A Twist on Traditional Conference Style Learning

I wrote a post earlier in which I explained a conference our school recently hosted called Lausanne Learning Institute of the Southwest. A conference in which we offered a day of general sessions and a day in which fishbowl sessions occurred on our campus with our students. To read that post, click here.

Day 1 of the conference offered a new twist on conference style learning. I have attended many conferences/workshops in the past that have ranged from sit-and-get to general sessions that actively engage and involve the audience. However, I have never attended, nor have I actually heard of, a conference offering a fishbowl type setting in which students are taught in front of your very eyes.

What did the fishbowl day look like?

  • 20 educators sat around the perimeter of the room observing while one teacher from various schools chose a topic and taught live in front of the observing teachers
  • Teachers from 53 different schools proposed fishbowl topics 
  • Teachers let us know what grade level they needed, and what prior knowledge the students needed to have before teaching them
  • Fishbowl sessions lasted 45 minutes followed by a 45 minute debrief
  • 4 fishbowl sessions were offered throughout the day 
  • Fishbowl session topics included: 
According to the immediate feedback we received from our participants, the fishbowls were a huge success. Teachers mentioned that rarely do we get to see ideas in action, so this was an interesting way to run a conference. Educators mentioned that they loved the fact that they could see a lesson in action and then were given time to debrief, share other ideas, or ask questions amongst a group of fellow educators. The feedback we received from the students included quotes such as:
  • “Being taught by a new teacher, was weird and cool all at the same time! You didn’t know what to expect.” 
  • “Learning how to use lockboxes was so much more fun than a worksheet. We used math to open the lockboxes instead of just writing our answers down on paper. The teacher who taught the lesson was fun because he not only taught us the lesson, but he connected with us on rap music.” 
  • “I thought it was going to be hard to be taught by someone we didn’t know, but it ended up being a fun experience.”
Planning for a fishbowl setting during a conference was no easy task. We asked the presenters for their topic, a brief description of what will be occurring during the session, grade level, and prior knowledge in order to create the schedule for the day. The challenge, on top of the fact that it was a “normal” day of school with our normal 900 or so people on campus, was that we were adding 200 additional people to a flexible schedule. We ended up silencing all bells for the day and had someone announce on the loud speakers when to rotate. Although the schedule was an ever changing document that took months to create, it ended up being executed flawlessly. 
Participants reflected upon the fact that they enjoyed the fishbowl setting, topic selections, and flow of the schedule. Based upon feedback from participants as well as our own observations, we plan to make some minor adjustments next year, such as:
  • Offer less time during the debriefing periods which allows for more time to network casually
  • Ensure there are topics offered for all divisions as well as disciplines
  • Continue to focus on hands-on inquiry as well as Makerspaces
  • Offer general sessions on tech integration
Some feedback from our participants: 

Professional Development Can Be Hands-On?

