Monday, June 15, 2020

"Home"work Reimagined

Does this story sound familiar?

You walk into the weekly math team meeting. Ideally, this is where teachers gather to talk about student learning. The conversation barely gets started when one person says, "the problem is these kids don't do their homework." Next thing you know, a 15 minute gripe session has transpired, with teachers concluding that "they [the students] don't know math because they don't do homework." This could not be any farther from the truth as saying the sky is green!

You say it does sound familiar? Ohh, but you don't even teach math and other teachers you know say the same thing. Well, it is time for this conversation to end no matter what subject you teach. "Home"work is not the source of why students are not learning; "home"work is a practice that, in its current implementation, is only able to be accomplished by students with access to resources - i.e. mainly white middle and upper class. Yes, I said it (in my best Dave Chappelle voice). Let's look at why and how we need to reimagine homework.

Why students not completing the homework is not the problem

I am known to be straightforward and honest. I am delicate when I can be or even humorous. In this instance, there is no way to be delicate or humourous. I have to tell you that we, the teachers, are the problem. We are not only the problem but we have done some of the greatest harm as we hold onto misinformed beliefs and biases. Let's break down how we are the problem before we work to change it.

Problem #1: Assigning homework at the wrong time

Homework is not assigned everyday and less frequency doesn't mean it is the right time either. Classroom Instruction that Works by Dean and others states, one purpose of homework is to practice on content already learned. None of the versions of their book says that homework is to practice content that you told them about. Explaining something for most of the hour and then having students interact for a minimum amount of time does not mean they learned anything. Homework is NOT where students learn, it is where they strengthen their learning.

Problem #2: The type of homework is all wrong

A copy of a handout or complete questions blah blah on page blah blah is the standard homework given to students. Although it has been an awful practice for decades, we keep it up. Students are not widgets. They come with different lenses that unfortunately we reduce to labels like special education or we are blinded by our bias and miss the strengths in their ethnicities.

Problem #3: The homework requires help

This is sometimes something that is a byproduct of the first two problems but even if we are mindful of the first two we can still possibly fall into this problem. It is where the student does not have multiple ways to access the work so that they would not need help from anyone else. It is no longer homework if they need help from family or friends. It is supposed to be an independent exercise.

"Home"work Reimagined

The inequities in this practice have plagued me since I entered the profession. Well, the entire educational system has plagued me to be honest but let's focus on this one. Let's review some simple things you can do to help kids learn instead of blaming them for not learning.

Center Instruction on Students

Lectures are not bad but it is a method that only works if the people who are listening are interested. Sitting quietly and listening for hours on end was never a great practice. It just seemed to work because the audience was motivated by a particular goal such as a diploma or degree. They figured out a way to fit the method even though the method never worked for them. Lectures only make the person who is talking know more. Some ways to move student to the center of instruction is through thinking routines, protocols and collaborative strategies.

Focus on Thinking

I love the way Classroom Instruction that Works shares how "homework has two purposes:

  1. some assignments may be practicing or elaborating on vocabulary or other knowledge and skills already learned in school, whereas
  2. others will focus on preparing students for new information or elaborate on information that was already introduced."
Can this be accomplished by a handout from your textbook? Yes, but it usually is not designed with your students in mind. I love assigning homework where my students just need to think about something especially with no right or wrong answer. It also honors their "home" since they may have a variety of commitments going on when they are there. One example of this from my Algebra I and Algebra II math class is that students can think about all the ways in life we can have two or more lines while working or interacting with family.

Uplift the Family

Learning is relationship based. Before students ever come to school, they learned with their family. Regardless of the family situation, they are being shaped together. Educators are not just educating their students, they are educating families directly and indirectly. It is time to not do this in a default way but to be intentional. Start with getting to know your families. Students can tell you a lot as well as a home visit. Events designed with the family in mind is another way to get to know them. Use this information to alter your classroom instruction and the work they do outside of class.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Census Distance Project

Like many across the country, I am constantly learning about distance learning. The learning curve is steep when you weren't normally practicing distance learning. In my state, we are about to enter our third week. The first week was spent making contact with students. I had a poor start to this given I had a lot of pressing senior sponsor and department chair items. However, I was able to plan my first distance project from the advice of several students. I would like to share my successes and lessons learned.


Set Up Guided By Students

I knew it would do me no good to set a schedule or ways of working without my students having input. Their world and mine are completely upside down right now. I suspect many of them are working even more now and some are taking care of siblings. Some have only their phones to use while others have computer with internet access. Therefore, it was important to get their input on how we would work together. I held some informal focus group sessions and got some guidance from the students.

Google classroom is the platform students chose as their classroom management tool at the beginning of the school year during the Ultimate Classroom project. As I talked with students about how I can share with them the details of the project, I asked them to choose between Google Classroom or a simple website. One student in my first focus group suggested both. However, everyone else said Google classroom so majority won. I used the assignment feature but with a focus topic to help students access portions of the project. I also posted directions including video explanations of how to get to the assignments.

Students liked the idea of having times spread across the day for them to meet since work hours may be different for people. One student suggested 8 a.m., noon and 5 as asynchronous times to meet. I decided to go with these times and hold them on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It will act primarily as Q&A with an option of a miniature lesson if needed. As a school, we have a math help line where a couple of math teacher stays on a Google Hangout so students can join as needed. I also shared with students that I am on this helpline from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. each day.

