Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Encouraging Student Agency and Ownership

My friend Michele recently sent me this teaching video saying that it reminded her of my math workshop. I was so encouraged by the teacher in this video! I love that Ms. Scalzetti is increasing student agency and ownership by having students decide what kind of support they need for each math lesson. It sends a clear message that the students are in charge of their own learning. There are many resources for them to learn from, but they decide their own learning path.

Seeing this teacher’s work made me start thinking about how I might also begin to encourage students to take ownership of their learning during my math workshop. So far, we are loving the small group instruction and differentiation that the workshop model affords us. Now that we have settled into the routine of our workshop, we are using data to drive our daily instruction in order to guarantee that every student receives the support they need to reach our learning goals. Here is a quick overview of three typical lesson types that we teach and how we have started increasing student agency.

New Skills

When we are first introducing a new skill to the students, we make sure that we see every student in a small group. We typically make these groups based on unit pretest data. We have also created student groups based on how students learn and how quickly they typically pick up a new skill.  Sometimes we extend our whole group learning time when introducing new concepts that students have very little prior knowledge of. During these types of lessons, we ask students to evaluate their own learning, encouraging students to take responsibility for their learning so far.

Progressing Skills

On days that we are continuing learning from previous lessons, we usually use our mini-lesson time to briefly review the previously taught skill. At the end of our guided practice, students complete a few problems on their own. Student groups are created on the spot by my co-teacher and myself based on student performance. In this case, we still meet with every student, but our lessons are differentiated. While some students are receiving additional guided practice, others may engage in a reteaching lesson or be challenged to apply their mastery in new contexts. We increase student agency by allowing students to gauge their learning and notify us when they think they are ready to work independently.

Near Mastery Skills

When our class is nearing mastery of the skill, we use a quick check to determine the best learning path for each student. Our quick check might take place as an entry ticket the day of the lesson, or as a exit ticket from the day before. In this case, we do not meet with every student. Some students spend our math block working without teacher support. During this point in our learning progress, students usually use a teacher-created teaching video so that they can control the pace of their work while assessing their own understanding. Targeted groups of students meet with the teachers to move toward mastery. Students working with teachers have been teacher-chosen in the past, but recently, we have encouraged students to decide if they need to work with a teacher, much like Ms. Scalzetti does in her class.

Making a teaching video using my document camera. 


My co-teacher and I have started taking small steps toward increasing student agency in our math workshop. We are wrapping up our current unit and we required students to choose if they met with a teacher today for review. Students who did not meet with a teacher were also given choices of teaching materials to use to review independently.

I had two students that I know needed further help but chose to work independently. I had them sit close to my instruction so that I could keep an eye on their progress and pull them into a group when they needed help.

Today, one of my students asked, “What if I used to need a lot of help, but I know I’m getting better. I still need some help, but not a lot. Should I see the teacher today?” Wow! She has really been monitoring her learning closely, and she is invested in progressing. I was so pleased to see my students reflect on their learning to determine their own next steps toward success.

Next Steps

Ms. Scalzetti also mentioned that students who do not attend the seminars for the day work on applying their learning to the real world and creating something using that skill. I think this would be a great next step for our own math workshop. Right now, our independent activities are mostly review and independent practice. I like that this teacher is having her students apply their learning to new situations, increasing rigor and requiring students to deepen their knowledge. For our future units, I’d like to create more challenging independent tasks and projects.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Coding: Developing Critical Thinking and Perseverance

Sarah has taught elementary for 12 years in Kindergarten, second, fourth, and fifth grade. Across grade levels and subjects, she has noticed that students continually struggle with problem solving, perseverance with challenging tasks, and logical thinking. Sarah decided to look into this problem further. Reading various articles comparing student success in math across the US, China, and Singapore, revealed a few stark differences. Most notably, Sarah found that both China and Singapore focus on computer science programs starting at an early age.

After some serious reflection this past summer, Sarah decided to set a challenging teaching goal for herself:

My goal is to create and pass on students who are overall better thinkers. Through the use of STEM, coding, and Makerspace, students will be able to transfer and grow in key life skills and use them in all parts of their education and careers.