When you think of professional development, what do you picture? A faculty meeting that lasts an hour in which you mostly discuss logistics? A sit-and-get conference? During workshops, conferences, meetings, whatever you would like to call it, we spend time discussing pedagogy, cutting edge lessons, engagement and so on, but ironically many times these gatherings are just the opposite of what we are encouraging our educators to do. Educators discuss how to make classrooms engaging, hands-on, real-world, but we do not model that same setting during our meetings. 
On February 23 and 24, our school partnered with Lausanne Learning Institute located in Memphis, TN, to host the first annual Lausanne Learning Institute of the Southwest (LLISW) in which we promoted a conference unlike any other. At the conference, 
   53 schools were represented
   93 sessions were offered (including fishbowl sessions and general sessions)
   over 275 educators attended
Session topics varied from Makerspace, to authenticity in math classes, to connecting a Spanish and French class for verb study, coding, empathy lessons and much more. Sessions were offered for all grade levels from Early Childhood to Upper School classes and the focus of the conference was authentic, innovative practices that allow professional development to be truly authentic – and this conference was just that, authentic.
On Thursday, we offered 4 fishbowl sessions with 9-12 fishbowl options per session time. (I will be sharing the fishbowl details in a later blogpost.)
After months and months of planning, it was incredible to watch the conference unfold. With having never attended a fishbowl type conference, we didn’t 100% know what to expect and were forced the plan the conference in our own terms. To say the conference was a huge success, in my humble opinion, is putting it lightly. This was the first conference I have ever attended where students were involved in professional development and that very factor is what changed the environment. The lessons were real. Educators were able to not only observe a lesson being taught instead of simply talking about it, but they were also given time to debrief, ask follow-up questions, pose ideas, and network with like-minded educators. Our campus was vibrant with life. Happy, engaged kids who were eager to learn from complete strangers. Energized educators who were chomping at the bit to learn new, innovative ideas to steal and take back to their own classrooms. 
After a long weekend filled with many naps in order to attempt to recover from the exhaustion that comes with hosting 275 educators along with 850 students, came reflection. Reflection about why this conference was unlike many others, why we received such positive feedback, and how we can improve for next year’s conference. After thinking it over for a few days, there are 3 distinct reasons that I believe this conference was so successful.
1  The little things make a difference. According to the verbal feedback we heard from our visiting educators, they were overly impressed with our hospitality. They noticed the student ambassadors we had at each and every door greeting them with a smile and directing them to wherever they were headed. They noticed the parent volunteers at the check-in stations, the drinks and snacks that were offered at every division, the energetic music that was played around campus and during lunch, the a cappella choir that sang during our opening session, and our eager students. 
2  The fishbowl experience was unlike any other. Teachers appreciated the fact that they could observe real-life teaching and then debrief the successes of the fishbowl settings and share pedagogy amongst like-minded educators.
3  There was a session for everyone. Many times you attend conferences in which the session topics are heavily directed to math, history, tech, and so on. LLISW offered sessions for Early Childhood teachers to Upper School teachers, makerspace teachers to fine arts teachers, as well as administrators, and everything in between.

Join us next year on February 22-23, 2018 for a hands-on, authentic conference! We are looking for other passionate, dynamic teachers to attend, as well as present. Check out http://llisouthwest.com for more details. 

    One Schools Journey to Becoming Apple Teacher Certified

    Earlier this year, our Director of Modern Learning pondered the idea of challenging our middle school teachers with becoming Apple Teacher certified since all students in grades 5 – 8 have iPad Pros. When we began this journey we started out by walking through the certification process as a tech and administration team to see if the journey and time put into becoming certified would be worth it for our teachers. After earning our certification it became apparent that yes, it was definitely worth the effort to become certified and that we saw great value in becoming Apple Teacher certified. In order to become certified, one must earn eight badges throughout the process. The badges are: iPad overview, Pages, Keynote, iMovie, Garageband, Numbers, Productivity and Creativity. The best part? In order to earn your badge, you must answer four of the five questions correctly per badge, BUT if you fail, you can retake each quiz as many times as necessary. Apple provides starter guide iBooks for each topic that include great graphics, tutorials, step-by-step directions, and my favorite part – suggestions on how to use the app/topic within a classroom. When we launched the idea to the teachers, our idea was that the teachers would read the starter guide that correlates with each badge, then earn their badge by taking the five question quiz, and repeat until all eight badges were earned resulting in becoming Apple Teacher certified.

    What did we consider before we launched the process?

