Sunday, April 13, 2014

Building Our Wonder Workshop!

Inspiration to Begin
Recently, I wrote about some of my questions around the topic of Genius Hour. I've been drawing inspiration from Paul Solarz, Joy Kirr, the Twitter Genius Hour hashtag and chat, and my crazy cool Coffee & Collaboration colleagues to get started with Genius Hour in our 4th grade classroom.  Paul's blog, along with Joy's Genius Hour Live Binder, have become my go-to sources of information.

Where are we in the process?
I decided to try to start small and give it a whirl in our last quarter of the year, so what we are currently doing is really a trial run. Right now, it's looking like a smash-up of open inquiry and the Genius Hour concept. We started by creating lists of what we wonder about and forming those wonders into questions. Students then picked one question they were each "crazy excited" to learn about (I wish I could give credit to the person who shared that phrasing on Twitter!!)

We watched videos of completed projects by students in Mr. Solarz's class to open our eyes to the possibilities of what that time could look like. We also perused some of the questions his kids had asked to see if ours were on the right track to asking really deep questions. My students filled out a quick Google form to submit their idea for their first question. With a little bit of fine-tuning, I approved questions for all 26 of my kids. We also read the picture book "What Do You Do With an Idea?" by Komi Yamada to reinforce the idea that we all have different interests and styles of learning. We shared stories from our own lives about how ideas sometimes permeate our brains and just won't go away. These are the kinds of ideas that work best for an extended project!

Our First Genius Hour
Friday was our big day! I actually allowed a bit more than an hour so we had time to go over some reliable, kid-friendly research sites and review expectations before they were off and running. I confessed to them that I had purposely not given this time in our classroom a name and that I was torn about what to call it. We'd talked about Genius Hour, but I keep going back to my idea of a Wonder Workshop. Being the creative bunch that they are, one of my boys offered, "Why don't we just call it Happy Hour?" As much as I love that idea (and I giggled over it... a lot,) I explained that it might not be the best choice as many people know Happy Hour in a different context. The majority of my kids wanted to go with Wonder Workshop, and so it is!

I did offer the KWHLAQ form as an organizational tool (which I learned about from Paul.) Kids have access to the internet via their Kuno tablets, an opportunity to visit open check-out at our school library, and access to our growing classroom library for resources so far. My only other directions were to try to keep focused!

They're already learning that some of the questions they asked were either too easy or way too broad. They're putting to use their researching skills. We'll be talking a lot about how to take notes to keep track of our thinking. (Many were tempted to just use the very limited space on the KWHLAQ form... or to copy word-for-word from a source.) We'll be talking more about using our time wisely and remaining focused. We also need to talk about options for sharing our learning as some students might begin to wrap up their learning in a week or two.

It was inspiring to hear the excited buzz all across our classroom. Students were intrigued by what their colleagues were studying and finding. What an exciting journey for all of us to share! I love this time of year for trying out new things and spicing up the end of our year together. I'm already looking forward to this week's session!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Coffee and Collaboration!

Thursday mornings have become my new favorite! Last week, a tiny group of colleagues from my school and I were chatting on Twitter about a whole bunch of ideas and tools we wanted to share. We decided the conversation warranted more than 140 characters, and so the idea of "Coffee and Collaboration" was born. 

The conversation last Thursday morning was simply outstanding! It was like our own little version of a Smackdown. What are you doing in your classroom? What new tools are you using? How are you using them? What do you want to try? It started with just four of us, camped out in Joanna's room with coffee cups in hand. A few others trickled in for a few minutes and promised to join us the next time.

Fast forward to this week... 7 of us started our morning with coffee, conversations, collaboration and Butter Braid (thanks, Kristi!) The conversation was just as inspiring as last week! It made me smile that we now have 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade represented at our morning coffee talk. I made a quick word cloud to share some of our topics... 

I can't even begin to explain how much I need this. How much I crave this. I am a huge (HUGE!!) fan of Twitter and enjoy dipping my toes into the waterfall of splendid ideas shared by educators and authors. It's also my hope that sharing my ideas and thoughts will help inspire people in the same way they've inspired me. 

