Classroom Routines – For Whom?

In the early days of a new school year, I’ve found myself reflecting on and talking a lot about classroom routines for all sorts of management and learning needs. Optimism abounds – setting routines at the beginning of the school year is an investment of time that can turbo charge learning experiences later in the year.

But how? Routines for thinking, like the simple (yet profound!) examples shared by Project Zero, can build the toolbox of thinking strategies students employ during different stages of learning. “Connect-Extend-Challenge” is one I recently shared with a colleague during unit planning. He asked how often kids should use this routine, and we spoke about perhaps leaning on this initially as early research happened and as kids inquired into a variety of journalistic articles on a given topic, then offering an alternative or two, and perhaps a “free choice” of routine to use as a way of engaging with and beginning to process a complex text or set of ideas. Repetition with coaching-style formative feedback lets kids gain expertise and confidence in thinking routines, but they shouldn’t become the one hammer we use every time we encounter a nail (or a Jello mold for that matter, but that’s for another post, perhaps).

Structures for discussion, like Text Rendering, for example, can also become routines that keep the action of learning student centered, which are one domain of classroom routines.

Another domain of classroom routines are those that belong to the teacher. These teacher-focused or driven routines can’t really be handed over to kids, but rather serve a need of the teacher. An example from our Upper School right now is that classrooms school-wide have instituted a routine of storing student cell phones in a pocket organizer at the beginning of every class. This routine serves a legitimate classroom management issue, but isn’t likely to become a routine students engage in independently. Bell-ringers or other warm-up routines to begin class might fall into the teacher-driven domain of routines, but with an aim pointed at student learning and classroom management, to ease the transition between classes and to begin focusing students on learning in this classroom context for the given time period.

What I’m realizing is that student-centered routines that serve as transferable learning strategies should take priority in the early days of the middle and high school year because they are an investment in time, intensity, and engagement for students. Such routines also place the teacher’s planning focus on what kids are doing during classroom time, how kids might manage themselves and their learning between the bells. Teacher-centered routines are perfectly appropriate, and planning these thoughtfully gets us out of the realm of habitual practice, which is always good.

So who are your classroom routines for? Is the balance of the scales tipping in the student or teacher-centered direction? Will a second wave, third wave, fourth wave of routines build upon these routines, instilling learning strategies in students as they become ever more independent learners? Or, do routines get locked in during the first weeks, or, alternatively, set, and then progressively ignored as other concerns take priority? Is it time to mix it up? If so, follow a link above, choose one that might fit, and give it a go!


I Flip the Classroom, Sort Of

I maintain deep and abiding distrust of the “flipped classroom” model, because I see it largely as just the same boring lectures with more time to drill, baby, drill in the standardized testing-focused classroom. However, I see the possibilities of refining and recording moments of direct instruction for students via video lectures. Since I am missing two days of my IB course this week due to an adventure day with grade 10 and an IB conference (oh, sweet irony), I decided to revisit the mini-lecture from today and record the rest of the instruction I would try to give individually or in small groups as kids worked over the next two classes via screencasting. The focus of the series is “Essay Skills,” focusing on dissecting a prompt, writing a thesis statement, and organizing an outline while revising a thesis statement.

I used Jing and put the videos together in Camtasia Studio, thanks to a free 30 day trial. I managed to complete all of the screencasting, but then found that I only had the audio for the first two pieces of three. I was aiming for around 15 minutes total in length for all three videos and that should be about right. I’ve really doubted how useful this model would be for kids in the reading and composition classroom and am interested to hear student feedback after my return. I’ve embedded the videos below and welcome any feedback.



The iPad 2 for Learning – Podcasting Project Reflection

My Digital Journalism class has finished their podcast news reports and the process was as interesting as the products. We began this project by listening to model podcasts, such as Radiolab’s amazing short “Four Track Mind.” Once students listened to some models, they edited our English department’s oral presentation rubric, resulting in this modified podcasting rubric, which I expect to modify further. Students sought to build upon earlier news reports in these podcasts, so the subject matter was not an obstacle.