This week is Computer Science Education Week, highlighted by the Hour of Code. Computer science skills are critical for our 21st century learners, and the Hour of Code encourages teachers to ensure that every student gets the opportunity to experience programming.

I visited Sarah’s classroom this week to see how her students have developed their coding skills. Students have the freedom to apply their coding skills to a variety of tasks based on interest. I saw two boys using coding to produce music through Code DJ, while their neighbor used code to control her digital robot to perform tasks in Robot Rattle. Nearby, another young lady created her own dragon with Dragon Blast and developed code to make that dragon perform different tasks in a game setting.
Coding with Flappy at

Students write code by dragging and dropping code blocks. Beginners start with simple coding sequences while more advanced games allow for multiple variables to be adjusted.

Every student was working on challenging tasks. After only 20 minutes of engaging with Sarah’s learners, it was easy to see the benefits that coding has had on student learning. Here’s what I noticed:

Students were applying the critical thinking skills of logic and reasoning.
While working with a young lady, I noticed that she had to anticipate each action that she wanted her dragon to make, visualize the move, and then create code to match. When part of her code didn’t work, she analyzed her work, determined the glitch, and went about fixing it. Look at all of those higher order thinking skills she was using!

Coding through game-based learning made failure nonthreatening.
Students were continually writing bits of code and testing to see if it worked, receiving immediate feedback on their work. Every student encountered problems with their code, so every student experienced failure. They learned through a process of trial and error, learning from their mistakes in order to complete their task and reach their goal- just like they learn to play video games. Students weren’t discouraged by mistakes to the point of shutdown; they viewed their struggles as a positive challenge. If you’re interested in learning more about video games and the learning process, hear what expert James Paul Gee has to say.

Struggling readers were motivated to read print and interpret visual information.
I noticed a handful of students who don’t particularly love reading willingly decode and strive for comprehension when reading coding tutorials. They were motivated to read because they had a need for the skill that was relevant and interesting.

Students were engaged in productive struggle, demonstrating perseverance with challenging tasks.
An ongoing conversation that I’ve had with teachers revolves around the question, “How can we teach students to care about persevering when problems are difficult?” It is so common to see students disinterested in completing challenging problem solving during math. Designing tasks that require these skills is easy to do, but teaching students to willingly struggle through a problem is a different story. The trial and error process of writing code is a great way to develop these skills in students. Since the beginning of the school year, Sarah has seen a decrease in students shutting down in math when problems are difficult. They are willing to take risks, try various strategies, and persevere when the work is tough. They are transferring their learning behaviors from coding to math. I think Sarah is making excellent progress toward her goal of developing better thinkers!

How to Get Started with Coding

Sara is using, a free resource for teachers. She started only two months ago and has seen great progress. Not only does have a K-12 curriculum with lesson plans, resources, and online coding practice/games for students, but the organization also offers free workshops for teachers to learn about teaching coding. It has all the tools a teacher would need to get started. As a teacher, you do not need extensive training or a deep understanding of coding to help your students develop their computer science skills.

Need proof? Sarah and her students explored the first lesson designed by for fifth graders- Algorithms Unplugged: Tangrams. Student pairs used tangrams to learn that algorithms are simply a series of commands. One partner viewed a simple tangram design and attempted to give directions to their teammate who had to recreate the image. Students learned that directions (algorithms) need to be detailed in order to produce the desired outcome. This is a foundational principle of computer science and coding. Once students had a basic understanding of this concept, they were ready to see how algorithms work in actual codes. After exploring tangrams with her class, Sarah encouraged her students to play a quick coding game from to see algorithms in action.

It’s not too late to join in the Hour of Code and encourage your students to experience programming this week. All the resources on are available for teachers at anytime, so if you’re like me, you might take some more time to plan. Either way, computer science skills are important for today’s students, and they can develop the critical thinking skills and learning behaviors necessary for success! See the great resources for planning your Hour of Code here.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fostering Visual Literacy with Graphic Novels

My reading group has just finished our first graphic novel together. After our first lesson about analyzing the visual aspects of a graphic novel, I was optimistic that this group would do very well with the book, Smile by Raina Telgemeier.  

Our typical schedule for reading a novel includes students completing reading and response activities without my support. During this time, students also create discussion questions for the group. Once a week, we meet together to discuss our questions. I’m able to gauge student comprehension progress during those discussions and provide redirection or mini-lessons to ensure the group remains on track.

