more accepted in the world, give elderly people someone to be with when they get lonely, and can help give prisoners hope and a purpose so they won't feel like they have to always be a prisoner.  You are very special and the world is a better place because of you.
S. M.
Dear Future Self,
Thank you for learning to sing and using it to sing lullabies to babies who are in the NICU.  They need joy and they need to hear happiness.  Your voice in giving babies who are born early a chance to live.
M. Y.