    • Time
    • A reward
    • Education/training
    • Support
    We knew that this was a reachable goal for our teachers, but we also knew that this process would be tedious and we wanted a way to “reward” or “thank” them for their hard-work. We also quickly realized that this is an incredibly beneficial professional development opportunity that is completely free. Because the certification is completely free, but our teachers will be spending a good amount of their own time walking through the process, we came up with two ways to reward them. We concluded that if we were to send them to a day of training it would cost us around $250 or so for the workshop itself and then the cost of a substitute teacher. Therefore, we came up with what we thought was a great reward. Once a teacher becomes officially Apple Teacher certified, he/she will earn an extra personal day off work along with $100 gift card as long as the certification was earned before the end of April. When we launched the program to the teachers, they were pumped to find out the reward for earning their certification. Our hope was that at least half of the teachers would take us up on this offer and I am ecstatic to say that every single middle school teacher has joined the journey. Thus far, and it’s only January, 16 out of 26 teachers are officially certified and the others are well on their way.
    We quickly realized that we needed to offer support for the teachers as they walk through the training process which is where I came in. Every other week I offer Tech Talks that pertain to one of the eight badges that are earned throughout the certification process. During that 20-30 minute Tech Talk, we focus on one of the badges and quickly skim through the starter guide associated with each badge. We practice skills, answer questions, and discuss how we could see this particular app/skill being utilized within their classroom or someone else’s classroom. I offer a before school time and a during lunch time in order to hopefully be able to meet with as many teachers as possible. Of course if that time doesn’t work, I will meet with them individually during their planning periods. 
    We also created a board in the teacher’s workroom. Here is a picture of the board at the beginning of the process: 

    When you earn a badge, Apple gives you a gold star so we decided that we would mimic that on our board and each time a teacher would earn a badge, they would earn their star on the board. The purpose of the board is not only to act as a scoreboard (a little healthy competition never killed anyone, right?), but more importantly to serve as a resource. Our mindset was that if you were about to use Pages in your classroom with your students, but you hadn’t yet earned your badge nor did you feel comfortable with the app, the board would lead you to somehow who has earned their badge and you could seek them out for advice. Or, if you were struggling to learn/earn a certain badge, you could turn to the board to find someone who has mastered that skill.
    Favorite outcomes:
    Hearing teachers say, “Man! I wish I would have known that this app functioned that way last semester! It would have been perfect for a project I was working on!” Or getting an email that says, “Would you mind looking over this project I came up with? I am planning to use the knowledge that I gathered after earning two different badges.” Or, watching teachers feel the frustration of learning something new. That sounds mean, doesn’t it? I don’t mean that I enjoy watching them struggle, or that I enjoy struggling myself, but that very struggle puts us in the seat of being a student and reminds us the challenges, frustrations and fears our students face on a daily basis. A great way to connect with that kid who is struggling with doing something new down the road. 
    I am so proud of the fact that all of our teachers have agreed to take this risk and join our journey, and I can’t wait to see how the knowledge they acquire through this process shows through within their classrooms.

    Learning How to Unlearn

    What does it mean to unlearn how to learn? Seyi Fabode on The Huffington Post explains the following:

    So what is unlearning? It is to let go of the things which you have learned. A visual works here. Take a cup, learning represents filling up the cup and unlearning would represent emptying the cup. You empty the cup and fill it up again. You might empty the cup of water and fill it up with a nice nutrient laden smoothie. Same cup, different drink. Continue the loop.

