Visualizing Math

I love math.  Am I an expert at it?  No.  Do I make mistakes as I teach it?  Probably–but I work hard not to, unless I am doing so deliberately for kids to figure something out. Here’s how I got to be a math loving female….

My family played both card games and board games as I grew up. Every year at Christmas, we spent the afternoon setting up and playing all the new board games Santa had brought.  We had shelves and a cabinet that was full–Candyland, Parcheesi, Monopoly, Scrabble….games at various levels, for the 6 siblings (and friends) whose ages ranged over 17 years.  I spent most Sunday afternoons playing Scrabble with my Mom–with a dictionary between us, not following the time rules, but instead challenging ourselves to find the very best word we could.  Our games took hours–because we’d scour the dictionary, looking for that word that gave the most points and used the most letter tiles. When my grandmother came each summer to spend two weeks with us, the card game Canasta took over our evenings–and those of us too young to be in the four or six playing hung around and apprenticed ourselves to one of the players so we could learn how to play, hoping we’d get to play the next game. I was amazed at how my Dad could shuffle so many cards at once (the game calls for 4 or 6 decks, depending on how many are playing),and I also got good, as I got older and got to play, at explaining my strategy to a younger sib watching while not giving it away to  my opponents.  For us, games weren’t about competition–I can’t even remember who usually won the Scrabble games–they were about learning. We learned by watching “experts” and having strategies explained to us in the moment, when it mattered.

So when I hit Algebra 1 in high school, I did okay.  I had a teacher who was very linear and well organized, so I learned how to do those expressions with variables. It made sense to me, as I saw it as a puzzle. I still enjoy all kinds of logic puzzles and figuring out variables. That was NOT my experience, however, with Geometry. I saw that as formulas and rules…and those of you who know me well know I am NOT a rule follower. I can still remember struggling with Geometric proofs in 10th grade and after having gotten several not-so-good grades, my mother sitting down with me and asking what the problem was.  I told her I couldn’t remember the rules and the formulas…and I specifically recall her response: “Paula, Geometry is fun–you look at the figures and work the puzzles. It’s just a different kind of logic puzzle–but the fun of it is that you can see it.”

She worked me through several of my homework problems, with us following through the logical steps and proofs together and  I remember feeling challenged, relieved and happy all at the same time when she left me to do the rest alone.  I knew I could work puzzles–I’d been doing that all my life at home. And, I found I enjoyed the challenge of solving geometric questions and writing out the proofs. Being able to look at the figures, though, made all the difference in the world for me–I couldn’t remember those rules when given words, but when shown two similar triangles or asked to name an angle or side measurement when given pictures, I was in hog heaven–I had what I needed.

So, when Willy Kjellstrom and I, in our UVA/ACPS partnership, decided to work on a unit around art and math, for both of us it was truly about visual spatialization-helping kids to get beyond the words in a textbook to visualize shapes and their various rotations, reflections and transformations in their minds. We spent hours and hours working on our plans and getting the materials together.  We spent hours revising and revamping them–and we created two wikis, as the original planning wiki got huge and pretty confusing as we added more and more material.  But what we came out with was incredibly awesome. We basically implemented it in January, (having been working on planning it since early November) and our results from pre-test to post-test were statistically significant.  Not only did the kids learn the math skills we had included (the geometry standards from our state list), but they also increased significantly in their spatial visualization skills and their confidence.

We taped an ending conversation where Mr.K, as the kids call him, held up a shape and asked them to close their eyes and visualize it to determine the surface area. It looked like this:

Then, we asked the kids to share their strategies.

” I saw that one side had 3 faces and doubled that to count the back, too , then counted around the other edges.”

“I saw that there were two on the bottom row and counted those and then counted the top cube in my mind.”

There were variations on this theme–picturing it and counting around, while adding the bigger face of three cube faces.

But the one that surprised me the most was the kid who said, “I knew there were three cubes that each have 6 faces, so I multiplied 3×6 to get 18.  Then, I knew that the figure had two places where cubes joined together, so I multiplied 2×2 for those joints and took away 4 to get 14 cubic inches.”

Several nods accompanied that explanation, so it was obvious this was not the only kid who had jumped to a mathematical shortcut. Then, Mr. K asked them to find the surface area again with another cuboid.  Again, he made sure everyone had seen it, then hid it so they had to visualize it.

