It’s the time of year to help students pinpoint areas of interest and encourage them to explore those further.
As the year comes to a close, student motivation can start to slip. When the weather warms up, it’s okay to admit that some students may be counting down the days until their summer vacations start. Truthfully, you might be too! Teaching is a double-edged sword: it’s rewarding, yet emotionally and physically exhausting.
It can be tempting to become more passive as things wrap up, especially when many of us have been preparing students all year to demonstrate what they’ve learned on cumulative standardized tests or internal exams. However, when I was in the classroom, I took another approach to end the year strong. I used the last weeks of school to encourage students to reflect and dive deeper into a topic from earlier in the year, which sent students into summer feeling empowered by everything they were able accomplish. Students spent the last part of the year working on projects to highlight what they learned and share why it excited them.
An easy way to give students a level of ownership is by using Kiddom’s Planner for curriculum development. The playlist feature in Planner lets you break projects into manageable pieces for students to complete. First, students begin by choosing the format in which they want to showcase what they have learned. Based on student choice, teachers can assign them the most relevant project outline. By using individualized resources and feedback shared through Google Drive and Kiddom’s communication tools, students will be able to produce projects that reflect their own development and passions, and take critical reflection and analysis tools with them onto their next course or grade.
Use Kiddom’s Planner to build personalized playlists for students to explore topics of interest.
In my biology class, there was a broad unit that covered nutrition. I had one student who, in his words, was allergic to vegetables, saying they made his “taste buds sad.” As we approached the final project, he wanted to build a greenhouse to grow flowers for his mom. I took this opportunity to link multiple units together and tied the skills he was passionate about developing to nutrition by supplying him with lettuce and radishes to plant. I had never seen him so excited to learn and build! This student was chronically late throughout the year and yet, for this project, he was coming in after school and at lunch! When his plants began to grow, his eyes lit up. The moment we harvested his first radish, I didn’t even have to ask him if he was going to try it. He rinsed it off and popped it in his mouth; the look of disgust was priceless, and could only have been gained through this personal exploration. While he left for the summer still hating vegetables, he was ecstatic with the knowledge that he could build a structure and grow plants.
As a teacher, shifting ownership of learning to students through final projects gives me time to reflect and learn from my students. I was able to identify which lessons truly “stuck” and which may have missed the mark. Analyzing which topics students choose to focus their projects on helped identify strengths in my curriculum. What does this tell me about the units I have taught? Where do I need to focus more next year and what lessons were particularly effective? I used the students’ interests to help me reflect on lessons that they remembered, and which ones had faded by June. Kiddom’s standards reports, alongside the assignment based reports, lets teachers compare student interest to their mastery of those skills. Not only can we see what our students enjoyed learning but how that engagement affects their mastery of a standard. With these data points I can make notes for next year detailing the most effective lessons for bringing students to mastery. Setting aside time to learn from past experiences is an important part of teaching that can easily get lost in the shuffle.
Standards-based reports allow you to infer interest by performance on specific skills.
We focus on students leaving the school year with something they can take away but we also need to find time for teachers to synthesize what they have learned during each school year. Kiddom gives teachers time to analyze their own development at the end of the year, letting them go into summer ready to take what they have learned and build a stronger foundation for the coming year.
As a former New York City high school teacher, I know that parent-teacher conferences seldom provide parents with enough time to process what their children learned, what they’re interested in, and what needs improvement. These conferences are rarely original and are often a missed opportunity to truly connect with parents about something beyond the report card.
In contrast, my own parent-teacher conferences were student-centered — creating space for meaningful discussion about things other than grades. But if I’m being transparent, I have to confess I didn’t intentionally structure them that way. I credit technology — and superheroes.
Budgeting for superheroes was always a hit in my algebra class. I provided students with a superhero’s historical financials and challenged them to figure out a way to redirect more cash towards their characters’ “superhero needs.” That could mean more Iron Man suits for Tony Stark or a better sewing machine for Peter Parker. My students dominated the family conferences after the superhero unit, presenting their work to parents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, other teachers — literally anyone who would listen. “Mom, this is the project I want to show you,” said one student. “Look how I saved Iron Man thousands of dollars by just paying off his credit cards. Now he doesn’t pay interest, which means he’s not wasting money!”
In these conferences, we spoke little about grades and missing work because I had provided that information to my students in real-time throughout the semester, which meant conferences became a space to talk about what’s being learned rather than what’s missing.
Despite emerging digital communication tools that seek to bring parents and teachers closer, the structure of parent-teacher conferences largely remains the same: “Here’s how Susie did. Here’s our wall of work. That’s her worksheet with a sticker on it. Oh, and she really needs to stop throwing erasers at Laila.” Often, “what needs improvement” dominates the conversation; if parents must endure this in multiple classrooms with multiple teachers, it doesn’t provide the incentive to come back next time.
