Many people are familiar with the concept of SMART goals. This is an acronym to help goal-setters remember that an effective goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant (or Realistic), and Timely (or Time-Constrained). I have worked with SMART goals for more than half of my life, starting when I was sixteen years old and first attended the Illinois Teen Institute (now called the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute; same program, just a different name). I would not consider it an overstatement to claim that all goals I set are made with these ideas in mind. (That being said, the time constraints of my goals are the things most likely to change.)
Here’s an example of a SMART goal: I will graduate from the University of Illinois with a Master of Education degree in Educational Administration by May 2016. This goal, which is what I set when I first applied to my graduate program in 2013, was Specific (it stated exactly what I wanted to do), Measurable (specific courses had to be taken and passed), Attainable (it was very possible for me to do this), Relevant (it was a goal related to my desire to continue my education with a degree that would help me be a better teacher and school leader), and Timely (the goal was set for me to complete a two-year program in two years).
What I haven’t been so cognizant of is how SMART goals relate to SMART teaching. When I give my students a task, I should ask myself the same questions: Am I being Specific in what I want them to accomplish? Is the final product something that can be Measured (not necessarily through a standardised test, but is there a rubric for what is expected in the product?)? Is the objective Attainable in that students can actually demonstrate mastery of the concept or skill? Is it Relevant to what they are learn and what they need to know to be successful as lifelong learners? Is there a specific Time Constraint on when the final product should be finished?
I don’t mean to say that I don’t think of these things when I am planning lessons and units; I do. What I mean is that I have not thought of them as “SMART teaching” until today. (Curiously enough, when I Google this phrase, I found not a single reference to this acronym being applied to teaching!) What brought this about was the realisation that, although my students have been working on an ongoing short research project for several weeks, there was a definite increase of focused activity when I explained that projects were going to be presented to the class on Wednesday morning. It made me realise that it isn’t enough to say, “Your project is due in two weeks” or “You will have about two weeks to work on this.” I needed to be much clearer: “Your final project will be a presentation to your classmates on Wednesday, November 8.”
Another example is the way I have changed my instructions regarding math exit tickets. Instead of saying, “Take all the time you need to complete the exit ticket” I now say, “You will have five minutes to complete these two problems that are similar to the problems we did together and that you did for your individual practice. The exit ticket is worth four points. You will get one point for each correct answer and one point for showing your work on each problem.” This approach has helped students focus on what they are doing and complete all of the components of the assignment.
As I move forward, I am going to be more aware of using SMART teaching as the foundation of my class activities. My hunch is that student focus and engagement will increase as they know what they are doing, how it will be graded, my confidence that they can accomplish it, why they are doing it, and when I want it done.
Over the past couple of years, I have been blitzing my way through the over 130 episodes of a podcast called Educators Lead. It consists of interview with school leaders and teacher leaders across the United States and, occasionally, from Canada. I am currently on episode 102, so I still have a way to go before I am actually caught up.
From time to time, I hear of something on the podcast series that gets me thinking a lot more about how I do what I do. One such thing I recently learned about is a strategy that Dr. Ryan B. Jackson calls “the competitive teaching model.” You can learn more about how he developed this strategy by watching his TED talk below:
While I am nowhere close to being an expert on this strategy, the idea of having students compete against one another for a mutually positive goal caught my attention and I thought about how I could try that in my classroom. As a book by Eric Jensen I read a year ago pointed out, “”if the potential gain is good and the potential loss is acceptable, try out new ideas.” With that in mind, I decided to try something new with an inquiry project my students were starting.
Illinois is in the process of implementing new social studies standards. As is typical with my district, we are using the standards now. These standards, aligned to the C3 Framework, represent a massive shift in how we teach about social studies. Instead of historical events and people and places presented in a chronological order, we are looking at broad topics related to Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. One of the standards for fourth graders is to understand how where we live shapes their lives. Relying heavily on a unit designed by a wonderful colleague of mine in another building, I started this unit by explaining the two key components of research the students will be doing:
- a large group project comparing Urbana to Gibson City so that students can identify how the two communities are similar and how they are different, based on a series of six questions we came up with as a class and
- an individual project learning about another state in our country and comparing it to Illinois.
We started the first part today. I used ClassDojo to randomly divide the class into two groups after we came up with our six questions. One group was tasked with researching Urbana and the other group is researching Gibson City. The groups were told that they would be sharing their findings with the other class in two weeks.