Students worked in a variety of processes. Some students recorded all their audio on the iPad in Garageband. Others downloaded free apps, recorded in those apps, and offloaded to laptops; still others recorded everything on their 1 to 1 laptops. In my opinion, the most fluent and engaging podcasts were those created entirely in the iPad. Students couldn’t upload their podcasts to their blogs via the Posterous iPhone app and the files were too big for Dropbox, so they emailed the files to themselves and uploaded them. Each student reflected briefly on the process and product once they were finished and all podcasts linked below include a reflection. All podcasts shared here are shared with student and parent permission.

The podcasts show incredible attention to the conventions of media, suggesting to me that “digital natives” may not come into the classroom equipped with media creation skills, but that they do bring with them a vast experience with media consumption and a finely tuned sense of how to sound cool in a medium. The structure of our course is discovery learning, so students struggled a bit at first, and then built a good deal of fluency in the podcast medium in only a week or so. This podcast features excellent aural variety, an engaging voice, good sound quality, and smooth editing. The subsequent reflection is here. This podcast mimics many aspects of the Radiolab model and even spins some conventions onto their head, messing around with a lighthearted sense of ironic awareness even in their first attempt. The second example is also a pair project, self-selected by the students. One student took the lead and allowed the other to stretch his legs a bit with the language and acting portion of the podcast, but also covering for some technological discomfort on his partner’s behalf. The reflection briefly alludes to this. For their current video project, all students will produce a single video, even if working in groups, in order to build skills in this introductory unit. The final podcast example is smooth and straightforward, lacking the depth and complexity of the other two, but featuring good use of details and facts, as well as a clear speaking voice and subtle use of radio-style conventions. The final reflection shows depth and specificity about the process employed.

The iPad works well for podcasting, but even as I made one myself as a teaser for a “Speed Geeking” professional development opportunity this week, I found that I liked playing with music on the iPad but preferred building the podcast in Audacity. In our current video introductory project, I see more laptop use. Students seem to be recording video on the iPad and transferring it to MovieMaker. We’ll see what they wind up doing in the end.

Affective Teaching & The Mustache

That's not a dead mouse.

Sometimes, the silliest things become big and define moments for students in ways we can’t possibly anticipate. Take, for instance, my mustache. After a month of rallying my colleagues to grow beards in order to raise money for prostate cancer research – and we raised roughly $700 in internet and cash donations – we had a beard auction for the student body, in which they could choose a teacher, make a bid, and determine how that teacher would shave for the last day of September. We had spirals, mutton chops, handlebars, a particularly epic swirl, and the letters X-C for the cross-country coach. I got the sweet, sweet mustache.

I approached the mustache with humor, shaved most of my hair to accentuate the Sargent Slaughter-esque nature of my visage, and went into the day with a new-found energy. Kids laughed. Kids tried not to laugh, and I fixed them with a steely gaze until they laughed. We had fun.At one point, I relieved a teacher who was giving a test for a few moments of bathroom reprieve, and I said “My mustache is watching you punks,” as they huddled over graphing calculators. A girl replied, “We’re watching your mustache.”

At the end of the day, as I prepared to leave for home, I ran down to the PE office for my clippers and saw the cross country team returning from practice. They actually crowded around, chatting and joking about the stache. I told them to drink it in, as it was the mustache’s last moments on Earth. A few kids went “awww.” I trimmed, shaved in the bike commuting locker room, and returned my clippers to the coach for the aforementioned X-C shaving. When the kids saw me, a roar of disappointment rose from them. They actually mourned the mustache. It was really amazing. And hilarious. What their collective groan at my shaving told me was that they appreciated the break from routine, the connection with their teachers in a silly way, and the leveling effect of a goofy act on the part of the teacher.

I am not an affective teacher, preferring to stick to the business at hand, having fun, but maintaining a certain distance that allows for a mutually respectful relationship with kids. This month of shared silliness has not necessarily brought students closer to me, but it has brought me closer to them, which may help me bridge gaps that would have existed or been perceived by certain kids. I think I’m a little more human today in their eyes, and I think that’s a mutual victory. I guess I’ve learned something that this guy knew all along, and I’m better for it.

