Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Step Out - Constructing Modern Knowledge 2010, Part One

I love those moments when someone enters the classroom and can't find me.  There's this certain look the person gets--adult or child--same look for everyone.  They are thinking..."Everything seems to be in order--the children are working, there is a busy hum and no one's screaming, there's not a sense of chaos--but there doesn't seem to be an adult in here."  And then they spot me huddled in a corner somewhere working with a small group or something like that, and their look changes...relief and amusement!  These are the times I am fully engaged with a student or small group.  We are working together collaboratively on a project, or I'm helping the children with their assignment.  Aside from the "find the teacher" moments, there are also times where someone might see whole class direct instruction, read alouds or presentations.

And then there are the "step-out" times, which are some of the most valuable moments for me as a teacher, but, for someone who was only just peeking into my classroom, might not at first glance seem to be times when a teacher is making good use of her time (so please come in and find out what is happening!!) The step-out times are when I can take on the role of observer, stepping in only minimally as needed and usually with questions to the learners.  It takes some practice to get young children to the point where they can work independently (especially if you are the only adult in the classroom), but they are certainly capable, and, with the right environment and support, they will gladly take ownership of their learning, allowing the teacher to be the observer, the questioner, the one who is documenting learning. 

Click on this link and you will see a short video of our morning time. (Sorry, the video is probably going to run a bit choppy and it only shows a bit of the activity, but it is worth taking a look.  It is part of a comic web site I am building.)  During the first part of the day, the children were in charge of their learning for most days.  For some of the tasks, they made up the rules of who would be in charge. In the video, the children are acting out an online comic. (They became HUGE fans of Sticky Burr, and there are books and an online comic featuring the Sticky Burr characters.)  Briefly, there were two children each week who were the "technology leaders."  They were in charge of this morning activity.  They would choose the actors and control the technology.  They decided if the room lights needed to be off (they stopped asking for permission to turn them off), for some reason, the technology leaders always chose to manipulate the laptop instead of the Smartboard even though the option was there (I don't know why - didn't ask because I didn't want them to think I was wanting them to use the Smartboard for this.), the class does not appeal for help from me at all (even when the camera was off).  They settle all disputes themselves.  Some of the noise you are hearing is from the hall, but when the class gets noisy, they "shush" themselves.  In short, they barely notice I am there.  And, every morning this activity occurs, I am left with an opportunity for valuable observation time.  I gathered some amazing information, including information about reading comprehension, how these children cooperate, and how these children problem solve.  I was able to use this information to build lessons and am now using this information to plan for next year.  If the children didn't feel capable of being the leaders and if they didn't have activities designed to allow them to work together in interesting ways, these opportunities to step out might not be available to me.

It was last year, at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2009, that I made a commitment to build more observation into my days.  As I reintroduced myself to the practices of Reggio Emilia, I was reminded how powerful observation and reflection is.  It is not a luxury or a way of disconnecting from what is going on.  It is a way of connecting the learning to the learners and of building a solid learning environment that is directly linked to the learners that are present in the environment at the actual moment.  And, with the current technologies we now have, we can document the learning and share it with the children, parents, other teachers, administrators, and the community.  

It might feel a little unsettling to sit and observe, especially if someone, such as an administrator, comes into your classroom to see what you are doing.  Just be prepared to share what you are doing.  Post to a web site the progress of a class project and include your observations when appropriate, share your notes with colleagues and discuss, hand out an extra camera to guests and have them join the fun! It definitely gets easier the more you do it.

So, when I returned to Constructing Modern Knowledge for 2010, I came with a sort-of plan in mind.  I did have about 25 projects that I wanted to complete.  I will say that I did dedicate time to learning and improving my skills with Scratch and Animation-ish, and thanks to the CMK participants, speakers, and faculty, I have a solid structure for a classroom project I have been working on for three years (my main goal for the week). You can see a draft/sample of one part of it here. I was looking forward to listening to some interesting speakers, and they did give me a lot to think about and process and share when I return to my district.   And, I definitely wanted to spend more time observing.  Last year I was able to observe because I was working on a video that documented what others were doing at CMK.  This year, I planned to observe for the sake of observing.  I spent much more time watching the process of project development, how adults interact with one another to problem solve, and how learners were reflecting on their learning and making plans to apply the process to their own school environments.  For me, this time to observe was just as valuable as the time I spent with conversation and on project work and learning new skills.   And, as in the classroom, even more important than observation is processing what you have observed and doing something with what you have learned from the observations.  I think many educators know that giving children time to work on projects, collaborate, problem solve, mess up and try again, and share their work with others is essential to learning.  But, we also have to give this time to adults so they can become better thinkers themselves. And if it looks like a waste of time, try stepping out and sharpening your observation skills and see what you discover!

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