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It wasn’t working…so they took a risk

District E (Lone Tree and Castle Pines) teachers gave their students a voice, solicited their feedback and discovered what they have been doing for years was no longer working. Students were compliant but they were not engaged. Something needed to change.

Written by Chris Silberman

DOUGLAS COUNTY-- Think back to when you were in school. Did you have the opportunity to give feedback to your teacher?

I remember a time when I was in eighth grade and made a comment to one of my teachers that I didn’t understand the point of a particular project she was assigning. Now, even though I was a good student overall, I’m sure my tone was probably disrespectful, so she probably had every right to snap back at me and say, “I really don’t appreciate that comment.”

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Thinking back, though, I can’t really remember a time in which feedback from students in my school was authentically solicited by teachers. We were certainly asked self-evaluative questions like “what are your goals?” and “what challenges did you encounter?” These are important critical thinking questions, but these serve a different purpose and fulfill a different goal.

What if, in order to maximize student engagement, teachers asked students “do you enjoy this activity?”

Some teachers already are.

“We’ve had a lot of frustration among teachers regarding a lack of student engagement and with kids fighting the process,” fourth-grade Buffalo Ridge Elementary School teacher, Amy Jaramillo, told us in October 2015. “We were trying to find ways to improve their writing skills, while also helping with engagement and motivation.”

She and other teachers at Buffalo Ridge engaged in an exercise early in the school year to solicit and assess the students feelings on writing.

“They’re excited because you’re asking their opinion,” said Buffalo Ridge Principal, John Veit, at the time. “You’re asking, what do you think about this, so it adds a whole new level of ownership for the kids. They’re excited. They get a lot out of sharing, because they love being heard.”

They found out that the kids thought writing was boring. They didn’t like it.

“I feel like in the beginning of the year when our teacher said we’re going to do a writing prompt we all kind of rolled our eyes,” one of Jaramillo’s students told me this week.” But now when she says we’re going to do a writing prompt, we’re all like ‘yay!’”

So what changed?

“We’ve done a lot more with integrating this year,” Jaramillo explained to me. “For example, with our science unit, they have to explain what they just learned through writing. But they don’t see it as writing, they see it as science.”

She and other teachers at Buffalo Ridge are also now providing students with more balance in direction, while giving them the ability to have choice in their topic.

“If they don’t know [their topic] very well, then they are frustrated and don’t like it,” Jaramillo said. “But if you build it so they feel confident, and they’re writing about something they know or feel good about, they try harder and are more engaged.”

As I talked with about half of the students in Jaramillo’s classroom, all agreed that they enjoyed writing much more now and feel like they are learning much more now compared to the beginning of the year.

“I feel like we’re able to write more detailed paragraphs now,” another student told me.


“Show What You Know” at Wildcat Mountain Elementary

At a first grade level, students may not be able give as detailed feedback as a fourth-grader could, but teachers can glean information from student work and behavior to assess if activities are maximizing their learning and engagement. Like Jaramillo and other teachers at Buffalo Ridge, it requires risk on the teacher’s part and a willingness to experiment with new ideas, even while the school year is underway.

First grade Wildcat Mountain Elementary teachers, Erin Cordova and Kristen Wright, began an activity earlier this year called “Show What You Know.”

“During our literacy time, there are a few certain things that kids need to do from their personal learning menu,” Cordova explained. “With some guidance, the kids are able to choose what will best help them to work on our World Class Outcome of creating meaning.  Once they have done these few things, they get to ‘show what you know.’”

The kids get to use any and all materials from the classroom to demonstrate their learning. As I talked with kids in both Cordova’s and Wright’s classrooms, some were using legos, some were creating structures with other materials, some were drawing, some were creating iMovies on the iPad, some were creating electronic story books and some were creating slideshows.

“The kids have come up with creative ways-- way more interesting than my prescribed ways before-- to show their learning,” Cordova said. “They are invested in their learning and take pride in creating something unique to them.”

