“Don’t count the days, make the days count.” – Muhammad Ali
This can be a challenge in classroom, especially when the number of days left in the school year hits the teens. Summer is right around the corner. A countdown on the wall can act as that daily reminder of how close we are to the prize…summer!
…OR, the countdown can be a reminder of the precious time that we have left together as a group. It can motivate us to cherish each moment and work hard to learn and grow as much as possible in the final days of the school year.
It can be difficult to keep the motivation and engagement high during these final days. Standardized tests and other end of the year assessments add to that challenge. I’ve learned that if I don’t prepare for the final 25 days with a different energy and perspective, I will find myself begging my students to show effort and care until the final bell rings in early June.
One of the most effective strategies I have found success with at this time of year is to use project based learning. (I have found it a great strategy at the beginning and middle of the year as well!). Projects, design challenges, and group work provide a spark of excitement that keeps engagement high even when summer is calling.
I’ve tried out a variety of design thinking/projects over the last couple of years. I liked some more than others, but I would highly recommend that teachers learn more about them and try them too.
• City X – This is a project where students use the design thinking process to create solutions for inhabitants of a city that has been built on another planet. The citizens have problems relating to their food, safety, social lives and more. Students create prototype solutions and ultimately get to 3D print some of their solutions.
• Design a Sport – I LOVE John Spencer & A.J. Juliani’s work in design thinking and project based learning for classrooms. I’ve read their books and subscribe to their blogs. Designing a sport is a unit that I learned from John Spencer's site. Students work in groups to create a sport that other fifth graders would love to play.
• Genius Hour – I’ve used Genius Hour at all times of the school year. If you haven’t heard of it, do an internet search, do some reading, and you will be hooked!
This year I decided to try a project that I hadn’t done with students before. Inspired by the Caine’s Arcade story, my students created a cardboard arcade in our classroom. Watching Caine’s story on YouTube, collecting materials, and building the arcade was a lot of fun. The open ended challenged sparked creativity, teamwork, and innovation. However, by using the design thinking process, the learning was enhanced, the challenge was more authentic, and we still had a ton of fun!
There are a variety of design thinking models that are used by large companies like Apple, IBM, Ford, and more. These models can be applied in cities, at colleges, and yes, in our classrooms! The process we have used in our classroom has 5 phases that are cyclical, but interconnected as well.
I broke our arcade experience into phases, represented by steps in the design thinking process.
This is a very important step in the design process. This is where you put yourselves in the shoes of others and better understand their needs and wants. In this phase our fifth graders created tools to collect data related to creating the ultimate arcade. Students worked in groups to create surveys using Google Forms. They collected data, put it into spreadsheets, and then graphed and shared the results. The shared results were then used by each group to start planning the arcade games.
An important step in design thinking is defining the problem. This definition changed for us slightly after we collected data from peers. Initially the problem/challenge was the “Create arcade games that a child would enjoy the most.” After analyzing the results of the surveys, the challenge became, “Create a fun arcade/carnival game that involves skill, gives you more than one chance to win, and has prizes.”
Ideating has a variety of definitions. In our room it’s a lot like brainstorming, with a few key differences.
• All ideas are recorded. While brainstorming we sometimes judge an idea and decide not to add it to the list. This doesn’t happen while ideating.
• “Crazy” ideas are encouraged. This helps students think of outrageous and outside of the box ideas. It even helps to include bad ideas. Many times a “bad” idea is a simple tweak away from being a new and innovative solution.
• Everyone’s ideas are included. There are many techniques to accomplish this. We used Post-it notes so that each student’s ideas were added to the list.
• The ideas are grounded by the defined problem, but quantity is good. Ideas will be adjusted and refined during group discussion.
Depending on the challenge this phase can look many ways. When students recently designed new coat hooks for our locker room, they printed them and tried them out. The prototypes were very authentic. When we were designing solutions for CityX, the prototypes were made out of Play Dough or other materials in our classroom. With our cardboard arcade, it worked best to sketch and plan the games, but then go ahead and build full sized prototypes. The sketches drawn by groups included dimensions so that they scaled up versions would have the right amount of cardboard.
Testing is the fun part. Especially when arcade games are the challenge! Our fifth graders invited their kindergarten buddies to come in and play the partially finished games. After twenty minutes it was clear that most of the games would be successful, but changes were needed. The next day students started working on changes to their games. One very excited student had ideas for the claw in her game and asked if she could take it home to try them out.