    Our students truly have answers at their fingertips whenever they need them. Problem solving, thinking, learning, looks very different today than it did a decade or two ago. With that in mind, teaching must look differently today. Students must learn how to “empty their cups and fill them up again” with different knowledge. 
    Close your eyes and invasion a typical, traditional history classroom setting. Do you picture students in rows “listening” to the teacher as he/she lectures? Do you picture students with their textbooks open, mouths closed waiting to here, “This will be on your test”? 
    Many students have become masters at school. What do I mean by that? Many students have learned how to learn; they’ve learned how to play the game. “Let me wait until I get the study guide, memorize the heck out of the study guide, take the test, repeat.” Those very same students are the ones that need to truly learn, unlearn and relearn. They need to be the ones that are pushed outside of their comfort zones, given a chance to curate their knowledge and lead discussions. This is what led to our amazing journey on recreating the Decision Points Theater. There is this wonderful, simulated theater at the George W. Bush library on the SMU campus.
    • Critical Decisions – Play the role of President and dive into the decision-making process in our interactive Decision Points Theater. Hear from presidential advisers and voice how you would act as President when faced with major crises such as Hurricane Katrina or the troop surge in Iraq.
    Click here to view one of the Decision Points in order to better understand what took place.
    After visiting the theater, a few teachers and I had the idea to recreate the same idea with our students. Students were learning about the American Revolution and Patriots and Loyalists. Instead of simply having the students read the textbook, complete a few small activities, and take a test, we decided to create our own Decision Points Theater first, which would then lead to the students creating their own Decision Points Theater in the spring. We pulled in 5 teachers for help: a newscaster, a patriot, a loyalist, and two reporters. We used Touchcast to put our video together which argued why someone should be a patriot/loyalist. The students got a big kick out of the experience because they saw their teachers acting (insert: making fools of themselves). After they watched the 6 minute Decision Points video, the students were asked to vote using Socrative on whether they would have been a Patriot/Loyalist. Our intended outcome was to discuss Patriots/Loyalists and the pros and cons to both sides. Our true outcome was just that, plus discussing the fact that the president must make decisions on a regular basis. We discussed that he doesn’t simply make a decision alone. He uses his own judgement along with many many other advisors facts and opinions. Stay tuned in the spring when we have the students creating the Decision Points Theater. I am certain their creations will be tenfold better than our creation. 

    Cited sources:

    Dialogue Journals Deepen Student-Teacher Relationships

    In August, I challenged myself with finding more and more ways to encourage my students to find their voices as they develop and share their passions. I came across a Cult of Pedagogy podcast titled, “How Dialogue Journals Build Teacher-Student Relationships.” You can read the article and listen to Jennifer Gonzalez’s podcast here. Gonzalez interviews Liz Galarza who uses dialogue journals in her classroom.

    We spend 5 days per week with our students, but how well do we know them and how well do they know us?

    What are dialogue journals according to Liz Galarza?

    • Dialogue journals are ongoing written conversations between a teacher and a student in the form of a letter
    • a written conversation as opposed to an oral conversation
    • usually finds complaints and questions in dialogue journals which are missing in normal classroom discourse and conversation
    • students choose the topics of conversations which allows them to share their passions or questions
    • teacher writes the first entry in every journal that is personalized to each student and then asks them to respond
    • teacher models the length, tone, format…
    What happens if the conversation falls flat or students haven’t bought in to the journals?
    • she usually responds with, “This is a place where you can talk about anything. What do you want to talk about? Teach me something.” 
      • tends to empower students
    • goes back to original “all about me” sheet and starts to ask questions about information on all about me sheet
    • accepts one sentence and she responds in a small amount; realized through research that if she responds with too many sentences, student feels overwhelmed and thinks either, “I can’t write that much or I don’t want to”
      • realized not to ask too many questions because it puts teacher in authoritative role so tries to get them to ask the questions 
      • by disclosing information about her own life (not in question form) she realizes that it opens the door for them to feel comfortable and share
      • the more real the kids see her, the better the relationship will be and the more they see themselves as important people
    Where do you store the journals?
    • trays in classroom labeled with periods
    • turn in on rotating basis so she doesn’t get all in one day
    What happens if they write about something that needs to be discussed with an administrator or counselor?
    • she explains at beginning of process that she will come to student first before going to admin
      • explains that many students are writing it for that reason – a cry for help
    How do you grade the journals?
    • no grade for content, grammatical errors…
    • journal is for relationship purposes
    • if they spell a word wrong/write something grammatically incorrect, she will respond with the same word or grammar to model how to use it correctly and hope they see her usage
    • only grade = them handing it in (completion grade)
      • the more you put a grade on something, the less empowered the student feels (very interesting comment and point she makes here)
      • the more a teacher requires something, the less empowered a student feels so next year she is thinking of not grading at all and not making it mandatory 
    What benefits/affects/impacts has Mrs. Galarza experienced due to dialogue journals? Why should teachers try this?
    • become better writers overtime by writing in these journals
    • students are looking for an authentic adult to hear them and converse with them
    • mentor text 
    • closer to speech than other writing styles which is easier for lower leveled students
    • teach a skill within journal (Example- highlighting a sentence and saying, “You could use a semi colon here instead of a period.) as long as they are going to be receptive
    • leads to a class grammar mini lesson if notices many students are misspelling or misusing same thing over and over
    • a way to collect data from students 
    • gain insight into their thinking and feelings (for example- a grandmother just passed away)
    • journal is all about dialogue and differentiation 
    What if I am a non-English teacher? Are journals worth incorporating?
    • math teacher- base on math questions; a little more prompted
      • example) write in journal something you liked, understood, didn’t understand, want to review with you
    • believes it could work in any classroom/discipline
    Who remembers the movie, “Dangerous Minds?” After listening to the podcast and reflecting upon what Mrs. Galarza discussed, I immediately thought of the movie “Dangerous Minds” in which the teacher asks the students to write in journals. At first, the students are incredibly apprehensive and have not bought in to the idea of the journals. However, their mood and mindset quickly shifts and her unsuccessful classroom quickly becomes a learner-centered classroom with student buy in. I attribute much of her success as a teacher on the investment she made to get to know her students. 
    Upon reflecting, what did I take away from this podcast?
    • Do I spend my time checking in with my students? Do I need to invest more time on the relationship aspect? More time on giving them an empowered voice? 
    • kids move from elementary to middle school and philosophy changes; middle school teachers are teachers of content, of transmission
      • elementary teacher’s philosophy is that you are teaching a child over teaching content
    • could these lead to connections? (If a student shows interest in geography, could you connect them with an expert to deepen learning?)
    • Galarza explained, the way in which we empower our students or give up our own control, is by giving them the power to have valuable things to say 