There are several social media tools I wanted to use but didn't want to use anything they would not feel comfortable. Everyone was comfortable with Youtube and Instagram however Facebook not so much. I decided to build out my youtube channel and add playlist sections to better help students use it through the rest of the school year. I will also use instagram for a few of the projects given students are comfortable.

Moderate Participation 

Given the little contact I made with students, I was thinking only 3 or 4 may participate in the first project. However, I had 11 students work on assignments this past week. Near the end of the week a few more reached out as to how they can participate. I only had one person join me for the Q&A session but that may change this coming week. As I meet with my math department, I had the highest turnout of students actually completing work who were juniors and seniors. Freshmen teachers had a better response from students than I did.

Spirit Rather than the Letter

I absolutely love PBLWorks structure for Project-Based Learning. I say all the time that the essential elements are basically best teaching practices put together. The project path helps plan how these elements work together in a simple process. However, the conditions and background of my students will make it difficult to follow all of these parts to the letter. Although they had grown in many areas of implementing the process, they still lacked certain skill sets. Add to this the lack of us being able to meet consistently every day and the result is an adaptation to the spirit of the structure.

As a result of my students condition, I chose to focus on small amounts of elements and make the path a series of tasks rather than driven by questions. For this project, the focus was on challenging problem, voice and choice, authenticity and public product. I will change up the element focus based upon the project and how my students respond over time.

Lessons Learned

More Scaffolding

As always, I thought I provided the necessary scaffolding for students to make a video promoting people to complete the census. You can never have enough scaffolds in a project. However, distance learning has shown me that the scaffolds are very different than when you are in the classroom. Distance learning works best when students have a moderate to high ability to self-regulate and confidence in their ability to learn. My students are at very different levels with these skills. My scaffolds had some aspects that addressed this variation but not enough. 

Going forward, I am going to have to make the connection from the learning to the product tighter. Rather than give students two days to work on the product, I will have them work on a small portion of it each day. I will also use nearpod as we did in class to help deliver lessons to go along with the assignment. I thought giving them voice and choice in reviewing different materials would be supportive of their needs however they need more structure. 

What are your successes and lessons learned during this journey?

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Ultimate Design Challenge Launch

This week, I started the ultimate design challenge project. It is a project I planned years ago (2016) as a way to have a meaningful look at polynomials. I didn't get to do it because I changed subjects. Last year, I returned to Algebra II but didn't get to do the project. This year, I am taking the plunge. I hope you join me as I share candidly my journey. In this post, I share some of the planning, instruction before the project, the details of the entry event and next steps.

Planning the Foundation of the Project

Many people ask me how do I plan a project. You can adapt a person's project, have an idea or look at your standards. If you start with an idea, always go back and ground it in standards. This project was a mix of an idea and standards. I wanted to do a project about polynomials that was meaningful. It hit me one day that volume and surface area dynamics is a polynomial. I saw a video about two students helping to make an impact on the challenges of packaging. This helped me formulate the big ideas within the ultimate design challenge. I then would need to look at all the standards that would be applicable. This requires reviewing my state, district, PLC goals and personal goals.

As many of you who have read my blog before, I live in Oklahoma. As an Algebra II PLC, we use the state standards, district's pacing guide and ACT as our guide for instruction. We meet twice a week to dive into the foundational four questions for a PLC:

  1. What do we expect our students to learn? 
  2. How will we know they are learning?
  3. How will we respond when they don't learn?
  4. How will we respond if they already know it? 
Before we launched the unit, we discuss what we expect our students to learn. We use a translation document which includes the state standards that our district has bundled into a unit, the time the district allotted for instruction, our teams meaning of the standard and the DOK level we determined is required by the standard. We then create the assessments and date we will give them. This guides all of our instruction and therefore guides some aspects of the project. I am the only person in my PLC who does projects. I know many people wonder how to do projects if they work in a PLC. You can do it even if you are the only one.

Based upon the standards to be taught, I had to think about the following items:

  • What standards don't belong in the project but need to be taught before or after the project?
  • What standards are needed for the project but not appropriate to be in the project?
  • Are the standards that will be taught in the project foreground (the main focus) or background (lightly addressed but not assessed)?
These are important to think about because it determines the expectations inside of the products and when the project will launch within the unit.

Beginning the Unit

Before the Launch of the Project
The polynomial unit started on January 21 with operations of polynomials. The team decided to begin the unit with this standard and take at most 10 days. I decided it would be better to have these standards be taught before I launched the project. Some aspects of operations is used in the project. Dividing and some aspects of multiplying are not so it would be better to teach it before the entry event. I thought it would be an easy concept that will help build the students confidence before the concepts become difficult. Therefore, I took 7 days to teach it, 1 day to assess and 2 days to remediate and enrich.