We got similar answers, but many of them had adopted a better strategy than just counting.  So I asked, “How many of you did it one way and then checked yourself by using someone else’s strategy?  I asked that because I myself had done that.  Over half the group had done it two ways in about the same amount of time it took then to figure out the first surface area we asked for.  That was pretty cool!

So, as I reflect on the work we did (which you can find at our student wiki, Artful Engineering), I can’t help but think of the power of learning logic at an early age, the strength of looking at games for learning (not necessarily for winning/losing), and the benefits of visualizing math in a variety of ways.  I remember India, when we asked how the kids felt differently at the end of this unit from the beginning, immediately saying-“Smart!  I feel really smart because at the beginning I held up this cuboid and couldn’t see it from all angles in my mind and now I can.  I can turn it and rotate it and flip it in my mind.”

Beyond fulfilling my responsibility to teach the state mandated standards, I hope Willy and I have helped along the strengthening of some more math loving females, while helping them all build visualization skills and flex their logic muscles.


Thanks to @smeech who tweeted recently, “Imagery in math would have been huge for me when I was a kid … Thanks Dan for pushing it so much.” and got me reflecting on this work today, when I had time to write about my thinking!


29 of My Favorite Books

It’s February 29th.  Everyone knows that date only comes around once every four years, but it’s fun to get kids thinking about it in lots of different ways. My kids and I participated in the world’s largest blogging event today at  We added our voices to the crowd. When I went back to the site later that afternoon, I also visited the link that said “Ideas for Teachers.” This blog is a result of one of those ideas.

29 of my favorite books–(in no particular order)

Grandpa’s Mountain All kids get incensed about the government in this book, but the most powerful reading was with the kids of our Thinkquest.

Mary Wore Her Red Dress–I have so many fond memories of Kindergartners singing this one during Book Look time!

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?  My grandson’s first and favorite book for a long time.

The Napping House My current fifth graders know ho w important this book was to me and one of my students.

Piggie Pie NO group of kids I have ever shared this book with has  not enjoy ed it tremendously!

Zoom such a great book for seeing things differently

The Three Questions  These should guide everyone’s life.

Ghost Cadet I’ve had great trips to the new market Battlefield with several groups of kids after reading this book together.

Hurt Go Happy I’ll never think of animals the same way after reading this one.  I’ll also never see this book and not think of Abby and Blaine.

The Potato Man (and The Great Pumpkin Switch), but these go together India–your Lucky Penny story will always be in my mind as I read these.

The Little Critter books by Mercer Mayer again,it’s the memories of K kids looking for the spider and mouse

If  You Give A Mouse  A Cookie I use it to teach Algebra (If…, Then…)

The Judge–because of Deisy and Gabby

A Penny a Look -because of Carla and Jessica

Crictor–because of Sam

Tomorrow’s Alphabet -it makes kids think about mundane things differently

Strega Nona–Again, it’s those Kindergartners–Aynsley and her friends

Across The Lines love the point/counterpoint of the characters

The Report Card-helps kids understand themselves

The Narnia Series I read this in college

Bedhead and Baghead (two books, but they go together)

The DoorBell Rang-great Math Book

Counting On Frank–another great math book

The Beast in Ms. Rooney’s Room-best book ever to read to 2nd graders

Traveling Backwards an interesting theory to consider

Picture This-another that makes you look at things differently

The Invention of Hugo Cabret I love trains, what can I say?

Wonderstruck Oh, My! Wonder has a new meaning after reading this one.

and I guess I can’t leave off

Green Eggs and Ham–I’v e certainly made enough of them with kids!


How about yours?




Revisiting Yourself

You know, most people go back at some point to visit their childhood in some way….maybe it’s taking a trip to their home or town, riding by their elementary school, looking  through a box of toys, or seeing a favorite book in a bookstore. I recently took a walk down memory lane, revisiting myself as a beginning blogger..and as I grew.  I reread posts I had written as I began posting, and in the years since.  All I can say is WOW– doing so really made me pensive.

Those posts shaped my recent Classroom 2.0 presentation (Voices of Learning) as I realized I have learned, in the past few years, from some amazing  people. I also think, just as we often revisit a favorite book, we should revisit favorite, or meaningful posts from time to time. One problem is that there are so many NEW ones to read all the time….and having the time to go back and reread old ones is time we often don’t have…or don’t take.  In this busy world of ours, how many of us take time to reflect and remember and revisit who we were–or where we were in our thinking journey– several years ago?

