First Grade Punta Chica, Janine Cervi & Valerie Browne
Post 1 presented our plan to document the beginning of change that has taken place throughout 2014 in teaching practices in First Grade in Punta Chica. Our schedule therefore had its starting point in November 2013 and will continue well after we have finished posting on sasslearning. We felt a second post was not best suited to our project because of its long term nature, rather we chose to present the content of our experience in this one publication. We are fully aware that this is a process that will continue into 2015 and into the future. We all embarked on this change knowing all we needed to do was take a first step in the right direction. By no means did we have all the answers or a tremendously detailed road map. More than anything we had the inkling that something new was needed and we were all available to give it our best.
At that first meeting that we were summoned to in Moira´s office there were a handful of us present. Two Spanish teachers, two English teachers and our two Punta Chica Heads of sector. We were introduced to the idea of modifying how we were accustomed to teaching… and the seed for change was planted. As days went by after that and we spoke about the shift in our free time, the original feeling of being overwhelmed was replaced by enthusiasm. Excitement. The challenge was set. We were willing to change our paradigms regarding teaching and learning. Three aspects to this project were intertwined, not really knowing which one came first or took precedence over the other. We identified them as being:
- Change the physical space: learning studio
- Change the dynamics of instruction: stations
- Begin to instill a growth mindset among adults and among our students
Fast forward to February. We have amassed a good number of images and uploads on Google Drive to fuel the work of the year ahead. And so the 2014 academic year began. The same people from that original meeting were joined by additional people involved in the project today: two Educational Psychologists, three assistant teachers, one IT teacher, one Music teacher, one Drama teacher and last but not least, 53 first grade students: the reason for the change.
The objectives we chose to work on throughout this first year of change are:
- To ensure better access to learning by each and every one of the 27 children in each of our first grade classes.
- To begin an attempt to provide at level instruction for each child based on his needs and interests, and as a result begin to move away from the “one-size-fits-all” view of teaching.
- To allow us teachers quality observation time of our students, in reduced groups or on a one-on-one basis as a result of using flexible grouping.
- To foster the growth of independent learners.
- To instill a mindset of growth and collaboration in all actors involved in the teaching- learning process.
(A necessary comment at this point: in trying to organize our thoughts and conclusions we found it very difficult to compartmentalise our experiences. We found that often we started off with a goal in mind only to find we were addressing more than one of our five objectives. Making sure we were fostering independence in our students was often embedded in trying to teach each child to his particular interest or need. Thinking about differentiating for each learner had us reconsidering how we were observing our children , collecting information and assessing their progress. Spreading the idea that grit and hard work do pay off was directly connected to mediating direct access to learning for each child. It turns out, then, that our five objectives stem from each other and lead to each other. For organizational purposes, that is the way our experience is outlined.)
Objetive 1.To ensure better access to learning by each and every one of the 27 children in each of our first grade classes.
Bearing these objectives in mind at every turn, we continued to work in coordination with all teachers in contact with the first grade children. Everyone involved accepted to embrace the transition from teaching in a style more fitted to the “one size fits all” approach to classrooms to focusing more on each individual.
Encouraged by the literature of differentiation, accessed through one of the ongoing Study Groups in Punta Chica, many of us found it evident that this shift in paradigm begins with us adults and requires a significant quota of risk. We have discussed the need to keep an open mind, a willingness to admit errors, to be prepared to forget our previous ill attempts at differentiating without letting those mistakes deter us from carrying out more refined plans. We have planned and replanned activities, we have seen the “perfect activity” turn into a total flop and we have also picked up on teachable moments that proved to be invaluable for our students.
Our immediate response to trying to ensure better access to all children was to work from working stations.The change would be important since we had never done this for full instruction. Our prior experience in this kind of work environment was when we each worked in Kindergarten earlier on in our careers, in the 90´s. So we kept reminding ourselves we would have to go back to that point in our lives as teachers and bring back that kind of energy for our new project . Among the challenges we met, the simple task of recording what our students would work on each day proved to be one of the most frustrating. It serves as an illustration for the kind of “trial and error” we went through at all stages of this change.
