Whenever I check the teacher message boards that I am a part of, I always see many requests for ideas for culminating tasks for the various units that a teacher teaches throughout the year. This stems, I believe, from the backward design process where teachers begin to plan their new unit of study by first planning the culminating activity. However, if you follow this blog, you may have realized that I am moving away from the teacher-directed model of instruction and moving towards an inquiry approach where the students and teachers authentically develop the culminating task within some standard parameters.
The problem, as I see it, is not in having a culminating task but in planning an event or task that limits a student’s creativity or expression in order to do what the teacher tells them. Placing restrictions on what students do to show you what they learned is where you are restricting student creativity. I know that there is a lot of anxiety as teachers when we don’t have complete and total control. I get it, I myself am a recovering control freak (ok maybe not so much recovering), but I have changed the aspects that I control within the classroom. At the end of the unit, if every student’s product looks the same then how creative and differentiated is that really.
1. Plan the criteria, not the product
It is possible for students to design a variety ways to show their learning that respects their interests and individuality while all still meeting the same expectations. These little projects are called “show what you know” projects. With these we make a list of concepts that student need to know about these are generally derived from our learning throughout the unit. It is then the student’s responsibility to design a project that meets these criteria. How they present it is not as important as what they present.
2. Fun means differentiated
Many times as teachers are requesting help to find project ideas, they are also requesting fun and engaging activities for their students. Generally, as teachers, we are not interested in boring our students and making learning disengaging. However, we teach individuals, not robots and their interests are their own. If you want them engaged, let them choose the format. At first, many students will probably pick traditional presentation strategies. However, throughout the year as one or two students begin to push the traditional boundaries other students will start to take more risks in their style to pursue their own interests that reflect their skills. We have to remember that in our classrooms there are many students who have strengths in different areas and those that do not fit well in a traditional classroom will struggle with traditional tasks but can and will amaze you with their ability to show you what they know in alternate ways such as using Minecraft, designing a song or dance, or creating a website.
3. Student-led inquiry
Inquiry means that students are helping to lead and own learning. They are not leading their learning if where they are going and what they are doing is already mapped out. This does not mean that we don’t have to plan because we do. There will be certain concepts that are essential to building their knowledge and understanding that they can learn what it is that they are supposed to learn. However, these are general. If you have ever seen my units on TPT you will know that they generally follow the same format. Provocation/Wonderwall-> Big Idea / Questions -> Building Background Knowledge and Understanding Lessons-> Knowledge Building Circles -> Reflecting Activities -> General Research Project -> Open Ended Sharing of Knowledge. You will also notice that the pages are general enough that there are very few question and answer rote learning pages. Students are generating their own knowledge and reflecting on this. However, the focus and scope of these lessons allow a variety of different avenues and flexibility for the teacher so that each year your focus could be a little different. The shift relies on the teacher understanding that they are guiding the learning not giving the learning.
4. Share the workload
there is a quote that is often used with inquiry that talks about the workload. The teacher should not be working harder than the students. In reality, this is true. If you are working so hard to plan every little detail then simply just giving the students work. This is not inquiry. Inquiry involves students and teachers working together. If you want an engaging activity for your students, ask them to tell you what they should do. Plan it together. Instead of taking hours and hours at home planning a lesson for students. Stop planning at home and plan with them during knowledge builiding circles. Even if that means that you pull out the curriculum document and list the things that they need to know about and asking questions about these things and then going from there. Let them help you plan it. Do it with them, and save yourself some time.
5. Learn the content, deeply
This has to be the biggest advantage for me in planning detailed units for TPT. It has forced me to really learn the content. Stop spending your time planning the unit and the lessons and learn the content and not at an elementary level but at a high school level. Read the Wikipedia page on tension and compression and challenge yourself to be able to understand it. This will help you when you go off script in class. If all you know is what is on the lesson plan then it will be that much harder to teach this using an inquiry perspective. You need to know your content at a much more complex level. This is why it takes me so much longer to create a complete unit and why I include teacher background notes for you so that you can understand the concepts that you teach.
Are you ready for inquiry? Use this quick checklist to help you get started and plan ahead for inquiry. It’s in my free resource library along with many other tools that you can access free. Just sign up below.
If you want to connect with me about inquiry why not join me on facebook inside my teaching with inquiry facebook group. Join the conversation every Monday at 9 pm as we talk about all things inquiry and teaching.
Creating a wonder wall is a great tool to use in inquiry to build a space where students can
get students thinking
share their learning throughout their inquiry
keep ideas concepts and questions visible
interact with others
share standards, learning goals, and assessment criteria
share evidence of learning
This post is part 1 in my inquiry series. To learn more about inquiry click through to see my many other posts about inquiry.
Also why not connect and stay up to date on all things inquiry by joining my teaching with inquiry facebook group.
What’s a Wonder Wall?
Wonder wall boards are built at the beginning of a unit and are kept alive throughout student learning. These are living examples of student learning throughout the unit.
Wonder wall boards are built at the beginning of a unit and are kept alive throughout student learning. These are living examples of student learning throughout the unit.