I remember that as a child I used to go outside after dark and lie on the diving board of the swimming pool in my backyard, looking up at the stars.  I’d  sometimes contemplate the universe, but more often than not, I’d just muse through my thoughts or relax and enjoy the peace and quiet.  (I was one of six kids and shared a bedroom with my sister, so solitude was a luxury I often didn’t have.) I remember in college finding places on campus where I could walk alone and enjoy  the  solitude, looking at nature’s beauty wherever I could. And, I vividly remember sitting on my deck on the night of September 11, 2001 and looking at the night sky and coming to a new realization of how many of those normally seen lights at night are airplanes–because there were none moving that night. That alone impressed upon me the seriousness of the 911 attack.  I sat there and wondered about other night skies people must have watched in fear or with intense emotion, and felt connected, in a very weird way, with historical events as I never had before. Solitude, time for reflection, and introspection is incredibly powerful.

I saw that power last week when doing the silent chalk talk with my kids. After the quiet reflective activity, their writing was, quite simply put, amazing .  They’ve all raved about that opportunity, and asked for more like it. Finding the questions that will allow that introspection is my challenge.  But I know the power of that time–and will set it up so they can feel that power and rejuvenation–and I will look for other ways to provide it.  Solitude, time for reflection, and contemplation is powerful.

And so is revisiting your history. I’ve taught in 6 different elementary schools in our county over the years, if you count summer school.  I’ve been in every grade from K-5, including combinations classes of K-1, 1-2, 2-3 and 4-5.  I’ve been a resource teacher in 3 different schools, working with most of the teachers on each staff. It’s been a wild roller coaster ride, but what I realized as I was revisiting my blogs and remembering my past, was that I have always loved working with kids, and that love is still there. I have often closed my door so as to avoid the adult drama that comes in any job, but my classroom, no matter which school, is– and always has been– a haven for me.

Rereading my posts has helped me to revisit some of my basic beliefs, examining who I am today in relation to where I’ve been and where I’ve come from in my thinking journey about education. Big ideas I’m mulling over tonight are the concepts of space and solitude and time for reflection and how we provide that for our students throughout the day. In this busy world of ours, do we give our students peaceful time, quiet time for their thoughts, restorative time for them to reflect, remember and revisit events in their learning and their lives? Do we take it for ourselves?

I’m rethinking my classroom…remembering how often my K kids would get under tables, or find a nook or cranny to climb into when they had “Book Look” time, or even during nap time. I’ve made those nooks and crannies in some ways this year,  and I watch my 5th graders seek those out.The other day, one actually curved a beanbag around himself to make his own nook.  I think of the emphasis on “campfires, caves and watering holes” our county has in conversations, and I’m thinking  the cave is perhaps the most important. Reflection is restorative.  Quiet gives our brains an opportunity to slow down, reset and rejuvenate. I need that, so when do I provide that time for my kids?

I bet if I asked my kids their favorite time of the day many would say our quiet reading time…I think I’ll ask them and see.

So when’s the last time you slowed down and revisited your history? When’s the last time you took time to be quiet, listen to your heart and breathe slowly? When’s the last time your kids had a chance to do that during the day?




When Kids Write Because They Want To…

The last few months I have been thinking about writing a LOT! I’ve been doing that partially because I’ve been having problems myself blogging the past year (time, motivation, hesitations, whatever) and I have been watching kids through a different lens. You see, I have a 5th grade literacy group this year, but early on, the 5th grade teachers made writing a separate time in their schedule. I can’t teach anything without writing, so it’s been integrated as I would have done anyway. I believe kids need to be reflective in writing as they read, discuss and think about literacy. I don’t believe writing and reading are separate entities, and so my kids write in math and in my literacy time with them. I regularly share my kids’ writing online, and last year, when these kids were fourth graders and I shared a particular blog, one response from my Superintendent was, “She sure doesn’t need “Being a Writer” lessons (our adopted program), does she?”

Did that mean she didn’t need teaching? Of course not. Did that mean she didn’t need to work with grammar and spelling and punctuation or work with literary conventions and learn new vocabulary and be exposed to new ways of writing? Of course not. But I believe she certainly didn’t need to spend the amount of time she has this year writing a weekly prompt to practice for the state writing test–which is what most of her writing has consisted of this year.