The students struggled heavily with multiplying and subtracting polynomials in a way I never thought they would. The standard is something they have seen since middle school. We were just going to be increasing terms and variables. They also still struggle with solving a quadratic from the previous unit. I was so nervous about them taking the common formative assessment on January 29th. As I suspected, around 40% showed mastery while my goal is 70%. The remediation day was going to be pivotal. I am going to have to rethink how to incorporate some of the challenges with adding and multiplying in the project. I needed the help of the students so I asked them on Friday why they were having such a challenge. Here are some of their responses:

Launching the Project (Entry Event)
The project launched on Wednesday, the same day they took their four question test on operations of polynomials. It is not common to have a test on the same day as the entry event. My class periods are only 47 minutes long so I have to make the most of them. My students have experienced two projects. I needed to spark their heart but also see if they could make sense of the problem without my guidance. The entry event was inspired by Rayhan Ahmed's water quality project. I like the way he used the see, think, wonder thinking strategy. I have a lot of ELL students so I scaffolded the process by having sentence frames next to the pictures. After students completed their test, they went to the back of the room to select one picture that resonated with them (see image below). Using a sticky note, they followed the thinking strategy of see, think, wonder. They then returned to their seat to read the project information sheet and complete the zoom sheet like they did in prior projects. I wanted to see if they could complete the first three sections without my guidance.

The thinking routine did spark the students' interest. Many students wrote about how they were concerned about what was occuring in the pictures. The next day was spent examining their work and reflecting on how they can improve. Students wrote their reflections in a site called sown to grow. Students received help and completed questions like the ones they missed. Students who received a perfect score worked on challenging problems involving applications of operations of polynomials. On Friday, we had a shortened schedule due to a culture assembly. Students didn't fill out the zoom sheet as well as I had hoped so they were guided using nearpod through completing the sheet. They also answered three questions about operations to continue to monitor their growth. Next week, we will unpack their sticky notes.

Next Steps

I have a lot of reflection to complete this weekend. I need to see how I can alter some of the details within the milestones to include development of students operation skills. I need to see what resources about the environment I want to include that won't take up too much time or distract from the math. It is a delicate balance in a math PBL to keep math at the center while also addressing the context. Huge thanks to my PBL friends for helping me compile some resources. Stay tuned!

Friday, November 15, 2019

Parabolas for Profit Project-Week 1

This will be the second time I did the profit project. It is the first time I adapted a project rather than created it from scratch. It is a project on PBLWorks. It still takes planning to use a project someone else created. You have to wrap your brain around what will happen, collect the audience and think about what your students need. My first time doing this project was a fail. I did not scaffold enough for my students and they folded like lawn chairs. I had an authentic audience that I had to apologize to for the project not being able to conclude. I share this to explain it happens even if you have been doing projects for years. It doesn't mean you never do the project again or even drop the method all together. It means you refine and try again. Here is my round two with the project.

Some Background

After deep reflection (highly recommend after every project) of last year's implementation of the project, I realized there were several things that attributed to the failure. One of them was having an advanced level of public audience too soon. I am the only person in my building that does projects with this depth so my students lack a lot of skills since it is not reinforced in other classes. One of the changes I realized I should do is increase the public audience over time. The syllabus project is their first project and they are the audience. Not the gold standard way but what is needed for my students for their first time. The second should be one person removed. This is their second project and I decided to make the client be a person they know but some of the work along the way would be with a mix of people they know and don't know. The project requires it to be a business that sells a product which will limit my options of an audience they would know. I decided to make me the client even though it would mean my students will get to know parts of my private life. Although it is a line I would normally not cross, I realized it would help my students know the teaching profession better and appreciate so much of what I do to help them have a stellar education. 

Day 1: Project Introduction

As with all projects, the first day or several days is the entry event. It helps hook the students into the project. I have to admit I am so uncreative when it comes to this part of a project. To help make it a hook for the students I established my classroom to be a simulation of the business world where they will have occasional clients. It is not the greatest hook and the students always want to know how much they are going to be paid but it works to engage them because they eventually move to thinking it is cool to build their resume. Even though they are being introduced to a client, I do still try to have some of type of interesting dialogue before they are told about the client. For this project, I asked them to guess the client given three clues.
I really thought it would be an easy guess given the clues. However, one hour really had a hard time figuring out it was me. When I revealed it was me and they were going to help my company they shocked me even more. The entire class broke out in a round of applause. Some shared various feelings like "You go Mrs. Norfar" or "Yeah, Mrs. Norfar". The best was from LT (pictured with his group below). As the applause died down, he said "You are blessed and highly favored." That just so warmed my heart.
LT with a group of students who are applauding with the class
Although one hour had this unique twist, all the classes were similar in the remaining portion of the class. During every entry event, I have students fill out a problem solving process called zoom while viewing the project information sheet. We went over the parts a lot at the beginning of the year but I didn't bring them back to the form as much as I should so I know they would not remember what goes in each spot. Therefore, I reminded and extended their understanding of each section as well as provided at least one answer. One of my areas of extension that I knew was going to be hard was the zoom out section. I had never had them picture the solution. I knew this was going to be hard because the solution is so simple (the best price) but yet foreign (documents they have never seen). I also didn't want to give them the look of the form yet so it was completely stretching their mind. I was shocked at some of the answers. I expected many more blank responses. I did not expect the answers to give me insight into altering some of my plans. It looks like one class period will be debating about prices. Anyone got a good protocol for this? 😊 

The day wrapped up nicely with them writing their questions they need to get answered within a week. The questions will be used to drive their learning and the day to day structure. 

Day 2 and 3: Project Intro and Inquiry 1

I think it is hardly a time where I actually get everything accomplished in a class period. I always try to end the entry event by collecting their questions. This did not get to happen the previous day so it becomes the beginning of the work for the next day. After their routine of roses and thorns, I reminded students to review the questions they had on their zoom sheet. Rather than collect a big clas chart, I collect it digitally. I don't have a lot of wall space and it can start to be confusing with five class periods.  