Finding a setup that would logistically work for us took time. Truth be told, we found a system that works for us about one month ago, in late September! Nonetheless, the teachers in the morning found a different system that works for them… which means we still have a lot of dovetailing to do come 2015.
The new organization for working with stations presented new classroom management challenges , namely, how to keep track of which station each child had completed, and which he still needed to have a go at. We needed to find a management board that worked for us. Our stations were planned from the beginning as rotations. We started off with the same system that the children had been following in Kindergarten. We assumed it would be best for them in this way, they would feel a sense of familiarity with the stations in first grade. This involved having a class list at each station, the children crossed off their name when they completed that activity. It seemed straightforward enough, plus they had been doing it in Kindergarten! Nonetheless, it didn’t work that well. We couldn’t keep a clear record of what each child had done. We had to join 7 lists. Some children spent an important amount of time searching for their names on the list. We had no control over what they were doing. We spent more time controlling the “check-in process” than the actual learning itself. We tried this board for a few weeks but soon gave it up.
We then came up with a chart with all 7 stations. We tried with children going through them all. We came up with grids with their names and the activities planned. Children would line up and come to the front, pick their activity for the day, and set off to it. This took forever. We wasted time. Kids lost interest. Children got into petty arguments as they waited in line – which we should have predicted, because any teacher in lower grades knows that idle children standing in line waiting for something ends in a problem. So we changed plans and started to assign each child a station. We sacrificed the “autonomy” componenet we so wanted to save the dynamics of the class. Children then began to check the station to where they had been assigned and they headed to their centre. So we got to it .
We started our next week with the management board. It worked. Then Wednesday came around. Maru and Moira called all the first grade team to a meeting in the new studio to talk about how we were feeling, how things were progressing. We were all rather overwhelmed and they sensed our unease. The objective of the meeting was to find a way to simplify our days. We set immediate and short term goals. We compared what was going on in the morning and what was going on in the afternoon… We were appalled. The same children had completely different experiences in both shifts!
We let go of our old-though-still-rather-new grids and adopted the grid being used by our colleagues in Spanish. It was overall similar, only these were projected to the class, each child came up to the screen and used the interactive board to click on the cell for the activity they chose for the day. It worked for a few days until we realised way too much time was lost – again. It was chaos.
So the idea came up of simplifying yet again: 5 days a week, stations once a day, hence only 5 activities were needed .And we could use the tried and true pocket charts of the 80´s to record who went where. The children could also easily see who went where. And we could too! We started with this system and it proved efficient. Glitches were mended, changes were made at least three times and FINALLY we came up with a teacher AND student friendly way to record the work of our students during stations. Needless to say, being able to fianlly sort out this seemingly insignificant logistics issue made a noticeable improvement in the agility and simplicity of our work in stations.
Objetive 2.To begin an attempt to provide at level instruction for each child based on his needs and interests, and as a result begin to move away from the “one-size-fits-all” view of teaching.
Following the recommendations for a differentiated classroom , we cannot expect each of 27 children in our classes to learn the same way, at the same pace, in the same style. Tomlinson suggests considering the “Goldilocks Principle” and this has lead us through our change. Our goal is to find tasks for each child that are not too easy, not too hard…. rather assign tasks that are “just right” to challenge each child’s current developmental and intellectual stage. Needless to say these stages are in permanent movement in our grade, and children bounce around from their baseline to a stage of more maturity even from one week to the next.
Change is the only fixed item in first grade. Keeping still is not an option if we keep the students´progress in the foreground.
We are seeing the benefits of trying to pose tasks that will lead each child to work at his “Goldilocks level”. The literature on differentiation also calls for metacognition as a skill to be developed, as a means for each child to unlock effective learning. We have learnt that a teacher’s job is to guide children to discover where they are aiming at (ie, see the learning objectives), to help them to uncover where they honestly are on that continuum to an objective, and hold their hand as they bridge the gap between those two points.
