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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Cognitive Science in the Elementary Classroom

In my last semester of graduate school I took an elective course about Cognitive Science. It ended up being one of my favorite classes and I became very interested in the science of learning. I plan to continue learning about these topics through professional development opportunities that I seek out and communication with my former professor.

For now, I'm sharing the video that I made as the final project for that Cognitive Science class. I choose to connect my passion for teaching with the knowledge I'd gained over the entire semester. Enjoy the video and feel free to comment or message me for any further references or information.

Happy teaching and traveling!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Creative Writing Prompts - Visual and Auditory

One of the major goals of elementary education is to teach students to read and write. The primary grades have an enormous focus on language arts, and rightfully so, because these skills are important. There are always going to be students who love to write and those who protest that they "Can't think of anything". Daily writing journals are great, but I'm sure you've seen that one student's journal where every entry is "I like dogs. I like school. I like my teacher. I like ice cream." So how can educators help all students write with more variety, creativity, and tap into their boundless imaginations?

Personally, I like using writing prompts, particularly visual writing prompts. Having an image gives me something to study, details to look at, and a setting/character to now describe in words. That helps me start writing, even if I'm just restating what is in the picture.

I've used visual writing prompts mostly with K-2nd grade students, just out of circumstance. What I've noticed is that some students are like me; they'll describe the scene in words to start. Then they'll keep going. Sometimes it takes a little extra attention from me, the teacher, ("Why is that character wearing that? What might happen now? Will they stay here or go somewhere else?") but I can usually see the creative wheels start turning. Next time I come by they'll have several sentences and I've even had requests to take their journal home to finish their story.

For the visual writing prompts I try to pick real photographs that are full of action, or make the viewer question the situation. Images of random people, historical events, or surrealist photoshopped landscapes can be used to capture the student's imagination. I preface the writing activity with a few guidelines: Your story must have a character, it must have a setting, and there must be something happening/action. Then I make sure the image is visible from the creative writing station and help as needed. Afterwards, especially if the picture was very odd, I allow students to share their stories and see what different directions the students went.

Again, visual writing prompts won't work for every student.

Auditory writing prompts intrigue me. I haven't had the opportunity to use an auditory writing prompt with young students yet, but when I tried it with my fellow graduate students they gave very positive feedback. I choose an instrumental song that was fairly indistinguishable from any particular time period. I set the same guidelines of character, setting, and action and started the music. Watching my classmates, I saw that they didn't start writing immediately. Most took about 30 seconds before putting pen to paper, but then they were off! The scribbling continued after the music died out and my warning of "1 more minute" was met with faster writing as they tried to finish their stories. After they shared their stories many said that the music gave them a distinct idea - a wedding, a spy mission, a car chase, an accomplishment - and once they had that idea they basically tuned out the rest of the song, being enraptured in detailing the moment the audio had provided. I was amazed at the variety of stories and will definitely try auditory writing prompts with my own class someday soon.

Forewarning that finding instrumental music that isn't clearly "Mission Impossible", "Wild West", "Yoga", "Chanting Monks", "Christmas", or "Celtic" is difficult. Using themed audio isn't necessarily bad - and it could have some great writing results - but the variety might suffer.

Note about writing ability: There are students who have difficulty with the fine motor skills of writing or are just not at that stage of writing proficiency yet. They should absolutely have the same opportunity to be given the writing prompt and express themselves as creative writers. This could be accomplished through the help of an aide or teacher who writes the story as they dictate. If possible, after the story is recorded, the student could rewrite the words in their own hand.

The whole point is to help your students communicate, through writing, what is in their imagination. Maybe an image lights that spark, or a song, or something else. I'd love to see if I can use a kinesthetic or tactile prompt, perhaps dance or mystery item bags. I'm sure my students will come up with some great ideas during our class meetings.

Let me know if you've used any unique writing prompts and your experiences with them in the comments below.

Happy teaching and traveling,

Class Discussions - Debates

Students often love to talk. I'm sure you've met that person who will argue about the color of the sky just for the sake of talking. So how can educators use that verbal energy to enhance learning? Class discussions, in particular class debates.

Through class debates you can teach students how to
- support their arguments with evidence, 
- respond politely and respectfully to opposing opinions, 
- recognize and express their own opinions (or lack thereof), and
- reorganize their ideas in efforts to convince others.
These are all powerful, lifelong skills.