I am making a change to only collecting the questions where they wanted the method to answer to be me. As you can see in the example zoom sheet before, students write how they will find the answer to their question and a deadline. My goal is to get them to be self-directed learners where they work to get their answers outside of me. Each week, they can only have one question where I answer it. I am going to collect these questions in nearpod. I then meet with each of these students to answer their question and also put them in a document with the answers for others to reference.
After collecting their questions, I informed them of a change to the classroom process due to their violation of our contract about disruptive and disrespectful behavior. Cell phones is a common problem for all teachers. I don't like no cell phone policies. It doesn't help students know how to use them. I have given students two months to not be on their phone during direct instruction. Most don't but there are a few that are not following the norm so I instituted a consequence. With the exception of once a week, I will not have direct instruction. They will have to watch or read what they are supposed to do and only ask me after they have sought out the information. Some of my constant violators tried to hurry up and put up their phones. I told them it was too late, we will reevaluate the process after a couple of weeks. I know some students will not do what is necessary in this time frame but that is part of the learning process. I am going to be having regular conversations with them to help them modify their behavior. 
After sharing with them this change, I did my last direct instruction for the week and got them started on their work time. The following day, I reminded them that I am not talking to the entire class other than asking for roses and thorns. They had a slide in nearpod that told them what they should be working on based upon the question of the week (see below). I thought more would not work and goof off. I was glad to see at least half watched the videos and started to practice the work. I will really get to see how many conversations I need to have on Monday when I have an entrance question about factoring. 

Here is the link to the Google Slides (which is tied to Nearpod) of the project. 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Syllabus Project-Week 4

This week, I worked to do the adjustment of the original plan. Two days out was a hit especially since we were going to have two weeks where we would have four days of school. However, I felt like we could recover well. As I reflected over the holiday weekend, I thought students would only need 2 days to do elimination and substitution instead of 3 as I planned. I will keep the deadline of Friday for the individual plan but be willing to move since we have a lot of time to finish the unit. Even when you make adjustments because of days missed at school. Students understanding will make you adjust your plans as well. I thought continuing a familiar situation to introduce substitution would be a great way to start the week. I was WRONG.

The lesson on Tuesday was a complete flop. I decided to do a guided discussion since the last time we did this situation was a seminar. We first reviewed the prior situation and talked about their strengths. I then mentioned how algebraic representation is a skill they need because table and graphs are not always able to get you the answer. As we worked on the scenario together, each hour was a different type of pain. In all hours, only a couple of people could write the equation for question 1. When we worked to solve the equation by substitution, the faces of the students changed every hour. 

At the end of the day as I thought about all of those faces, I realized I needed to reset my plans for the week. Substitution and elimination is essential for them to complete the individual learning plan but it was clear we would need to take more time. I decided to wait a week to set new deadline dates. Thank God the unit doesn't end till the end of the month so I can be flexible with the project. Graphing which is a strength can be a great bridge to substitution. I decided I would take Wednesday to go over graphing and then have them do a graded assignment on that skill. Graphing would allow me to fill in gaps or remind them of previously learned skills. In this post for this week, I want to share my assessment cycle and great interaction with one of the student groups.  

Assessment Cycle

Assessment is my jam as a teacher. One of my philosophies of teaching is from Alvin Toffler (see below). It means so much to me that I place it on the syllabus as one of the learning objectives for the course. I believe it is the main skill all teachers need to help students develop. You can practice the skill on any content. I have found that assessment is the tool that makes this skill possible and therefore it is my constant pursuit to get better at assessment. 

Several years ago, I moved to following an assessment cycle. It is a staple to the learning process of my class whether we are doing a project or not. It was a result of reading several books on assessment. None of the books directly gave this advice but this format is my way of accomplishing what they said is best for students. Below is a graphic I shared with students this week to help explain the cycle. I basically call the cycle 2 for 1. Students get at least two days before a formal assessment is taken on any learning objective. The first assessment is low stakes and if placed in the gradebook it is a student work category. This category is worth 30% of their grade (school required category and weight). The students reflect on the learning and work at least another two days before the next assessment which is an individual assessment and worth 50% of their grade. This cycle repeats until the unit is complete.

One of the key aspects to doing this cycle is the students reflecting. They must really analyze their work especially after a class assessment. As you can see in the nearpod lesson, students began by connecting their work to the rubric. We then reviewed the answers to the paper with students being able to ask me questions about each problem. Before I had them write a reflection, I had them think about the previous day and look at their work. I asked them to think about how much they had to lean on someone the previous day, how much technology did they use to answer the question and what do they actually know and don't know. Students often don't reflect well at first which you can see from the answers below. You have to keep working on it by increasing the modeling and consistently having it as a practice. 

Graded Assignment Day 

On Wednesday, students worked to understand graphing using a situation and table (which is their strength) and then moved to just graphing from an equation (Here is the handout). Typically, this would be 2 back to back days of practice but since we looked at graphing from a situation starting day 8, I felt one day of heavy review is all that was needed before the graded assignment.

