Learning While Teaching

“We must…consider the space between teaching and learning.  Students are part of the learning process, but they do not necessarily initiate it, and teachers cannot fully instruct it.”  (Symeonidis & Schwarz, 2016)

There is a space between teaching and learning where the magic lies.  Not only do our students deserve teachers dedicated to learning, but teachers deserve the best learning a school can provide. Professional learning comes in many forms.  Through my personal experiences I’ve found these tenants to be the most powerful in shaping my practice.

Utility – Beyond relevance, teachers need to see practical application to professional learning in their immediate environments.  Our go-to utility is students that are unengaged or outliers. Yes, these are clear sign-posts that a change in instruction could support.  But there are other, less obvious needs for utility.  To name a few…

  • Engaging in new technology without knowing where to start
  • Expanding instructional practices to include more student-led work
  • Seeing critical needs in the world and engaging students in real-life problem solving

Instead of mandating, let’s ask teachers. “What is your most apparent need in your classroom?  What is a dream that you wish you could achieve in your teaching right now?”

Multiple Modes of Learning – Just as we know lecturing and handouts don’t engage students, they also don’t engage teachers.  While more PD sessions are turning to modeling instructional strategies, reflection and time to talk with colleagues, we need more real-time support.  Why not try…

  • Using technology to preview and engage with professional learning before a whole group session
  • Creating and maintaining professional learning communities beyond the school walls
  • Providing additional resources in one central location
  • Making time and space for collaboration and reflection

Instead of planning sit and get sessions, let’s ask: “How do you as an adult learner engage best? In what ways could your colleagues and administration support your work?”

Different Paths – Every teacher from novice to experienced has a different skill set and a  unique approach to teaching.  Acknowledging and honoring these differences is not only critical, but a part of professional learning itself.  As learners, teachers need space to think metacognitively about their own learning and set authentic goals.  These goals should simultaneously align with the school’s mission and individual teacher needs. Shifting from stand alone professional development sessions to on-going professional learning means teachers have both responsibility for collective learning and freedom to follow their own educational interests.  How schools weave these two together hinges on the success of teacher professional learning.

A Broader Purpose – If I ever started my own school, it would be a learning school.  Teachers, administrators, parents, and of course students would all be learning while doing.  This is the real learning. The in the moment, let’s research it to figure out how, ask an expert, or just experiment.  The goal of school should no longer be to disseminate knowledge, but to grow learners.  As teachers, our role has changed from keeper of knowledge to facilitator of learning.  So let’s explore the space between teaching and learning and be teacher-learners together.

Symeonidis, V. & Schwarz, J. F. (2016). Phenomenon-Based Teaching and Learning through the Pedagogical Lenses of Phenomenology: The Recent Curriculum Reform in Finland. Forum Oswiatowe, 28(2), 31-47. Retrieved from http://forumoswiatowe.pl/index.phpczsopismo/article/view/458

An Interpretation of Phenomenon Based Learning

I work with 8 year olds.  They are ambitious, creative, determined, and real.  They want to be heard and take action to make a difference. And they can.

On Monday I started a rather scary (for me) project with my students using the Finnish approach to PBL – Phenomenon Based Learning.  In essence we started with a phenomenon – in our case book deserts in our community – and dove deep into the study, interconnecting subject areas and relying on both teacher expertise and student constructed learning.  There was only so much I could prepare before Monday since I didn’t know what my students would need.  That’s what made it scary.  Would we have enough to do each day? What if I couldn’t give them what they needed?  What if they didn’t care about book deserts as much as I thought they would? What if they got bored?

I kept in mind a line from one of the few English translated pieces on Phenomenon Based Learning – the teacher initiates the learning while the process of learning is negotiated by both the student and the teacher.

Hesitant to step completely out of my comfort zone at first, Monday and Tuesday consisted of much teacher initiation – questioning, writing, collecting data, reading and reflecting.