Two weeks later, the second round of prototyping was complete. This iteration included paint, music, and, of course, prizes! We invited three groups of kindergarten students to “Olson’s Arcade” to play the games and win the prizes. It was a great time to celebrate the hard work that went into the creation of the games.
I am very excited to try this activity again next school year. The cross-curricular opportunities are endless. We had just finished a unit on simple machines when we started. I asked students to utilize and identify simple machines in their games. Next year we could do research on the history of arcade and carnival games. I could include a budget component that would incorporate even more authentic math into the project as well.
Make the Days Count
My students and I looked forward to our “Olson’s Arcade” time each day for the last two weeks. Watching math, science, engineering, and design happening in a room full of energetic and engaged fifth graders felt magical to be a part of. This type of work is perfect for any time of the school year, but I am glad that I saved it for the home stretch!
In our classroom, you see #TeamOlson everywhere. It’s on posters, signs, and our lunch basket. It’s on pencils, worksheets, and this website. It is even on students’ wrists (see the picture!). What does it represent?
Each year my students and I work together to team build. We do several activities, especially early in the year, that encourage us to work in groups, problem solve, and, most importantly, laugh together. These joint experiences help build the foundation of our classroom family. Everyone in the classroom shares these experiences that are unique to us.
Throughout the year, we are able to draw on these experiences to continue to instill a sense of pride and belonging.
“Remember when our room was transformed into a tropical island?”
“Remember the day when we turned our classroom upside down to act out a vocabulary word?”
P.J. Fleck, the head football coach of the Minnesota Gophers creates “moments” like these for his football team. He explains that one goal of creating these memorable moments is his effort to ensure that all of his players have had certain experiences, together. My favorite moment was when he awarded his kicker a full scholarship in a pretty cool way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4znQfYy_Ha8
#TeamOlson represents these shared experiences. You will hear students in our classroom refer to something as a “TeamOlson Moment.” These experiences bring our group together, helping us care more authentically for one another.
Each year my students work very hard to show pride. It isn’t a boastful pride or one that has my students comparing themselves to others. The goal of the pride is to show they care about learning, themselves, the classroom, classmates, and others.
Too often I read social media posts that explains everything wrong with today’s youth. Kids are lazy, undisciplined, and don’t care about others. Early on in the year I let my students know that there are people in this world who think these things about kids their age. I challenge them to decide if they think it is true. And if they don’t, which they never do, to spend the rest of their lives proving those people wrong.
We work hard to keep our classroom clean. This makes for a better learning environment, but it also shows respect for the maintenance workers. We try hard to remember to thank people. We write thank you notes, say thank you to bus drivers and cafeteria workers, and even thank each other throughout the day in our classroom.
Each year I do “Passion Projects” with my students. Each student decides what he or she wants to learn about. Every year multiple students choose service projects. Students have created projects and raised money for cancer research, Ronald McDonald House, homeless shelters, pet shelters, and more.
#TeamOlson represents being associated with a group of people who have personal pride and compassion for others.
The end of each school year is always bitter-sweet. We say goodbye to our time together. For my students it is goodbye to their time in elementary school as well. However, we are saying hello to a new adventure, a new chapter of learning. I make it very clear that once a student has spent time in this classroom, he or she is on #TeamOlson for life. That means my classroom and I will ALWAYS be a welcome place. Students will move further away, but I will continue to support them in any way I can. This might be writing a recommendation letter, attending a theater performance, being a listening ear as a student contemplates what major he or she will choose after sophomore year of college.
The support goes both ways. Several past students have volunteered in my classroom over the past couple of years. In a few years I hope to be welcoming back doctors, lawyers, teachers, and others to talk to my students about what led to their successes after leaving here.
#TeamOlson is just a hashtag. It is a brand. But to the students in our classroom it represents the best of our identity. Mistakes? Yes, we (I) make them all of the time. Things are not always perfect in the classroom. However, #TeamOlson represents what we all rally around as a group to ensure that we are the best learners and people that we can be.
”Brands” for our classrooms come in all shapes and sizes. It may be the theme on your door. “We will BEE doing amazing work in 2nd grade this year!” It might be a class mascot. “Johnson’s Jaguars.” It might just be your School and grade level. “Beecher Prep 4th Graders.”
