Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Who’s Doing What?

In Uncategorized on May 23, 2012 at 6:08 am

I admit it again: I am not a teacher-blogger. I blog once in a blue moon and solely to share what I do in the classroom. So if you are up to a (long) post filled with activities, samples of student work and fun you are welcome.

My students are in third grade (second-language learners,too) and we are concluding an inquiry unit on teamwork. The central idea is By working together and sharing responsibilities we can achieve a common goal.

I do not reveal it until students themselves can actually put the threads together – why should I narrow down the thinking? Difficulties and challenges keep us alert and enable us to make more connections.

As in my previous post, I will place the activities in a timeline although we all know learning is always more chaotic and messy.

1. Provoke them – Tower Challenge


Divide the class in groups – there are many ways to do that (by colors, by numbers,favorite singers or bands etc).

Choose two-three students – who will be the Observers – without the knowledge of their peers and inform them what their job is: to observe and write down what they see, withholding any judgment.

Task: Using straws and tape challenge each team to build the highest structure they can within 20 minutes.

Increase the pressure by counting down (at the end) – how teams work under pressure is different sometimes. Group dynamics change and tension begins to build. This is important so students can later discuss this aspect.

End: Have the teams show their product. Listen, as a whole class, to what the Observers noticed. Ask team members to self-evaluate according to a chart and rate their work as a team. (see photos)

Have a reflection sheet so students can reflect individually, too.


2. The shortest story ever: Everybody Wanted…

We sat in a circle. I put the “No Hands Up” sign and asked the kids to just listen and think.

Slowly, I add each story sentence so it could “sink in” (I assure you, this little trick has a different impact than if I had the full text from the beginning). Kids begin to blink, rub their chins, raise their eyebrows – aha, I hooked them! They understand.


Imagine that these few sentences stirred a lot of discussion. But hey, we can use our thinking even more – let’s write down key concepts that they can associate with this story. They began to pour (“blame”, “giving up”, “teamwork” etc). Can we do even more? Sure we can categorize them: Positive (“collaborative”), Neutral (“Function” – How does a team work?), Negative (“blame”).

Push their thinking more: what is the big idea of the story? Formulate it in a sentence. Our most votes were for Niki’s (“People should help each other even if they are not told to.”)


3. A Team Player…IS/ SHOULD/ DOESN’T

Divide the class in three groups and give each group 10-15 minutes to brainstorm: what qualities a team player has (A Team Player Is…), what (s)he should do and what (s)he never does. Share with the class.

*For those involve din the PYP, this relates a lot with the Learner Profile elements.


Student choices?


4. How to NOT Be a Team Player

Writing and doodling? You bet! Individually now, show me what a non team player does. Use your experience – Were you bossied around? Were you shouted at? Did you have to do the hard work all the time? Then put it on paper.

Share and let the kids giggle – the doodles and the fact that we approached the topic from a negative perspective makes it more interesting an activity.


 5. Central Idea(s)

Looking back we have a pretty good idea of what this inquiry unit involves. Let’s try writing the central idea ourselves. What is difficult about this process is that the Central Idea should be relatively abstract and universal, so it can drive conceptual (not factual) thinking.

The kids were great – some of their ideas resembled mine!

People get a great result if they work in a team. (Andrei)

A team is not a team if only one person is working. (Elenis)

In a team it doesn’t matter who you are but HOW you are. (Stefan)

Communication and teamwork can
help you in your life.

You can do everything if you have a team. (Eliza)

Somehow a team is like a family. (Alex)

Working in a team will bring you many challenges. (Ioana)

In a team you have to be good. (Alina)

Communicate with each other in a team. (Maria)

6. Hey, I have a question!

At this stage we apparently know a lot about the topic – what on earth can we inquire into? But let’s go below the iceberg. The kids do still have questions. They will research and find answers by themselves (research implies relying not only on paper and digital resources, but people and locations, too!)