By Wednesday we had enough momentum that I didn’t even put a schedule on the board aside from the designated “project times”.  The students were perplexed.  What are we going to do all day?  With a list of student generated questions (we used the QFT approach) and ideas they created to collect, analyze and examine data to understand book deserts, they negotiated the work.  I was there to support, guide and occasionally assign.  I was there to push, offer advice and organize.  I was there as the overseer of all the parts and the glue that held them together.  At the end of that day (one that flew by for us all) students shared their learning and made connections to others’ work.  8 year olds discovered:

  • The average amount of books we have at home is 315.
  • Our school has over 37,000 books.
  • No one in our class lives in a book desert.
  • The amount of books in a book desert is equal to each child in our school getting to take one book home for one day in the year.
  • Books teach us knowledge but also teach us to love reading.
  • More girls in the world can’t read than boys.
  • No one should grow up in a book desert.

Let me just restate, 8 year olds discovered this.  I did not tell them this information, nor did I explicitly show them how to find it.  I initiated the inquiry, but they negotiated the learning space to make these revelations.

I was scared to take this leap. I surrendered control in my own classroom. I had to think on the fly, teach multiplication, averages, literary analysis and more without a lesson plan.  But my students trusted me and I trusted them.  Together, we are creating something more than parts to a whole.

Along the way, students began prototyping ideas of how we could help with this problem.  We love books, we don’t live in a book desert, and we want to help.  After daydreaming, wishing and brainstorming, the children settled the idea of creating a class company to make and sell books, generating revenue to donate to a local book charity.  And that is our work for next week in school.


Introducing, #GlobalGoals

Last month I joined an incredible group of global educators as a #TeachSDG Ambassador.    Charged with teaching and spreading awareness of the Global Goals, I’m diving right in.  Yes, this blog historically features literacy-specific strategies, inquiry and revelations in the classroom.  But what better way to develop independent readers than to develop compassionate, globally minded independent thinkers?

So I did what any teacher does when charged with a new challenge – I tried it out with my students.  Let me just put it this way – if you are feeling the need for a change, some inspiration in humanity, a rekindling of why you joined the teaching profession – TEACH THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS.  An underestimated statement, the past two week my students’ thinking, interest and commitment to a better world surpasses most adults I know.

Recently, #TeachSDGs started a slow chat with the first question as “Where is the best place to start when introducing your students to the SDGs?”  My reply was a natural point in the curriculum.  The goals should enrich learning rather than be seen as an add on or extra.  To her credit, Noa Lahav, the Digital Literacy Pedagogical Coordinator for CET Around the World,  pushed back to say with curriculum so closely tied to standards there is often not enough time and space to do this.  Agreed – education today is standards obsessed, often leaving little space for experimental, new, and different approaches. But we must start somewhere.

Here’s a few highlights from my introduction to teaching the Global Goals and the entry points in my curriculum.

IMG_1415My school, as many US schools, celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.  This year we collectively read the book We Shall Overcome by, Debbie Levy, telling the story of a song that transverses generations to inspire a better world.
Teachers created individual class representations of the book to make a collective art instillation.  My class focused on our local community and represented how the Global Goals can support a more sustainable local community.  In order of the goals, 2nd graders created this vision.IMG_0188Following our school’s MKL Jr. assembly and a beautiful community sing of “We Shall Overcome” led by our incredible music teacher, my students reflected on the words:

IMG_3163   We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

We’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand, some day.

We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace, some day.

The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around
The whole wide world around some day.

Returning to class, (yes, I did rearrange our schedule for the urgency to connect this experience to the real idea that children can do this work) we finished writing our 2018 new year resolutions.  Connecting to the SDGs, students explored ways they can personally make a difference.  These goals range from “making a vegetarian food choice” to “using a metal fork” to “turing off lights” reflecting real ways kids can be part of real change.IMG_0733.JPGTo keep their goals going, next week students will engaged in a math project with one of their goals “ask for book donations instead of birthday presents” as the context.

Each of these opportunities to infuse learning with the Global Goals was not separately created from the curriculum, but tied to the learning we already do – community studies, MLK Jr. celebration, writing new year resolutions, math problems.  Keep an eye out in your curriculum – you might be surprised how #TeachSDGs can reframe a lesson creating relevant, authentic connections beyond the classroom.

The Intersection of Curriculum and Community

When I first started teaching I thought it was the “answer” I wanted students to uncover at the end of my lesson.  I was skill hyper-focused.  But over the years, I’ve mellowed as an educator, as we do. I think most of us could agree it is not the answer we strive for children to understand – but the understanding itself.