Previously, Cordova and Wright utilized a Daily 5 structure-- a common framework for structuring literacy time.

“We’d pull groups and our kids would be working on words, reading to themselves, reading to someone, listening to reading, all these things,” Wright said. “We really reflected a lot that we were creating compliant kids but not engaged kids, and so we started talking about what the difference is between compliance and engagement, because we have great students at our school and they are going to do what we tell them to do most of the time. But are they enjoying it? Do they love it? Are we increasing their curiosity?”

“The couple of kids that could be your behavior problems, in the Daily 5 setting, they’re the kids that you constantly have to check in with. What we wanted is, when we’re working with kids one-on-one or in groups, we want that to be rich and we don’t want to have to manage what everyone else is doing,” Wright said. “So we figure if they’re doing something they want to do, then they’re engaged and I’m not sitting over here saying ‘hey you, get back on task. Stop doing that! Get quiet! Sit down!’ You’re not managing behaviors anymore, so that precious time that’s with you is way more beneficial to kids. But also, what they’re doing is way more beneficial to them too because they’re engaged the entire time. My kids, everyday, are like ‘I need to go to the library and get this book.’”

The enthusiasm has even carried over to home for some. One girl has been working on a project at home on ancient Egypt and keeps telling Cordova that she can’t wait to bring it in to show her.

“That’s not something I said she should do, that’s just something she did because she’s so engaged in the experience,” Cordova said.

Wright has a student who built an alligator at home out of recycled materials.

“The mom said that, before, the kid would go home and be on video games all afternoon, and now he’s like ‘can I have this from the trash can? Can I have this to create this?’ They just have turned into these makers now.”

“So they’re thinking about [their learning] all the time, even when they are outside of these walls,” Wright said.

Cordova and Wright also have been teaching the kids how to effectively critique their own work, their classmates work and to also welcome feedback. In the last fifteen minutes of Wright’s class, I watched as two girls presented a powerpoint presentation with videos and photos embedded, and the rest of the kids asked questions, provided feedback both on content and presentation design.

“That’s a really good idea!” One of the girls said as she was accepting feedback from another student. “Thank you for your feedback!” the two girls said as they concluded their presentation.


Getting rid of the DLR

Six weeks into this school year, Eagle Ridge Elementary second grade teacher, Jill Cahenzli, knew kids were bored with the Daily Language Review (DLR) worksheets, which have been a common sight in elementary schools for years.

“I was just noticing they are really not into this, and the things we worked on in the DLR-- which were basically fixing and correcting sentences-- wasn’t transferring over to their own writing,” Cahenzli said. “So I just felt like it was becoming a waste of time, like busy work. I knew I needed to come up with something that was a little more authentic that they’re more engaged in that is going to transfer over.”

Cahenzli worked with  World Class Education Curriculum Coordinator and former Mammoth Heights Elementary teacher, Mary Lisa Harper to come up with a replacement that is more engaging and can collect their feedback.

As I watched the class arrive first thing in the morning, kids gathered their iPads and headphones, then scanned into a Google Form from a QR code that Cahenzli includes in the front inside cover of student notebooks. They then answered a few questions on the form, watched a “pep-talk” video and explored the question where thunder and lightning comes from.

“I use [the iPad] for a ton of different things. Academic things, sometimes a video that I think they’ll respond to, sometimes just a picture, sometimes something related to an issue in our room, if I see something at recess or kids having a hard time focusing, I’ll put that in there and say ‘I’m noticing this, what do you think about it? How can we fix it?’ So it’s really good for feedback.”

As I continued observing the class, the students typed answers to Cahenzli’s questions on the Google Form and created something inspired by what they learned. Some drew pictures by hand in their “doodle notebook” and others continued using the iPad to create electronic images.

Some students shared their work and discussed their thoughts while using the classroom’s smart projector. Everyone then convened in a restorative circle, with every single student reflecting on their learning for the morning.

