Monday, December 1, 2014

Using a Visible Thinking Routine for the Three-Way Conferences

Visible thinking routines can be used across the curriculum and at all age levels, but they can also be used as a facilitation device for conferences. We had student-parent-teacher conferences this week, and I decided to use the Connect, Extend, Challenge routine to help my third grade students discuss their learning, and as a way to introduce a passion project students are about to individually embark on.

For the connect part of the discussion, they talked (while I scribed) about ways they connected to school and felt successful.  I invited them to talk subject matter, transdisciplinary skills, and any things that happened outside of the classroom that made them feel good to be at school.  It was a chance to celebrate both what they felt they were good at and what made them feel connected. It was gratifying for parents and myself to see how happy students were at school through what they shared.

For the extend part of our discussion, students were encouraged to think about ways they could extend on or improve their learning, relationships or skills.  It was interesting how in-tune most students were with what they needed to work on.  I had done no front-loading for this activity so whatever they spoke about was “off the cuff.”  As we talked about ways they could extend their learning and behaviors, I invited them to come up with a plan to help them further.  Parents were encouraged to chime in and I also added my own thoughts on how I could help.  We put plans in place while I wrote down the pertinent passages.

Finally, for the challenge section, I asked students to talk about what they felt passionate about, and we brainstormed ways we could come up with a rest-of-the-year passion project that would suit their abilities along with whatever "jazzed" them.  With a bit of guidance, they came up with some fantastic ideas.  One boy, a Lego addict who struggles academically, wants to plan out a screenplay, and then create a Lego movie.  Since we have a state-of-the-art technology department along with all the necessary expertise, this should be very do-able.  Another student, who recently moved to China from Holland, has been keeping a journal in Dutch about the huge changes that have taken place in her life and how she is dealing with them.  I commented on the fact that there are many children’s books written about relocating families and the challenges that go with it, but that I didn’t know of any of these books actually written by kids!  She was thrilled with the prospect of being the pioneer.  We don’t know if it will be in Dutch or English or both yet, but our school has expertise in both languages, so we can surely make it happen.

Parents were very impressed that their third grade children could participate in a very adult discussion.  By giving students talking points that encourage them to dig deeper with their thinking and by documenting what they said, we now have a planning tool/working document that will help us move forward with their individual goals and projects that will allow them to follow their passions.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rethinking Pre Assessment

I'm still thinking this one through, but I am starting to think I've been doing pre-assessment all wrong.  Let's take math as an example.  Typically, I've found something out of an old testament, oops, I mean, an old text book, that covers the basic skills that I plan to teach.  I take a few questions from each skill set I intend to cover and clumsily cut and paste them (literally!) onto another piece of paper and pop it into the printer.  Out come identical ugly preassessment "tests"that students either ace or have no idea what they are doing on or simply don't take seriously because they are so unprofessionally presented that they can't bother taking the time to do it, especially since they know it has no bearing on their grades.

I'm pretty much marked as a failure from moment one, right?  I mean, I shouldn't even have text books in my class to refer to if I were a "real" inquiry teacher, right?  I would conjure everything out of my pretty little head...

Fortunately, I have seen a little bit of the light lately.  If I am (mostly) teaching in a constructivist manner, surely my pre-assessments can be tasks that allow students to use their thinking skills to construct some meaning of their own.  I want to see where they are at in terms of their thinking more than I want to see how much they remember from last year.

While math is indeed a spiralling curriculum, we sometimes forget how often concepts need to be revisited.  But not just concepts: thinking skills.  How do you assess how students think?

Well, I am about to do a stand alone unit on data handling.  Good fun, right?   It's a natural for inquiry because students will be able to create their own charts and graphs and thingamabobs.  They'll be able to survey whomever they want about whatever they want.

So here's what I am going to try: I'll let you know how it goes.  Without any talks of tallying or cumulative frequency or bar graphs or pie charts, I am going to have them each think of something they want to find out about their peers.  Then I'm going to let them figure out a way to ask them and record their answers.  Finally, they'll have to find some way to share their findings with the rest of us.

While they go through the process and observe and then listen to what other students have done, not only will I be getting some valuable information about what they do and do not know, I figure they'll be figuring out a whole lot on their own and through their peers.  Pre-assessment and inquiry learning come together in the perfect marriage!

Learn as you go...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Teach to Inquire and Inspire: Powerful Questions to Get Students Thinking

Teach to Inquire and Inspire: Powerful Questions to Get Students Thinking: I don't take credit for these questions, but just think how effective they can be in pretty much any discipline at school.  I have th...

Powerful Questions to Get Students Thinking

I don't take credit for these questions, but just think how effective they can be in pretty much any discipline at school.  I have them posted and ask them to my students often.  My next job is to make sure each student has their own copy laminated and put on their own desk so they can ask each other the questions as they plan, discuss, ponder and create together.

I started off using them during math instructional time, often in a think-pair-share situation, sometimes in a whole group discussion, and sometimes with an individual student who is working through a challenge.

What about using this when defending your point of view in a debate?  How about using it to structure an essay?  How about as a pre-assessment when you want to find out what students know about a particular concept or skill?  How about as a simple summative task at the end of a unit, using the Lines of Inquiry to frame your questions?

You can use these questions as a teacher of five year olds or as a teacher of twelfth graders, equally effectively.  They transcend age and topic.  In fact, you can use them in your business or in a family discussion.

Love 'em!  Enough said.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Pondering Inquiry From the Bed

Believe it or not, I have been lying in bed on a Sunday morning reading academic literature on inquiry. What's the matter with me?  At best, I could be reading the New York Times and doing the Sunday crossword, cross-referencing and finding the joy of wordsmithing with some jazz completing the idyllic picture.  A cup of finely brewed coffee would, of course, accompany this montage.

