Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How to Structure Student Discussions with a Walk and Talk

This blog post was originally featured on Kids Discover on September 13, 2017.

You know those days when the kids are getting a little squirrelly? The days where the side conversations get the best of the quietest kids and even the smallest distraction gets us all off track? It’s time to get the wiggles out while being productive.

It’s time for a Walk and Talk!

I teach in San Diego, California, and the weather is generally pleasant outside. We can easily go outside for this activity. This also works inside around the perimeter of the classroom (you might need to push the desks toward the center) or quietly up and down the hallway.

A Walk and Talk is a structured partner discussion where students are given question cards to answer with a partner while walking on a specified path. They walk toward a set location, such as a pole or tree, then turn and walk back. You can incorporate an instructional assistant or parent volunteer into your class activity by setting them as the turnaround point.

Set-up
Start the class with a lab, activity, or guided reading assignment done in class. When I’m planning this activity ahead, I will create a list of questions or task cards, then pre-write them on index cards. The questions can be a combination of a review of what you’ve covered in class and how your students will prepare for the upcoming assessment or presentation.

When this activity happens on the fly because of extra time at the end of class or an energy surplus, I’ll ask students to write the questions on index cards themselves, based on what we’ve covered in class.

Before we go outside to our Walk and Talk location, I will randomly assign students a partner. Flippity Random Name Picker is my favorite randomizer tool. Then, we quickly review our class expectations for the Walk and Talk and for outside class work.

The Walk and Talk
We all walk outside and students line up next to their partner and I stand facing the head of the line. I hand a question card to each person in the first pair and wish them luck. The first person answers their question on the way to the turnaround point (about 20-30 steps), then they switch roles and the second person answers a question on the way back to the line. I wait about 10 steps between each pair, which helps prevent extra distractions.

Once the partners return from their walk, they get back into line. When they’re back to the front of the line, I switch their cards for new questions and we repeat the Walk and Talk. I quickly check in with each pair as they return and exchange cards, asking, “how did it go?”

Typically, we do three rounds before returning to class.

Debrief
When we go back inside, students take some time to share something they learned from their partner or found interesting. This happens either out loud, or as a quick-write on paper or as a question on Google Classroom.

The Walk and Talk is an excellent preparation or reflection tool for larger research projects, essays, and Socratic Seminars. My students love the opportunity to go outside and work, discuss with a partner, and move around.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Daily Check-in With Google Forms

I love teaching middle school, especially 7th grade. The kids are goofy, energetic, and super squirrels (...squirrel!). They’re also pre-teens, and trying to fit into the limbo world where they’re not quite kids, but not quite teenagers. Many of my kids have faced challenging family situations that preoccupy their thoughts while in school.


Knowing things are sometimes distracting outside of class, whether it is friends, family, or both, I start my class with a warm-up. This is usually a silent individual activity that activates prior knowledge, or asks students to review what they learned last class.


In April 2015, I changed the way I did my warm-ups. And I had major positive results. Immediately.


I implemented the Daily Check-in Form. I still called it a warm-up, but the purpose expanded to ask students about their day.


Before we continue, please fill it out here.
Your warm-up questions are:
  1. Who do you teach?
  2. What made you interested in this blog post topic?
  3. How do you currently start your class periods, meetings, or workshops?


Ok, now that you filled it out, let’s continue. (If you didn’t fill it out, go back and do so. It’s good for you to actually go through the experience, not just open up the link!)


When students arrive for class, they line up in 2 silent, straight, and smiling lines outside. I invite them in, and they walk in silently (we don’t do it right, it’s back outside to do it over), and begin their warm-up on their iPad. I have a set of Slides for each lesson, and the first Slide is always the warm-up questions.

I reuse the same Form everyday and for all classes. At the end of the week, I hide the previous week's rows on Sheets.


The three questions I ask my students to check in with them daily.
Three check-in questions with running averages.
I know some of you are asking, why are you SO strict on coming in silently? Two reasons: First, it helps my students settle in and make the transition to class time. Second, it helps me setting in and make the transition to teaching. I use that time to take attendance, quickly check in with individual students, and skim their warm-up answers.