“I’m really noticing in the last couple of months that the things we’re talking about or doing in our morning work, I’m seeing it transfer to their written work and other things, as well,” Cahenzli said. “For example, sometimes we’ll use a word of the week. A few weeks ago the word was perseverance. We talked about what that word means and they’re using that word now. Someone will say ‘that was really hard but he persevered through it!’ It’s really cool to hear them use the language and they know what it means. So I can see that they’re applying what we’re talking about and what we’re doing.”

When I asked one of Cahenzli’s students, Lawson, what he thought about the worksheets they did in the beginning of the year, he made a face and quickly replied, “hmm...boring.”

It was hard for me to contain my laughter at this blunt reaction by the little guy. But Lawson said that he really likes this new way of learning in the morning.

“Most times she sends us things that are interesting, like right now we’re learning about lightning and thunder!” he said with eyes lit up and a smile.


Technology as a key tool for teachers in the classroom

Technology is playing a key role in all of these classrooms and is helping teachers maximize engagement and learning from their instruction.

“The computers have been a big part of it,” Jaramillo said of her success at Buffalo Ridge in getting kids interested in writing. “I notice I get a lot more from them on the computers. Instead of using the notebooks we now do a lot more on Google Docs.”

“We’ve done a couple of projects where I went in and entered comments-- which I can do from home-- and as soon as they knew I was giving comments they couldn’t wait to get in there and see what I said,” she said. “Then they wanted to answer. The ability for comments is huge because it makes it so individualized. There is not enough time in the classroom every day to pull every kid aside. The fact that I can give comments at home and they get to see them the next day, I think they like that because its individualized and I looked at them specifically.”

Jaramillo is also using Google Forms for continued feedback from her students.

“I ask them things like ‘what do you like about this project? Would you want to do it again?’”

In Cordova’s and Wright’s classes, a social media app called Seesaw allows students to upload their work and, once approved by their teacher, share it with their classmates, parents and other relatives, all of whom can like and comment similar to Facebook.

“It creates an audience for them,” Cordova and Wright said. Previously, kids would make an iMovie trailer or other creation and it would be shared with the class, but it started and ended there. Not everything can be shared in Friday Folders.

“We don’t have Friday Folders full of ‘here’s all your work this week.’ That’s just not how it is anymore when we have this kind of learning environment,” Cordova said.

With Seesaw, parents and even relatives who live hundreds or thousands of miles away can see their student’s work throughout the day and week, as well as give feedback and praise.

“The kids get really excited when their parents see something that they were working on that same day,” Cordova and Wright said.

The use of technology is advancing the learning goals of the classroom and making learning exciting and engaging for kids, and also giving them choice and ownership in creating their own learning pathway. But it’s important to note that the kids are not just on autopilot. The teacher plays an essential role,  guiding students to do their very best.

“We have a lot of conversations. It’s not like they just pick what they want to do, we’re always asking ‘why are you choosing that? How is that going to make you better?’” Wright said.

On Fridays, their students create a menu of their learning pathways. It’s also an opportunity for them to reflect on their learning and they way they choose how they are learning.

“It’s like a check in time,” Wright explained. “What are your goals as a learner right now? Do you need to practice your reading fluency, knowing you need to be able to read so many words by the end of the year and you are here on your graph, what are you going to plan for next week to help you accomplish that goal?”

With all of the adjustments Cordova and Wright made this year, they are thrilled with the results.

“I feel like I know my kids better than I ever have in my life,” Wright said. “I have never known a class like I know these kids. I know what they love, what they don’t love, what gets them going. It’s just amazing to me how different it feels, and it feels great.”


Chris Silberman joined the DCSD Communications team in September 2015. He grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and moved to Colorado in 1999. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Denver and served as Executive Director of a local music education nonprofit, as well as a local disability nonprofit prior to joining DCSD. 

April 14, 2016 | By CSilberman | Category: Assessment and System Performance, World Class Education

District News

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