Thursday, June 9, 2016

Giving Students More Choice: a 20% Time Reflection

By Kim Miklusak

The American Lit team did 20% Time projects with our students again this year.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept behind 20% Time projects or would like to read more about our reflections on last year, please check out posts here.

Using last year's experiences and reflections from ourselves and the students, we switched some things up this year.  Instead of having one day a week or every other week be dedicated to the project--especially with testing in spring--we had one of our five units be focused on this project, starting 4th quarter after state testing was over yet before AP exams began.  This allowed the students to have the same experiences with no gaps as we found the switching back and forth between units to be distracting.

Students still went through the same processes this year, including most of the same materials.  However, getting into the project this year seemed much smoother because of the two mini-units we did leading into it.  First, after our unit on Sula, students found non-conformists of their choosing, did mini-research on him/her, and then created an Adobe Voice project to share with the class.  The next unit was an American Dream unit where students identified a community with which they associated, did mini-research, summarized articles, wrote a narrative, and interviewed someone else in that community.  This provided the framework for so many of the skills used in 20% Time that the unit itself required little instruction!

That was another reflection we had on last year: easing the transition into finding their topics.  Again we played the same videos, did the same surveys, and discussed the same topics, but everything seemed to flow smoother!  This year's projects included topics covering mental health and school stress; providing useful resources for teen moms; debates on immigration and free college through the lens of current political candidates; investigations of the effects of curfew laws on teens; and explanations on how and why students wear hijabs, including a station where students were able to try some on.

Students from Mrs. Kim's class
Ultimately, I think this project is more support that students need to have more say in how they reach their targets.  I can't think of a student who asked me if an article was good or not, for example, or how long their project had to be.  They knew their own purpose, and they knew what steps they needed to take to get there.  There are definitely more things we can continue to refine, but I'm thankful for our students' work and have enjoyed seeing all of their projects.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Facing Our Fears

by Kirsten Fletcher

I am afraid of many things: heights, enclosed spaces, public speaking, getting beat up by my black-belt colleague Mindy Perkins... but most of all I'm afraid of failing.

This semester, I had a student who, like me, was anxious about presenting in front of her peers. Speaking in front of others is often heightened in a foreign language where students aren't even sure they are pronouncing the words correctly. This student asked if she could do her presentation privately instead of in front of the class. Being the meanie that I am, I told her NO! What I actually said was that I wanted her to at least try because I believed she could do it and would feel proud of herself once she did. She ended up giving an articulate, well-prepared (and well-pronounced) presentation. Was it absolutely perfect? No, but she did feel proud of herself for doing it, and went on to excel at other speaking tasks.

What I neglected to tell my student at the time was that I had just been asked to read the names at our school's graduation ceremony. I was honored that the class of 2016 gave me the opportunity and that my administration believed that I could do it. However, I was terrified. What if I mispronounced a student's name in front of their whole family? What if I ruined a student's big moment somehow?

My student's courage in facing her presentation inspired me as I prepared to read the names for our 2016 graduates. These are students that had accomplished a great deal in their four years at Elk Grove High School. I was determined to get their names right. I took copious notes during graduation practice and even called on colleagues who knew the students when I realized my notes weren't clear enough. I showed up an hour earlier than necessary to practice the names (again). Still I was nervous.

I can honestly say that my performance at graduation was far from perfect, and I sincerely apologize to any students whose names I messed up during the ceremony. However, like my student, I feel proud of having faced my fears and survived. I'm grateful to those who encouraged me and believed in me enough to give me the chance to prove myself. I'm also grateful to have been at that ceremony to hear so many of our talented 2016 graduates speaking, performing, and inspiring us all to seek excellence and happiness in all that we do.

I plan to remember this experience as my students enter my classroom every day and face the fear of speaking in front of their peers - in another language! Like me, I think many of our students are afraid to fail. Sometimes this leads them to not try. I hope to make my classroom a place where they can safely face their fears, accept imperfections, and emerge successful and confident.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Keeping Students Engaged After the AP Test

By: Dan Saken

There is such a feeling of finality once students take the AP test in a given class, for both students and teachers.  So how do you convince students to stay bought in and engaged for the month or so left of school that follows AP testing?  MOVIES!!!!.....just kidding (mostly).  Showing movies are great to allow students to decompress from the work that went into preparing for the test (I showed 2 of them in class).  But I noticed that most students were looking at their phone screens more than the movie screen by Movie #2.   While the students may say all they want to do is watch movies, it seemed that my students secretly were yearning for something that required them to do more than just have a pulse. 