I most definitely didn’t plan a project to have something like the superhero project culminate before every parent-teacher conference — that would feel forced. If my students didn’t have a project to talk about, they reflected on their favorite topics in class or their increased sense of confidence grappling with mathematics. Grades were never the centerpiece of the conversation because I invested a lot of time and effort ensuring my students and their families could access their class progress and grades before conferences — in fact, anytime they wanted during the semester. Providing students with access to grades in real-time — and providing them with a means to improve their work — redefined the parent-teacher conference experience. Conferences became a wonderful opportunity for parents to see and hear their children in action.
On Kiddom, students can access to their achievement data at any time to track growth and progress.
I set a minimum expectation for myself to keeping my gradebook up-to-date on a daily basis. In my first year teaching math, I built and maintained a complex gradebook using Google Sheets. I inserted the sheet onto my class homepage and made it publicly accessible for students to track themselves. (Of course, I replaced names with ID numbers). It looked more like a financial model than a gradebook — and it was ugly — but its existence made students rush to the computer to monitor their progress. Sometimes students would leave comments in spreadsheet cells with their grades and tag me in it, “Thought I turned this in, can you print me another?” Grades not only became accessible, but my students no longer had to wait until progress reports to ask for additional work to get them on their way; instead, this became an ongoing practice. I had effectively created the conditions necessary for my students to self-advocate, which, as I would later learn, meant parent-teacher conferences would be less of a performance review.
As report card season for the school year gets underway, I encourage educators to do their due diligence. Do the research on tools that can minimize the information asymmetry between teachers and learners. I’m not keen on public data walls to achieve this, because I’ve witnessed students get demoralized after tracking their performance against peers in public spaces. And I wouldn’t build a gradebook from scratch again either. That’s too time-consuming to maintain and, at this point, there are plenty of free gradebooks out there that offer a simple student-facing portal to get you on your way.
At Kiddom, we recently redesigned the student experience to allow students to access and submit work, track their own progress, and solicit feedback from teachers all from one place. We intentionally redirected 100% of our engineering effort towards the new student platform because we believe education technology has typically ignored the student experience. That’s unfortunate, because students today move fast and are incredibly tech-savvy. And from what we’ve gathered, teachers are constantly looking to empower students to take control of their learning.
On Kiddom, students actively communicate with teachers to get the feedback they need to earn mastery.
My experience in classrooms has taught me that it’s possible for technology to transform parent-teacher conferences. But technology isn’t going to redefine parent-teacher conferences for you; it’s only an enabler. So before you set out to restructure your parent-teacher conference, be sure to set up the practices you’ll need for success. Empower students with their own achievement data, but be sure to keep them updated. Then, design a way for your students to access remediation and/or enrichment resources on their own. If you can do that, the possibilities of student ownership are endless.
Well-designed and differentiated curriculum allows students to more meaningfully connect with content, but designing it can be cumbersome. That’s why at Kiddom, we’re excited to give teachers a sneak peek at what we’ve been working on: curated playlists.
Why curate playlists?
One of the hardest things about planning a blended learning class is finding the right instructional materials. As teachers, we develop and own our teaching style. It’s hard to give up your “teacher identity” by accepting videos or resources created by someone else. Some teachers (admittedly, like us) have spent countless hours recording and editing themselves. While that may feel truer to your teaching practice, it’s difficult to sustain given the time (and resource) constraints of school. The alternative, finding the right resource aligned to your students’ needs, can be equally time consuming. We can’t tell you how many hours of educational videos and songs we’ve watched to find the best fit for our classes.
So why bother if it’s so difficult? Well, one generalized lesson per day to address the “average” student doesn’t do enough to meet the diverse needs of every student in the classroom. It’s also difficult to support soft skills like self-management and curiosity when you’re teaching one lesson to the entire class. This is why we’re thoughtfully curating curriculum resources for you. We encourage you to be familiar with the resources we’ve gathered, but we hope to earn your trust in the quality resources we pulled together to meet your students’ unique needs. We’re dedicated to helping you find more time to connect with and inspire students.
To get all of our curated playlists, click here. Then copy and paste the assignments directly into Kiddom’s Planner.
How do we evaluate our playlists?
Our playlists are peer-reviewed and checked for rigor, flow, and alignment.
FLOW: How well do the topics move from one lesson to the next?
RIGOR: Are the tasks at an appropriate grade level to be accessible and still provide a challenge. Do the tasks require conceptual understanding and application of content?