Brain Elasticity & Learning Through Action

I just listened to a fascinating podcast from On Being entitled “Investigating Healthy Minds” with Dr. Richard Davidson and it meshed with an interview published recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Know Much About History” with famed historian David McCullough. While Dr. Davidson makes many points about the nature of the mind and the effect of meditative practices on the mind from the perspectives of a practitioner and a neuroscientist, toward the end of the interview, a question about meditative practices as “spiritual technology” elicited the following, fascinating response:

Potentially. I don’t think I’ve used that phrase, but certainly I have talked about the range of practices, really the mechanics of practice, that are so richly described in some of the contemplative traditions and the potential value that many of these practices might have for modern science and our modern understanding of the mind. You know, I certainly — the idea of transformation is one that to me meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding. I’ve no problem with that and, you know, I think that really is a natural byproduct of understanding many of these constructs as the product of skills that can be enhanced through training. (emphasis added)

This idea underlies all of teaching and learning: the acquisition of skills over time changes the brain at any age. So often, I see kids sitting and staring at their desks, their notebooks, their laptops when they are working on prewriting exercises or planning stages of projects. Almost invariably, when I ask what they’re up to they respond with one word – thinking. My response is also almost invariable – thinking is doing, so do something. This is not merely flippant. I have a raft of suggestions for activities from taking a walk to drawing a picture to working on something else for a bit. Every assignment and project isn’t perfectly designed to capture every student, intrinsically motivating them into motion, but at the end of the day, thinking is action. So, do something, analyze the result, revise, and try again with an altered approach. Learn to do, better and better, through practice, approaching this process as a skill related to fluency in other skills, like writing, speaking, or film making. In the context of the conversation, I take Dr. Davidson to mean that meditative practices transform the mind in powerful ways because they are learned skills worked closer and closer to perfection over time. Because these practices are learned and then put into action repetitively, I see them as analogous to any performance skill taught in a classroom.

Learning as doing that transforms the mind is also reflected in the Wall Street Journal’s conversation with David McCullough, as he suggests, among other great ideas like active, involved parenting, student centered projects and art in the teaching of history in order to create critical minds:

And teach history, he says—while tapping three fingers on the table between us—with “the lab technique.” In other words, “give the student a problem to work on.”

“If I were teaching a class,” he says, “I would tell my students, ‘I want you to do a documentary on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Or I want to you to interview Farmer Jones or former sergeant Fred or whatever.” He adds, “I have been feeling increasingly that history ought to be understood and taught to be considerably more than just politics and the military.”

What about textbooks? “I’d take one of those textbooks. I’d clip off all the numbers on the pages. I’d pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here—all the way through. I’d put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say, ‘Put it back in order and tell me what’s missing.'” You’d know that book inside and out.

Mr. McCullough advises us to concentrate on grade school. “Grade school children, as we all know, can learn a foreign language in a flash,” he says. “They can learn anything in a flash. The brain at that stage in life is like a sponge. And one of the ways they get it is through art: drawing, making things out of clay, constructing models, and dramatic productions. If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play, you’re never going to forget it as long as you live.”

“We’re too concentrated on having our children learn the answers,” he summarizes. “I would teach them how to ask questions—because that’s how you learn.”

McCullough’s final point is powerful and true. History isn’t a fixed quantity to be memorized and held (or forgotten), but a series of techniques for understanding the past through drawing connections and interweaving disparate narratives and artifacts. Skills. Teach doing, build fluency in questioning and examination as skills, and transform minds as meditative practices transform minds thanks to the brain’s elasticity. Spiritual practices and history are both shrouded in mystery, but through the sometimes mundane, sometimes transformative process of doing each, we learn and are changed for the better.

Creating an Environment for Writing

Edutopia’s blog section has a nice piece up today with “Five Fundamentals for Creating a Positive Writing Atmosphere” that I like a great deal and not just because it begins with one of my classroom mantras: writers write. As teachers of writing, and all teachers are writing and communication teachers (and models), this piece is worth a look. I particularly like the idea of modeling writing for our students, which is one of the reasons I have a class blog and why I love #4 on the list, which is to “set pure tone” by doing the writing assignments yourself:

Jeffrey Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise State University and the director of the Boise State Writing Project, believes that teachers need to write in order to teach writing. In his interview for the book, Teaching the Neglected “R”, he clearly states that it’s important for teachers to do the writing assignments they give students and then ask, “Would I do the work I’m asking my students to do?