Our initial exposure to metacognition comes through a lot of conversation regarding how we all learn differently, how we all have our strong suits and our areas of challenge, and with introducing the Traffic Light Strategy. Children colour in how they feel with respect to any given activity following the following parameters: red : stop and please re teach, I cannot budge from this spot without your help. Yellow: inch forward slowly because I am feeling hesitant and cautious regarding this and Green: I am comfortable with what you have asked me to do and I feel I can continue ahead with no reservations.
Needless to say that there are plenty of greens that should be red in the early stages. Part of the process involves having mini conferences with children who are very far from the mark as weteacher assess them to be. We have talked to children about trying to reach the green light, about seeing that their light should be “greener” than what they feel… each case is different. We have found that the children grow into this idea of being honest with themselves and with their teachers about their learning. It has given us a chance to learn about them a bit more. The tendency seems to be that the children are harder on themselves than they should be.
Objetive 3. To allow us teachers quality observation time of our students, in reduced groups or on a one-on-one basis as a result of flexible grouping.
We had fantasized with a year where children would be working in small groups diligently and teachers sat with individuals and addressed personal issues. This, needless to say, was not the case. At least not yet! We found we still spent a lot of time trying out new things and discovering through trial and error what worked best in all aspects of our classroom. Children could not yet be left alone to work in their stations until they were trained in the routines and the system.
We did have more one-on-one time compared to past years, especially with one of the groups. Close observation was more feasible this year with the more independent of the two sections. Children who earlier on were capable of working on their own allowed for freeing up a teacher so she could have the sole task of collecting information from and about children. Having a permanent assistant teacher in each section made this possible and helped enourmously in the porcess of teaching work habits and dealing with social-emotional issues. Those few but meaningful quiet observation moments allowed for getting to know the children quicker than other years. It meant being able to take notes of who did what, why, and how. It meant talking to the children privately almost on a daily basis. It meant watching them grapple with tasks and seeing their response to them.
Moments of classroom observation certainly took on a more prominent spot that in previous years but there is still a lot of improvements to be made in this area.
Objetive 4. To foster the growth of independent learners.
Why do we take it as important to spend time and energy encouraging children to become independent learners?Because we believe the process towards becoming independent students will:
- Encourage their self-worth
- Empower them to become their own person
- Lead them to discover that THEY are responsible for their own learning
- Promote a love of learning
- Help them to handle choice with responsibility: within the classroom and from then on into their adult lives
- Allow them to have a taste of the sense of fulfillment that comes along with an objective achieved
- Allow them to have a taste of the frustration that often comes with having to try again
- Help them navigate that frustration and learn to accept it
- Instill the value of errors as part of learning – as part of life.
- Show them that by being independent they can take full accountability of their actions, wrong or right.
Classroom management details can prove to be very useful in instilling independence in our children. Rather than provide all the answers to them, we always encourage the children to solve their issues by themselves or by asking their peers. One way was through “Ask-Three-Friends-First”, it proved to be a friendly way of nudging them to work alone, without seeking permanent reassurance from an adult. When children come to us looking for a prompt for what to do, or are needing some piece of information we know is readily available from another child then the response is always in the form of a question: “Did you ask three friends first?”. By checking in with their peers children get the information or the facts they need and at the same time we dispel the idea that the only one who can help is a grown up. We often mention the fact that children should help each other, that their peers can be an equally good source of knowledge than any teacher. The benefit is multiple: children learn the value of helping each other, they pool information for a solution and they free up teacher time for cases when a child does actually need the adult intervention.
The ideal activity for an independent work station is one that will allow children to work within Vygotsky´s “zone of proximal development”. Very in keeping with Tomlinson´s idea of the Goldilocks Principle (or vice versa?) it states that children’s best learning will occur when the activity they are presented with is just above their developmental level, just above what they can comfortably do on their own. This encourages them to seek help from their peers who might need only minimal intervention for the job to be completed successfully. Our aim continues to be challenge each of the children within their abilities so that they can work indepdendently and experience the excitement of learning.
We have tried to setup our classrooms so that children can move around independently. We have cubbies for each child to store his belongings, open shelves so they can find their own copybooks and access the material they need for both stations and whole class activities. Both classrooms are equipped with one clipboard per child so they can find a comfortable working place anywhere in the room.