So, where does the competitive piece come in? Well, I overheard one of the students in the group researching Urbana ask, “Hey, what is Big Grove? What does that have to do with Urbana?” I responded, “That’s a great question that I expect you to be able to answer as part of your project!” At the same time, the other group had someone ask, “What’s important about Gibson City?” I responded, “Well, Gibson City has a world famous landmark and I expect you to identify it in your project!” Then I told both groups, “Oh, by the way, you have each been given a specific task. If you aren’t able to complete it, your group will fail this assignment! Have fun!”
Now, I didn’t actually think that was a competitive challenge, but when the groups realised that they both had a challenge, they took to it with a vigour I have rarely seen in my classroom! Without even telling them they were competing, they decided to take it as a competition anyway! (Now, before I get any angry phone calls or emails, I should assure all parents and others reading that I will not give any group a failing grade simply because they miss one part of the project. My statement was meant to be partially hyperbolic–I say partially because I fully expect the groups to find the information I required as a part of their project.)
While I don’t know if Dr. Jackson will totally agree with my tiny step toward using a competitive teaching model in my classroom, I would say that I am at least trying! In the meantime, my students are fully engaged in learning as much as they can about these two communities.
Some of you may recall that I changed my approach to scheduling instructional blocks last year to create more workshop time for learning. I don’t think I really explained what, exactly, a learning workshop is. For those who aren’t familiar, a learning workshop is an approach to teaching that has a 10-15 minute mini-lesson followed by 30-40 minutes of independent work time and concluding with a 5 minute period for students to share what they have done with the class or small groups.
I have four major workshops set up for my students’ schedule: reading workshop, writing workshop, mathing workshop (yes, I know that mathing is not a real word; I use it anyway to emphasise that math is something that we do),and inquiry workshop (which, as much as I wanted to calling inquiring workshop, sounds better as inquiry).
Inquiry workshop is the time we have set aside for units of study in science and social studies. While I haven’t started any units for either content area yet, I introduced the concept of inquiry workshop this morning by having students complete a simple prompt: what do you wonder?
Each student then shared something he or she wondered. I let the students share anything at all. Some wonders that got shared included the following:
- Why does Mr. Valencic wear ties every day?
- Why is LeBron James so popular?
- Why didn’t it get very dark during the eclipse?
- Why do people get sick?
After students shared their wonders, I introduced a website that is dedicated to answering questions like these: Wonderopolis. I showed the students how to find articles, the features each article includes (vocabulary, comprehension check, and text-t0-speech), and how to ask questions. Students may not find the answer to every research question they have on Wonderopolis, but they will certainly be using this site to explore questions they have about the world around them!
My students recently completed a unit on Westward Expansion as part of our social studies curriculum. This unit is one of my favourite topics to teach each year because the students always amaze me with their creativity and effort as they prepare final reports.
I have changed the format of the project that accompanies this unit each year. Students have written reports, they have been given absolute freedom to do anything they wanted to share what they had learned, they have worked on their own or in groups. This year I allowed students to pick groups of three or four, select an important route related to Westward Expansion (the Oregon Trail, California Trail, Santa Fe Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, or Transcontinental Railroad), and then assigned each group to make a diorama reflecting a scene from the history of their trail.
What made this an extra challenge is that the only materials I gave the students were boxes from our Chromebooks. The students repurposed materials in the boxes, found construction paper, and creatively used glue and tape to create their dioramas. They also had to answer several questions about their trail, explaining how, when, and why the trail was used and its impact on Westward Expansion.
It was a great unit and a wonderful way to wrap up our major social studies topics. Now we have just a handful of days to finish up science, math, and keep on reading and writing until they very last minute of the very last day!
I believe I mentioned, not too long ago, that my class somehow managed to have three field trips scheduled within a two-week period. The first was our trip to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to listen to the Youth Concert performance of Peter and the Wolf by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra.
Two days later, on Wednesday, we took our two fourth grade classes to Springfield for an extended-day trip. After gathering at the school at 7:30 am and hitting the road at 7:45, our first stop was actually an emergency bathroom break. (I guess we didn’t explain the necessity of using the restroom before we left as well as we had thought.) We quickly regrouped and made it to our first scheduled site, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, just a few minutes later than planned. The students got to explore the museum in small groups of five (thank you so much to all of the awesome parents who were able to accompany us and chaperone our groups!!!) for about an hour. I did not have a group assigned to me, which let me roam and keep an eye on all of my groups. An added benefit of this was being able to listen to fantastic conversations and observations from our students. I loved how quickly they discovered gems of information and eagerly shared them with their classmates and their adults!