Building this board starts when you begin to provoke students thinking about the topic you are beginning to study. Students will look at artifacts and ask questions about what they are seeing. They activate prior knowledge and share this with others in a knowledge building circle.
Type of Display Board
This is an example of the board that I use for my wonder wall. It is a trifold board. One side is for my fourth graders and the other side for my fifth graders.
Sometimes I use these trifold boards and other times I just use my bulletin boards but this is great if you are lacking wall space and it also works to move around the classroom for students to use when you are working with them.
Here are some of the wonder wall boards from my classroom
I use artifacts to help provoke conversations and interests in a topic at the beginning of a unit. Artifacts can be many things
Most of the time I use pictures that I print out in colour. Especially if I don’t have access to real life objects.
If I have easily accessible artifacts like my rock collection or some small appliances from home I might use those as well.
The Role of Questions
To use a wonder wall at the beginning of an inquiry means that you provoke students thinking about a topic. Providing them with artifacts that gets them thinking.
Having them ask questions is the next step.
Students will take sticky notes and ask questions about what they see. Use these doodle notes in my resource library to help your students keep track of what they are thinking.
As students share thier background knowledge and their questions the board is built. These questions are the driving force behind your learning.
Group their questions into themes, use them to develp learning goals and success criteria and to find gaps in their knowledge that may require a teacher directed lesson to fill.
Put student questions beside the artifact or picture on the wonder wall and throughout the learning strive to answer these questions and keep track of unanswered questions.
It is through student questions that learning is constructed.
Another thing I learned while implementing my wonder wall is that when students ask questions I really really want to answer them. I want to share my knowledge and have them soak it all in and teach them something. I am a teacher!! this is what I do!! I know stuff and teach about it!! STOP STOP STOP. I had to get myself to stop!
This was not what inquiry was about. Sure, I am a teacher, but I am not as powerful or as knowledgable as Google. I mentally needed to stop myself and concentrate on not answering their questions but to ask them to add their questions to the Wonder Wall and allow them to figure out the answers for themselves.
I knew that I was going to lead them through my lessons to these answers but I needed to stop just giving them the information. They would now have to start working for this information because I was not going to give them an easy way out.
Sure later on in the unit, we would have a discussion on certain topics and I would explain different concepts to them. BUT we did this together. I was not teaching them I was facilitating their learning.
Giving them the tools to let them find the answers to their questions on their own.
And you know what…a funny thing happened.
They started learning faster than I had expected.
They took those questions home and found out the answers to them. They would read books during independent time and find the answers to our questions. They were discussing these things with their parents at home.
It was amazing to see how excited they were about learning these concepts which in turn also allowed our discussion at school to become more vibrant and engaging.
Sure there were times when a teacher directed lesson was necessary especially in the technical aspects of the units. But overall it was great to see them apply their learning in new and interesting ways.
If you would like to see how I made my Wonder Wall for these units check out my Video below
I now include wonder wall cards in most of my units to help teachers get started with artifacts for students and teachers to use to use as a provocation to get started with the units that they are teaching. If you are interested in the cards that were used for the wonder wall on the video you can get them in the two units below.
Learn more about inquiry. Next up in my inquiry series
Teaching science to two grades is always a juggling act. Lots of preparation needs to go into how you are going to teach two separate units to two different grades. I always teach a 4/5 and generally have the students for two years. So combining the units and teaching one lesson like I can in math and language does not work well. So it comes down to focusing on what is important, borrowing strategies from other subjects, organization and teaching independence. I teach in 20-30 min time blocks to each grade. Then they will have to learn independently as they do the task. However over time I have learned that sometimes students miss the point of the lesson this way as I am not there to guide them. However I have learned that there are some key strategies to make sure that the time students are working independently that they are learning the stuff I want them to learn.
Focus on What is Important
It all starts with the assessment and the cycle of assessment 1) Learning Goals and Success Criteria
First thing I do is share my learning goals and success criteria. For each lesson for each grade I post it share it, make a big deal about it. Students should always know what they are doing and why they are doing it. I also make sure I post it. I have a science board. All things Science are on this board if students are not so sure then they can look here. They also know that if it is posted on this board they will and can be assessed on it. They must know the topics listed on this board. I start with the daily goals on the board (smartboard or chart cart) Once students have learned this we then transfer it onto the science board.
Today we are learning to identify and describe different types of Energy
– we will read about different types of energy
– we will conduct experiments to see different types of energy in action
– we will use this experiment to help us describe each type of energy
– we will reflect on what we learned to help us figure it all out.
2) Borrow from Math
So the latest instructional strategy in math is to use a three part lesson plan in math to teach different concepts
Working on It
I thought if it works in math why not in science. So I started with this question:”How do I build reflection into science so that I can use it for formative assessment purposes?” My solution…
these are very popular on TPT right now and I thought how do I use these in authentic ways. I don’t just want cut and paste activities that have no meaning. I did struggle with why would I spend the time having students assemble these if they could simple answer a few questions in their notebook. However I like the look of them and feel that students will want to use them and decorate them. I will structure my notebooks in this way. On the left students will put their notes and interactive notebook activities on here. On the Right students will complete their reflection activity. Many of the interactive notebooks are based on the 3R reflection response that I completed in teachers college. The 3R’s represent Retell, Relate, Reflect. The left side represents the Retell portion and the right side represents the reflection section. The relate portion is weaved into both aspects. I find that with student reflection and retell I can gauge what students have learned and where we should focus. I don’t mark these, but I do read them and make note of student needs. They are great formative assessment.