It’s consisted of that because she’s quit blogging. She’s quit writing for herself and is quite vocal about being angry that the only feedback she gets on the writing she does at someone else’s demands is about her grammar or her spelling. She says she gets no comments about her content or her thinking. She gets no questions about her stories or thoughts, as she is choosing not to share those–she writes a formulaic five paragraph essay to a predetermined prompt. Her passionate, funny, creative storytelling has been squelched. And that makes me incredibly sad. The fact that she’s not the only one angry at the incessant prompt writing makes me even sadder. Kids have had to do a prompt a week for several months, according to them.

When given the opportunity, kids WILL write.

When they know what they write is not just for a grade, they write.

When they know that someone cares to listen and respond, they write.

When they know they are respected as writers and people believe they have something worthy to share, they write.

When they know their writing is for a real audience, they write.

When they know they can write to learn, to figure something out, to remember,  to connect, to persuade, to reflect, to question, to share, to think, to have fun, they write.

So why do we keep the scaffold of writing prompts when kids no longer need them? Why do we prompt real writers to the point they won’t write for themselves any more? Why do we think kids need practice writing to a prompt well after they have shown they can do that kind of writing?

In a writing workshop I did at VSTE in December, I heard this story from many teachers–“We don’t have time for real writing because we have to practice the prompts.”  “We can’t access wikis and blogs like you can in your county– and besides, our students have required prompts from our school system.” Well, so do we in my system–at the end of each quarter, I believe. But we, as professionals, need to remember what’s really required and what we perceive to be required.  Often, we make ourselves do things when we don’t have to, because we think it’s the required thing to do–but in my system, at least, teachers have a lot of latitude to use their professional judgement.

When I had an octagonal window put in my house, the scaffold was there until the carpenter no longer needed it. He had clearly shown his skill–he could cut an appropriate hole in my wall, put in a window, and caulk and seal up the edges so that it looked beautiful.Once he no longer needed the scaffold, it went away.  If he had left the scaffold there, I might have grown to hate that window–having to climb around the scaffold to do what I needed to do, having to go around it the way HE had determined was best for me to climb around it, having to move through the area HIS way.

But he took it away when the job was done, and I love my window. I love the light it lets in  and the sun shining through it in the daytime. I love the moon sparkling on the steps at night. I love seeing the top of my pine tree through it in all seasons.

I believe our state does kids a great disservice when they require kids to show they can write to a prompt year after year after year. While our kids are only tested on it in 5th and 8th grades (and maybe 11th?), every grade before and between requires kids to practice that–over and over and over again. The scaffold isn’t removed when proficiency is shown–instead, the state provides more practice prompts and we teachers use them. Our adopted program has prompt after prompt after prompt in them. When kids study persuasive writing, they have a persuasive writing prompt. When they study fictional writing, they have a fictional writing prompt.  When they study personal narratives, they have to write to that prompt.

One of my kids asked the other day, “Why can’t the state just look at what we do?”

I couldn’t answer that. My kids have blogs. My kids have wikis. My kids respond to other kids’ blogs. My kids create wikis to address environmental concerns.  They write and summarize on Today’s Meet during classroom discussions. They add book reviews to their blogs and wikis and sometimes even web 2.0 sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari. They respond to each other’s blog posts and wiki polls. They write blogs to persuade others to join them in a cause. They review each other’s blogs and wikis and post those online. They write stories and poems and reflective pieces…ALL ON THEIR OWN. My kids use web 2.0 tools all the time for real purposes…so why can’t the state just look at what they do?

They become writers and have faith in their ability to write…until our state writing prompt and many of us, as well-intentioned teachers, create “write-icide” and kill their enjoyment of it. We, too, could look at their wikis and blogs and say, “yep, that’s persuasive writing,” or “Well, that’s a personal narrative, but I see you could use some help with word choice, or the conclusion” (or whatever skill is actually needed.)  We could all do a better job of integrating these tools into instruction instead of seeing those writing prompts as the only way to show the skills.  We should model to the state that indeed, there are other, more realistic ways to help kids become better writers than keeping a scaffold in place longer than necessary. And then we could ask with conviction,

Why can’t the state just look at what they do?

Engage Them, and You’ll Get Amazing…

These kids will be taking our state writing test in a few weeks.  It’s a shame they’ve had to spend the year practicing writing prompts, as they obviously need practice to get their point across and be creative, compelling, cohesive writers. Don’t you agree?