Let me walk you through Class Debate Type A.
Type A involves some document, video, passage, or event that all students are exposed to. Typically I've used Scholastic News magazines and selected the main article. The focus on Type A is the informational context. As a whole class we read the questions asked on the back of the magazine regarding the article. Students then take turns reading sections of the article, seeking answers to the questions. When any student believes they have found an answer, they use the "I Know" signal** (**see blog post about hand signals) and we pause the reading. That student now has the floor and makes their claim. (Ex: "I think the answer to Question 2 is B, they rode horse-drawn chariots, because the sentence says 'They found wheels and ornate wagons in the King's tomb.'") The student must be sure to support their claim with evidence, and it is especially helpful if the student directs the class' attention to that evidence.

We then open the floor for comments about this student's claim by asking, "Show if you agree or disagree." The students use their hand signals to indicate and if there is any dissent I ask a disagreeing student to make their argument. That student now has the floor and provides their evidence for why the first student is mistaken. (Ex: "I don't think it is B for Question 2, because in the last paragraph it says 'Few animals could survive in the harsh climate' and horses would be needed to pull horse-drawn chariots.") From this point I would ask if we have enough information to answer this question yet and we might decide that continuing to read the article is the best option.

Further into the reading a student might signal that they are "unconvinced" when asked to show if they agree or disagree. If this happens I would ask another student who has agreed or disagreed to convince this student. In this way, the decisive student must rephrase the argument in a way the unconvinced student can understand. This use of the "unconvinced" option helps students feel comfortable recognizing their own confusion and asking for clarification. The other student's job of rephrasing the argument helps them learn how to summarize and persuade an audience using informational evidence instead of peer pressure or force.

At the conclusion of the reading we would return to the questions and see which ones are still unanswered. Now students would raise their hands to provide claims about the answers, supported by textual evidence. Others would show their agreement or lack thereof. Students who are unconvinced would be persuaded in either direction and eventually a majority decision about the answer would be made. Occasionally I've had to step in, as facilitator, and call for a "best guess" answer. I avoid stating my own opinion that B is correct because the correctness of the answer is less important than the process of determining its accuracy and defending that belief.

Spending 45 minutes reading and deciding the answers to 4 multiple choice questions can seem tedious, but the benefits of this type of directed discussion and evaluation of arguments are that students learn to debate appropriately, and intelligently. It also teaches them to slow down and consider, instead of rushing through and slopping any answer down to be "done". The point of a Type A class debate is not the completion or correctness of the answers, but learning to communicate your opinions to other human beings.

As with anything, it takes time and patience to develop positive debate culture in your classroom. You will need to model how to summarize a previous speaker's point and continue with your own opinion from it. You will need to be very careful NOT TO VALIDATE any opinions given in debate. As the teacher your role is a facilitator, not a participant. Students may want to please you and knowing your opinions can skew them having their own. You are not a holder of all knowledge and being correct is not the focus.

Class Debate Type B is less clear-cut and more like a courtroom.
Type B involves separate documents, videos, passages, or events - usually two. Half the class researches the first piece, the other half a separate piece. The pieces are connected but provide distinctly opposing opinions and evidence. For example, Student 1's group learns about the colonization of America from accounts written by Native Americans and charts detailing the disease and death their populations suffered. Student 2's group also learns about colonization but from accounts written by European explorers and charts detailing the trade, resources, and personal wealth the settlers enjoyed. Both sides of the story are provided but neither group has the other's detailed evidence.

In this debate, students must provide evidence that directly counters the other side's claims. They must be careful to avoid the temptation of exaggerating their evidence and use emotional stories sparingly. In effect, the student groups are the prosecution and defense in a court of law. It can be decided (in a class meeting) whether a jury should be present (perhaps of parents or another class). Again, the point of the debate is not the end result - one side "winning" - but the process of determining important arguments and evidence, and the defense of those claims.

As a facilitating teacher, your job is to keep the debate going. The two sides can decide to make arguments back-and-forth or present everything at once. You can ask for clarification of details, opposing arguments, and play devil's advocate. Also, Type B debates do not have to be about intense topics - you can easily debate the virtues of chocolate vs. vanilla or American football vs. soccer.

Through Type B debates students learn that they can't have all the information, it's not possible. They learn to digest the opponent's arguments, connect them to their existing evidence, and make a counter-argument. Students learn to control their emotions in a debate and not rely on those emotional reactions to win them support. Instead, they use evidence and appropriate discourse to convince their audience.

Physical signals used in a Type B debate include the "I Know" hand signal when a student would like to have the floor, and stepping forward or standing when speaking. At the end of the debate, you can ask students to move to separate sides of the room to show where their final opinions lie OR leave the debate inconclusive with both sides shaking hands (like after a ball game).