Whatever your style of brand. I urge you to reflect on what you want your brand to represent to you and your students.
Friday was a day of collaboration, discussion, problem solving, smiles, laughter, teaching and learning. One thing that was noticeably missing, however, was the teacher’s voice. I had a discussion with a colleague at 8:54 in the morning and then didn’t speak again until 3:35 in the afternoon when I shouted, “I can talk again! You guys did it!”
This summer I read Learn Like a Pirate, a book written by Paul Solarz. I heard about the book during a #TLAP Twitter discussion on student empowerment. Paul shared a paragraph from his book on the concept of something he called “Silent Day,” a day where the teacher is silent, but the students are not. Intrigued by this idea and inspired by the reviews I read online, I purchased the book and read it cover to cover the day it arrived. (Thank you summer!) I highly recommend this book for any educator that recognizes the importance of student empowerment and a student-led classroom, but is struggling to find practical ways to implement a change. In my own room, I am working hard to find better balance. Simply put, I talk too much. I lead too much. I take more control than is necessary. Silent Day, for me, is a very intentional, thought-out activity that helps shift more of the responsibility for learning to my amazing fifth graders.
On the first day of school, when I was working to “hook” my students by sharing some of the cool and exciting things we would be doing this school year, I ended with an understated “…and we might even go for an entire day without me talking once.” When mentioned next to announcements like Skypes with our favorite authors, 3D design and printing, and an overnight field trip with a high ropes course, a Silent Day doesn’t resonate with most students, which is ok. The seeds were planted.
A month before our Silent Day, I shared with the class during a family meeting that I had an important announcement. I explained the concept of a Silent Day and let them know that I believed that we, as a family, were ready to take something like this on. I also made clear that the most important rule we would follow was that Silent Day would have the same, if not more, learning than any other day. Silent Day would not disrupt learning.
For the next three weeks, each time something would happen in the room that could pose a challenge or problem on Silent Day, we added it to a list on our whiteboard and followed up with a brief discussion. The list included items like:
The list included a few other items as well. We decided as a group that in the event of a safety emergency, Silent Day would immediately end and I would need to step in and do what is needed to help keep students safe. However, every other item on the list had a student solution. Students don’t need permission to use the restroom, as long as they are doing it at the right time (transitions break, etc.). Students can ask a classmate when assignments are due, or for clarification on game directions. Students going down to get breakfast should let me know, but they don’t need my permission. Students have the freedom to choose where they sit during work time. The teacher will get attention by standing at the whiteboard and raising his hand above his head. When students notice, they will make sure that neighbors notice too. The whiteboard is also where any “exit directions” will be written (Envoy).
The thing that is extremely important not to overlook is the fact that all of this “preparation” for Silent Day is actually preparation for the rest of our school year. I shared many of these rules and procedures early in the year, but they seem to finally sink in when we are talking about Silent Day. We also realized that some procedures needed to be added or changed.
The day before silent day, something subtle, yet magical happened. My students were transitioning to our Number Talk for the day, when I briefly stepped out into the hallway for a quick discussion with an administrator. I was standing right outside the doorway for about 90 seconds. When I stepped back in, one of my students had written down the math problem for that day and was leading the talk. I was, and still am, very impressed. The learning continued, even with me out of the room. I don’t know if this would have happened had our discussions over the past couple of weeks not taken place.
A week or so before Silent Day we had a family meeting to discuss what day it should be held on. In the spirit of student empowerment, I decided that I would let the class decide what day would work best. They successfully landed on the day that I had in mind as well, a day without any special service pull-outs and a day where they would have the opportunity to challenge our PE teacher to also participate and not talk during his 30 minutes with our class, which he did successfully!
The day before I went silent, I worked with students to make sure that everyone understood and could communicate the “why” of our Silent Day. I introduced students to the idea of an “elevator speech.” When you are in an elevator with someone, you have about 30 seconds of discussion time before your reach the floor you are traveling to. My students and I worked together to brainstorm a list of details that should be included in our elevator speeches if anyone asks why we are doing a Silent Day. We settled on student empowerment, responsibility for learning, and the fact that Mr. Olson talks too much!
Not talking is hard. Ordering Jimmy Johns, even with a colleague’s help, is tough. Listening to discussions and not adding my two cents, is hard. Picking up my phone and not asking Siri a question during my prep, was tricky. I also learned that I talk to myself…a lot. Fighting that urge was much more challenging that I realized.