This is essential – could I write a descriptive essay about Thomas Jefferson using my five senses? What did Jefferson smell like? How does he smell today? What kind of grade would that piece get me in fifth grade? Writing responses to AP-style prompts and sharing them with students has informed my instruction, given me compassion for some of the uncool realities behind on-the-spot literature surprise attacks, and shown me the potential value of document-based synthesis surprise attacks.

I also value the realization that writing takes time and so often schools cram in more and more and more, choking out time for creative enterprise and energy. Students amaze me at the depth and beauty of their output so often whilst being strung between endless club, activity, academic, artistic, and social demands. Some freedom and space in both the physical and time dimensions can give opportunities for creative output – written or otherwise.

An environment for writing in the classroom corresponds to an environment for creative, active learning in the school and beyond. I’ll be thinking about this blog piece as I plot out next year’s curriculum and loose plan in the next few weeks.

Learning Outside of the Classroom

In the midst of our first day of a “Classroom Without Walls” trip, one of my English students who is on the trip looked at me as we surveyed the landscape of canton Schwyz in Switzerland and said “It’s really amazing how fast we learn. I mean, this morning we had no idea about any of this.”


Not the inside of a school building

We began the morning slowly after a night fitful sleeping, as it turned out, by everyone. We ran and bounced our way through a cow pasture to begin with, practicing the run, brake, lean-and-run-quickly technique for launching. I learned run, brake, left, and right in German. Slowly, each paragliding student, myself included, worked her or his way up the hill, getting longer and longer flights. Eventually, we launched from the highest point and practiced turning. I learned that I am the Greatest American Hero of Swiss paragliding, landing much like Mickey Mantle coming into third base. This is my goal for tomorrow. The kids flourished, learning at different rates and succeeding or struggling with different parts of the technique, but all completing the day with successful flights and a high level of stoke for tomorrow, and for each successive day. The stoke is for flying, for doing something new, for succeeding, for learning easily, quickly, and authentically. When a boy’s glider collapsed and spun him around, no teacher needed to tell him that he hadn’t lifted off from the ground. When a girl launched five meters off the ground on her first try, she didn’t need a grade to prove that she had nailed it. It’s learning to do something personally valued, even if not valuable on the open market, that brings on the stoke.

I’m lucky to be teaching at a school with amazing resources through which kids are granted these kinds of opportunities. I wish all kids got them. At the end of the week, I’m not at all sure what quantifiable metrics we’ll have fulfilled, but that should clear up much of what we need to know about quantifiable metrics and learning. Sometimes, oftentimes, teachers and students alike need opportunities to soar and opportunities to make hard landings in environments that don’t look like school, but are.

Learning Spaces & the 1 to 1 Classroom

Recently, it seems like the idea of using and not using technological tools during interactions with other people is ripe and alive in the media. I have just finished listening to a podcast of “On Being” from American Public Media entitled “Alive Enough,” and featuring a conversation between host Krista Tippett and Sherry Turkle, who is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. The title of this show/podcast refers to a moment Turkle had with her daughter at a Darwin exhibition while they looked at a Galapagos turtle. Her daughter, who had been exposed to animal robots from an early age due to Turkle’s work, remarked that a robot would have been “alive enough” to substitute for the turtle, without anything really getting missed. Reflecting on what works and what doesn’t for me so far in a 1 to 1 classroom, the idea of “alive enough,” and a number of other key points raised in the broadcast illuminated interesting questions for me. In any classroom, space matters, as I learned from Harry Wong’s classic The First Days of School. Space should be managed cooperatively between students and teachers, and the laptop opens a window the size of the Earth in each student and teacher’s personal space. What are the best ways to teach, learn, and cooperatively manage this new space? Additionally, I’ve been realizing lately how often I engage in conversations in our staff office while reading an article, or scanning emails, or flitting back to the screen from eye contact. I’m not fully present in the conversation, and both I and the other end of the conversation lose something as a result; the same happens in the 1 to 1 classroom, and I wonder what the best ways are to create moments of maximum human engagement, or if others are thinking about this. Finally, as our personal computing technology and network technology matures, what does this mean for education?