Ok this is a goal and always will be. It is inevitable that as a teacher you must organize and organize well. As a split grade teacher there is no option you must put on your OCD hat and organize like a crazy person. (this is why everything in my classroom has labels, students have numbers, books are colour coded, and why I hate paper. Even your planning needs to be organized. For this purpose I am constantly making tables and charts to organize my lessons and feel like I live with timers dinging and signaling me to change what I am doing. I also feel that whenever possible you should utilize student and parent volunteers. I know I cannot do this on my own but I do have very helpful students (who love to stay inside instead of going out in the snow) or parent volunteers. I use these volunteers to organize my centers, fill buckets, order papers, photocopy or whatever else I need help with. I know I cannot do it all so I ask for help from whom ever is available and willing to help.
I have blogged before about my tips for teaching a split grade here but in science this is a very important skill. For a science class in a split grade students are often not completing a quiet activity. They are engaged in hands on activities or group work. This means that it is imperative that students learn how to work together and work independently as a group without you. You have to be okay with a bit of noise and you need multiple teaching spaces. Independent students does not mean quiet students independent students means engaged students. Check out my guide to Teaching Independence Free on TPT.
I have finally finished my next combined unit for my 4/5 plans. In January I go back to work from my maternity leave. If you follow my 4/5 long range plans you would know that I have planned to teach two science units: Rocks and Minerals and Conservation of Energy.
Teaching students to work independently is a vital task for all teachers but especially for teachers of split grades. It is also one of the largest barriers that prevents teachers from using inquiry.
So you may not like hearing it but almost all students are capable of working independently. There work needs to pass the Goldilocks test. It can’t be too hard, It can’t be too easy, It has to be just right.
It also has to be engaging and purposeful.
Students also cannot work independently, If they are not taught how. This is why I teach studentsExplicitly How to work independently. I also left themExperience failureAnd coach them through this failure
Set Clear Expectations
Create an anchor chart with your expectations. When teaching these to students remember that you must do this in a variety of ways. You must Tell them, teach them, show
them, post them, practice them, reinforce them. In Daily 5 they call this building stamina but it can be used in all subjects.
Tell students that you want them to work independently and that you need them to do this so that you can teach the other group of students.
Ask them what this should look like in your classroom and write it down.
Have a student demonstrate what this looks like in your classroom. Have another student demonstrate what this doesn’t look like then have them fix it.
Practice, Practice, Practice. Have the whole class practice this and time them. Start with 2 min and work up to 20min.
Make a chart to track their progress. You could use a bar graph or you could use the one in this free resource here.
Hold Them Accountable
Be ruthless, and picky. If any student does not follow the rules stop the time and try again later. That is all that they can handle. If you have students that struggle with this due to specific learning needs have a special contract with them to build their endurance.
When it starts to slip or fail again that means it is time to practice again. Reinforce your expectations
When students are building endurance do not help them. Walk away, watch from your desk, or corner of the room. They have to be able to control their own behaviors without your support.
In my classroom, my students will generally find me at the guided reading table or on the carpet with a group of students. So this is where I sit when I am helping students to build up their independence.
Time for Guided Instruction
Once your students begin to show some endurance with working independently you can begin to teach the other group of students.
But remember to hold your students accountable for the independent work you have assigned. Collect everything (even if you don’t always mark it, make them think that you are and monitor the students who are not using their time well and make an independent work contract with them)
No excuses and no buts. This does work with 98% of students. Generally, if students are not working
independently it is not the student but the teacher’s expectations of what is
acceptable that is confusing. Be
critical of yourself and ask yourself are my words and actions consistent. You may be unknowingly reinforcing your student’s dependence on your control.
To get this guide to help you get your students working independently!! Click the photo below
Its done!!! My 4/5 Long range plans are finally completed. Having such detailed plans this past fall was a life saver. Being very pregnant with a toddler at home I didn’t have lots of time to plan these long range plans were a great tool that sat on my desk as a reference. It helped to stay focused and on task and make sure that I had taught what I needed to before I left for my leave. Even my LTO appreciated knowing what I had already covered and what she needed to still teach. As I watched my colleagues without plans struggle to stay on task I was relieved that I spent the time last summer to have these complete and ready to go.
As you can see from my Term #1 plans I include details about literacy planning, Read Alouds, big ideas, Writing Forms, and Comprehension Strategies. As well as the math units for both grades that can easily be taught together. New I have included more detail for the social studies and science curriculum including Inquiry Questions, Big Ideas, and Culminating Tasks for both of the grades. However I have removed Physical Education as I will no longer be teaching this subject. OPHEA is a great resource and made up the bulk of my physical education program