STANDARDS ALIGNMENT: Are the assessments and standards clearly aligned? Does the content align to multiple standards? How well does the content span across grade levels and across content?
How do we select resources?
Each group of resources, which we’re calling a playlist, is thoughtfully curated to include the best options for learning and practicing a new skill. When selecting resources for playlists, we’re looking for content that meets the criteria for Universal Design for Learning (UDL), “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.” We look for lessons that provide multiple means of representation such as audio, visual, and text support. We seek activities to practice those skills that provide multiple means of engagement by optimizing relevance through real life application. Finally, we designed culminating assessments to support planning and strategy development, optimize individual choice and autonomy, use multiple media for communication, and develop self-assessment and reflection.
As a free platform, we first seek the best free resources so that they’re universally accessible. But we also incorporate resources from providers based on teacher request. We also include resources that have limited free practices or a free trial version.
Create your own playlist:
We’d love your feedback on our playlists. Are they useful? Are they effective? How would you use them? Did you make one you’d like to add?
When I started teaching, I relied heavily on the “I do, we do, you do” or gradual release of responsibility (GRR) method of delivering instruction. This method can be useful when students are introduced to new content with no prior knowledge. However, I noticed my students became increasingly dependent on me to give them the information they needed. I was using “I do, we do, you do” almost everyday, which I later realized doesn’t prepare students to be lifelong learners in the world beyond school. As teachers, we do not expect to be with our students forever and therefore, our pedagogy shouldn’t train students to be dependent on us to learn.
One of the greatest struggles I faced when using the GRR method was with student motivation. I worked incredibly hard to convince students they needed to learn the information by adding “hooks” with real-life applications to the “I do” portion of the lesson. Unfortunately, this didn’t make the desired impact: my students still didn’t display characteristics of curiosity. From my observations, persuading a student that they may need information later in life was not motivating enough.
The lack of motivation and waning curiosity my students exhibited coupled with a quote I read prompted me to explore other teaching strategies. The quote said, “it is our responsibility to make it their responsibility.” This encouraged me to think about ways in which I could relinquish my “power” in the class as the sole expert and allow students to become the experts. Some of my best moments in the classroom occurred when I experimented with student-centered approaches to learning and acted as a facilitator of the process, rather than director. This was not an easy switch for myself or for students who have had years of schooling in which they are not offered choice. But it was worth it.
So without further ado, here are three student-centered approaches I employed that produced fantastic results: inquiry based learning using the question formulation technique (QFT), Socratic seminars, and interest-based projects.
The Question Formulation Technique is a protocol for students to develop and refine their questioning ability. The QFT structure allows teachers to take a step back and give students the responsibility of determining what they are going to learn. By producing, refining, and prioritizing their own questions, students identify topics they want to explore. This method supports independent thinking by emphasizing three different thinking abilities: divergent, convergent, and metacognition. The teacher is responsible for selecting the topic or focus that fits within the scope and sequence of the class and guiding students through the steps, but the thinking and learning comes from the students themselves.
In one of my classes, we started with the question focus, “Hip Hop started in the South Bronx to give a voice to the voiceless,” which was connected to our theme for the unit: Social Change and Revolution. Students came up with questions I never would have dreamed of and they were more engaged in the research projects that followed because they chose to pursue a question that truly interested them. As a class, we learned skills from the common core learning standards but students applied it to something they wanted to know.
Socratic seminars let teachers facilitate independent thinking, discussion, and critical reasoning. When I first implemented these, there was quite a bit of direct instruction required to prepare students to lead the discussions themselves. There are many practical skills embedded in a Socratic seminar, such as how to articulate when you are building on or refuting others ideas, which need to be modeled. But after participating in a few seminars with the same structure, the students were able to use the skills we developed to push each other’s thinking and revise their own thinking on a variety of topics. I was overjoyed the first time I heard a typically shy student refer to evidence in a text using a probing question in response to a statement made by a peer. The class led the discussion themselves and then assessed their reasoning skills using evidence from the discussion.
Interest-Based Projects are created by the teacher to provide a structure for the skills they want to teach or assess while letting students follow their interests. I designed my health curriculum so that foundational knowledge was taught using a blended learning form of direct instruction, but the other half of the course consisted of projects in which students could choose which health topic they wanted to focus on. For example, I included a unit on substance abuse which covered many of the topics traditionally covered in health classes. I also included an interest-based Public Service Announcement Project, in which students choose a relevant health need they care about and develop a public service announcement for that topic. One student chose to create a warning about the risks of using lean, a slang term for a concoction which includes a prescription-strength cough syrup used in a manner inconsistent with its labeling, thus making it a recreational drug. This is not a topic covered in most health textbooks, but it was a real health risk that many of his peers were abusing. By providing the structure of the projects but allowing the students to choose what they focused on, my students were not only more engaged, they were invested.