Obviously, in the 1 to 1 classroom, we can close the laptops and bring everyone out of the technological space and into the physical space, from an attention standpoint, at least momentarily. Of course, students have been distracting themselves from classroom instruction and activities since the dawn of classroom education, and a big reason for this is teacher-centered activities. When students are working on engaging, authentic, and self-directed activities to build their own understanding of topics and fluency in skills, they are more likely to be attentive, technology or no. However, the rise of “multitasking” and its attendant challenges has led, in my informal observations, to students who cannot stop the mini-distractions that arrive through their connected laptop and who don’t fully engage with something that I really believe they would otherwise. It is clearly arguable that the task isn’t engaging enough in such a case, but come on – they distract themselves from Facebook with Skype, so I’m going to state that something new is happening here. Tippett and Turkle discuss “sacred spaces” in their conversation, and the ideas could easily apply to our connected, 1 to 1 classrooms:

Ms. Tippett: You do use this phrase “sacred spaces.” One moment of insight that I had about technology was when I was talking to Jon Kabat-Zinn. Do you know him?

Ms. Turkle: No.

Ms. Tippett: He’s a scientist, but he’s worked on bringing meditation into medicine. He made this really simple observation that technology goes 24/7, but we don’t. I mean, biologically, physiologically, we can’t. It’s this boundarylessness. I mean, this gets back to your point that it’s not just a matter of choices. At some point, it’s a matter of survival we have to set boundaries. When you talk about sacred spaces, what are you talking about there?

Ms. Turkle: To make our life livable, we have to have spaces where we are fully present to each other or to ourselves, where we’re not competing with the roar of the Internet and, quite frankly, where the people around us are not competing with the latest news off the Facebook status update. They may not have anything new. They may just be there being in a way that needs attention… Anyway, I guess I’m saying that sacred space is for me the places in your daily life where you want to keep them for yourself and the people who you need to give full attention to.

Note, this isn’t a discussion of paying attention to stuff, like how to punctuate an end citation, but to each other. I’ve had great success with motivating and engaging students through cooperative projects, and I’ve had some success with cooperative projects using technology like Google docs. However, when students are having a guided small group discussion in a self-selected space, I so often walk upon them and find one student ignoring their peers partially or completely through their laptop. This runs counter to what I expect from teenagers – the drive to be a part of the group. Sometimes, I’m sure it’s an escape from interpersonal friction of some sort, but how serious? How minor? When the space between students is thinned or undervalued and the cyberspace escape is before them, choosing the escape is totally predictable. Prioritizing the interpersonal is essential in all classrooms, but I can see clearly that this must be addressed explicitly in the 1 to 1 classroom. How? Probably modeling. The discussion continued:

Ms. Turkle: I have very simple rules. I mean, so far as I have rules for how to know you’re close to one or in one or should be having one: It’s dinner, it’s sharing meals with your family, it’s that moment at school pickup when your kid looks up and is trying to meet your eye. You know, you’re looking down at your smartphone and your child is trying to meet your eye.

I have enough data from children who’re going through this experience to know that it’s a terrible moment for them. It’s on the playground. Very bad when your child’s on the jungle gym and is desperately trying to have you look at them, for them to be taking hands off the jungle gym to try to get your attention — accident time. I mean, be in the park. Be in the park with them. Spend less time there, but make it a space. Make it a moment. These are important moments.

Ms. Tippett: It’s so interesting that you’re talking as much as or more about adults not setting boundaries with this, right? I mean…

Ms. Turkle: Oh, absolutely. Well, this is data-driven. I mean, this is data-driven in the sense that this is one of the surprises to me in doing the research. I thought when I started this research that I was going to be telling a story of children driving their parents crazy.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Turkle: And I’m not. It ended up that it was a story of parents — as much a story of parents leaving their children feeling lonely and alone and modeling the very behavior that then they came to find irritating in their children.

