Playlists: competency-based learning

I’ve tried 3 units (2 with 6th and 1 with 8th) based around the idea of competency-based learning. It’s going well! I’m going to be starting another one with the 8th graders after state testing.

It works like this: I first break down the standards in each unit. Then, I break down those standards into specific skills and see if any of those skills can be grouped together. Each group (or skill that can’t be grouped) becomes a playlist.

For each playlist, I then develop learning activities for background knowledge, formative assessments/activities, a competency-based summative assessment, and extension activities. Then I push the playlist out to students.

For example, when we were learning about nonfiction this last week in 6th grade, one group of skills was about argument structure and evidence in autobiographies/biographies/memoirs. The playlist was centered around a few videos (I had to make one), them picking one formative assessment to do, a 10-question self-grading google form quiz, and a couple of games that helped them learn more about argument. You can check out the playlist here.

The key to these playlists is two-fold: choice and mastery. The more choice the better. For mastery, if they don’t get it the first time on the quiz, they go back, do another activity, and take the quiz again.

This playlist isn’t one of the best ones I’ve made. I spent way more time making playlists for my unit I did this with for 8th graders. For those playlists they had so much choice! Check one out here. Choice on how to learn the background knowledge, choice on what formative activities to do (individual, partner, whole class), and more choice on extension activities. This takes a lot of preparation time, however. When making that unit, I think I counted that I created around 50 activities and 10 quizzes.

Here are the positives that I’ve found:

  • Students get to choose what to do
  • Students can pick how they want to learn
  • Students, if they don’t get mastery the first time, have an opportunity to go back, learn what they didn’t at first, and then prove mastery.
  • I can work one-on-one or in small groups with students much more often and in a more targeted manner to teach very specific standards/skills

Here are the negatives that I’ve found:

  • It takes a TON of time and creativity from the teacher side to create a good playlist with lots of choice
  • There are still the same “predictable” disengaged students, although I’ve found that there are fewer with playlists than with traditional teaching
  • It is quite a bit of paperwork/keeping track of scores

Paper airplanes and Podcasts: demonstration writing

Today we had our intro to our demonstration writing unit. In this unit, students will be writing and recording a podcast that will give directions for someone to create something. Students will be creating something from our classroom makerspace, then other students will listen to the podcast and try to follow the directions in order to make the same product.

This should be really fun. Students are getting to use their creativity in the makerspace. They are practicing communication skills by having to write and then record clear directions. They are also learning how to make and share podcasts. We’ll be using for the recording aspect and then just Google Classroom for sharing them.

As our intro for the unit today, students made paper airplanes and tried to write directions for other students to make the same airplane. These were the steps:

  • Students made their own airplane
  • They then wrote out directions for how to make the airplane
  • In pairs, students were only allowed to read the exact directions that they had written while another student tried to follow the directions and make the airplanes
  • Everyone then reflected and fixed their directions

Of course, there were many failures and many iterations of directions. We also ended the class period by having a contest to see whose airplane flew the farthest. It was a very fun day! Students really learned some valuable lessons about specificity, time order, as well as iteration and how failure can be helpful for success.


Update: End of the unit

We’ve had such a great time with this unit. Here were the rest of the steps we went through.

  1. Students made something from the makerspace. They kept notes while they were making the project. We had some awesome things made out of everything.
  2. Students then wrote scripts for their podcasts in a Google Doc. We emphasized that they were making their own show. Kids really brought their personalities into it and had so much fun.
  3. We then had a recording day. Students used two websites, and Audioboom to record the podcasts.
  4. After all the podcasts were recorded, students listened to at least 3 other podcasts and gave feedback to those peers using email. Students really enjoyed sending each other emails and receiving feedback that way.
  5. The next day was students actually creating at least one other project based on the podcasts. Students sent email feedback this time through email as well. They had so much fun and really learned how difficult the process could be.
  6. Lastly, students self-reflected in a rubric on Google Sheets.


Creating Interactive Content from Dusty Old Textbooks

So, I teach at a school with shared curriculum. Overall I really enjoy what I teach. However, the 6th grade hasn’t been 1:1 so sometimes there are great opportunities for improving the lessons via tech.

This last unit was a unit which covered teaching elements of fiction through short stories covering the topic of bullying. The stories themselves were great, but all the unit had was the textbook.