7. Creative Thinking Time

Metaphorical thinking is yet another way to encourage the development of thinking skills. Move away from analytical thought and put it in..metaphors and colors!

What would “teamwork” be? (beehive, anthill, puzzle…)

What color would it have? Why?

Turqoise – because it is a combination of colors and in a team you have to cooperate. (Iustin)

Yellow  – because it shows happiness (and I am happy in a team). (Niki)

– because it expresses the light of friendship. (Elenis)

White – because the team shouldn’t argue and white shows “calm” (Andrei).

Green – because it shows good things and teams do good things together. (Stefan)

Pink – because when things get worse the members need to think “optimism”. (Eliza)

– because you have to be kind. (Ioana)


8. Digital Poster

Let’s use our photo editing tools and some Flickr CC photos and illustrate the concept of teamwork. Easy peasy!


8. Some Doing 

While we inquire individually and try to find anwers to our questions, how can we best show that we grasped the Central Idea? By doing something together as a team! You mean…we get to choose what to do? By all means, kiddos. I will be just an observer during this week. You can choose anything – from a digital project (i.e. a blog, a wiki, a movie) to something tangible.

So here the kids decided – after a lot of brainstorming and crossing out ideas:

team 1: Will build a house for the kindergarten (yes, a real house)

team 2: Will assemble, paint and varnish a table and chairs for toddlers

team 3: Will make cookies and lemonade, sell them and donate the money

team 4: Will make toys, jewelries and artwork, sell and donate the money, too


I know my students are enthusiastic little creatures, but to bring everything they needed right the next day? Now that is what I call organization – I think we need them as managers in our community, really :).

If you think we just started without any plan, you’re wrong. Each team blogged about the entire process:

Essential Agreements (“rules” they have for their team), Responsibilities (what each member’s job is), Materials (what resources they needed), Steps (what actions are planned), Timeline (when they will do what), People (who might help them), Advertising (how will they let the community know about their projects?), and Location.


They also have a Reflection Journal where they reflect daily – what obstacles they encountered, what exactly they did on that day, how they got along with the other team members etc. The journal has a very simple format – blank pages stapled together- so they can use doddling, typography or plain writing.


They share these reflections with their team members – I encourage openness in communication. Kids understand that it is beneficial for the entire team to know what everyone is thinking and feeling (thus, potential frustrations or conflicts can be resolved). Also, it helps each kid understand how (s)he is viewed within the team – image that may or may not be similiar with what (s)he thinks about him/herself.


9. Video time!

I always use videos and photographs to make a lesson more powerful, stir thinking and encourage discussion. For this unit I chose the movie Apollo 13 as it reinforces the idea of teamwork. I used I See / I Think / I Wonder strategy from Visible Thinking , stopped the movie three times so the kids could write on post-its and then discussed.


10. PLN help

Finally, I posted an interactive link yesterday on Twitter asking people (thank you to all who contributed!) what word comes to their mind when they think of “teamwork”. We will discuss the answers today in class.


All in all, I think we thought and did quite a lot for four weeks (one hour per day). Obviously, this inquiry can have many variations depending on student age, their own questions etc. As these are second-language learners, I had to take into consideration the language factor, too (for native speakers, the activities can be much more complex).

*I will add the video tomorrow as I am at school right now and I don’t have enough time to edit it.*

A Question of Identity

In education, school, Uncategorized on February 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm

My blog readers know I rarely dwell on generalizations and that I prefer to share what I do in my classroom. If you are here now, I invite you to see how my students and I inquired into the concepts of “similarities” and “differences” in relation to ourselves and the people around us.

Obviously this is just one way to “teach” and by no means it is to be taken as a model of perfect teaching. I just share what I do and if you find some good ideas go ahead and use them. If you don’t, well then you wasted some precious time and I can’t help you with that. J

*NOTE: My students are second-language learners (like me) and are now in 3rd grade.