My experience and what worked in my class is probably quite different than other classes because:
     a)    AP Psych has a majority of seniors, which is a different kind of beast (battling senioritis, students absent for other AP tests or activities, etc.)
     b)   Our AP test is the first day of AP week, so we have more time following the test than others may

I did a few other things in the first couple of weeks after the test with surveys, reflections, letters, etc., but I took the second-to-last week for seniors and decided to make it an “Activity Week.”  Besides the obvious idea of having fun, it was also important to me that the activities still connected to Psychology in some way.  It was also important that each activity be something that could be done in one day; a “quick-hitter” that held their attention just long enough before the interest wore off.  Here is what the week looked like (and I’ll attempt to hold back on the Psych jargon):

MondayThe Depth Perception Experiment
We do a unit on Sensation & Perception that includes how we perceive our world using depth perception from both eyes or just one eye, so this fit perfectly.  The great thing about this activity was the weather cooperated and we could do the experiment outside.  Students got in teams of 3-4 to conduct an experiment on a person’s ability to catch a tennis ball with one hand (Thanks PE department!)  They were thrown the ball 10 times with both eyes open, then 10 times with only one eye open and were asked to record the data.  The students were very competitive, wanting to do well and genuinely seemed to enjoy the process.  In our debriefing once everyone was done, we were able to calculate the mean, median, and mode, discuss the independent and dependent variables, brainstorm possible confounding variables, and more ideas that directly pertain to the Psych material we learned.  And they definitely learned that it is much easier to catch a ball coming at you with both eyes tracking the ball.

Tuesday – The Quotes Project
We once again took advantage of the weather outside because the project could be done from anywhere that had Wi-Fi.  Each student chose a famous psychologist we covered in class to create a single slide/poster with a picture, dates of life, perspective in psychology, and a quote from him or her.  I did make it worth points, though not enough to make much difference on their grade and said they would present it to the class on Thursday.  I attempted to motivate them even more by saying if their slide was excellent, I planned on making a poster from it to hang in my room next year and I’d place their name under it. Presentations on Thursday!

Wednesday – The Marshmallow Challenge
Students were placed in teams of 4-5 people to compete in a teambuilding activity that focused on their ability to be creative and use divergent thinking.  They were given spaghetti, tape, string, a marshmallow and 18 minutes to build the tallest structure possible that could stand on its own with the marshmallow on top (and create a team name).  Once again, I found the students incredibly engaged and working together to find solutions to this admittedly silly challenge while still being able to connect the lessons from the activity to psychological concepts.

Thursday – Quotes Project Presentations
Students were given the floor to project their slide up on the screen for the class to see and present their psychologist and his or her quote.  I obtained some phenomenal, poster-worthy material that I will definitely be putting up in my room and every student in class got their moment in the spotlight (whether they wanted it or not), receiving a one-clap from the class for their efforts.  Only 3-4 did not complete it out of my 70 students, which I was incredibly pleased with….and I got some new classroom decorations in the process!

Friday – Senior “Absentee” Day
I didn’t have an activity planned for this day….for obvious reasons :).

The feedback I got from students when I asked them about the week was overwhelmingly positive, with most students saying they were open to doing more.  One thing that I strongly believe helped in the success of the activities was that each activity was really a One-Day thing.  If I tried to do an extended assignment of some kind, I don’t think it would have been nearly as successful in keeping the students engaged throughout.  I already have more ideas for next year, but I also hope I can incorporate some of these types of activities into the regular curriculum as a change of pace and opportunity for application of what they’ve learned.  Because in case you didn’t know, “Psych is Life.”

Friday, June 3, 2016

What is the Purpose of School: students' perspective

By Kim Miklusak

We talk about purpose a lot in the Collab Lab, so much so that it's become a running joke.  But it's true: knowing the purpose of why we do what we do in our classrooms is the center of everything.  It guides everything from our goals to our assessments to our grades and everything else in between.