Watching my students take over? That was easy. They know our morning routine well. On this day it was seamless. The parts that I normally lead were easily led by students. One student jumped up and read through our daily schedule. Another made sure that the timer was set properly so that it would ding at 9:20 for the Pledge of Allegiance. When students walked down for PE class, they were especially quiet in the hallways. They worked hard at self-control in PE so that there wouldn’t be any safety issues that required adult intervention.
Our whole-group reading curriculum requires a significant amount of teacher reading and prompting, followed by student-led discussions. One of my students took home our reading book the night before and pre-read the next day’s work. She led our reading lesson on Silent Day with the help of a script that I held on to and shared with her at the appropriate times. The discussions during reading were great. Instead of the teacher asking a question, getting a response, and asking the next question, the feedback loop was closed. A question would be posed and a student would give an answer. The next student called on would then respond by saying, “I agree with ___, but to piggy back off of that idea, I also think...” Students were having a more authentic discussion/conversation.
My conferencing with students during individual silent reading worked very well. I had pre-written messages on six Post-it notes that allowed me to prompt students to read to me and discuss the book they were reading. Some of the prompts were:
These messages, in various combinations, were perfect for having meaningful, but also efficient conferences. I just had to point at them. I conferenced with twice as many students as I do normally. And yes, I heard the message loud and clear. I need to let my students do more of the talking during these conferences going forward!
I started math by asking students to look at the clock. It was 11:45. I had been silent since 8:55 and would need to continue being silent until 3:35. “What fraction of my silence was already over and what fraction was left?” The problem was discussed/solved in small groups. Only 230 minutes to go! We then played a game for most of the hour. The day before, my co-teacher and I taught a fraction game to half of the class while the other half was gone for pull-out instruction. We let them know that they would be teaching it to the rest of our class the following day. On Silent Day, two students introduced the game to the whole group by telling the rules and playing a few rounds under the document camera. The class then partnered off and played the game.
After lunch each day comes my absolute favorite part of teaching. I get to share literature with my students for about 15 minutes. This is my untouchable time of the day. My students’ only job is to sit back and be entertained by the likes of Auggie Pullman, Mr. Terupt, and Jon Sczieska’s knucklehead brothers. On this day, something even better happened. My students took turns sitting on the couch and reading poetry to the large group. I asked each student to bookmark one poem or selection that he or she would be willing to share with the class. When our fifteen minutes was up, one boy did ask if the rest of the class would have the chance to read on Monday. Yes, they will.
Most of the rest of our afternoon was presentations. Our school had an innovation fair (Identity Day) a few weeks ago. My students completed Genius Hour projects and created display boards for that day. Each student or group gets to present the project in class. Most students and groups created Google Slides and a Kahoot game to go with the project. These were perfect for presenting this day.
Our end of the day jobs went very well and we ended with a two minute countdown timer followed by high fives and applause at 3:35. Success!
This was my second year in a row implementing a Silent Day. Last year, it was the end of the day and I was so close to success when I lost focus and whispered to a student, “We got this!” She and I were both shocked and disappointed when we realized what I had just done! My momentary lapse and three spoken words that day did not negate the powerful learning experience for both me and my students.
I shared the experience with parents and heard back from several of them in support of our Silent Day. One parent wrote, “I think Silent Day is a good independence-building exercise with so many benefits and growth opportunities. It demonstrates your faith in them, practices their ability to monitor their own behavior and actions, and makes them take responsibility for their own learning. Thank you!” Another put it a little more simply when she wrote, “Kudos. The less we talk, the more we listen!” And the more we listen, the more we realize our students are capable of doing.
The long term effects of this day should be significant. I have already started the practice of putting a copy of my substitute teacher notes at each student table when I am gone so they can follow along. Now I will plan on leaving some of the teaching responsibility with student as well. During those infrequent times that I am asked to step out of my classroom, the adult that steps in won’t need to try and lead an activity; students will step up and keep the learning going. My voice will be important in the classroom, but it shouldn’t be the most important.
As educators we are with students for only a short time. Our influences can, and should, be great. However, we need to keep in mind that we are preparing them for a life where we will be on the sideline. Our students will need to take responsibility for actions, decisions, and ultimately, life-long learning. Are we giving them the chance to authentically develop and practice this in our classrooms?