I can't drive this point home enough: Class debates are not about being correct or winning, but about learning the lifelong skill of communicating your opinions in healthy, intelligent, appropriate ways. That is why I use class debates in my elementary classroom.

Let me know in the comments if you've used class debates and how your students responded.

Happy teaching and traveling,

Streamlining Your Classroom - Hand Signals

Most elementary classrooms have about 15-25 students. Those students each have to use the restroom about 3x a day. They also want to get a drink from the water fountain about 2x a day (outside of those restroom trips). That means that you, as a the teacher, will be asked "May I go to the restroom?" and "May I get a drink of water?" a lot. A whole lot. If there isn't a set time to take all the students for a restroom break, you may feel that you are answering a student's request to the leave the room every time you turn around. Besides restroom and water breaks there are also the requests to go to the library, the computer lab, the nurse, another teacher's room, the office, etc. It can quickly feel like you are directing traffic more than teaching.

Then there is the ambiguity of the raised hand. Students know that a raised hand is the most appropriate way to get a teacher's attention. Unfortunately the raised hand doesn't give any indication of the message the student wishes to relay. Are they about to ask to use the restroom? Would they like a drink of water? Do they want assistance on the current task? Do they want to return a book to the library? So the teacher comes over to the individual student, engages them in brief conversation about the raised hand, and provides verbal direction ("Yes, you may", "No, not right now"). This exchange takes time; precious time and attention. I'm not advocating not spending time talking with children, but the constant redirection of your attention for simple requests is not cognitively beneficial. It's exhausting.

The way I combat this issue is by installing a system of hand signals that my students use to communicate these simple requests. Originally I wanted to use American Sign Language, but certain words such as "restroom" require a constant motion with the hand or are difficult to see across a room, so I adapted some ASL signals and created some of my own.

Ms. Kottmann's Hand Signals

Two crossed fingers = Restroom

W with three fingers = Water

L with pointer and thumb = Library

Raised hand = Help, usually on a  task OR if the request is unique to the individual. (Ex: "I accidentally have my brother's lunch box, may I take it to him?")

Both hands on top of head = Finished**
**The "Finished" signal is so useful when you are giving a spelling quiz or whole class Turn-Pair-Share. Visually you see when students are done working and the motion of putting their hands on their head usually means that the aren't holding or using their pencil.

I often have discussions with my students - class meetings, debates - and have found that there are some hand signals that avoid the chaos of asking for opinions by "a show of hands" several times. Instead, ask once and see all results.

Thumb up = Agree

Thumb down = Disagree

Thumb to the side = Neutral OR Unconvinced***
***See blog post about debates and the use of the "unconvinced" signal to teach summarizing and justifying.

Tips of fingers touch side of forehead, hand is flat (looks like a salute) (ASL) = I Know
Used to show that the student has an answer to the current question.

Thumb and pinky extended, move signal from chest forward (ASL) = Me Too, Same

One of my favorite games is Rock-Paper-Scissors. I decided to use those hand signals to do a "check for understanding" after I've given directions. For instance, I'll have explained what students will be doing at a set of stations and before I let them start, I say, "Okay, show me if you understand - Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot!"

Rock = "I've got it! Solid understanding!"
Scissors = "I understand bits and pieces. If I struggle I'll let you know."
Paper = "My understanding is flat, I don't understand, I'm lost."
If I see an significant number of Paper I'll take questions as a whole group; if just a few I'll provide personal clarifications once everyone gets started. It's a simple (fun) habit that helps me remember to check that my students actually understood my directions.

Using signals takes some getting used to, but the benefits are worth it. You will streamline your classroom and find that you aren't answering a question every 10 seconds. I love using these signals for simple requests because I can be presenting the beginning of a lesson, see a set of crossed fingers raised in the air, make eye contact, shake my head No, and continue. I can be working with a student, glance up to check the room, see an "L" and nod Yes without leaving my current student. I strongly suggest having a class meeting to discuss the use of hand signals in your classroom, see what your students need as acknowledgment of their request from you. (Is a nod enough, or should you gesture with an open palm to the door?) It can also be a time to come up with some new hand signals unique to the needs of your classroom - a good lesson on figuring out a need and solving it. Also, my students have told me that they enjoy having the signals and accidentally use them in other classes. Haha.

Find out what works for you and your students, and let me know in the comments!

Happy teaching and traveling,