The central idea that guided our inquiry was, “I am a unique individual with similarities and differences in relation to things and people around me. “

The process might seem linear but it is only apparent. For the sake of easy reading I had to put the learning experiences in a timeline so you can have the big picture of the learning process as it unfolded.

Collage Profile

– provide students with a sketch of their own profiles

– students draw and write inside (words and pictures they feel relate to themselves)

– share and discuss (Gallery Walk strategy)

This activity gave me and my students an authentic glimpse into what they see themselves like. As usual, I made my own profile,too, because students need modelling and enjoy learning about their teacher. I also share my reflection, reading, writing  and doodling journals with them.


ME Box

– students share items they brought from home (favorite toys, books, other items)

– video record students and post the videos on the class blog for later reflection

– reflection: What do these object tell about me? 

– communicating likes/dislikes, abilities, interests helps in the inquiry process, but also in building orla language skills

This “box” is highly relevant because it contains what children cherish most and items that are related to their interests and abilities.



– brainstorm with students things that people can “see” about us

– students complete the outer circle with personal details

– sharing time, discussions

The purpose of this activity was for students to notice what is “visible” about themselves and and it was also a springboard for the next activity where we went deeper into the concept of “identity”. 


The ME You Don’t See

– students brainstorm things that cannot be “seen” by others but are very important to us as persons

– they complete a blank Iceberg Model and the words are then written by teacher above and under the “water”

– students complete the second part (Share some things we don’t know about you.)



– discuss the concept of timeline, show models

– students create a personal timeline with the most 5-7 most important events in their life

– I brought a timeline, too 

Some events shape our life, our personality and even goals. It was important for students to identify “big” events in their lives and make connections with who they are now as persons. 


If I Were…I Would Be....

I often encourage metaphoric thinking because it does stretch the mind and it provides a new perspective. The kids enjoyed this activity a lot and became aware of their uniqueness (even if, for instance, some chose the same color they did so for different reasons).


Knowing YOU

A. Human Treasure Hunt

– an in-class survey is designed by students (Find Someone Who….)

– students came up with a list of questions that we immediately put in a document and started “hunting” for answers around the classroom (e.g. Find someone who…plays an instrument.) We made a graph in the end and visualized both similarities and differences within our class.


B. Interviewing Our Classmates

– students paired up and prepared questions to ask their partner

– they interviewed their classmate and we “broadcast” that (we used a microphone, headset etc) under the theme “Today’s Special Guest”.

These interviews varied as I empowered students to make up their own questions and find out exactly they wanted from their peers. It was an engaging experience and one that deepened student reflection as they could see themselves in the videos posted on the class blog.


Tug of War: Similarities vs Differences

– prepare two statements and attach them to the end of the “rope”:

SIMILARITIES are more important because they make us a community.

DIFFERENCES are more important because they make us unique.

– students bring arguments that “pull” towards the end they select (use post-its)


As you can imagine, at the end of the activity we concluded that both similarities and differences help us as individuals.


A. Conceptual understanding

– make three groups of students

– provide 3 sets of photos, each set illustrating the same object but from a different perspective

– question prompt: “What do these pictures have in common? What do you think the big idea is?”

– the groups share their ideas; provide the key-word at the end (Perspective) in case students do not know it

You’d be surprised how smart kids are. After initial struggles ALL three groups concluded that “perspective” was the major concept.


B. Walk in My Shoes

– students bring  a pair of shoes that belongs to another family member

– they try to run, skip and move but it is, obviously, hard because the shoes are either too big (the parents’) or too small (their siblings’).

After the initial fun and smiles, we sat down and reflected. Their “big idea” was  that we sometimes judge people based on appearances without knowing what it feels like to be “in their shoes”.


C. Poems 

Reinforce this idea through poems, books, artwork. I used two poems and played music in the “background” for a greater effect. Allow students time to “sink in” and then reflect.


While we were engaged in these  whole-classroom activities, the kids had their own questions (see our Wonder Wall). They pursue them individually and complete their Inquiry Journals.


