Learning Habitats and the Educational Environment

The word habitat is defined as: The natural home or environment of an animal, plant or other organism. Humans put great importance on most of our habitats.  Our homes are designed with furniture and decorations that make us feel comfortable and put us at ease.  When we bring a new baby home from the hospital we have a newly painted room, with kid-friendly wall paper (whatever that is), and special furniture. Our habitat accommodations even extend to animals when we put them in a zoo. I once saw a prairie dog exhibit at a zoo.  They had special grass, decorative driftwood, hollow logs... for prairie dogs... underground rats.  One more example--carnival goldfish.  Even those free fish we reluctantly win at carnivals get a round bowl with rocks at the bottom, fake plants, a castle to swim through, and sometimes we even buy them a friend.  We are all about the habitat.

Consider all of that, and then think about most secondary schools and the classrooms within.  Our elementary years are spent in colorful classrooms with decorations and sometimes a special rug where students can comfortably sit.  As students transition into junior high and high school they typically enter bland walls, desks in rows, maybe some "inspirational" posters about doing your best--an environment more suitable to prison life than student life.  The inside of most classrooms are institutional, stiff, and unwelcoming.

I think we need to create a habitat of learning in our classrooms.  A comfortable, welcoming learning laboratory   Students should sit in groups.  Seating should be comfortable--how creative and engaged would you feel sitting in a school desk all day?  Leading companies like Google have embraced this, how have we ignored it for so long?

Draft Day

Last year our 7th grade team created a PBL project for two schools that involved a murder mystery they had to solve, you can read more about it here.  We decided to do this again this year with just our 7th grade kids.  We went through and tweaked it to fit just our school since the first time we included two schools together.

The next part is one our favorite days in team.    It is called draft day.  We have a common team time where we get to create projects and collaborate. One thing we do in our grade is when we do a big project we do not include all the students.  We first go through and eliminate any one with F's, we let them use this time to get caught up on their work.  The other group of kids we eliminate are students that have proven to us they can not handle open ended projects and group collaboration.  This is the only time we do this. Since we do projects all the time, they do get plenty of time to have that experience.  Once those kids are picked out, this year we had 9 out of 127 kids, the draft officially begins
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 We put every kids name on the board and we then "draft" them and put them in groups of three.  We have found that is the perfect number for group work.  Each teacher gets a turn in picking a group and we just go around and draft all the kids until they have all been selected.  We group them by ability level and we try to put combinations of kids together that we know don't usually work together or would be a good combination to work together.

In our grade we give very few tests, because we want to "know" the kids so we have conversations where the kids explain what they have learned.  One of our favorite things to say is "you can't hide from a conversation."  We know the kids so much better than 4 years ago before we made the switch to 1:1 and project based learning. 

Since we mix up the kids throughout the year they are used to it.  It is definitely a culture that takes time to build, but it is without a doubt worth the fight in the beginning.  The kids are doing a great job with this project.  There is quite a bit of higher level math and the kids have tore into this project and they are really good. 

Since it is Istep week it is so interesting to see the kids in the morning taking multiple choice tests that have exactly one right answer working in silence compared to our afternoons where they are collaborating, sharing ideas, and solving a problem that has no one correct answer.  Our project has 9 suspects and we have created it so that 3 of them could be the killer.  How do we judge that?  It is based on their justification of their work, the way they connect the evidence to their suspect,  and how they present their information.

Today is our final day and I can't wait to see their final presentations.  I had one girl come up to me today and say " I am so excited today to present.  Normally I am so scared to present in front of people but not today.  Our presentation is awesome."  Wow, excitement about learning, can't argue with those results.

Going One-to-One: There Will be Blood

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Unless you have a master plan, incredible support, and more luck than a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow, sitting on a pot of gold, up to his ears in four-leafed clovers, going 1:1 can be painful.  There will be blood.  Its going to be bad (at times), but hang in there, it gets better.

Going 1:1 is like jumping on a moving train.  The jolt of inertia immediately puts you behind.  You're not even sure which direction you want to go.  The only thing that helps you progress is to constantly move forward. Rely on your leaders and PLN to help establish a direction, and just keep moving. You have to have grit.  Its the latest buzz word in education, usually applied to students, but teachers need to have grit to go 1:1.

There will be blood, but eventually, as you learn to work with the train and not against it, you will be progressing, growing, and learning at a pace commensurate with the advancements in technology and learning.

You have your local leaders, an ocean of resources on the web, and probably some tech Jedi's that just became superstars in your school in at 1:1 environment. Use them and may the force be with you.

Our 1:1 Story
End of Year One
More End of Year One
Beginning of Year Two
Mid Year Two
End of Year Two

Candy Corn Contest

Have you ever competed in the "Guess How Much Candy Is In The Jar"?  We do it every year at one of the Xmas parties I attend.  I have wanted to do this activity with my kids for the past couple of years and I have just put it off.  So I was looking for something fun the kids could do after our long winter break and thought, why not, let's go for it.

My wife has many different sized canning jars at our house.  So I went and got some candy corn.  I filled up three different sizes of jars and my first project of the new year had begun.  I didn't make it a full blown project.  The kids did not create a presentation and present their findings.  This was more of a quick hitter.