The next day they did the graded assignment. It is what I call the first type of assessment in the cycle. To help them know when I am grading, I add the word graded at the end of the assignment title. When it is a graded assignment, they work together to get the answers. They work with the teams they already are sitting with or they can go to other teams to get help. I do a lot of observing to see what students know and are able to do. Below are pictures I posted on Thursday to show the working day. 

The best aspect of the day was a conversation about question 2 from a group in 5th hour. They really wanted me to give the answer which I couldn't, I can only clarify directions. One of the students in the group did her best to try to ask a clarifying question without it being connected to what was the answer. She kept starting the question with "Can you clarify...". I had to hug her and laugh because it was a great attempt at following my guidelines. I instead choose to help by guiding their discussion with each other. Let's call them student 1, 2 and 3 with student 1 being the person asking the clarifying questions. Below is problem and their answers.
This is the original Problem
Student 2 and 3's Answer
Student 1's Answer
I started the guidance by acknowledging that student 1 is needing the help because her answer is different than student 2. At this point, student 3 chimed in and said they also got the same answer as student 2. I said okay let's explain to each other what occurred and see if we can convince the team of our answer. I said student 2 can you explain how you got the answer 4 for the Walmart cost. He explains but I can see student 1 is not following. I then instruct him to go to a whiteboard that is near the group and demonstrate what he is saying with pictures. He explains with words on the board and student 3 said yes that is right. Student 1 says he can't be right because there are not four cans for Walmart there is only 2 which is what the statement says. The other students then explain there isn't 2 but four cans which means there is another $1 that must be added. This still perplexes student 1. I then try to explain what student 2 and 3 are saying but in a different way. Student 1 still shakes their head and admits they want to quit. This is when productive struggle is over so I decide to end the conversation and the struggle. I explain to her that student 2 and 3 are correct. We will work on her getting why they are right another day.

I love when groups start to disagree and discuss their answers like this group. I hope I get all the groups to get to this level of dialogue but without the breakdown. I have never had everyone in the class get to this level but there is always significant improvement. Can't wait for next week.

You can find a day to day look at the resources for this project at this link.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Syllabus Project-Week 3

Robert Burns, To A Mouse, is often quoted: The best laid schemes o'mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley. This is so fitting for this week. We did not have school Tuesday or Wednesday due to a huge storm. Most of the city lost power including many of the schools in my district. I lost power for one day and internet for another day. It was a blessing and a curse to my week. Blessing in that I was able to catch up on some much needed rest but curse in that it interrupted my flow. This is not a good interruption given we are also coming up on two weeks of four day weeks. I thought my reflection of this past week was going to be about all of what I was excited about happening. Now my sharing is about how do you adjust for the unexpected. This is probably a better post after all.

Original Plan

Monday started the process of students experiencing some of the rituals and routines now that schedules would not be changed as much. The first two weeks of school includes a lot of movement and enrollment of students. Given this constant change, I use it as an opportunity for students to experience different settings with temporary seating assignments. I change the classroom desks into two configurations so that students can experience possible classroom layouts they want to recommend. This week is the last configuration change until the students vote on the final classroom layout. See the three different configurations below.

This is also the first week students start to experience some of the set procedures of the class. There are only a few non-negotiables and even within these procedures, they have some voice and choice. The set procedures are:

  • You must be in the room before the bell rings to not be considered tardy. This is how students earn the minimum hero point allotment that is a school wide implementation.
  • Grab devices (iPad/Chromebook and Graphing Calculator) that matches their assigned number, pick up a handout if applicable, pull out their paper or notebook and complete roses and thorns within the first 5 minutes of class (Students have voice in regards to what they share with the small group or entire class for rose/thorn and students have a choice of where the materials will be placed in the room).
  • Put away all classroom materials neatly before the bell rings. This could occur during the work time or the last five minutes of class which is another choice option for students. 
  • Selected students share their understanding with the class and complete a reflection or exit slip.
In addition to starting to practice these routines, Monday was designed to review their graded assignments and reflect on how they need to alter some of their strategies for learning. Students found out I realize my class is not a structure they are used to so they have an opportunity to improve their grade. We reviewed their graded assignments and I modeled basic reflection of an assignment and use of time to learn. I shared how they would be given another opportunity to improve their grade in a couple of days. The concluded the day with updating their zoom sheet with questions they have and began to work on the actual individual learning plan. They turned in the zoom sheet so that I can see  evidence of better questions as a result of the reflection done as a class.  

Pick Up Where We Left Off??? 

I had originally planned to give them two more days of practice while also asking them questions through nearpod to see if their thinking had been refined on certain skills. The missing of two days required me to make some adjustments. I needed to do the reassessment so that their grade could improve and I couldn't ask them as many questions as I planned to see into their thinking. I decided to just give them one day of practice instead of two and emphasize how much they need to really use this day to be ready for a quiz the following day. I decided just to ask if they felt they needed a lesson on note taking to help them learn the material better. I reminded them that saying no is okay. I would do pull out lessons just for those who want the help. This allowed me to see if some students who I think are fine also felt they didn't need the help. I was pleasantly surprised when a student in one hour said they are going to say yes even though they think they are good at taking notes. They said "it can't hurt to learn some more things." Below is a picture of one of the classes results.

You can find the resources I used for this project at this link.