However, at some point, I noticed that many kids had inquired into gender differences (“Why are boys and girls different?”) so I changed my planning to address that.

GENDER Stereotypes


– bring magazine covers, ads and website pages (printed) that are designed for each gender

– use I See / I Think / I Wonder strategy so kids can make connections, clarify their questions and thinking

– bring the class together. Question prompt, “What words would you use for describing each set of pictures?”

– use Wordle to visualize the most frequent words

Kids noticed how different were the words used in relation to each gender, and also how different the pattern was – for describing girls there were a lot of adjectives about appearance, while for describing boys the focus was on personality/skills. Of course, this finding caused a very lively discussion! J



– make a chart and divide it into Shapes/Colors/Animals/Symbols

– ask students to select and glue them under the headings Boys/Girls

– gather students as a class. What were the most frequent items associated with each gender? Record together on a big paper.

– discuss findings

You can only imagine the debate that followed! I also contributed my own view (at the end, so I wouldn’t influence their choices). I told the kids how I dislike shopping (an activity usually ascribed to women), that I love dogs and used to play a lot of “boy” games when I was young, and I never wore pink in my life!


These activities raised many questions and the kids’ feedback was that “labeling” is unfair, that we do, indeed, are different gender-wise but that is also influenced by the media and the grownups around them.

Well, hoping that I didn’t bore you too much, I conclude here. I am aware that this unit of inquiry could be designed in many ways and that I certainly can improve. I had to take into account age-group characterstics and the fact that my students are scond-language learners (this involves simplifying language in some cases). Retrospectively, however, I feel I created activities that are engaging and relevant for students, developing skills and a sense of awareness that goes beyond “cute” busy activities. The end of the unit feedback from students also emphasized that aspect.

If you have time, leave a comment and do not refrain from criticism – I always prefer it because it makes me reflect and grow. Thank you!

Assessing Kids’ Blogs, Or How It Becomes Another Assignment

In Uncategorized on January 3, 2012 at 10:33 am

It has been a week full of memes and tagging teachers and lessons on how blogs written by children should be evaluated. Honestly, I am tired of that. And of course, I am against it.

Firstly, we should ask ourselves these questions:

1.      What is the purpose of student blogging?

2.      What are the reasons for assessing them?

3.      If assessing, how can you develop a rubric that covers creativity/round pegs in square holes?

 Since I do not have the same teaching values as everyone else (thank god for diversity!) I can only express my own views and share my own classroom practices.


1.      Purpose: My students do not blog to showcase their “best work” as others do. They blog to tell me about many things:

          how they learned to play an instrument

          who came to visit and what they did together

          what criteria they would use for a final project

          what ideas they have for the current inquiry unit (yes, I ask for their input so some lessons are done together, based on their views)

          how they liked Skyping with a teacher

          what their reaction is in relation to a lesson, a video that I or their peers posted

          what application they discovered and how we can use it in class

          what their questions are about a specific topic

          to tell me what they are doing while they are ill, at home

and so much more.

Some write more, others less.

Some write nearly daily, others less frequently.

Some have more spelling mistakes (we are second-language learners), others none.

Some use pictures or videos or embed an app (e.g. VoiceThread), others don’t.


Conclusion: Our class blog transfers the idea of community and need for self-expression. It is not yet another assignment that has to be done.

That I encourage them to blog is one thing, but to make them accountable for not blogging enough or according to certain criteria is another. It is, eventually, a personal choice. Don’t WE blog when and if we want to?…


2.      Reasons for assessing students can be found at anytime, right? It is in our culture to judge and set kids against criteria (and often against each other – of course, under the surface). But then, I ask, why would anyone blog if they found themselves rated and judged all the time? I asked today on Twitter, “ Would you like to be evaluated based on a rubric”? It would be interesting to see who would.