But, alas, guilt has set in along with a lingering sense of "I'm not good enough," that has driven me to set a resolution that I will spend at least five minutes a day immersing myself in material that will enable me to cogitate on and activate best practices in my classroom.  Granted, it's hard to get started when I know I have the latest David Sedaris queued up on my Kindle, but once I crack open a book, that five minutes often leads into, "I'm just going to finish the chapter," or "Who knew?  I think I'll read a bit more."  (This is a game I play with myself in all aspects of life that I go kicking and screaming into: "Just five minutes, Leah.  That's all you need to do.")

Yes, folks, I've been inquiring about inquiry of my own volition (and guilt), so I am practicing inquiry at its best: not because I am being forced to, but because I want to - I really do, even if it's not my very first choice on a Sunday morning!

I've been reading Kathy with a K Short, and resonating with her thoughts on how inquiry needs to be a stance, not just a teaching method that is "used" in the classroom.  Inquiry in the classroom, in its ideal sense, should look like inquiry anywhere else: people would become interested in something or another, dig a bit deeper so the small wonderings become bigger questions that titillate and confuse us just a bit more, and then we would be led to pose a problem.  One of the main tenets of inquiry, as defined by KS, is that people, by virtue of their interest, become not just problem solvers, but problem posers.

Becoming a problem poser takes time, background, engagements with experiences, literature, and people to fill in some gaps that we don't know about.  You can't pose a problem if you don't know one exists; you also can't pose a decent problem if you don't have sufficient understanding of a topic.  As teachers, we love to pose the problems for the students because then we can get our Units of Inquiry completed in the allotted period of time, we can create neat and tidy rubrics with specific requirements, and we can tick the boxes on our curricular expectations.

Inquiry is messy, though.  It should be.  It should be confusing and exhilarating, and lead to more questions, not just answers.  Inquiry is never completed, hence the "life-long learners" adage of IB and any other progressive form of education.

Inquiry at its best: Emily decides she wants to build an
airplane after studying structures at school.

Reading about this makes me less confused about "how to do it" but more confused about how to "shut it down" when it is time to start a whole new focus/unit of inquiry.  In the words of immortal Oprah: here's what I know for sure: I never want to "shut down" student inquiry when it is time to move on to some new big picture ideas.  It's my job to help students continue to make connections to what they have learned, thought-through, and acted on.  It is also my job to have them experience as many big picture ideas and conceptual understandings as possible during their time in school so they leave bursting with ideas about how they're going to change the world and what their interests and passions are.  I also hope to give my students experiences and opportunities to allow for a well-rounded look at what it means to be human in its deepest sense, so they can make it a way of life, both in and out of the classroom.

No, this is not academic literature: it's simply cogitation from a teacher lying in bed who is now ready to have a go at the crossword puzzle and indulge in another cup of coffee.

Monday, December 2, 2013


I won’t keep you in suspense any longer: Feet on Floor, Bums on Chairs.  

I’ve started trialling mindfulness in my classroom (or just a chance for a few minutes of silence from my highly productive, very noisy fifth grade class), and it’s going surprisingly well.

It’s not hard.  It takes a bit of training.  It takes one or two minutes, a few times a day or every time you feel like your head is going to blow off.  The students love it.  They request it.  It slows them down.  It quiets them down.  A less nice way to say it?  It shuts them up.

But joking aside, when students sit quietly for a moment or two, focus on their breath (after getting their giggles out of the way and their initial holding of the breath and dragon-like releases that will inevitably be the first experiences of your fof boc-ing), something happens that is quite magical.  There is focus, and not just focus of the usual fifty to seventy percent, but a collect consciousness focus that one rarely sees outside of a Buddhist retreat. 

And what happens when there is 100% focus?  You get students all on the same page: receptive, ready to think, to listen, to collaborate.  They’ve cleared their minds of boy germs and girl germs and worries and "I don't want to's," and they are good to go.

It’s a little mini miracle right there in your classroom, and you can get it two, three, maybe even four times a day: students who are clear, present, and ready to inquire.

So how do you Fof Boc?  There are no rules that I know of, though mindfulness training in the classroom is becoming a very popular topic that you can investigate at your leisure.  All we do in our classroom is sit up straight, with our palms up resting on our thighs, and I say, “Breathing in…breathing out,” about ten times.  I breathe with them.  We usually close our eyes.

That’s it.  Fof Boc.  At least three or four times a day I’ll hear, “Ms. Rempel, when are we going to Fof Boc?”  That’s when I usually do it.  Or when I need a few minutes to breathe myself.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Putting the To-Do List Away for the Night

"Let's not work; let's play instead."

I've got a list up to the top button of my pajamas of things to get done (including this blog), but I've decided that for tonight I'm going to ignore the vast majority of them.  In fact, after I post this shortish blog, I am going to turn my computer off for the night.  The only condition on which I will turn it on again will to be watch Portlandia or Parenthood or West Wing(Can you believe I still haven't finished that most excellent series?) on Netflix.

Blog aside, my other obligations I shall meet are reading with my kiddos, tucking them in bed, and spending a nice chunk of time with that sweet chunk (Oops, I mean hunk) of a man I call my husband.

I'm blessed.  I love my life.  I love my family.  I love my job.  Sometimes it all seems like too much, but a bit of perspective helps with that.  My "too much" is somebody else's idea of paradise.

So what doesn't need to get done, won't.  Nobody's going to get hurt; nobody's going to judge me; nobody's going to even notice: except for me.  And I've decided that just for tonight, I'm not going to care.  (By the way, my daybook is up to date, the schedule is on the board, and my lessons are all prepared, just in case any of you think I am neglecting my job!)

That's my new start for today: to give myself a break once in a while.  Like I said, I love what I do, but sometimes I just do a bit too much of it.