Twitter fulfills my need to connect, chat, and collaborate quite often. Conferences I attend fulfill that need for me, especially when I can connect with Twitter friends while I'm there. It is a refreshing feeling to be able to have those conversations in real life right down the hallway! 

Some of our Coffee & Collaboration friends are just beginning their journeys on Twitter while others of us have already found the power of Twitter as a professional development tool. If you want to come along for the ride, feel free to click on each name listed below to follow them on Twitter!
3rd grade teachers - Joanna, Kristi, Sara, Denise
4th grade teachers - Laura and Laura (me!)
5th grade teacher - Phyllis 

I can hardly wait to see what next week's C&C holds for us!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Organizing Lesson Plans

Three years ago, I stumbled upon a website called Thank goodness!! It has helped me so much to organize and plan my weekly, as well my long-term, lesson plans. It's only $12 a year for a subscription to the site, and there are always offers to add free months to your subscription.

The site is available on all of my devices, which is one of my favorite features. If I wake up in the middle of the night and realize I forgot to write something in, I just grab my phone and voilà! Done.

Our school operates on an A-E day schedule. I was able to easily adjust my settings to incorporate this as well! It even shifts the days for me when we have days off.

After creating my daily schedule blocks, I can click on them each week and add the necessary information. It also gives me the option to add links, pictures, and files. Comes in handy!

A new feature I've been using this year is the "events" option. It's a great way to enter in special assemblies, meetings, and reminders.

While I haven't used it, there is also a way to share your lesson plans with colleagues. I can see how that would be a great way to collaborate with teammates and share with other teachers who work directly with a teacher's class.

The picture below shows what my weekly plan looks like, taken from a screenshot on my phone. You can change the colors, fonts, and set-up to meet your needs.

How do you organize your lesson plans? Do you have any tools that come in handy?


Fully customizable - colors, fonts, events, and more! Screenshot from my phone

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mathematically Speaking...

So, let's talk about math, shall we? I have to admit... out of everything that I've had to learn this year in 4th grade, math has been the trickiest! I don't consider myself a master of math. In fact, I'm one of those people who has a fear of math.

Throughout this year, I've thought about math concepts that haven't crossed my mind in over 20 years. Long division. Vertices. Borrowing. Multiplying with double digits. Rays. Mode. Adding fractions with unlike denominators. And the list goes on and on...

I panicked at the beginning of the year. A lot. Things have gotten better, but I am consciously aware that I am still learning how to teach 4th grade math. Don't get me wrong - I don't feel I've done a bad job, I just know I can and will do better.

What I'm finding is that it really helps the kids (ok, and me) to have tutorials, videos, and cheat sheets for many of the concepts we're learning. And it makes me giddy when I find a trick or technique that really clicks with my kids! The butterfly method was one of those great finds.

I learned about it on Pinterest and shared it with my kids today. You can see the original post HERE on the Move It Math site. It's a way for kids to add or subtract fractions with unlike denominators. And I tell you... magic! It really simplifies the process and gives an easy-to-remember visual so kids will be able to easily access it on their own. I used THIS amazing tutorial from Mrs. Leoni on the Educreations site to teach my kids how it works. Below, you'll find a few pictures of us practicing the butterfly method!

I'm hopeful that I'll continue to find these tips and tricks to help me, my kids, and parents to support our learning!

Friday, March 28, 2014


Genius Hour. Passion Projects. 20% time. Open Inquiry Projects. I've been pondering these ideas a lot lately. So much has been written on blogs and on Twitter about how teachers are incorporating this into their classrooms. I was fortunate to also sit in on a session with Paul Solarz at the ICE conference a few weeks ago. The more I hear/read about it all, the more I know I just have to jump in.

Why am I considering adding this to our already-packed day? Why add more to our already-full plate? I think kids need it, want it, and deserve it. If we don't foster their creativity, their curiosity, and their sense of wonder, how can we help them learn what they are passionate about?

Times like this with my niece
remind me of the importance of wonder.
As I start to figure out how this will look in our classroom, I'm starting to piece together my "must-haves". After conversations with colleagues, my principal, and my friend Franki, I've come up with a few ideas to push me forward.

