Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Learning Lab: Tiered Learning

This week I had an amazing opportunity to participate in our school's first ever Learning Lab.  A couple of week's prior to this, our building instructional coach, Sara Wickham, was invited to observe a lesson in my classroom.  After the observation, she said, "You know, I've been kicking around this idea in my head about a learning lab.  Would you be interested in working with me on this?"

Here is the basic idea:
  • Invite teachers to sign up for the Learning Lab experience (to occur during their planning)
  • Teachers will meet with the instructional coach at the start of the hour
    • The Instructional Coach will introduce the concept of the learning lab experience
    • Teachers will watch a 2-3 minute video created by the classroom teacher briefly explaining the lesson and discuss any look fors that should occur while observing
  • Teachers will then enter the Learning Lab (the classroom) and observe the lesson for 10-15 minutes
    • Teachers are encouraged to ask students questions
  • Teachers will then leave the Learning Lab and debrief with the instructional coach
    • Teachers will discuss ah-ha moments, comment, ask questions and share ideas they saw that can be immediately used in their own classrooms
I am writing from the perspective of the classroom teacher hosting the Learning Lab.  Over 4 class periods, 9 classroom teachers, 2 administrators and the instructional coach visited my class. Sara wrote a post from the perspective of the coach.  You can read about it HERE.

Here is an overview of what they saw in a 45 minute class:

Video Introduction

Class Lesson
  • Students will discover the process for conjugating -ar verbs
    • Students will watch the teacher created PowToon video
    • Students will choose to take virtual notes or notes on paper
  • Students will self-direct their learning and practice through tiered and scaffolded activities housed on a Tackk Board

Post Observation Comments & Questions

My Responses to Post Observation Questions
  • How do you grade tiered assignments? I rarely “grade” practice for a grade as it is practice. Instead I use descriptive feedback to help kids stretch and grow (most of the feedback is oral, but when using google docs I use the comment feature).  When I do grade tiered assignments I have a grade break down (Basic = C; Proficient = B; Mastery = 90-95; Advanced = 95%+)….even then it is for minimal points and/or is recorded but exempt from the grade book   Today’s lesson was not for a grade.  My students know that the practice we do is to help them improve; reach proficiency.  Because I share the levels of understanding at the start of the school year students realize that they will have to stretch to reach the upper levels of understanding.  The practice we do is scaffolded so that students may move forward and back as needed.
  • How long does it take to create tiered assignments? Tiering can be simple, like today’s lesson…all students were essentially doing the same activity(NOT multiple different activities), they simply chose when to move on to the next level of understanding.  I think sometimes we get overwhelmed as teachers by thinking that differentiated instruction = creation of several activities.  Most days my students are working on the same activity and I tier it using levels of taxonomy:  recall/application/creation/creation+ (+extending what we learned and connecting it to a new process/concept and/or tie it to a previously learned concept)  Tiering can also be a compilation of multiple activities such as: learning menus and thinktactoe.  These can take a bit of time to create HOWEVER there is a pay off for time spent…1 thinktactoe = 2-3 days of activities/lessons.
  • Are students that continually choose the basic level ready for the next level of Spanish? The majority of my students try for at least proficiency, not all students reach proficiency, but at least try proficiency.  Are BASIC kiddos ready?  If a child has a desire to move on in the language we have a professional responsibility to support that child’s choice.  I do not believe all students will be proficient in the language (when teaching within restricted timelines).  Some kiddos may work very hard and remain basic or proficient low AND still enjoy the language.  I want our students to know that if they have a desire to learn and work hard at it, then continuing in the language is the right choice for them.  Will there be basic kids that move on that lacked motivation? Yes. Are they ready for the next level? Who knows…maybe they matured over the summer and they return ready to learn.  
  • How do you motivate kids that seem to always choose the basic level? I think it is absolutely okay to start with the basic level and to stay there until the practice begins to feel easy.  It is my role, as the teacher, to be up and around the room, to facilitate conversations about learning and encourage students to try the next level(s).  How do I motivate? Enthusiasm and positivity is contagious.  Kids at the basic level need A LOT of KUDOS…they need to know that you believe it is possible for them to excel.  I know this sounds very “ra-ra” cheerleader…but many of our kids rarely have someone cheering them on…you may be the only person in their day that believes in their ability to be successful.  It is human nature to want to do well at what we try.  It is also human nature to feel defeated when at first we don’t succeed.  “Failing forward” is a pretty popular edu term these days.  There is a lot to be said for teaching students resilience…we can teach it by offering multiple opportunities and multiple pathways for success.

    My Insights

    While a certain level of anxiety can come from observations I felt relatively relaxed.  I think this is in part to wanting to be authentic with my colleagues.  This was not meant to be a horse and pony show of perfect practices.  It was meant to offer a real glimpse at what happens in the classroom every day. Some days we are rockin' it, other days we are not.  I honestly had no idea how this lesson would go as I had never used Tackk as a self-directed platform prior to this lesson.

    Students were told in advance that other teachers would visit the classroom for a small amount of time.  They were further encouraged to not be afraid to answer questions that may be asked of them and to simply interact professionally and honestly.  I thought multiple classroom visitors might be distracting for students.  However, the students didn't skip a beat when the observers entered the room.  They simply kept on working and asking questions as if it were business as usual.

    In first hour, there was a moment in which over half the class had their hands raised. I could sense their anxieties from lack of understanding the new learning objective.  My vision for "self-directed" learning was quickly falling apart.  I simply stopped the class, regrouped with some whole instruction and released learning again.  (My principal calls this CAR...catch and release).  It was awesome to have that moment of vulnerability in front of my peers. Why? Because the Learning Lab should be an authentic experience that spurs conversations and allows ALL participants to stretch and grow.

    This experience allowed me to stretch and grow in the following ways:
    • The collaboration and conversations that resulted from the Learning Lab created connections between colleagues that might not have otherwise occurred.
    • The feedback and comments from the observers fanned by flame for teaching and learning 
    • Knowing this was the first Learning Lab experience in our school, I was inspired to blend the tiered instruction with multiple media platforms so that observers would be able to walk away with a several ideas they could immediately implement in their classrooms
    This leads me to share with you the ultimate goal of the Learning Lab experience, two days later, Kari S., a science teacher in our building, shared a tiered lesson she created as a result of the lab (scroll to the end of her Tackk and look at her wording on student tiering/'s simply awesome).  I love that this addresses the thought that this can't be done in core classes! This in itself made the Learning Lab a success!