Syllabus Project-Week 2

I am still exhausted from the first week of school. At first, I thought it was just me but I was relieved when two of my coworkers shared the same feeling. We started to realize why schools start in the middle or end of the week. Going a full five days after having a long break is brutal. My second week of the project begins the messy middle of a project. It is the start of doing a dance between the second and third layer of the project path. PBLWorks project path describes the second layer as building knowledge, understanding and skills to answer the driving question. The third layer is develop and critique products and answers to the driving question. There is a wonderful arrow between these two layers that says revision. This circular process is an ongoing process of improvement. Let me share how I worked students through this process this week with my curriculum and success skills goals in mind.

Building Knowledge and Understanding

Because this is my students first project, there are some knowledge building that is not connected to my content. This is because in order for them to learn my content without me being the main source, I have to teach them how to be independent learners. This requires knowledge and skills that are not content based. Therefore, this particular project has more non-content goals then content. It is nice that my Algebra II class doesn't have a heavy content goal the first month of the school year. Many schools have at least a week or two of review of content that will allow you to be more skills based at first too. Below is my content versus my success skills goals for the unit.

This week, I focused several of the success skills and two content goals. The main reason for the focus was because it was driven by the students. They had a lot of questions around norms, reassessment, goals and learning strategies. One of the key strategies of projects is to allow the project to be driven by their questions. As a teacher, I can manipulate this situation to a degree by planting questions or offering a suggestion of how to organize their work. For example, I always tell students they should probably work on the questions that would best help them meet the first deadline. Since I make all the deadlines, I am able to help move them in a direction I need.

As a result, students experienced different learning strategies, created causes and solutions to their common problems as well as possible norms to test out as a class before they make a final decision. In regards to content knowledge, they started learning about calculating grades and systems of equations. Some of the teaching strategies I used to help promote learning included Paideia seminar, practice of note taking from a paper or video and general practice time. The seminar was not effective in my 2nd and 3rd hour as the map below shows. However, it was great in my 5th and 7th classes. I am tempted to drop the strategy given how quiet my first two class periods are but the tool is so powerful. I am wondering how I can get them to open up. Would love suggestions :).
One of my success of the week was to plant seeds to help students realize their weaknesses in terms of learning. I made sure students completed a couple of class graded assignments that would help me to accomplish the following:

  • Point out the challenges with grading based upon points rather than a rubric
  • Help them to see their need to ask more questions when given the opportunity
  • Help them to see the need to use their time more wisely during work time
  • The need to have a good note taking strategy along with a memory technique

Students ended the week with two graded assignments where they could not get help from me and had to use each other. I was able to see they were discovering their lack of preparation for the task as I hoped. This will make the discussion next week so much more fruitful. 

Developing & Critique Products 

Moving between the building of knowledge and the development of the products is still my most challenging area of planning and implementing projects. The difficult part is deciding what aspects of the product needs to be broken into a small piece that folds into the bigger piece. It needs to be a piece that is worthy of revision as well as capable of occurring without the bigger whole. Once you figure out this part, then you need a plan on how students will revise the work. This is another area where I am always debating because the people involved in the revision is more than me. I have to think about when is it best to be me, students or an outside expert. There is no perfect way. I have found the following questions do help me. I hope they help you as well.

  • How many projects have my students completed?
  • What do my students need to improve on the most in terms of being "critical friends"?
  • Is it really essential for me to see the work at this stage?
  • Given this stage of the process, who and what tool would best move the work forward?

This year, I am trying to break down the ideal self goals section of the individual learning page (see image below) better and to include revision loops. This is only the second time I used this tool in the project. I got the SINC portion from my good friend Kelly Reseigh. I love the insight it gives me about my students as learners. The goals and learning strategies section was inspired by Robert Cash's book Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn. The final section is the application side of the plan with the incorporation of my content.

Last year, I did a terrible job of revising the product. As I think about it, I think I didn't do any revision at all which is probably why it was not used well the remainder of the year. This year, I want to make sure the understanding gained is applicable to the classroom. I realized the revision and reflection process will help this happen. I decided to have one of the revision loops be their knowledge of the goals. I have found revision loops are best if there is at least two occurrences.

I decided I would be the first revision loop and it would be on their knowledge. I had as a part of their first graded assignment (day 9) a section where they wrote their goals. They received a point for having the appropriate type of goal in each section and a reason why. Most students didn't get to this section. For those who did, they rarely wrote the appropriate type of goal. I liked having this revision loop because it enables me to show how they are not truly using their notes which would help them with this area and reteach the need to have clear goals in each area that fits them. It will enable them to be better learners if they have a plan for learning.

Next Week 

I can't wait until next week because we will really begin to incorporate some of the other elements of project based learning as described by PBLWorks and High Quality PBL. Reflection is an element I have always had as a weakness. I am glad I am finally getting a handle on the element and excited to try out some changes I wanted to make from last year. I am also going to really be able to dive into collaboration and sustained inquiry. I have grown in these areas as well as can't wait to try out some things I found. One of my favorite aspects of teaching is that you never reach a destination. You get comfortable with aspects but you never truly master most aspects of the classroom. I just keep getting better like aged wine.

You can find the resources I used for this project at this link.

Syllabus Project-Week 1

It is the first week of school and I was mixed with nervousness, dread and anticipation. It is common feelings. The nervousness and anticipation is because I over wonder what students I will have this year. The dread is from not resting enough in the summer but sometimes it is just a feeling that is there for no rhyme or reason. I start off this blog post with this honesty to help paint a picture of my postings about my classroom. I am going to share the good, the bad and the ugly. I hope in my candid sharing you can find relief and hope for your own practice. As you are renewed, I then pray my words build you up in your practice. Now, let me tell you what happened this week.