We implemented a number of visual aids in our classrooms which were presented to the whole group and read together. At the time of independent work children had these aids in lieu of a teacher sitting with them. They were encouraged to try to re-read the instructions on the visual aids and to ask peers for help if they needed it.
We have anchor activities set up for children to go to when they have completeted the activity set up as easy-acess, appealing activities. They are activities that are essential to the skill that is being taught. They aim to be appealing and exciting for the children, yet useful to us teachers in our goals. They are never evaluated or critiqued, rather we try to always encourage the children to try them in an alternative way a second time around. They are designed to practice and review content and skills worked on in class and allow for children to tackle skills from a different perspective which often will involve higher order thinking skills. Children can choose an anchor activity and by doing so decide how to invest their time. Early on in the year we had a lot of fine-motor coordination tasks to do, as the year comes to an end anchor activties offered allow for more demand in writing or problem solving skills. From learning to play board games in a social setting, strengthening graphomotor skills, weighing in on impossible situations, following templates to reproduce patterns all the way to plain and simple buidling with blocks: all the skills involved are carried out independently from the moment the activity is chosen to the moment the last bit of material is put away.
Objetive 5. To instill a mindset of growth and collaboration in all actors involved in the teaching- learning process.
The shift of mindset was a new idea/ goal to work on this year. According to Carol Dweck, who coined the term and developed the idea through research at Stanford University, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, Random House, 2006)
It has been rewarding to witness the growth of children specially when they were stuck in a rut. One child described how he felt when facing a bar set too high for him. “A veces cuando no logro algo, y trato y trato, me siento con tanta bronca que quiero patear una pelota re fuerte.” When asked how we felt when a task that was “just right” for him is achieved? “Sentís como unas cosquillas que te salen de la panza.” We have taken Dweck´s growth mindset into the classroom and tried to lace those ideas into all our convesrations.
Many of the children already talk about the importance of “working hard” to reach one´s goals and acknowledging that if our brain “takes a nap” during an activity not much learning occurs. Our intention is to begin to instill an ethic of dedication and peresevenrance in the children. To teach them that overcoming obstacles takes energy and resilience. And that navigating all these experiences helps us grow.
As the end of year approached we were curious to get feedback from the teachers and school staff who had used the new Learning Studio. We set up a short questionnaire and sent it out to teachers and staff. We got positive responses and a number of suggestions to improve the use of the Studio for 2015. Once again, we finish off the year with a list of ideas to put into practice come February. Suggestions included having wall space assigned for displaying teaching aids and having a permanent PC to make better use of the projector. Overall, everyone was very positive about the new work space.
Click below to see our Learning Studio space come to life over the past year!
Our feelings about the change we embarked on this year are shared by the teachers who voiced their opinions in our small survey. We all enjoyed the shift despite the extra worries and the new challenges we faced. It was a year of accepting new learning/teaching dynamics which inevitably involved finding new roles and places as teachers. We dared to have children sitting on the floor to work or finding their own personal space from which they could best learn. We gave up the “face-the-front-and-look-at-the-teacher” lessons that, though fewer and fewer, had still lingered up until 2013. We embraced the enormous feelings of discomfort that come hand in hand with change; we tried our best to adapt to those feelings and in doing so we discovered new ways of being First Grade teachers. We got tired and frustrated and excited and hopeful in and out over the year.
Despite the ups and downs and the hard work that 2014 involved, we are still excited and driven to improve what we started. We are confident that all the lessons learnt will be areas to work on next year… and at the same time we know that 2015 will bring new challenges that we will have to deal with when the time comes.