I started by showing them a picture of candy corn in a jar and asked them how many pieces of candy are in the jar.  They were already in.  Then I showed them all three jars and told them whatever group in the 7th grade got the closest by mathematically solving it would get all the candy.  Smiles all around.  I posed the question, "Do you think you can guess closer or mathematically calculate and get closer?"  To my surprise most kids said mathematically.

So we dug in.  I love starting new projects and not knowing where they will end up.  We have learned volume and are pretty good at formulas so that was somewhat review.  Since we haven't had school for nearly a month it was good review.

We brainstormed what information we needed (essential questions), then we created a plan on the steps we would go about to solve this problem.  This part was just ok.  We definitely need some work on this part but it got us started.  Next was the fun part.  I passed out candy, rulers, and jars and the measuring began.  Two of the jars had changes in the sizes so there were two different size cylinders and one was just a straight cylinder.  Some groups saw it and some didn't.  They measured away.

The challenging part is that the candy corn isn't quite a cone and it is not quite a pyramid.  The kids had to analyze and decide which path to take (cone or pyramid) and how to measure it.  Then once they divided the jar volume by the candy volume they got the number of pieces in the jar, kinda.

Since the candy corn is filled up the jar with gaps their answers were the first time to big.  The kids had to guesstimate the percentage of air vs the percentage of candy.  Then as a class we learned how to take a percentage of a number.  Finally for the first part the kids wrote a paragraph on why we had to adjust their original answer and their logic on why they chose the percentage they picked.

After all was said and done we calculated that the candy corn took up about 40% of the jar.  I melted down a jar full of candy corn and it was very close visually to 40%.  The winners enjoyed eating the fruits of their labor, they even shared their winnings with the other kids in class.

15th Century Teaching Model Still Highly Relevant

Recently I visited a school to learn about their BYOD program.  I came away with lots of great insights and ideas.  One of them was a teaching method I had never heard of.  The Ignatian Pedagogical Model is based on the Jesuit St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises.  There are 5 basic components: Context, Experience, Reflection, Action, and Evaluation.  Though interpretations seem to vary on how it should properly be implemented, I think the validity of the basic components speak for themselves.

Students must be provided with a reason for learning beyond traditional reasons of, 'state standards require this', 'because it will be on the test', or 'because I said'.  Those might be "context" to a teacher, but they are not context to a student of the 21st Century.  If you don't know or can't explain to your class why they are learning a particular topic, maybe you should look for some real world application or possibly rethink whether this particular topic should be a priority.  Like Daniel Pink says in his most recent book To Sell is Human.  Teachers have to "sell" their curriculum.  If the kids aren't buying what you're offering, you really have no one to blame but yourself.  You can sit back and blame parents or the culture, but that won't change anything and it certainly won't be a valid excuse as to why your students aren't doing well in your class.

After students have real meaning as to why they are learning something, they need to experience it.  Spoiler Alert: worksheets, web quests, and the like are not a way to experience curriculum.  Students have to be immersed into the field of knowledge with real world activities that produce an authentic product.  The construction of the product they produce should take them through an inquiry-based learning path.  Students should then present their product to an authentic audience.

Context and experience should be done sequentially, but reflection should be done throughout the process.  Reflection is such a powerful tool.  Students greatly benefit from metacognition; evaluating their thinking process, finding ways to improve, and just being mindful of their learning habits.  A learning journal shared to the teacher and student would work well. A student blog would be a public platform for students to demonstrate their thinking and learning.  Regardless, a single reflection platform is not enough.  The teacher should have conversations throughout that force students to stretch their thinking and expand their sphere of learning.

The goal of Jesuit education is to move the student into action, not simply the personal satisfaction of learning (source).  To me, in a school setting, this is a flexible component that can be worked into the "Experience" portion.  Once the student has the knowledge, what will they do with it?  Is the product they are making the final use for this knowledge?  Can it be incorporated into future learning? Can students take political action such as writing to their congressman or writing a letter to a newspaper or company? The "Action" component is a great way to exercise the new learning that has taken place and justify the context you provided initially.

As with all things education, assessment is important to get right.  While I don't think there is a "right" way to do this component, there certainly are some wrong ways, such as ending this teaching model with a multiple choice test.  We usually advocate for students to present everything they learn to an authentic audience, a group of students, or one-on-one to the teacher.  Our motto is: you can't hide from a conversation.  The ultimate summative grade should be discussed between you and your student.  No time for that?  An alternative would be to build a rubric as a class before you start your project in the experience phase.  In addition, you can put formative evaluation benchmarks along the way to see how students are doing.  It may be a completion grade for a journal entry or a qualitative grade on the weekly set of journals.  Either way, its nice to work in a few smaller grades into a larger project.

The Ignatian Pedagogical Model doesn't need to be a large project.  You could probably create a one-day lesson using this model.  Its simply a structure.  An apparatus that supports curricular content and instruction.  I like it because it is so simple; the five parts are very easy to understand.   The five parts address educational best practice and allow for great depth, yet they can be flexible and easily addressed.  In addition, I think students would learn to adapt to this method.  They might be critical about the context or curious about the action that follows.  These are both good signs that they are buying what you're selling.  At that point you got 'em, everything else is easy.