3.      Now the famous rubric.  We can develop a 10, 20 –point rubric covering a lot of what one should look in a blog for: language, style, mechanics, multimedia etc. Sure we can do that – we are teachers. We can turn nearly everything into measurable scales. But…just take a look at the diversity of blogs out there. Most would inevitably  fail.

The first example that comes to mind is Seth Godin who has thousands of readers. Multimedia? None. Does it have a classical rigorous structure? Not at all. Length? Not even that – his blog posts are some of the shortest on the web. No, Seth, you wouldn’t get maximum of points on my rubric- sorry to disappoint you.


Other examples? John Hagel. Oh boy, he blogs very rarely and his posts…well, loooooooooooong. Really long and always packed with so many ideas to munch on. You always need to reread them and rethink. But oops, no multimedia there. Just plain, articulated, good writing. Sorry for you, John, but neither you will make the 100% on my rubric.


And the list can go on.

So here I am asking: how can a rubric cover this creative, very personal style of blogging? It can’t, in my opinion. Because a rubric also excludes. What is new, interesting and relevant in other ways.


For me, not only in regard to blogging but to teaching in general, this Indian saying  tells quite a lot: “If we want to make the elephant grow, we feed him, not weigh him every day.”  Let the children write, offer them models, let them engage in conversations – with peers, you, others – and allow them this freedom. Because eventually they would blog better. And better.

 *Because J. in the comments asked, I thought of providing a visual proof of how comments change in time without any rubric whatsoever. Feedback and conversations is all it takes for kids to get better – the same way we, as adults, improve.



Tensions and …Intentions

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm


In the past month or so I have been reading and thinking a lot about a few things that to me, even after more than 15 years of teaching, still sound like issues I struggle with so I would like to understand how others work them out. 



I don’t think engagement is the real issue – there are many ways to engage students, especially now with so much tech available. I think deep thinking, true reflection and long-term motivation for learning are more critical. 

There are two points I want to make here.

1.      I have seen many educators who use numerous tech resources with their students and that is a good thing. However, most of them did not engage them in deeper thinking, in making crosscurricular connections, in doubting their own knowledge, synthesizing knowledge in new, creative ways. To boost engagement is not enough – kids are always drawn towards new devices and apps. But to what purpose? Is there any evidence of inquiry, questioning, development in thinking afterwards?

2.      Engagement can be really misleading as it can often be nothing but busyness. Keeping kids “engaged” every minute of the day is not necessarily the path to building deeper understandings. Here come the 1) time and the 2) independent thinking time factors. Why? Because students are multitasking anyway – just think of how many subjects they learn daily, from language arts to math and chemistry. We need to go for “less is more” and allow for processing time individually.

Tension: between time constraints and authentic learning, collaboration and individual work


 As I said in a tweet, children are naturally curious. Don’t mistake that with naturally good thinkers – not even all adults are. It takes modeling and practice.

Again, creating a “wonder” environment is not that hard in my experience – kids like to learn many things every time. Our brain is designed as such (another reason we tweet, blog and read a lot in the space of social media nowadays).  What is harder though is to keep them focused on a thread of thought, to make them resilient to obstacles, to make them persevere in finding solutions, to inquire deeper in a certain area. Because thinking is hard and it requires both knowledge and skills, critical thinking skills. To me, in vain we “engage” students unless we enable them to think, unless we model thinking strategies and use them constantly in our lessons. Product-focused or solely task-based learning is not enough for learning. The thinking processes are critical.

Tension: between our need for variety/play and rigor in intellectual pursuits



“The simple fact that a learning achievement is measurable doesn’t make it relevant.” – Lex Hupe

I agree on this but again, how do we know what is relevant? What criteria inform your choices? I always find that the obvious is rarely questioned and hence we keep building confidence that we are always doing the right thing.

Those who advocate for strictly real-life based tasks and learning experiences hit a target but miss a point. Me thinks. Literature and the arts, for instance, are completely “unproductive” in the real world but it is through them that we understand, develop, contribute to and share our humanity. A child is often unlikely to talk about Shel Silverstein’s poems or the law of inertia outside school because s/he engages in different types of learning – social and emotional mostly. Does that mean we have to take away from their education these bits of wonder and encounters with the humanities/sciences just because they are not built within a “real-life” context?