It's All About Getting to Know Them

A lot of times the first week of school is focused on getting students settled into your rituals and routines. Several years ago while attending a National Board Certification training, I realized many of my classroom structures would be better followed if students helped me create them. I also realized it is hard to do a project if I don't kick off the year with one. As a result, the syllabus project was born and the first week of school changed. One of the changes is a focus on building community. Each day, students found their seat by completing a different challenge for the first 5 minutes of class. This allowed students to get to know each other but I also got to see various aspects of students. Here are the challenges for the five days:
  • Alphabetical order by last name without talking
  • Shortest to tallest
  • Least amount of siblings to most without talking
  • Alternating heights without talking
  • Birthday day (not year)
I was able to discover the leaders of the class, the personality of several students, the demeanor of the class, friendships and challenging matches. For example, my 2nd hour completed the challenges with ease. They are extremely quiet with only a few vocal people. They automatically listened to them which made the challenge complete faster. On the other hand, my 5th hour is very vibrant and lots of leaders who clash. Below are pictures I captured to help me remember the different revelations of personalities occuring in the class.

Entry Event

The project launch occurred over the first two days of the week. This launch is called an Entry Event. It is the first step of the project path described in PBLWorks' PBL 101 Workshops. After completing a notecard about themselves, students completed a chalk talk answering the question "What is the ultimate classroom?" This was my second time launching the project with this activity. Unlike last year, the students did not get into writing their dreams on the paper. Even after I prompted them that they could dream as big as they wanted, their was still little writing each hour (See the posters below). I should have changed the activity after two class periods did not show excitement, I choose to cut it short and move on to the second intake instead. My students showed later they really didn't believe me which caused them to not be all in.

As a transition to the second part of the entry event, I reviewed some key classroom items like they experienced in other classes such as my course objectives, one rule and materials needed. I then worked to capture their emotions again by having them share problems they have encountered with other students and teachers. The class wrapped up with a close look at a a syllabus with missing parts to have one more heart capturing moment. They used a popular technique of notice and wonder to review the syllabus. Many wondered about the blank spots of the syllabus like I hoped. They then write their burning question about the project before the first day of the entry event ended.

The second day of the entry event was an assessment day and execution of a problem solving process I developed a few years ago. The assessment day was another way to show my class was not like others. It is not "gotchas", lacking proper preparation and void of proper support. We played grabbers and escape artists before taking a 3 question quiz. It was a way to review the essential components of the class while also reinforcing how my class is a place for them to create their community. They also used the syllabus which included some reminders of the answers to the test. We starting to work on the zoom sheet. This form is used to support the thinking process of making sense of a problem.

Making Sense of a Problem

The remainder of the week was working on the building their skill set of making sense of a problem and persevere in solving a problem which is mathematical practice from the common core as well as a skill identified by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. They worked on following the process I modeled to find more items to fill into the three sections. The final section is my favorite because students not only create their own questions but also decide a method in which they will find the answer. I gave some class time during the 3rd and 4th day of the week for me to answer their questions since it was also their deadline day. The week ended with class meetings which always throws off the instructional day when you have classes with mixed grades. You basically lose an instructional day all together so I just allowed students another day to complete the three sections of the zoom sheet and those who were present to decide how we will work next week.

My biggest regret

I have always loved an individual project work report created by PBLWorks' years ago. I tried to use it when I first was learned about it in 2008. It was an epic fail. I want to try and use it again this year. I have already incorporated it in the wrong way for this project. I should have introduced it when I was going to give them a long length of time to work on something without my guidance. I introduced it with too many new things. I am now three weeks into school and still trying to find a way to apologize for introducing it to my students to early and when it would be a better time to introduce it. Even when you have been doing projects for years (I started in 2005), you still make mistakes and things don't go like you thought.

You can find the resources I used for this project at this link.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Culture & Coaching: Team Conflicts

"Mrs. Norfar! Mrs. Norfar!", yells Melissa as she waves her hand in the air to get my attention. I am across the room working with a group of students. I look up to see what she needs. Before I can say anything. Melissa says, "I can't work with him. I don't like him." As soon as she finishes, Mark says, "Yes, she doesn't like me."

Have you ever had this situation occur or something similar? This is a real situation that occurred in my class years ago. It is the kind of situation that makes teachers reluctant to have students work in teams. Teachers ask me all the time can they do PBL but have the students work by themselves. Dealing with team conflicts are challenging so why not avoid them. However, you won't enable students to develop collaboration and communication skills if they don't work together. The answer is not avoidance but a plan for dealing with conflicts. 


There are three structures that are used to reduce and mediate conflicts: Contracts, Management Log and Collaboration Process or Protocol. Let's go through each structure.


Contracts (also called team agreements or team norms) is a written document that details how teams will work together. It is created before they work on a product. See the example of a contract below. It is common in elementary to have a class contract especially at the PreK to 2nd grade level. This video explains how to create and use them.

Management Tool

This is a written document that states the work to be done, who is doing the work and when it is complete. BIE has an elementary and secondary version. At the Pre-K to 2nd grade level or when students are new to working in teams, you can use this tool for a portion of the project. Below is an image from a video of Jenna Gampel's class at the Conservatory Lab Charter School. She is a 2nd grade teacher who used a project management board to manage the critique process.  