What we did:


Then look at Jordan’s creativity:

What Are You Thinking Now!

and Abby’s fun (when nudged a bit, I admit)

Deeply Thinking About What Goes On In Our Heads

Then look how Evan and Lucy explored the verbs

Thinking With More Understanding……

Thinking about how I think

and how Noa played with words and definitions:

The Long, Long, Thinking Map 

See how Ashley made connections?

What’s Going on in Your Head

And, finally, I’m honored as to how Blaine describes our class:



These were written after these kids participated in a “Silent Chalk Talk” which is an activity I learned about at Educon from  Sean Nash (@nashworld on Twitter). His initial question was: “What does it mean to be a “Tech-Savvy” teacher?”  Mine was:

When you tell someone you are thinking, what kinds of things might be going on in your head?

(from Making Thinking Visible)

Life’s Curve Balls

Ya never know when life is going to throw you a curve ball and cement a belief, or make you forever look at it differently.

So, one weekend in October, a long time ago when I was teaching Kindergarten, my teaching assistant  (TA) called me at my campground to let me know she thought one of our kids had been involved in a very serious accident–where a car had hit some pedestrians, and she thought a girl in our class was one of them. I went home thinking it wasn’t her, but the next day I found out it was–she and her mother, brother and grandmother were out walking down a country road after dinner and a car had come along and struck all of them. Grandmother died at the scene, brother had a broken kneecap, mother was in serious condition, in a coma, and Annie had severe head trauma and also was in a coma. My 5 year olds wanted to know what was going on and so my TA, Debbie, and I decided to go see her right after school and find out.

When we got to the hospital, we found out she was in intensive care, in a coma. No one was in the room with her–Dad was sitting with Mom in her intensive care room at the moment, and the family was, needless to say, in a state of shock, losing grandma and trying to care for brother and deal with their own losses. When we walked into the room, I was blown away–there was a HUGE bandage around her head, she was hooked up to multiple machines and she looked incredibly vulnerable lying there. The nurse stayed in the room for a few minutes, checking Debbie and me out, I am sure, to make sure we were okay to be with Annie.

Unresponsive and asleep, neither Debbie or I were quite sure what to do, so we began telling her about our day at school, citing what kids had told us to tell her, and who had missed her and what we read for read aloud (one of her favorite times of the day), and how much we hoped she’d get well soon and be back. The nurse observed us and then stepped out until we were about ready to go. She met us at the door and we asked how Annie was doing. She told us she’d been very critical, but that while we were talking to her, the pressure in her brain had come down to normal limits for the first time since the accident. (This was Monday, the accident happened Saturday.) I rode home thinking about the implications of that–that a teacher and teaching assistant could have that effect on a child’s brain in pain. I was hooked.

For the next 4 months, I went every night to the hospital to sit with Annie for a while. Sometimes I ran into Dad and the brother, but more often I didn’t–they had been with her or Mom much of the day, or right after school for the brother, and I generally visited after dinner. I read her books, played tapes we made at school of the kids talking to her (and left them with the nurses so they could replay them during the day) and just talked to her about what we had done. I kept her alive to her classmates by sharing with them the progress she was making as she moved from intensive care to a room, to the rehab center, relearning to talk and walk as she re-entered the world of the living. I rejoiced with her the day she got to see her Mom who was also coming out of her coma, and then cried with her when her mother died. No one was more nervous than me the day she returned to school in March, almost 5 months after her accident. I had lived with her the shakiness of her limbs as she tried to regain use of them, had seen the helmet she would be bringing to school with her to protect her head as she simply walked around, in case she fell, and I knew how much she had come to rely on me for support in the months we had spent together in the evenings.

I knew her strength and determination, but also the fear this little five year old girl felt coming back where she wasn’t sure she would remember everyone, or where she didn’t remember the routine and knew it would be far different from her rehab routine. I met her in the office and the grip she had on my hand as we walked the length of the hall to our room was so tight. Debbie had the kids at the door to see her as soon as they could, and she also was controlling their excitement, as Annie was really sensitive to loud noises (and we were somewhat afraid they would give a huge cheer and scare her.)

Annie came back to our class, and our lives–none of us–were untouched by the miracle of that child fighting the battle to re-enter her life. We watched as she got stronger and settled right back in our community. She wasn’t without differences, without struggles, without changes in what she could do and learn–but she was still Annie and the kids were amazing as they tenderly and kindly helped her relearn things. They supported her and she grew with us because we were a community–a group of people who had lived and learned and loved together since we had been thrown together by fate in August as we began that year of Kindergarten.