While the focus in this discussion is parenting, the parallels to the classroom are clear (and fascinating – what are we modeling?). Even in this piece, I am struggling to define the anti-social (in anal0g) behaviors that I do, such as partially ignore a colleague in the staff office, while tracing the contours of similar student behavior in the classroom. So, what are the signals for interpersonal space, for interpersonal digital space, for solo space or solitude for thinking, or for solitude in digital space, which can be so hard to find in Web 2.0? Tom Ashbrook, in a recent “On Point,” discussed texting in a fairly facile conversation, but he covered the expressive abilities of teenagers to signal with an eyebrow that they are still listening, but need a moment to read and respond to a particularly important or provocative text message. Should we create explicit classroom structures that delineate specific times for specific spaces, as listed above (or including spaces I haven’t considered), sending the “eyebrow message,” if you will, that it’s time to work alone on a short written response, and that this alone time should mean close the browser, shut off the Skype alerts, turn off the music, and everything else for a little time alone with your mind? I think this could do a world of good. As they continued the discussion, they addressed the idea of what schools and universities could be doing in this regard:

Ms. Turkle: That’s great, you know, but knowing how to do that and getting good at doing that, this is the art and science of 21st-century communication arts and sciences. It needs to be nurtured and developed, and I think that’s the problem that we’ve had in education where, you know, you set up the ability for people to have WiFi in classrooms, you put them in big lecture halls, and they shop [laugh]. You know, I mean, was it just because we put them on WiFi that we thought they were going to be setting up exciting fora in which they would be bringing things to a higher level?

One university after another is rethinking this and, as I go around the country, you know, we talk about it, we laugh about it because everyone who’s a professor today pretty much, you know, a senior faculty were there when this was set up and we remember what was on our minds and now we stand in the back of those classrooms and watch our students, you know, ordering from REI Sports and Amazon and on Facebook and on J. Crew. You know, we didn’t give it enough thought, so that’s what I mean.

Ms. Tippett: So that’s part of the growing up.

Ms. Turkle: Just this is part of growing up. Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up and it’s not.

You know, what are the things that, if we don’t pass them on, even with this new technology, we’re going to feel we didn’t do our job? (emphasis added) And I know the ones for me. I mean, I have the ones that are important to me. I feel very strongly about privacy, a very important conversation. You know, I can’t necessarily make that conversation come out the way I want it, but I want to make sure that my voice is heard in the mix. That’s very important to me, and then solitude, the importance of solitude.

Ms. Tippett: And this question of where leadership lies in starting these important questions about how we shape technology to be humane and sustainable, and the possibilities of that answer are more interesting because of the nature of this technology, right? There’s a possibility for everyone to be a leader on their Facebook page or as they reshape their family lives. I don’t know.

So, because I value thoughtful classroom spaces, I value shaping classroom structures that mimic thoughtful human interaction or solitude in digital spaces. This is new territory for students and teachers, and I can imagine an action research project in which we work together to shape these new classroom norms. Using syncing technology to block internet connectivity for digital personal space doesn’t feel right to me, because it is authoritarian and inauthentic. Nobody learns how to take care of themselves more humanely in an authoritarian structure. If students work with me to shape these spaces, they will be censoring their own flow of information and connectivity, which seems like an essential skill for our brave new world. Connectivity is like cookies, and ultimatums like: I will no longer eat cookies! tend to go nowhere. We need to work together to find a way to moderate our cookie intake to something healthy and protective of the essential deliciousness of the cookie (too far with the metaphor?). As pointed out in this program, the internet itself is new, and Web 2.0 is newer; we’ve gorged. Now, as the web matures, technology matures, and we mature as users and people, what new practices are best for the connected 1 to 1 classroom? Many practices, like student centered, constructivist approaches will always be fantastic. However, my thoughts for next year are as follows:

  • Work with students in transparent action research to create  signals and processes for creating cooperative interpersonal space in the physical classroom, cooperative interpersonal digital space,  solo physical space or solitude for thinking, and solitude in digital space for thinking.
  • Model interpersonal engagement during interactions, and avoid the eye flit, the microdistraction. In short, be present with others.
  • Prioritize a cooperative environment in the physical classroom through cooperative structures, as I may have been blinded by the technology and let this slip a bit.
  • Continue reflecting on what I value in learning and build classroom structures that support that.
  • Reflect and respond to the maturing technology in ways that support learning. I am really thinking a lot about Google Chromebooks, and have thoughts on this that will follow soon. But, that’s for another day.