I took this as an opportunity to improve, and used DocentEDU to make the stories interactive and differentiated. I also added a nonfiction article dealing with the very relevant and timely topic of the election.

I made a lesson of this article from the AP about bullying speech in the election into an interactive lesson. It includes vocabulary, embedded questions, and live-updating class discussions. My students really enjoyed this lesson and the conversation was very lively.

Next, I made a lesson of the short story from the unit, “Tuesday of the Other June.” This text now included an audio book for differentiation for students of different reading levels and language abilities. It also included lively full-class discussions as well as embedded and interactive vocabulary. Finally, it also included embedded questions, allowing my students to more easily think on a higher-level and use textual evidence for their answers. I also had students interact with and annotate the text to show their understanding of the essential question of the unit.

None of these activities would have been possible in a textbook. My students enjoyed these lessons, I enjoyed the lessons, and I know that they learned more than they would have otherwise in the traditional manner.

Makerspace for Service Learning: Using Design Thinking to Impact the World

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Since my last time having a makerspace in my classroom, I’ve done some reflecting and planning and tweaking. One of my goals was to integrate the makerspace as a summative assessment in a traditional unit. I had that chance this week.

I teach at an International Baccalaureate school, and as part of that curriculum we encourage our students to engage in service learning. My grade level and content area was assigned a unit dealing with responding to bullying. The unit itself (which I didn’t help create) was pretty blah. There were stories to read from textbooks and just a project at the end which pretty much was a poster. I decided to spice it up with the makerspace. (I also used technology to make the stories much better, but I write about that in another post.)

So, I decided that a makerspace as our summative assessment/service learning creation would be awesome. Instead of just a poster as a choice, I engaged my students in design thinking where the end goal was to create something that would make maximum impact in our school community in regards to responding to and preventing bullying.

I started with explaining the design thinking process to them, and then we got started. Using a Google Presentation, we went through the first 3 stages of the process. They then wrote quick proposals for their creation idea. I approved proposals individually, and then they could start.

We’ve now just finished the creation and iteration stages. We only had 2 days in which to create, get feedback, and iterate. I wish we would have had more time. Students did have to make prototypes or rough drafts and receive feedback from other classmates. I also emphasized to students throughout the process that their job was to make sure every decision they made, including materials and design and even where they posted their products, were to be made following the problem they were trying to solve. Whenever students asked me what to do, I just responded with another question: “What would make maximum impact on your audience to solve your problem?”

We will be reflecting on the whole process tomorrow. I hope that, during this reflection, they will be able to think of better ways to design their solution and perhaps even some students will do this on their own. I wish we had more time to then actually iterate their ideas in class. However, as a public school, we must carry on and keep going in order to “finish” with all the assigned units we must get through. : (

Overall, this was such a great 3 days of class. Students created awesome things like:

  • anti-bullying bookmarks to hand out in the library
  • anti-bullying flags to hang up around school
  • 3-D posters to hang up in the commons
  • Jewelry to hand out to students who are standing up to bullying

I really think that this was a great way for students to learn more autonomy as well. So many times my students want step-by-step directions and feel so uncomfortable with almost any type of autonomy. Answering all their questions with a question and giving them almost complete freedom was such an amazing way for them to learn to be in control of their own learning. It was also a great way to teach the skills of how to target an audience.

Lastly, I really feel that the vast majority of my students enjoyed feeling like they were making an impact in their school community. Middle School can be such a bummer sometimes, and make kids feel so powerless. I think that this service learning project helped them empathize with others and feel like they have some real impact on the world.

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Blended learning for a whole unit. Docs, slides, and videos

My 6th graders are currently working on a marketing campaign that aligns with the hashtag on social media for the Minnesota Department of Tourism: #onlyinMN. Students each picked a place or event which they thought was awesome. They’ve researched and now created 3 products as part of the campaign: a pop-up ad (in the style of a brochure), a TV commercial, and a tweet. They are now on to preparing their presentations in which they are pretending the class is the board of directors for their place/event and they have to persuade them to purchase their campaign for the upcoming season.