    The Value of Focusing on the Process Rather than the Product

    “Is this for a grade?” Does that question make anyone else’s skin crawl like it does mine? I tend to respond with, “Well, does it matter? Shouldn’t we put the same amount of effort and time into everything we do no matter if it is for a grade or not?” I realized why our student’s ask that question CONSTANTLY. To put it simply, we, as a society, focus on product over process. We focus on the grade and how to earn that grade as opposed to focusing on the learning that occurs throughout the process. We should be focusing on things like, “Did we allow room for failure and resolution to occur? Did we allow time to test out their presentation in order to allow room for editing and growth? Did we provide time for teaching the soft skills?” We should be asking ourselves, “Did my students realize the importance of being a part of a team and sharing roles equally?” Now, don’t get me wrong, the product is an important piece of the puzzle and usually what the rest of the world sees. But, sometimes I focus so much on the product, that I miss the small learning moments that are occurring right in front of my eyes.

    I was asked by one of our amazing 5th grade English teachers at our school to partner with her and create a cross-divisional project between our lower school and 5th grade students. Last week, our 6th-8th grade students were gone most of the week on overnight class trips which left our 5th graders at school, all alone. Womp womp! The 5th grade teacher wanted to expose her students to a project that would not only help tie two of our divisions together, but also put the 5th graders in the driver seat of their learning and truly hit on a lot of those soft skills that are sometimes, unfortunately, missed. Her idea was to ask the lower school teacher’s for a topic that our 5th graders could teach to their 1st-4th grade students. The 5th graders would spend 2 days creating the lesson and the 3rd day presenting the lesson to the lower school students. Man were we exhausted after those 3 days! What most people saw was the end product – the 5th graders’ messy presentations that were delivered to the lower school students. What they missed was seeing the learning and failure that took place in the classrooms over those 2 days as they prepared to be the teachers. The presentations were truly just that – messy. There were many hiccups during the actual presentations themselves- technology wasn’t working in some cases, teammates weren’t getting along during the presentation, the facts were missing, grammatical errors… After having the students reflect on the process daily, the other teacher and I quickly started to see the huge benefits of the project. Students were having to deal with conflict resolution, choosing roles, finding a way to successfully collaborate, create and execute.