The other extreme – keeping the subjects strictly on an academic level – is as damaging. Unfamiliar experiences, both in time and space as well as emotional, become a wall in the process of internalizing information. 

Tension: between real-life experiences and what education offers


Empowerment vs. Accommodation

I still find it hard to draw the line between the two. It is obvious, from brain research as well, that we need challenging tasks so we can actually learn – we need moments of confusion so we can step back and reevaluate our knowledge in a new light. But how challenging should “challenging” be? Or how easy should “easy” be? How do I know, with each and every student, that I respond to his/her needs but still push them forward? How do I know I only accommodate instead of empower? Pretty tricky for me as I teach a class of second-language learners who not only vary in terms of age (from 7 to 10) but also have strengths in so many diverse areas.

Tension: between needs and goals

Other dichotomies – tech vs. analog, knowledge vs. skills etc – are simply false and I won’t bother mentioning them. My intentions are to reflect more on the issues presented above and find some answers in the future. It is, eventually, a balancing act and that is where expertise and art combine.

What are your takes? Do you have any of these questions in the back of your mind when you teach? I would love to hear others’ input. 

*Photo: – I edited it as it requires no  attribution and it allows for remixing work. 

*I hate it when Posterous changes quotation marks and hyphens into squiggly things. 



Back to School

In Uncategorized on September 25, 2011 at 9:51 am

I am not sure if this deserved a blog post but well…I found myself here. It also might be an excuse for not having blogged in a long time (I told you I am not much of a blogger – the information, blogs and websites out there are overwhelming, who needs another one?). 

First, take a peek into our classsroom this year. I made a Word doc so you can download it (if it helps in any way). 

Our first day was filled with fun. Details? Yes, please. 

Tell Me Something Nice– I pinned various tags on each student’s back and let them move around (e.g “Tell me something nice about my hair”. ) Compliments upon compliments began to pour! But guess what? One of them came to me and my colleague (the Romanian language teacher) and pinned tags on OUR backs, too! He said, “You deserve compliments, too!” 


Snowball Fight – each kid wrote three things about themselves on a piece of paper (I told them to change their handwriting, so others would not recognize it). They crumpled the papers and …boom! Flying balls all over the classroom until I said “Stop”. We grabbed any paper we got our hands on, sat in a cricle and read, trying to guess who was who. (Of course, I wrote, too! I changed my writing so much that only one kid could guess!) 


Musical Chairs – But nope, not your usual game. This is exactly the opposite! We take a chair and the ones sitting need to MAKE ROOM for those left out! Imagine when we had only 1 chair left – 14 kids on top of each other , hah! 


HOPE – I created the word “hope”exclusively out of post -its, and then invited students to write their hopes for the new school year. 


ME – I gave the kids the paper below with two instructions. They cut and glue letter “M” upside down. What did it change into? “W(e)”  🙂  We had a discussion on the purpose of this activity (community and collaboration). 

Of course…the last activity was reading a wonderful book: Little Blue and Little Yellow. If you haven’t read it to your students, you (and they) are really missing out. It is about a little blue dot who plays with his friend, the little yellow dot. One day they hug one another and…oh, they turn green! They want to return to their homes but neither family (blue, nor yellow) wants to let them in…I won’t tell you more, let your students find out. It is a wonderful story about friendship, differences and identity – as we will start our learning journey this year with a an inquiry unit about identify and diversity (Marvelous, Marvelous Me). 

I almost forget – we also wrote a “recipe”for our Reading Buddies (who now are in second grade and with whom we read the entire last school year) – How to Be a Successful 2nd Grader 


Well, this would be about our first day at school. We will tell and show you how we keep learning this year, and hope yours will be as great as ours! 🙂