My "Must-Haves" as of right now...
1. My mind tells me it's not all about the name... but I think the name sets the tone for what will happen during this block of time. I'm toying with the idea of a "Wonder Workshop" to place the emphasis on the wondering and questioning part of what happens.**

2. I'm thinking about starting off next year with a Wonder Wall to encourage students to start sharing their wonders and questions. From there, we'll learn about different types of questions and higher order thinking. Some wonders may be ones that can be easily answered when others will take time... and may never actually  be answered.

3. It's not all about the product. I truly believe it's about the process we'll go through. While there may be a final product (an actual creation, a video, a blog post, a presentation, or whatever else they come up with,) our focus will be on the learning that takes place along the way.

4. Choice will continue to be key. Our classroom is already filled with lots of choices and independent thinking, and this time will be no different. Students need to choose their own topics, ask their own questions, and decide how they want to report their findings.

5. Collaboration will be encouraged. More often than not, my kids have the choice of working as a "lone wolf" or working in a "wolf pack." We use those terms often, and students are welcome to decide what works best for them.

6. My job will be that of facilitator. Nudging their thinking. Pushing them forward. Encouraging them to reflect and make decisions. Asking questions to help them ask questions of their own.

Now What?
I don't know yet where this will fit into our schedule. Is it better to devote small chunks of time daily? Or a longer period of time once or twice a week? I'd love to hear any advice or experience people have had! I love to use the last chunk of the year to try out new things to give them a trial run. I've found it shakes things up a bit for the kids and helps me work through logistics. It looks like this just might be something we try in the upcoming months!

As I'm thinking and planning and reflecting, I decided a Pinterest board was in order so I could easily locate all of the resources I'm finding. You can visit my board by clicking here.

Are you currently incorporating some sort of Genius Hour into your classroom? What grade level do you teach? What are you finding works or doesn't work? Any feedback you'd like to share would be helpful!

**It is entirely possible that others in my building are jumping on board with Genius Hour. If that is the case, I'll stick with calling it Genius Hour so we're all consistent! :)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Our 4th Grade Classroom

We were given an opportunity to do classroom walk-throughs during our institute day to take note of anything interesting or positive we found (and to steal brilliant ideas, of course!) We traveled with our 4th grade team to visit our 3rd and 5th grade counterparts' classrooms. I'm sure you can imagine the fun that we had!! My only regret is that I didn't take more pictures of the wonderful classrooms I saw. I'll know better next time.

"Your classroom is a work of art."

A 5th grade colleague stopped me in the hallway after she visited my room and paid me quite possibly the best compliment EVER. "Your classroom is a work of art." I floated my way down to our next session and couldn't get those words out of my mind. During our group debriefing session, she shared that she just wishes she could move into my room. Talk about feeling humbled. Motivated. Appreciated. It has resonated with me all day and has made me pause to think about how many times we notice things but forget to say it out loud to someone else. You just never know when someone really, really needs to hear that positive feedback to push them forward!

Angela's comments are what inspired me to (finally) share pictures of my new fourth grade classroom! 

By the way, Matt and Ryan, if you're reading this, I'd like to thank you on behalf of teachers everywhere for giving us this time. You are truly in-tune with what our team needs and what teachers want!

Monday, November 4, 2013

What do my students love about 4th grade?

As I was getting information ready for parent-teacher conferences, I put together a document for my 4th graders to fill out to help me gain their perspective for what is going well and what they feel they need to work on.

I included the topic "What I love about 4th grade" because it is so incredibly important to me. Relationships matter. Happiness and joy matter. I want to know what it is my kids love about our classroom this year. Here were a few of their responses that were mentioned frequently...

*class library
*Miss Komos
*bean bag chairs
*Daily 5
*fuzzy carpet
*my friends
*reading and being able to select from lots of books
*my teacher for being supportive
*I love that we get to read and write every day
*her library because it is helping me become a better reader

Confession: I'm quite teary-eyed as I write this. With all of the uncertainty I've felt starting in this new journey, I know I'm doing something right. This list really shows what we value, from the simple comforts of a cozy classroom to the more complex feelings of having a supportive teacher. And like so many of my Nerdy Book Club friends, I pour money and time into our classroom library. Having their feedback on it does my heart good!