I’ve done this whole unit with just 2 google docs that have step-by-step directions and linked videos, templates, docs, and rubrics. By doing this, each of my students has been able to work at their own pace. I have an end-date that is the same for everyone, but teaching this in a blended way has allowed for many awesome things:

  • Fast students to go ahead of their peers
  • Slow students to get help from me when they need it
  • Students who were sick to work from home and not feel as stressed out when they return
  • Me to have individual one-on-one time with every student to help them make their work great
  • Students to revise when they need to, instead of feeling ahead of behind the class
  • Students

I was very proud of them throughout this unit because students also learned and were so successful with many tech tools and tricks. I really attribute this to the blended learning model. Instead of modeling the tech tool or trick to the whole class at the same time, students could watch a video model when needed.

If teaching to the whole class at once then these negative things can occur:

  • Students will not get a chance to re-watch if they don’t understand
  • Students who already know the skill are forced to waste time
  • Students who aren’t ready for that skill don’t necessarily understand
  • Students may not need that skill for a while and will not have a chance to immediately apply their learning

If using blended learning, then these positive things can occur:

  • Students can re-watch again and again and again to master the skill
  • Students who already know the skill can skip that part of the lesson, or simply review quickly
  • Students can watch and learn the skill when they actually need it
  • Students can immediately apply their learning since they are watching when they need it

The tech skills that my students learned throughout the unit were as follows. I was so proud of them! (And keep in mind these are 6th graders who aren’t 1:1!)

  • Creating citations with Easy Bib google docs add-on
  • How to change the page size of a Google presentation
  • How to manipulate photos in a slide
  • The research tab
  • Sharing levels on google products
  • How to create a hyperlink
  • Publishing Google products to the web
  • Creating shortened links
  • Creating a commercial using Animoto

If you’re interested in seeing the students’ pop-up ads, they are linked here and here. I will be tweeting out their commercials and tweets from our classroom Twitter account, @HogensHeroes, soon.

Throwing Caution to the Wind: Community Members in the Classroom

Sometimes you just have to dive in head first, no matter what hesitations or worries you might have. Sometimes people ask me how I accomplish so much or learn so much. I would say that it comes from one simple thing: I’m not afraid of trying new things, failing, and then learning from those mistakes. If I have an idea that I think would be awesome for my students, I try it. It benefits no one to sit and hem and haw over whether something might flop or be great. You’ll never know unless you try.

Based on that mentality, I’ve tried out something this year that is going really well (for the most part–there are always mistakes) this year: inviting as many community members as possible into my classroom.

One of the goals that our building admin has set for every teacher is that they have one community member visit their classroom sometime during the school year. So far, because of diving in head first, I’ve had 12 community members visit my classroom and will actually have 3 more visiting in the next two weeks!

Let’s see who and what I’ve had happen in my classroom, and how diving in headfirst has helped!

  • Local businessman in charge of a local community action project
    • I had students writing persuasive essays about local social justice issues. Students couldn’t find the info online they needed, so we got on my iPhone on speaker and called the local Chamber of Commerce who put us in touch with someone who came into school the next day and was interviewed by my students.
  • Local entreprenuer
    • Students were beginning an entreprenuer project. I contacted a list serve of which I’m a part from my edtech company. A local entreprenuer came in and talked about basic design principles which helped my students make awesome advertisments for their products!
  • Owner of a PR firm
    • As part of the same list serve email, the owner of a local PR firm skyped with all my classes to talk about how to craft their advertising messages for the projects. He even coordinated with a nationally-published education blog for their work to be published online!
  • Graphic designer
    • From the same PR firm as above, she helped students with their logos. She even gave specific mentoring feedback to groups throughout their projects!
  • Local business professionals
    • When my students presented their final entreprenuership and advertising projects, I got 8 separate business professionals ranging from advertisers to local newspaper employees to Rotary club members to come and be guest judges. It was very powerful!
  • PBS Documentarian and social justice musician
    • We will have an assembly for all 8th graders in our whole town to hear and learn from this couple. We are currently studying documentaries in all 8th grade classes, and they are coming this next week to present to all the 8th graders!
  • Journalist who helped cover the Steven Avery trial
    • As I wrote about in another post, we are examing the film-making techniques of “Making a Murderer.” I actually got in touch with a journalist who covered the trial! He agreed to come to class. We’re so excited!

I could go on and on about how awesome it has been for my students to have these guests. And, I’ll just keep on diving head first and making random phone calls and sending random emails and random tweets as much as I can to get even more people to come in and help my students learn.

Like I said, although there have definitely been some things that I’d like to change in the future (and I’ve been learning from guest to guest), I won’t stop throwing caution to the wind.