I tell this story because I know how I handled this situation was different from how a lot of teachers would have–I had support to take care of my own kids in the evenings. I had a teaching assistant who knew how powerful our support was, and who took extra time to help kids make Annie’s tapes or drawings or who took dictation each and every time a kid said, “I want to write Annie.”  I had support, but I also had an amazing experience that let me see how powerful an impact we can have on someone without knowing it much of the time. When Debbie and I first went to see Annie, we had worked with her only about 8 weeks–but our voices calmed her and she obviously recognized them, even in a coma. Think how critical that was to her, since it wasn’t possible for her to hear her grandmother’s or her Mother’s voice.

Our brains are amazing. Kids’ brains are amazing. It is up to us–as adults, as teachers, as admins, as keepers of the human future–to make sure all kids have a chance to stretch their brains and grow as much as they can, and to believe in the growth mindset that Carol Dweck talks about in her book Mindset. Annie’s recovery was truly a miracle, one that my class of students lived through and saw for themselves. I believe each of those children learned something about themselves that year as they supported Annie, and I know my belief in the  ability of the brain to grow beyond what  was expected was cemented forever.  As the song goes, I do believe that children are our future and that if we teach them well, they will lead the way.

Ya never know when life is going to throw you a curve ball and cement a belief, or make you forever look at it differently.



Beyond the Assessment Institute…

This is cross posted at the Cooperative Catalyst.

I do think words matter. (See a previous post here.) I think how we define words matter and it’s important to have common definitions, language and belief systems when working together and sharing kids.

Joe Bower ended his post today with a quote from Socrates about the beginning of wisdom and defined, “…assessment as a process where the teacher and student work together to nurture a desire to go on learning…” That made me wonder…Is that how I would define assessment?  Is that how YOU would define assessment?

I KNOW it’s not how many teachers would define assessment. This summer, I’m going to participate in a professional development opportunity in my county, one we call the CAI (Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction) Institute and the topic is assessment.    Two of the outcomes are supposed to be:

  • A shared model for a process of assessment among stakeholders
  • Develop knowledge and skills for participants in assessment:
    • process
    • task and item creation
    • leadership

So, clearly the leaders of this work see assessment as a process.  But, is it a process “where the teacher and student work together to nurture a desire to go on learning” as Joe says?  Is it a process to find out what is known and unknown?  Is it a process to define future steps for learning and evaluate past actions? Is it all of those and more–or less?

Will teachers leave after three days with new skills in assessing? Will we have an opportunity to define assessment and come to a common understanding of the purpose of assessment? Or will we simply go back to our schools and continue to do weekly multiple choice tests to see what kids have learned in math, or drill kids with online programs like Spelling City and Accelerated Reader to define what they know and don’t know?

In looking at this year’s purpose of the CAI Institute, will we change our practice and how will we know whether it has made a difference? Will the representative teachers chosen to go then return to their schools and share what they learned to make changes in more teaching practices? Will we see language shifts in talking about student learning?  Will “item” mean a multiple choice question and “task” mean a real world one? Will we spend time on developing common language and exploring beliefs and building on current understandings to deepen knowledge and experience? Will there be opportunities to really delve into the work of creating high quality assessments that will make a difference in classrooms and in students’ lives? Will students see a difference in how they are asked to show their learning, or will worksheets still abound?  Will principals allow that to occur or will they be the leaders who set guidelines that drive a change to deeper ways of assessing?

HOW will the Institute be set up to forge common beliefs, to change the language we use in describing student learning and to refine assessment literacy to move beyond traditional methods to ones that make sense to the learner?  How would you set up a workshop like that?

What advice would you give the people who are setting up this opportunity, and how would YOU structure my day to have the biggest impact on students when we return to our schools to share what we’ve done?  How would you ensure that this three day institute would actually change what teachers and students do in school?

Wiki Work

Recently someone asked for wikis to share in a wiki presentation, and thinking about how to explain mine, I decided it would be easier just to blog about them.

The first one I’d show is Potatoes, Pumpkins and Plenty More which is a wiki fourth graders put together to make their learning transparent to the classroom teachers while reading a couple of Megan McDonald’s books. The setting of both books is the early 1900’s and both books begin with grandpa telling the grandson and granddaughter a story of when he was young.  The story ends with a set-up for the next book and the kids clamoring for the story, but grandpa says something like “Not now.  That’s another story for another day.”