We decided it would be interesting to hear students' perspectives of school and classes--not any class in particular, but overall.  So we invited in a small group of juniors and (literally) grabbed some seniors as they were on their way out the door.  This is a group limited in that they are mainly AP English students.  We realize that this is just a small representation of our student body, and we hope to host this same type of meeting with other groups of students on the same and additional topics in the future!

We could write a year's worth of blogs based on what they talked about, and they could have talked another hour!  You can follow this link to read the entire summarized transcript of the conversation as it happened, but here are some points I found most insightful and interesting:
  • Students felt that while academics held a great importance, obviously, that "soft skills" such as time management, character, networks of support, etc. are all equally as important.  We talked about whether these were skills teachers should teach or if they were simply expected.  Surprisingly (or not surprisingly based on this group) many students said it was self-accountability and self-awareness that were most important although they admitted that not everyone has a support structure or that it took some people more time to develop these skills.  This, interestingly, relates back to a previous post we had about Executive Functioning Skills.
  • Students discussed at length the process vs. product of school.  They discussed why some teachers require notes and assignments to be completed in a certain way even if it wasn't the way a student learned best--again while conceding that it's not possible to completely individualize instruction.  They do advocate for options in the process of learning.  There were disagreements about whether habits of work and task completion were truly useful in the learning process.  There was also great discussion about why we average grades (unprompted, seriously!), that if by the end of the year they are able to demonstrate mastery, why were grades averaged from earlier in the year when they were not yet mastering materials.  Again, however, the conversation came back to the idea of grades being a reflection of where you are and thus not including "task completion" activities simply to bump up grades.
  • Students brought up the importance of clear standards, the need to clearly know what they need to know and be able to do.  They talked about how class needs to be a reflection of the proportion of the assessments; that is, do we as teachers spend the appropriate amount of time on skills and topics in our instruction and in our assessment, and is that then reflected appropriately in our grade books?  Do we provide appropriate and timely feedback when we return assignments, holding ourselves to the same standards that we hold them?  This led into a conversation about the importance of critical inquiry and critical reading (again, unprompted!) with one student saying: 
    “The way we critically analyze or think, most of my classes taught me how to be a better writer or thinker, how to look through a different lens.  That’s what they’re trying to teach…when we leave this school there are a lot of” people who are not like you.  This will make you well rounded.
So many thanks to these students for their time and insight!  We appreciate their speaking with us today, and we definitely look forward to hosting more sessions like this in the future!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Year In Review

By Mark Heintz

A year ago I wrote about the changes that were going to be implemented for the 2015-2016 school year for human geography.  You can read about that here. Not all of those changes were implemented and some changed along the way due to feedback from instruction and assessments.  A year later, I can tell you it has been a great year from my perspective.  One of the best takeaways of documenting my curriculum and focusing on mastery was that I know what I wanted from the beginning.

I have loved knowing what my course is.  This year, students have been challenged by readings at or above their level.  Students have become better at making a claim and providing specific pieces of evidence that support that claim to support their argument.  Students are writing more, and it is better than ever. There is still a lot of progress to make, but it is pretty amazing.

Since I documented what I wanted and clearly stated the content objectives- clear writing, reading and interpreting charts, graphs, and map skills people can engage in specific things about what my course isn't.  My learning targets that are assessed through multiple choice are low level.  One of the standard objectives for each unit is to define a few vocabulary words.  So, on the test, that is what is being assessed.  That assessment is used to see if the students understand the basics.  The content objectives allow students to explore charts, maps, graphs, and texts around each concept or objective.  There are very few content objectives, but the students made incredible progress towards them and the skills.

A final note, I only put assessments into the grade book.  We had three assessments second semester with four parts each.  There are twelve grades in my grade book.  I have not had behavioral issues because everything we do is centered around the major skills and the clear content objectives.  Students stopped asking, "Is this for points?" I have not been asked if there is anything they can turn in to raise their grade and only have a week left in the school year.  When students ask is there anything they can do to raise their grade, I respond by saying, "Show me you can read, write, or interpret charts, maps, and graphs."  I feel very confident that a student's grade reflects their ability level and knowledge of the content objectives.  That is a good way to end to the year for my as a teacher and for my students who have learned more, and became better readers, writers, and interpreters of charts, maps, and graphs.