From this daily warm-up, I have learned many essential things about my students, from death of family members or arguments with friends, to excitement over weekend plans or their deep love of tacos. These are things my students may have been too shy to tell me, or I likely would not have taken the time to listen to their needs.


I use conditional formatting to make it easier to skim how students are feeling. It's a color gradient where 1 is red, and 5 is green.
Screenshot of the Sheet. I use conditional formatting
to make it easier to skim how students are feeling. 
If there’s a concern, I’ll pull the student aside during class and chat privately about what they shared. If they rank their day as a 1, then I’ll make sure I make it over to their desk more frequently, offer a friendly smile, and start a conversation. (I don’t take them aside, unless they show additional signs of being upset or stressed in class.)

The day I first implemented this warm-up, I learned that my student’s uncle died the week prior. Over the next three weeks, she lost three more people close to her. Because she willingly shared this with me, I was able to support her emotionally in class, and refer her to our counselors for additional support. I am 100% positive this prevented serious behaviors in my class, because she had struggled all year with attitude and off-task behavior.


When I present at conferences and workshops, I often start my session with an identical Form--I ask about participants’ prior knowledge on the topic and goals for the session. I feel like this helps me connect to my participants in the limited time we have.


I’m grateful for this simple tool that has helped me build community in my classroom!


Love this idea? Here’s the Form template.

Have fun with the Form, make it work for you, and please share! 
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike [CC BY-NC-SA]
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
[CC BY-NC-SA]

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Work, Work, Work...What About Life?

This post is cross-posted on Mari, Meagan, & Aubrey’s blogs.

Mari is a middle school Science & AVID teacher and Blended Learning Specialist in San Diego, CA.
Meagan is a middle school Math, AVID, & Technology teacher and the Team Technology Leader in Hesperia, CA.
Aubrey has been a music teacher & Summer Learning principal, and is currently an Educational Technology Specialist in Boulder, CO.


Teach kids all day, then bring grading and lesson planning home at night. Does this sound familiar? If you asked a room full of teachers, I’m sure nearly every head would be nodding - this is the story of our lives! According to an NPR article, “Attrition is high, and enrollment in teacher preparation programs has fallen some 35 percent over the past five years — a decrease of nearly 240,000 teachers in all." Budget cuts, paperwork, behavior challenges, and ever-increasing demands add extra stress to our already stressful jobs.

Work/life balance has always been struggle for all three of us. We have this tendency to work many hours past the required hours of our teaching days. It’s very common for us to get into work early, leave an hour after our days finish, and spend a large portion of our nights working on lesson planning, grading, blogging, or various side projects. If you’re thinking this sounds like some “Woe is me” story – it isn’t.

In the end, the underlying issue is that we love what we do. We love being teachers, working with students, developing lessons and, yes, even grading and reviewing their work. Education has never been just a “job” to us – it’s a major part of our identity. It’s our passion. And we spend a large portion of our days working on various projects because we enjoy it. However, we began to realize that it isn’t healthy for our work/life balance or the relationships with those around us to work the majority of the week.

Enter the idea of Work Rules. We each began to create boundaries for ourselves, unique to our specific situations, and write them down. We were amazed (and horrified) at how challenging it was for us to try to define some limits to our work! We also included reminders of what we could do instead of work [behavioral therapy concepts - you can’t just extinguish a behavior without developing a replacement behavior] and why we were doing this in the first place. Then we gave permission to hold each other accountable, which has been key to changing our habits.

Aubrey: I’ll be honest, there is no silver bullet to finding and maintaining balance. I still bring more work home than I would like and don’t always follow my “work rules”. That being said, I have noticed a definite difference in my mindset as we’ve gone through this journey. A night without work is becoming something to be celebrated, rather than a reason to feel guilty. I find myself asking, “Does this really need to be done at home, or could it wait until tomorrow?” more often. And I am slowly getting better at setting limits for myself, such as only bringing one project home (instead of everything that needs to be done) or setting a timer for how long I work (once it goes off, no more work for me)! The accountability and camaraderie has been huge - for picking me up when I am struggling, for spurring me on to do better, and sometimes just to have a place to share how hard this is! In this ongoing journey of living LIFE to the fullest, I am grateful for friends who are not afraid to ask the tough questions and provide gentle reminders when needed. It’s not always easy...but it is worth it!