Our next stop was the Capitol Complex Visitors Center, where we ate lunch at the picnic area. It was 20°C (almost 70°F), sunny, and clear: perfect weather for an outdoor luncheon! Once we finished eating, we walked the block or so to the Illinois State Capitol and had a guided tour of that beautiful building! The students got to walk all the way to the fourth floor, sit in the gallery seats of the House of Representatives and the Illinois Senate, see the Governor’s Reception Area, admire the ornate rotunda dome, and learn about the original Supreme Court room.
Our last stop for the day was the Illinois State Museum. Once again students got to explore in their small groups, learning about the geological history of our state and some of the early peoples who lived here before European settlers came through. We only had about half an hour, but it was a great way to wrap up a very long day!
As soon as we got back home, students were sent to either walk home or meet their parents, ready for a four-day weekend! (Teachers had inservice meetings on Thursday, so we only got a three-day weekend.)
I love bringing my students to Springfield! It was so awesome to see the learn together, explore together, and discover together. We will come back to Illinois history after we complete a unit on Westward expansion, and then finish out the year’s social studies inquiry learning about the history of our small urban community here in East Central Illinois!
I love teaching. I love everything about teaching. I love everything I get to teach. This passionate love for what I do and how I do it transfers to just about everything in my classroom. It also explains why nearly every new unit or topic is introduced to my students as “one of my favourite things.”
All this week, I have been teaching yes, one of my favourite topics of American history: the American Revolutionary War. I do this through a series of narrative discussions with my students. I decided to call it “Story Time with Mr. Valencic” even though it isn’t just me telling the story.
We actually started two weeks ago by having students reading articles on the Front Row Social Studies series about the events leading up to the war, including the French and Indian War, the Stamp Act, and the Boston Massacre. Then we moved to some of the major events of the war: the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, the Battle of Saratoga, the Battle of Yorktown, and the Articles of Confederation. These events are told through a combination of Google Slides presentations and videos. At the end of each lesson, the students compete against each other in a Kahoot! quiz to see who can get the most correct answers.
We are about halfway through the war now. I know there are so many other events we could discuss, but we are hindered by time and resources. So even though I know that there are other important events we are leaving out, I am heartened to know that my students are learning. How do I know this? Because one of my students told me on the way to lunch yesterday that she was actually learning!
Right before Winter Break, my fourth grade partner and I spent a day looking at student literacy data and talking about ways we could better meet the needs of our four dozen or so students. One thing we realised was that we could more effectively and efficiently serve them by changing the way we grouped students for guided reading. Instead of each forming groups from our own classes, we put all of the data for all of our students together and made groups based on that new information. What happened was that about half of my students would be in groups with her and about half of her students would be in groups with me.
We looked at our schedules, bumped some things around, and found a way to both have our main literacy block at the same time. We started this shortly after the second semester resumed and have been meeting at least twice a week to discuss progress, strengths, weaknesses, and any changes we need to make.
Initially, I was meeting with all five of my new groups every day. Then I tried meeting with four groups each day by alternating days with two of the groups. Last week, as we looked at data further, I decided to tweak the schedule a little bit more so that I only meet with three groups on any given day. This has had the benefit of letting me a) give more time to students when I meet with them in their small groups and b) give them more time to work on independent tasks. With this newly tweaked schedule, my students now go to three of four possible twenty-minute stations: Teacher Time (only three of my five groups each day), Read to Self (every group), Writing (every group), and Front Row (two of the three groups, namely, the two not meeting with me for Teacher Time).
At the same time, we decided to use an article series on the newly released Front Row Social Studies page as the foundation of our guided reading texts. Each article is published at multiple grade levels so we can differentiate as needed for our diverse groups of learners. For each article, students read it online, complete a brief comprehension quiz, and have a written response. I would like to say that the students are blowing me away with both their excellent understanding of the texts and with their detailed analyses of what they have read, but that would not be true.
What I am learning, instead, is that many of them are struggling with connecting what they have read and what they know with the questions being given to them. I am also learning that they are not writing very detailed responses. In fact, several students are only writing one or two sentences, while others have copied the entire article and pasted it into their response.
Fortunately, I am able to take this information and use it in my instruction! My student teacher is starting to take over more and more of the teaching responsibilities in the classroom, which means that I can work with more students on specific, targeted skills. I am hopeful that this will result in improved output from students, not because of a test or any arbitrary, artificial metric, but because being able to communicate clearly and effectively with others is an important life skill that I want all of my students to develop!