    One of my favorite outcomes of this process was the growth that I saw from a former student, let’s call him Joe, whom I taught the previous year in 4th grade. Joe was diagnosed with ADHD, has a very difficult time collaborating with others, and even has some anger challenges. As Joe and I entered the 2nd grade art classroom in preparation for him and his group to present, I was not expecting to see and experience what occurred. Joe, a normally hyperactive, challenging student, was exceptional. Joe was helping a 2nd grader draw a sketch of a horse.
    Joe: “Now, what color are the horse’s legs towards the top?”
    Student: “Umm looks like a dark brown.”
    Joe: “Great! Now pick up the color brown and lightly shade the horse’s leg. Now, what color do the horse’s legs become as they get closer to the hooves?”
    Student: “Kinda a light brown color?”
    Joe: “Yes, and how are we going to make his legs lighter brown if we only have one color brown?”
    Student: “Hmm maybe we could lightly shade with the brown and then lightly color over the brown with the white?”
    Joe: “Yes! You’re doing a great job. I can tell that your horse is going to be great because you are putting a lot of effort into it!”

    A normally unfocused, challenging student acted as the perfect, encouraging mentor to a younger student all because of this project.

    Other outcomes of this project:

    • failure (Student’s realized by testing out their original plans that certain plans were not going to work and failure was okay. They had to figure out a plan b since plan a didn’t work. For example, one group created a quizlet that they planned to use with the lower school students and when they were teaching, the quizlet live feature, which is what they wanted to use, would not work. They realized quizlet live is only a feature that teachers can use and spur of the moment had to create a plan.) Too often we don’t see the value in allowing our students to fail and want to save them every chance we get.
    • the power of reflection (I learned by observing the 5th grade teacher guide the student’s through a series of reflection that I must pencil in time throughout a project, not just at the end, for my students to reflect. Reflection allows for growth.)
    • collaboration (The 5th grade teacher did an amazing job of not simply telling them the outcome of the project. She started out explaining the project as a whole, but then placed mini lessons every hour or so to teach specific skills. For example, they had to take part in brain teasers and riddles in order to learn how to work together as a group. Too often teachers say, “I want you to create a presentation to teach your audience about Veteran’s Day. Go!” But they don’t take the time to explicitly teach creativity, teamwork, leadership, listening, reflection, affective communication skills…) 
    The reason this project was so successful, even though the products were messy, was because of the organization, time, and reflection that the 5th grade teacher implemented. She took the time to explicitly teach the soft skills, allow room for failure, problem solving and reflection time.  The students have already begged for another project similar to this one. 

    Canva in a Writing Class

    A colleague of mine came to me seeking ideas. She teaches our 5th graders Fundamental Writing and in the past had her students come up with a list of life lessons that they have learned thus far, create a presentation, and present their life lessons to their classmates. However, this year she didn’t see time in her schedule to complete this entire project, but still wanted the students to create something on a smaller scale. When she came to me, our original plan was to use Adobe Spark Post, but the age restrictions would not allow our students to use the app. Instead, we chose to use an app called Canva.

    Step 1: Students chose a topic that taught them multiple life lessons. For example, “Life Lessons Learned from Dance.”
    Step 2: Students wrote down 7-8 life lessons that they learned from the chosen topic.
    Step 3: Students chose at least 4 of the life lessons to illustrate using Canva.
    Step 4: Students were asked to create a title poster and then at least 4 other posters. Each poster had to have a sentence that describes the life lesson that was learned along with a picture to illustrate the lesson learned.
    Step 5: Students were asked to save the design to their google drive folder.
    Step 6: The teacher created a google doc with each student’s name listed. Students were asked to get the link from their google drive folder that would take you directly to their canva design and paste it in the cell next to their name.
    Step 7: Students were asked to open and view other classmates’ designs. 
    Other ideas on how to use Canva in a classroom setting?
    • Social Studies/History: pretend to be a marketer and design a flyer on Canva persuading people to travel to your colony/state
      • click here for a historical infographic idea
    • Back to school: create a design for “all about me”
    • Language Arts: click here to read about a visual poetry idea