Meagan: A couple of months ago, I really began to reflect on my work/life balance.  Around this time, Aubrey and Mari shared their idea for “work rules” and…it was amazing!  I quickly began to develop my own set of rules in hopes of developing some balance in my life.  As Aubrey mentions above, I still struggle with maintaining balance and following these rules but I can tell that there has been a definite shift in my mindset.  Although I have always been a good time manager, I’ve started to balance when I will do “work-work” (site/district) and when I will do my “side work” (blogging, presenting, etc).  I’ve been able to use much of my time at school to finish my lesson planning, grading, and projects which has opened opportunities to work on my “side work” projects at home.  Before, I was doing both and it was clear that this would not last forever.  I have also tried to set aside one day of the week where I do not do any “work-work” and at least one night where I do not do any work related to education.  I’ve definitely broken these rules several times but it has been helpful to have friends who check-in and encourage me to keep with these goals.  I still have a long ways to go on truly creating a work/life balance but…you have to start somewhere, right?

Mari: It’s been a constant battle for me to find the right work/life balance because teaching is both my passion and my job. However, I began realizing that in order to be the best teacher for my students, I also need to take care of myself. Prior to creating the Work Rules with Aubrey and Meagan, I felt guilty if I didn’t work all weekend and most weeknights. That pace was neither sustainable nor healthy for me. Now, I give myself all of Sunday off from anything education-related, and use this time to recharge, relax, and pursue fun things (like napping!). As both Aubrey and Meagan said, there are times the rules have been bent or broken; while I’m routinely committed to my Sundays off, I haven’t always given myself a few work-free weeknights due to school commitments or interruptions/distractions during my prep period. I’m so grateful for our group. Not only do they keep me accountable to my work/life balance commitments, but also they encourage and push me to be a better person!


We are on a journey together - far from perfect, yet always growing. Frequently just before or after work, we check in with each other to see what the day looks like and what our work/no-work plans are for the day. This keeps us centered throughout the day and into the evening.

What steps are you taking to balance work and life?

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Navigating the Sea of Shoulds

Welcome to our adventure. Please keep your hands, feet, and shoulds inside the bus at all times.

Should is a word that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Every time I hear, think, or say this word, I cringe. I’m trying to change my mindset, by first changing my vocabulary.

I don’t run a makerspace. I don’t fully integrate robotics and coding into my science curriculum. I haven’t tried flexible seating in my classroom. I don’t have Flipgrid Fever. I’m not certified in every app, tool, and program out there.

Some of y’all are thinking, “oh my gosh Mari, you really should try __________.”

Should. Should. Should.

I know I am a great teacher. I build great relationships with my students, I design engaging lessons, I empower my students to be curious learners, and we have lots of fun in our class. I try new things and take risks, and I am transparent with my students on my successes and shortcomings. I want to be the best version of me.

One of my favorite authors and experts on the topic of shame and vulnerability is BrenĂ© Brown. She has published some phenomenal books (Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, I thought it was just me (but it isn’t), and more), as well as done some incredible TED Talks. I highly recommend them, especially Listening to shame (TED Talk).

My favorite takeaway from BrenĂ© Brown is when she differentiates between shame and guilt, “Shame is, ‘I am bad.’ Guilt is, ‘I did something bad.’" I feel guilty when I forget to submit my attendance. I feel shame when I’m not doing all the things in my classroom and with my students. After reading her books and watching her TED talks, it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one struggling with attaching self-worth to what we do and don’t do.

When I get excited about a new tech tool or idea, I immediately sail out onto the Sea of Shoulds with the Shame Sharks ominously circling my boat. I’m 100% sure I’ve sent subliminal shame messages to friends and colleagues as I’m trying to get them to use this “Awesome New Tool” that they just can’t live without. When I say, “You should try this!” it becomes less about the tool, and more about their shortcomings as a teacher.