I provide a few guiding questions for each chapter to draw attention to abstract themes and help students make inferences that they might otherwise miss. For this graphic novel, I asked students to choose one panel to discuss in depth with the group during our meeting. I was hoping my students would have more amazing conversations like our discussion of an illustration in our previous book.

Unfortunately, my students really struggled to notice critical panels worth analyzing together. Instead, they would often choose panels that did not allow the group to have deep discussions. In the future, I will provide my groups with more scaffolding for this part of our work together. I plan to select specific panels for students to analyze and discuss. Gradually, I will release the the students to choose important panels once they have more experience.

Overall, I found that using this graphic novel was a great way to practice reading skills that my students usually struggle to master. Students were able to make inferences based on visual clues. During our discussions, students were able to analyze visual information and understand symbolism. As we continue to develop these abstract skills, we will begin transferring our reading skills to print-based texts. My hope is to have students make connections back to our visual texts in order to continually make inferences and recognize symbolism.

Student Comics

As a culminating project, my students used Pixton to create their own comics. They were challenged to use a graphic novel technique that we discovered a few weeks back (shading, color, perspective, body language, and font or text use) and were given the choice of content:
  1. Tell a story from your own life when you faced a problem
  2. Put yourself into Raina’s story and show what you would have done differently

Look at some of their work! I am really impressed with their ability to apply their understanding of visual communication to create comics.
What an interesting way to show perspective in panel 3!
This student changed the shape of her speech bubbles to show
that the character is in pain. 

Student Learning

When I asked these students for some feedback about what they had learned while reading graphic novels, they were able to express some great insights. One student explained that even though there are fewer words, he had to think more while reading. Rather than breezing through the story, he had to add his own knowledge to the pictures to really understand the full story. Another student said she was glad to read this story because she thought graphic novels were boring before.

We also had an interesting discussion about if graphic novels should be considered “real reading.” I was surprised that many of the students in this group said that it wasn’t really reading because there weren’t many words. Instead, they agreed that our learning was more about thinking than reading words, which I would agree with. We didn’t focus on reading words, but instead on thinking deeply, making inferences, and noticing symbolism. Whether my students believe they were really reading or not, they did develop key reading skills that we will apply in our next book study. I’m pleased with the progress this group made in their reading skills, and I’m looking forward to using graphic novels with my other reading groups as well. Thanks to generous donors, my latest Donor’s Choose grant for graphic novels was fulfilled. My students are so excited to read these new titles!

Beginning with Graphic Novels

Teaching with graphic novels is new for me. While I have several sets of various titles, I’ve decided to only have one of my reading groups choose a graphic novel so far. I wanted time to learn from my students and improve my instruction to benefit the rest of my student groups. In other words, they are my guinea pigs. You should have seen their excitement when I showed them the graphic novel choices for our reading. They were surprised that we would get to spend our time together discussing and analyzing a graphic novel.

Pre-Teaching Concepts

Before starting with our graphic novel, Smile by Raina Telgemeier, I used a series of books to preteach important visual literacy concepts. Some of the books, like Level Up by Gene Leun Yang are graphic novels, while other books like Hippo! No, Rhino! by Jeff Newman, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, are picture books with limited text. Rather than showing students different examples of visual concepts, we took time to look through each book together so that students could construct their own ideas.

We discussed this key question during our lesson: How do authors of graphic novels express their ideas? After some discussion, here is what we learned:

Authors use perspective and size to show important details or different characters’ views.

Body language and facial expressions show a character’s feelings.

Font, text color, and size can help the reader know how words are said.

Shading and color can be used to draw attention to important parts of the pictures.


I had taught the above lesson in preparation for beginning our graphic novel. It happend to take place a few days before my group finished reading Bridge to Terabithia. As we were having our final book club discussion, one of my students drew our attention to an illustration toward the end of the story. Here is what our conversation sounded like:

S1: I want to talk about this picture. It reminded me of what we learned about graphic novels, even though it’s a regular book.

Me: What do you think this picture is showing us?