Lessons learnt for 2015
- Consolidate our work as teachers in one team. Urgently. As much as we do informally talk on a daily basis with our Spanish teaching partners we must make a better effort at working TOGETHER. Our times together are usually spent catching up on how the class worked that morning, discussing a particular incident that occurred or arranging for meetings or notes than need to be sent . We comment on how a certian child is progressing. We comment on a certain content item that we are struggling with or have mastered. Rarely do we get down to brass tacks. At least not as often as we should. All four of us have found that valuable strategies are being used in the “other” shift which we can easily traslate and apply to our own. We just have to find the time to listen with the intention of adjusting. As was pointed out in one of our meetings with our heads, the children are the same in the morning and the afternon. Of course. Evidently, one thinks. But actually translating this intellectual idea to our practice has proven to be more challenging than any of us thought. Idiosyncracies, habits have kept us from reaching a deeper feeling of “flow” which we still need to work on into 2015.
- Begin with working in stations as two separate classes, ie, 1A on one schedule, 1B on a separate schedule. By working separately we will have more manpower to teach the correct use of the station: setting up, tidying up, taking care of materials. Habits at this point are vital. We need to be totally convinced that the children have internalized the classroom behaviour expectations for stations before we implement it full fledged. Once the students are accustomed to the class dynamics we can reschedule our afternoons and reorganize so as to share station time. We must bear in mind that next year class size will be at 27 per section.
- Use activities for stations exclusively after they have been used in whole class- half class settings. It sounds obvious and we know it to be the right way to approach work in stations.Yet for one reason or another (unexpected schedule changes, planning sessions that are still becoming consolidated, mismanaged time) we did set up stations with new activities at times. We still had activities that were presented the day before or on the same day that the new rotation was being launched. The result was not necessarily a negative impact on the children per se, rather we found that a certain activity that could have yielded a “learning power value” of 100 points checked in at 60 points. And all because children had not been exposed to it prior to tackling it in stations. Bottom line: children didn’t make the most of that learning opportunity and we are responsible for that.
- Do not reinvent the wheel! Once we design an activity that proves to work well, we should stick with it for successive weeks. Content can be swapped out according to the Unit we are working on, according to the objective in sight for that period, but the structure of the activity should remain the same to guarantee the children can work truly independently. The more they work with any given structure the more familiar they will be with it – hence the will be more autonomous and this will guaranteeing that they will be able to focus on the ends and not the means.
- Fostering independence: we need to go back and implement visual rubrics in our classes like we have in the past for certain activities. We need to create new rubrics for the new skills we are working on as a result of the stations setup. Using authentic pieces of work from students will help set clear expectations for work habits and graphomotor skills.
- Continue to do permanent formative assessment of our students’ learning… but then actually use the data collected to impact our future teaching. We discovered we started implementing Entry and Exit cards a couple of years ago, it took some time to systematize a response in teaching to those assessments. We retaught sounds that shown up on formative assessments as lacking. We went back on strategies for opertaions which clearly hadn´t been fully incorporated. With the time and space afforded by working in stations this year we were able to identify children who needed help in very specific items and we were able to start working with them individually or in pairs with one of the available teachers – be it one of the Educational Psychologists, one of the assistant teachers or one of us. Depending on who the child was, what he needed, who we knew he responded better to we could organize a short 15 minute session of one on one (re)teaching time targeted to an area of growth while peers were working in stations.
- This year we spent important time focusing on explaining and repeating instructions for stations rather than focusing more in depth on studying students in order to differentiate their instruction. We got bogged down by the form of things and disregarded the content.
- Remember always that being honest and overt with our students is the key to gain their confidence, and as a direct result, their respect. With respect everything in the classroom is easier: setting firm boundaries, grappling with conflict, learning a tricky new digraph. Setting an atmosphere of respect and an ethic of dedication within our class can reward us to no end.
- We have come to recognize that differentiation is a way to bring energy and new enthusiasm to our teaching and to the learning of our students. It pushed us to rethink, to modify, to reconsider. We know there is much more to reconsider, but we are proud to have started on the right path with the necessary encouragement and guidance.
- Accept and embrace change for what it is: a chance to leave our mark and make things better for others.
Literacy Work Stations, Debbie Diller, Stenhouse Publishers (2003)
Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching, Carol Ann Tomlinson, ASCD, (2003)
Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom, Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau , ASCD, (2010)
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, (2012)
Selected chapters from Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, Random House, (2006)