Reflecting on how students, specifically readers and writers, develop an understanding of the art and science of literacy I’ve come upon an idea.  Or rather an inkling.  As a blogger in my tucked away corner of the web, I’m turning to writing as an attempt to hash out my thoughts.

Anywhere teachers turn in the educational world today we are inundated with curriculum, best practices, new practices, change, and a never ending struggle to reach our instructional goals.  No complaining – this exists and is necessary in many ways.

On the other side, we have the children.  The real, soulful, inspiring, curious creatures entrusted to us for more time in the school day than their own parents.  We are their caregivers, mentors, facilitators, and ultimately teachers of the human condition.

Often these two facets of teaching seem at odds with one another.  Yes, we want to improve instruction to meet. the. needs. of. our. students. But then there is the actual, acute needs of children that lie before us. In this teeter-totter dance of the classroom one of these aspects gets over looked for the other.  If we focus on the academics, the social-emotional needs of our children can get replaced with pre-assessment, post-assessment, covering curriculum and data.  And if we focus on the kids we run the risk of overlooking critical instructional time in honor of personal connections.

But what if our curriculum and instruction was a driving force for classroom and school culture? What if our students’ innate desires to explore the world in authentic ways coincided with our curricular goals?  What if the way that we taught consistently developed both academic rigor and a culture of life long learning?  I think this is what project based learning and the growth mindset get at, but I’m talking about more basic level.

If we can begin to envision the teacher’s role as participator, inspirer and leader of learning, children will follow.  Are there concrete, tactical ways we can capitalize on our curriculum and instruction to create a community of life long learners? I think so.

Teachers lead everyday. Mostly, we do this well.  But are we intentional? Are we purposely intertwining curriculum and culture, instruction and interest? Are we guiding students toward the understanding that learning is as much about the process as it is the answer?

Making Friends with Books

The first few weeks of school are busy with building routines and community.  But just as important – building relationships with books is critical in setting the tone of a classroom full of readers. Here are some practical ways I accomplished both – building friends with books and with each other.

Choose the “just right” read alouds everyday. Children find comfort and purpose in the texts we read. From the shy student who thought it was hilarious I didn’t have a purple tounge like Mrs. Watson to the class conflict we resolved from sharing our scales like the rainbow fish, books build threads that tie a classroom community together. Picking books that represent your goals, classroom community and big ideas remains pertinent to this selection.  The second week into school I started my first chapter book read aloud to lay the foundation for important comprehension strategies and effectively refocus students when their stamina and attention lags. Below are some of my favorites and a unique list from Nerdy Book Club to explore.


Bring books home the first day and every day.  I took a risk here and opened my classroom library before establishing clear boundaries and expectations.  My purpose was twofold. The classroom library is not mine, it is the readers. Having access to books builds interests, investment and connections to home. It has given me plenty of teachable moments and potential ideas for lessons to come. Yes, students are picking books way above their independent levels, but they are reading, talking about books and developing an important habit of taking books wherever they go.

Watch and talk with kids. In a recent blog post Jennifer Serravallo shared ways to get to know your readers.  She recommended kid watching while documenting observations on a class checklist.  After two weeks of this I know which kids think every book is too easy and which ones worry about picking one that is too hard.  I know their interests, their engagement  and possible reading goals.  I also know who is able to sustain working for more than 10 minutes and who will need scaffolding.  I will get to the more formal assessments of reading skills, but strategic kidwatching has given me information about my students as readers that no diagnostic could.  Here is a blank checklist for observations or an Excel editable option to use.

Partner kids based on interests, not reading levels.  This idea came about through kid watching. When building a community of readers, children need opportunities to talk about books with others.  As the year goes on they will be strategically paired with readers who have similar needs.  But right now, as we all become friends, reading next to someone who has the same interests, regardless of their reading level is a powerful human connection.

Above all, focus on building a community of readers and writers, not a community of rules and procedures. Students thrive in a space where learning is not governed by rules  and compliance but the universal need to communicate. A love of literacy conveys the need for routines and expectations within a classroom community.