A protocol is a process or a structure used by a group of people to accomplish a goal. People use roles as a way to help accomplish a goal.  Dr. Spencer Kagan is popular for his collaborative structures. I recommend starting with Kagan or the book Productive Group Work by Frey, Fisher and Everlove. Another example of a structure is Scrum. You can check out how AP Physics teacher Johnny Devine video on how he uses it with his students during project work time.  

Mediating Conflicts 

These structures help reduce the chance of conflict greatly. However, even with the greatest structures, conflicts still arise between students. You need to use the structures to resolve conflicts. Remember my opening story. Let's look a process for resolving conflicts through the lens of the opening story. 

1. If tensions are high, defuse the situation using location and/or redirection.

Sometimes you find out the conflict is happening when emotions are high. Try to stay calm and move students physically away from each other or redirect. Redirection is most common for high school students. Elementary and middle students often need a location change rather than redirection. Redirection can be as simple as saying "Let's take a few deep breaths for a moment." Although I never do it intentionally, students have shared I can often diffuse a situation with humor. If students have said this about you, then it is a great way to redirect. Do not try to use humor intentionally. It typically does not work out.

Melissa and Mark did not have tension that was high therefore I went immediately to step 2.

2. If applicable, offer a quick resolution to try for a few minutes.

There are times you are tied up with a group and can't quickly go over to start the mediation process. However, the group needs some type of temporary resolution. It is in these times, you may offer a resolution to try for just a few minutes until you can get to the group. Some quick resolutions include:
  • Take three or four deep breaths.
  • Work on a separate task individually.
  • Write or draw your side of the story.
  • For elementary students, change a person to a different station.
  • Send one of the students to the water fountain.
Melissa and Mark needed a quick resolution. In front of the entire class, I said to Melissa and Mark, "Thank you for telling me. Liking someone is not a requirement for the task. Do me a favor? Grab a color pencil from the bin. Melissa you do the first problem and slide the paper to Mark. Mark you put your initials if she did it correctly or circle where she made a mistake. Mark, you will then do the next problem. Don't talk to each other. I am going to wrap up with this group and then be right over." They did the resolution I gave and I quickly wrapped up with the group. 

3. Check to see how they want to do the mediation.

It is important before you start the mediation process that you give students the opportunity to choose the environment/time. There are times when students don't want the discussion to be heard by other classmates so they would like to talk in a hallway. They may want to discuss it at a later time. It is common in PK-2 for you to choose the environment and the time. Many choose to mediate as an entire class and immediately with students. When you sit with the group, it is important to start with these questions:
  • Do you want to resolve this in class or in the hallway/another classroom? (Note if they choose another classroom make sure the door remains open or another teacher is in the room).
  • Do you want to resolve this now or at a later time? 
Melissa and Mark were almost done with the problems when I got to their desks. I thanked them for letting me know their challenge and for being able to work together for the last few minutes. They chose to talk in the hallway with me right then.

4. Hear all voices involved.

This is the official beginning of the mediation process. It is important to lay ground rules before each student shares. The ground rules are:
  1. Each student gets to share without interruption.
  2. No name calling.
  3. Try to be clear and concise. 
After each student shares, summarize their sharing. This is a great way to check if you heard them correctly and gives the other student(s) ability to hear it one more time. Once all stories are shared, remind students of the task/goal before moving to step 5.

Melissa and Mark shared why they did not like each other. They used to be a couple. Mark didn't have a problem with her but Melissa was hurt by things that occurred in their relationship. I thanked them for sharing and shared how they will be primarily helping each other learn like the activity today. However, soon they will have a project where their group who will have to create a brochure. They get to decide who will be responsible for different parts of the brochure. With these things in mind, we moved right into how we can achieve the goal while also dealing with their concerns/challenges.

5. Use the contract, management log and/or protocol to find a resolution.

The concerns/challenges are now turned into a guide to help find a resolution. Start with one concern/challenge and discuss use the contract, log or protocol to find a resolution. Write the resolution down and get a verbal agreement from all parties before moving to the next concern/challenge. 

Melissa and Mark's team had not created a contract yet so we leaned on Kagan's Rally Coach protocol to work on resolutions. I started the resolution process with ideas that may work for Melissa's main concern of hurt feelings resurfacing. I asked Melissa if working with another person in the team for Rally Coach would be better for her. She said it would work. I asked her if she could think of anything else that would help her. She said him sitting in a seat across instead of next to her would help. I offered one more idea of temporarily seating in the back table area with another group member when her feelings are really high. She and Mark agreed to all of the resolutions and I wrote them down. They would be placed in the team binder for future reference.

6. Exchange apologies and if necessary, create a path of restoration. 

The process always ends with apologies need to be exchanged. Sometimes an apology is all a person needs. Other times the offense is big and people need the party to restore the working relationship. After apologies have been exchanged, check to see if certain actions need to occur. For example, the original offense may be a team member didn't hardly help with different aspects of a project as agreed upon. Team members may want the person to take on more parts going forward.

Mark and Melissa exchanged apologies. Since Melissa still had emotional challenges at times just by seeing Mark, she asked him to not talk to her if she asked him. They agreed she could just shake her head if she needed to not talk.