When I start attaching “shoulds” to my suggestions, I am also unintentionally adding shame to the conversation. Me telling you, “you should try this!” inherently attaches shame--the hidden message here is “You’re not doing enough. When you try _____, you’ll have more value in this edu-world.” I apologize, and hope you’ll give me another opportunity to share...in a different way.

I am working hard to reshape my language and approach. Rather than telling people what they should do, I am taking time to hear their needs and ask how I can support their needs. When I am beyond excited for the “Super Awesome Thing,” I’m shifting my language to “I just learned about the Super Awesome Thing, I’d love to share with you how it’s impacting students in my classroom.”

Thank you all for being on this journey with me!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

2017-2018 School Year Goals

It’s fun to reflect back on where I was a year ago, and the goals I set for my classroom (read more here). I was ready to hit the ground running with Restorative Practices in my classroom, including using circles regularly. And, I generally did an okay job using circles and restorative conversations. Toward the end of the year, circles became fewer and fewer, so this year a big focus is sustaining Restorative Practices. On the bright side, using restorative conversations with individual or small groups of students was incredible helpful (blog post coming soon).

As I look to this school year, I’m excited to focus on a few new things with my students and refine my practice on last year’s topics.

Right now, I’m temporarily winning the battle against the Shoulds. There’s an overwhelming pressure to do all the things, and be a pro at all apps, tools, and teaching practices. And, I don’t have the time or energy to jump on board with every single one. I can’t be the only one that feels this way, right?

So, I’m really going to focus on building relationships with my kids first, and everything will come second.

7th grade science
My big goals for 7th grade science are to use social media better to connect with my kids and have them connect with experts, and to guide my students to be more self-directed and in charge of their own learning.

With social media, we have classroom Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts. Last year, I had students dictate some tweets as we were asking questions to local meteorologists. This year, I’d love to turn my iPad over to students (with supervision) to post to classroom social media accounts. If anyone has a way to introduce this to kids, (target length: 45 minutes), let me know. I’m planning to accomplish this with a Common Sense Media digital citizenship lesson and social media certification.

I think using more purposeful social media will also lead to the second science goal of building more self-directed learners. My goal is to empower students to take charge of their learning, ask more in-depth questions, and work more independently within groups. One step I’ve taken toward this goal is to create group work roles; I’ve tried this in the past, but haven’t been consistent.

8th grade AVID
Last year in AVID 8, I had my kids start blogging. While it fizzled out a little bit during second semester, it was a lot of fun. I want to build this back up this year, and connect with at least one classroom. Last year, we did some commenting between my class and Aubrey Yeh’s class, which the kids especially enjoyed.

As with social media in 7th grade science, I hope this gives students a platform to express their ideas and thoughts.

Blended Learning Specialist
Within my technology role, I’m trying to maximize my time again this year--I only have a 2. (one class period) dedicated to technology. I’ll continue to run monthly Parent Tech Breakfasts, and post monthly Virtual Vikings newsletters in the staff bathrooms. Additionally, we’re continuing with Viking Tech Crew, our student tech club.

One of my big goals for my BLS position is to be in classrooms more and work one-on-one with teachers in a coaching context. It seems that a lot of teachers don’t know what I do in my role, and do not know I’m available to work with them. For now, I’m going through coaching frameworks to find one that feels comfortable to me, then approaching teachers who I think would be willing and interested to start this coaching journey with me.

Additionally, our goal is to become a Common Sense Media Certified School and help other schools in our district become certified as well. I’m working on adapting the Common Sense Media lessons to fit within core content, which will help with school-wide buy-in. Our amazing AVID department will help me push out content to the content areas (we have AVID teachers in all 4 core departments!), and will also each become CSM Certified Educators.

This is going to be a great school year! Kids came back on Thursday, July 20th, and I can already tell I have a wonderful and hard-working bunch. They are goofy, and also know when it’s time to be serious.

If you do any of these things, or have insight, I’d love to hear it! Comment below, or email me at mari.venturino@gmail.com.