“I do, we do, you do” has it’s place in the classroom, but it should not be the only method we rely on. If all our students are to be lifelong, self-directed learners, solely relying on a teacher-led model only makes things harder for us. A true mix of teacher-centered and student-centered models such as the QFT, Socratic seminars, and interest-based projects can lead to greater success and independent thinking inside and outside of school. These alternatives also provide opportunities for different types of learners to shine in the classroom. I will close with questions for you, the reader. Feel free to respond as a comment!
Have you tried student-centered approaches in your classroom?
What are some student-centered approaches you’ve used? With what success?
What are some ways you’ve gotten students to better adapt to these approaches?
My mother is a primary school teacher. Like many teachers, she brought a lot of her job home with her, and that played a major part in my identity. I don’t know if it’s cheating to choose her as a teacher who inspired me, but it becomes very hard to determine where the parent ends and the teacher begins.
Being raised by a teacher is a very particular type of childhood. I always seem to have an inherent bond with any other teacher’s child I meet; I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a “15 things only teacher’s children get” Buzzfeed article about it.
Naturally, the schoolyard rules enforced at home are always the first signs of a teacher-parent. If you see a parent walking down a street with their children walking in single-file line behind them, you can almost always bet that parent is a teacher. If an adult raises their hand to interrupt a conversation, there’s a pretty good chance one of their parents was a teacher. Fortunately, my mother brought much more than compliance home with her.
My mother placed an extremely high value on learning at home. She seemed to know the answers to every question my obnoxiously inquisitive younger self had, but not only would she give me an answer, she would do her best to ensure that I actually understood it.
In the rare events that she didn’t have the answer, we would go look through her books for an answer, and there were many, many books. As a child, I didn’t realize the value of a parent not only tolerating the torrent of questions I had, but willing to put in such a committed effort to find the answers.
And don’t get me started on how amazing it was to have access to pretty much every book from my mom’s stash of free samples given to her by publishers.
For my first two years in school, I was in my mom’s room at school. We seemed to quite quickly settle on an unspoken agreement that I could do whatever I wanted provided I didn’t get in her way teaching the rest of the class.
Once I moved on to being taught by other teachers however, I had a lot of difficulty conforming to the structure of a regular school day in a way that most of the kids had already adjusted to. Because the entirety of my schooling to that point had been open and unstructured, it was a culture shock to discover that there was a “wrong way” to learn.
I spent more time trying to pretend I was paying attention than I spent learning in school. For the next few years, my academic performance was let’s just say, below average.
About halfway through fifth grade, my sixty-something-year-old teacher retired and was replaced by Mr. Boyle, a recent graduate in his first ever full-time position. I honestly can’t say whether it was that the older teachers I had before were especially out-of-touch or he was unusually enthusiastic, but Mr. Boyle brought a total shakeup to the class structure.
Having the class chant something repeatedly until it was ingrained in their heads, but had lost all meaning (is this still a thing? I hope it isn’t!) was discontinued. Mr. Boyle replaced this childish approach with incentives and variety. Nearly every day would have a half hour allotted to things that were considered “unnecessary (but encouraged)” in the curriculum; the bits and pieces of drama in particular helped me come back out of my shell and express my thoughts and ideas within the class environment.
Art finally evolved from “color in this picture” to include several types of crafts where the focus was as much on figuring out how to use the materials as what you actually produced. Of course, I had a long string of overly ambitious unfinished projects, but to this day, I still play around with the crafts I first encountered there.
Most importantly, Mr. Boyle seemed to have an understanding that if I was learning and not disrupting, there was no need to force me into adhering to a certain style. I was granted a level of trust that I felt a need to prove was worthwhile.
With Mr. Boyle’s cultural and structural changes, I was suddenly participating in class in a way I never had up to that point. My academic performance turned around, as I remembered I could love learning things taught in school and that there was no right way to learn.
In the years that followed, my relationships with teachers continued to be erratic, but I credit Mr. Boyle with getting me re-engaged in school. I’m forever grateful to him.
Thank for your passion, commitment, and service to students in 2015.
Once you’re officially on winter break, I encourage you to disable your e-mail, file away student work, and push lesson planning off until the New Year. You’ve earned the right to procrastinate.
As a former high school teacher, I often caught myself grading exit tickets and rewriting curricula during the holidays. When the holidays were over, I already felt exhausted. This limited my ability to reflect and recharge.
Don’t let this happen to you. You’ve earned the right to pause, enjoy life, and rest. Celebrate this holiday season fully engaged with your friends and family.