S2: Well, it’s all black and white. It’s kind of like that Hugo picture where the illustrator made one character stick out using light colors. Jess sticks out here too because of light colors.

S3: Why is his dad in shadow, though?

Me: That’s a good question. Does anyone have an idea why the illustrator did that?

S1: Maybe to make the character stand out. It also shows us the difference between the dad and the boy. The dad is in shadow, but he is bigger and stronger. The boy looks weak.

Me: That’s interesting. Do you guys think the story supports those thoughts?

S4: Yeah, because the dad helped the boy when he was crying because his friend died. The dad kinda didn’t care about his son too much earlier in the book, but here he is strong for him.

Goosebumps. I had goosebumps! This was the start of my student-led discussion after ONE lesson on visual literacy concepts. They were discussing symbolism that was supported by the text. I’ve usually had trouble introducing the concept of symbolism with my students in past years because it is so abstract, but these kiddos jumped right in because the illustration was approachable. It didn’t intimidate them like regular text might. We went on to discuss the sunlit background vs. the darker foreground and what that might mean.

I think we are off to a strong start, and I can’t wait to see how this group does as they apply these concepts to our first graphic novel.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Student Blogging for Self Reflection

I spent some time over the summer brainstorming ways to incorporate blogging in my classroom. After a bit of goal setting and planning, I’m excited to share that we’ve made great progress this week! To get the most bang for our buck, I’ve decided to teach my students about reflective blogging. Teaching students to reflect and process their learning while also setting their own learning goals is a great way to increase student agency.  

I recently read an excerpt from Larissa Pahomov’s book, Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students Through Inquiry. It explained that relevant student reflection must be metacognitive, applicable, and shared. I’ve incorporated Pahomov’s example guiding questions to teach my students metacognitive reflection. I think this will help my students to slow down and actually process their learning, rather than simply complete their work. Their reflections will be applicable because we will reflect each week, rather than only at the end of grading periods, so students will have the opportunity to think about their learning, set goals, and make changes. Finally, student reflections will be shared through student blogs.  

This week we explored how a blogging community interacts and communicates. I was inspired by the work that this teacher is doing with her class and followed her example of first practicing with “paper blogs” and post-it comments. We practiced reflecting on our learning and commenting on peer writing. By the end of the week, our classroom was abuzz with excitement and conversation as students published their first blog posts and began commenting with their peers. They took ownership and named their blogs things like Blog Boy, Learning Like a Boss, and Student Power.

Blogging Benefits

Building Community
Online communities are great for connecting individuals with similar interests who otherwise would not have met. They are also a wonderful way to build classroom community. I was amazed this week as I read through student blogs. My learners were open and vulnerable in their initial posts in ways that they wouldn’t have been in a typical classroom conversation, sharing about struggles that they faced this week and how they wanted to improve next time. Even better, the comments that their friends made built up our learning community! One of my students had a particularly rough morning and chose to blog about it. Her classmates were so positive and supportive in their comments that she left her disappointment behind and had a terrific afternoon. That’s the power of a great community!  

Authentic Audience
My students took a great deal of pride in their writing when their blogs were published for their peers to read. They were motivated to create interesting content because their peers are serving as an authentic audience. They were so excited to hear that we would be blogging each week because they found a sense of purpose in the work I was asking them to do. They took ownership of their work and wanted it to be their very best.

Equal Access
One of the greatest benefits for using online blogging is that my struggling writers can use Google Read and Write to create interesting writing and respond to their peers. They are not left out of our community due to difficulties they might face when writing with paper and pencil. Technology gives all my learners full access to our class blogs.

Student Voice
Blogging allows open conversations to start between students allowing every student to have a voice. During a typical classroom sharing activity, students usually would only have time to share with one or two friends. With a blog, though, students aren’t limited in that way. They can comment anytime and anywhere, extending student voice beyond our face-to-face interactions.  

Avoiding Possible Issues

Internet Safety
Most blogging sites are blocked by our filter for a good reason. Both privacy and safety are major concerns when young students participate in an online community. While my fourth graders are learning digital citizenship concepts, we need a safe space to put our learning into practice. For these reasons, I’ve created a sheltered blogging experience for my students using Google Docs. Our class homepage acts as a directory, linking each student’s blog, so that our writing is easily shared within our safe environment.