When I asked the kids if they wanted to make a wiki based on these books, they immediately wanted to write the third story in the series, which Ms. McDonald  never published. So some began composing while others immediately went to the wiki and began making new pages.  Two students began creating a dictionary page for  The Potato Man and when two others saw that, they asked if they could then do one for The Great Pumpkin Switch. Of course I said yes.  Without prompting, kids created an author page, a character page, and then an opinions page showed up!

But the most incredible thing to me were the stories the 4th graders wrote. The stories were filling up this wiki, though, and so we decided to move them to a separate wiki and connect that one to this one. One student’s Lucky Penny story amazingly captured Megan McDonald’s style and even set up yet a fourth story at the end of her writing!  Thus another wiki, the Brown Box Stories was born. Another student went down a different path and suggested yet another connected wiki, the one called Plenty More.  A great piece of this work for all of the students was the amount of self direction and creativity they showed.

Wiki #2 is one I created as part of a collaborative lesson these same fourth grade teachers and I planned together. The name of this one is “When is an estimate close enough?” In this one, I wrote up the lesson we planned to do together and set up additional pages  for them to use later when back in their classrooms.  On the resources page is an estimation calculator that is fabulous!  There are also videos about how to estimate in specific situations. It’s worth showing a teacher-created wiki.

And, wiki #3 would be either Nicolas’s wiki, specifically his iPad Review pages or the Crozet LED Kids wiki, specifically the report pages from each group. Nicolas is a self-directed learner who “gets” social media and how important the connecting piece of that is. One could spend hours studying the work he has done on his wiki in the two years he’s had it, and the quality is pretty sophisticated for a young man who wrote it as an 11 and 12 year old. This is an independently designed and created wiki.

The Crozet LED kids shared the process they followed while participating in a contest that was aimed at middle and high school kids where they were the only elementary kids designing an LED project. The honesty and the forthrightness is refreshing and they clearly understood how to show what they know. It’s about making learning transparent and sharing.

Kids truly never cease to amaze me. Their willingness to work hard on stuff that matters, to share their thinking and to support each other to create quality work is simply astonishing to watch and support.

Great Minds Discuss Ideas…

In the past week or so, I’ve had many conversations with kids about what they’re doing–I’m not sure why they’re bugged right now about their activity in school–it is just plain ol’ winter doldrums?  Has enough of the year passed so that they’re just tired of doing the same thing over and over?  Have worksheets gotten OLD? I’m not sure WHY they are complaining about the way school typically works, but they are clamoring for more–more choice, more responsibility, more history, more free choice reading, more conversations around those free choices (and fewer comprehension worksheets with questions). They say history is not taught enough and that it’s too USA-centric! They’re asking for a global perspective on events in the world!

So I’ve been struggling lately with how to have conversations with other teachers about deep learning.  That’s not something we talk about a lot in our building, for the most part, as our PLC work is all based around data–and the data is mostly based on multiple choice tests. But, having my kids be vocal about wanting a different experience is weighing on me.

I want kids to have a chance to explore big questions-and I want teachers to not only enjoy setting up those opportunities and have fun helping kids learn, but I want teachers knowledgeable enough to do that in ways that  will make sure kids learn the skills they need in ways that matter. I don’t want willy nilly education, but big questions based around concepts that will support kids to become effective and efficient–and passionate–learners. I want kids to know what to do when they don’t know what to do–to have strategies for learning something new in a variety of ways and in a variety of situations!

So I’ve been kicking around some questions kids have asked me, or ones I think they might like to explore. . .

Is there such a thing as an odd number? (See and

How many continents are there? (Check out this and this before you say 7.)

When is a fact a fact?

What happened before road signs?

What would the United States be like if Columbus had landed on the west coast, and our country had been settled from that side?

How can anything times something be less than the original?

How would you explain dividing fractions to someone?

How do scientists categorize plants and why do they use the categories they do?

Why ISN’T Pluto a planet any longer? How can it be a planet one day and not the next? Who decided it wasn’t?

If cell phone sales are catching up to laptops, why are schools still buying laptops and should they?

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What implications do the following numbers have for our world?

“It took 19 years for color TV to reach 10 Million users, VCR 12 years , CD players 7 years, iPad 9 months.”

And, I’m curious–what questions would you add?

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

I want my kids to be discussing ideas!