Shallow Comments
In order for students to benefit fully from participating in an online learning community, they must learn the purpose for online commenting. Rather than simply commenting “Me too!” or giving shout outs to friends, online commenting can allow students to engage the writer through connections and questions. In order to avoid shallow comments, I’ve taught a series of lessons building upon our peer-feedback skills. We first explored examples of real blogs and their comments and then practiced making strong comments in response to student projects published on our learning hub.

Static vs. Dynamic Environment
I really want engaged learners in our online community. It would be so disappointing for students to lose interest in blogging because they feel like no one is reading or commenting on their blog. For this reason, I’ve taught my students the playground analogy that I read about on Dean Shareski’s blog. He teaches students that in order to make a friend, you must first be a friend. In other words, if students want their peers to read and comment on their blog, they must also read and comment on other blogs. This can lead to a dynamic online environment in which student comments build upon each other, ensuring that every student can remain engaged and connected.  

Next Steps

For the rest of this grading period, I plan to take time each week to teach mini lessons about blogging and self reflection while also applying digital citizenship principles that we have learned. My main goals with this project are to foster a love for writing, deeply process learning tasks while and develop a positive classroom community. I think we are off to a great start!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Looking Back and Planning Ahead

Quarter One Recap

Over the summer, I spent some time reflecting about the changes I wanted to make to my instructional practices this school year. I set two very large goals. First, I decided move to a math workshop model for daily math instruction. During our first quarter, we successfully settled into the daily expectations and flow of learning. My co-teacher and I have seen huge student benefits using this model including small group instruction, daily differentiation, and greater student motivation. With teaching about six or seven students at a time, we also have a much clearer understanding of each student’s progress toward mastery. At the end of quarter one, we started moving toward blended learning by incorporating technology into our workshop. We are excited to move forward with our workshop model next grading period.

My second large goal for this year is to incorporate at least one student project inspired by my graduate school learning each grading period. During the first quarter, my students used their Chromebooks to record video book talks and provide peer feedback as a performance assessment for our first language arts unit. My students learned important language concepts and technology skills while boosting their confidence when publishing work online.

Quarter Two Projects

There are two projects that I think my students are ready to take on this grading period that I’m pretty excited about!

Visual Literacy and Graphic Novels

I recently had a Donor’s Choose grant funded by some very generous donors to supply my class with sets of graphic novels. I learned all about the importance of visual literacy for our 21st century students this summer. I studied the benefits of graphic novels in teaching visual literacy, and now I plan to apply those concepts during small group instruction.

Some educators and parents are probably skeptical about using graphic novels and comics to teach reading skills and concepts. I used to agree with the stigma that comics and graphic novels aren’t “real reading” because I thought you need lots of text in order to engage in deep comprehension and improve reading skills. I’ve learned, though, that graphic novels are actually quite sophisticated. They require readers to practice abstract skills like making inferences, understanding symbolism and metaphors, and using point of view. What better way to engage reluctant readers to analyze text for deeper meaning?

Graphic novels also provide our students with practical and motivating ways to interpret information in different ways than traditional prose. More and more, student are acquiring information on the internet through videos, graphic depictions, models, and interactive learning modules. Learning to analyze and understand images through reading graphic novels is both relevant and beneficial for our digital learners.

If you’re interested in reading more about using graphic novels in your reading instruction, I recommend these two quick resources: NCTE’s Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom, and Scholastic's Comic Books.  

Student Blogging

There are so many potential learning benefits with student blogging. Not only can student create content for an authentic audience, they also have ownership and purpose for their writing. This quarter, I am having my students complete a weekly blog post to reflect on their learning for the week. They can post about anything they learn about as a way of processing their learning and setting goals for the following week. Classmates can comment and make connections to their peers, and parents can track their student’s weekly reflections and support their learning at home.

I have chosen to have student blogs center around reflection because I think it is a valuable learning task that is currently lacking in my classroom. Mindshift’s writing, What Meaningful Reflection On Student Work Can Do for Learning, says that in order for reflection to be meaningful, it must be metacognitive, applicable, and shared with others. I think it will take time to coach my students toward this type of reflection and away from simple summarization, but I think it will be incredibly beneficial for their learning.