Joy Kirr is a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. Her 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of their learning experiences... Want to have her speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is Joy's PORTFOLIO.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fishbowl Discussions

We should have started these types of discussions back in September or October, but I'm so very glad we're starting now. I needed to get my reflections down on how "fishbowl discussions" went in my 7th grade ELA classes this week. Why are we trying these? Because the 7th grade ELA team of teachers knows that to get students doing most of the work is how they learn. We want to keep them engaged in the lesson by being able to share their ideas, and we want to help them be able to listen to and learn from one another.

Day 1:  I began by asking, "What are the components of a good discussion?" I then asked WHY we have discussions. Their answers were as follows: To figure out answers to questions, to practice listening, to get other's viewpoints, to learn something new, to share what we know.
     Next, we watched the first 6 minutes of Paul Bogush's fishbowl discussion video. Students asked, "Are we going to do this?" Yup! We then practiced moving the tables and chairs - I feel that since I pointed it out during the video that they would be moving their own tables, they rose to the challenge. Since I wanted an easy discussion first, we read a scenario* (here are some we may use in the future), and asked for our first volunteers. Reviewed "rules," and started discussing. I kept notes on who talked, and who chose to stay in the background. With 7-10 minutes left to spare, we moved the tables and chairs back and I asked students to suggest how to incorporate more people into the discussion.



Student suggestions -
     * When you're done speaking, you can get out of the discussion without someone being waiting to come in. That way there's an open invitation of an empty seat.
     * You can join just to ask one question if you'd like.
     * You can encourage someone to come in for you - make a suggestion to someone.
     * You can give your question or idea to a friend and he or she can come in for you.

My observations -
     * I love how my three classes moved the tables differently. I gave my first class too many directions, I realized, after my second class went right to it without my help. Their middle table formation was different than the first class, and my last class had a different outer circle formation. Let the students to figure it out!
     * My first class (the quiet, compliant class) was still quiet, but they listened well to each other, and responded positively to each other.  One thing they did not do - disagree. It almost seemed as if they were too nice. (Is that possible?) There wasn't much dissension.
     * My second class (the tech-loving, opinion sharing class) was very disappointed to see their discussion end. I heard one student on his way out say, "I like this. We actually have a chance to get a word in." I did notice that a handful were in the fishbowl more often than others, and they started to get frustrated with each other near the end, repeating what they'd said prior.
     * My third class (the after-lunch exuberant class) was the most active - jumping in and out and in and out like a whirlwind! However, it was the same few students throughout, and they didn't respond "bounce ideas off each other" like they said they had listed in their "components of a good discussion."

My changes for the next session -
     * Ask block 3/4 how to get more students involved, and show them how they can nicely disagree.
     * Limit students in block 5/6 to two times in the circle, saying two solid ideas each time.
     * Create small handout of response starters for them to use so they begin listening to each other. (I also put these in the fishbowl for block 5/6.)

Day 2: We have a question of the day in the back of the room. Students' names are on individual magnets, and they move their names over under the answer to the question. This day's question was, "On a scale of 1-10, how well do you think our fishbowl discussion went yesterday?" They answered as they came in.
We then looked at our ideas from the day before so they could see what they did well and on what they could improve, and asked the question again. Each class seemed determined to do better than the first discussion. Students had a few suggestions that they were willing to try, and I was excited to see how each class could improve.
     We first voted on a scenario from two choices. We read, moved the tables and chairs (oh so quickly this time!), and students were in the middle, ready to go. There was an added job today, however. I asked students to take notes on what other students said - anything that surprised them, made them think deeper, etc.
     With 10 minutes left to spare, we moved the tables and chairs back and I asked students to share with me what they wrote down. I projected these quotes on the board, and showed them how we will be using our notes to write about the experience (during tomorrow's scenario). I asked for a quick "thumbs up, middle, or down" as to how well we did today - and celebrated with them their progress.

My observations -
     * Thank goodness for wheels on my tables. Students were quick to figure out what tables go where.
     * The same amount of students participated in my first class, but one was different than yesterday. They also disagreed more often, but still in a respectful way.
     * More students in block 5/6 were able to participate! It seemed as if they were choosing their words carefully, as well, as they didn't want to leave the circle too quickly.
     * My last class made me laugh - they used the response starters to the hilt! They sounded sarcastic, but it did encourage them to listen more to each other. One student pulled out a line from our last huge unit about neuroscience - "How old is he (the "new kid" in the scenario we read)? He's in high school? Well, then we know his brain isn't fully developed yet!" I was cracking up!

My changes for the next session -
     * Make sure students on the outside of the circle are sitting two to a table only. At times there were three, and that seemed to encourage whispers.
     * I will NOT give the class a time limit that they can see - I did this for my last class and it backfired. They stopped talking early, and asked that they not know how many minutes they had until they only had two minutes left. Done.
     * Make sure, for tomorrow, each student is ready to take notes on what their classmates say. This was difficult for many today. I'm glad we tried it with no pressure of a prompt first, and I'm glad I'm not grading their prompt they'll turn in tomorrow.

Day 3: Our question in the back of the room was the same.
We first celebrated what we did well the day before, and then suggested goals for the day. I shared my goal - students taking notes on what their classmates were saying. Before we read today, I asked students to write about success. "What does success mean to you? What does it mean to be successful?" Students had 10 minutes, and wrote a full page on average. We then read Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Success."  Then the discussions began.
     After discussions, I asked students to add to their writing, using the text, comments from their classmates, and their own reflections.  My prompt when they began writing - Explain how the text or the discussion changed their thinking.


Student suggestions -
     * Drop the poem. They wanted to have the discussion based on their writing, not on the poem.
     * One said that if we grade them on their participation, more will go in the middle.
     * My middle class likes the new rule of going in only two times.

My observations -
     * Students wrote (before the discussion) for a long time... some wanted more than 10 minutes.
     * Students were eager to move the tables, and did so very quickly.
     * Two students went into the circle and did not say anything. They were finally tapped out, and did not resist.
     * I found it very hard to not "rein in" my middle class, as they got off topic once (I popped in to say, "Let's remember our focus"), and right before I was ready to pop in again, they came back on topic themselves.
     * When the sub for our teaching assistant asked a question from outside of the circle, the students near him quietly explained that he could "tap in" if he wanted to talk.
     * My last class really focused just on the lines in the poem, and finally got so frustrated with it they asked me if they had to discuss it. I said, "Go ahead and discuss 'success.'"
     * Students who were listening had a lot to write after the discussion. Students who were not in the middle or did not listen had a very difficult time writing more than one or two sentences.

My changes for next session -
     * Let students discuss their own writing first, then add the poem when they've run out of steam.
     * Let students know how many times they've been in a discussion so far (0/3, 1/3, 2/3, 3/3) so they know I'm aware. If they have been in 0/3, give them pointers on the bottom of a note so they feel that they can jump in. (I created this document for now, but can modify later.)
     * Keep asking students to reflect on what went well, and on what they can improve. They're so good at this, and it seems to give them focus when they begin a new session.
     * I've created a self-reflection sheet, as well (which will probably work better than me giving them the notes I wrote about above).
     * Give students a goal of TWO quotes that they will use in their writing after the discussion.
     * Give any substitute the directions for fish bowl discussions. ;-)

Student quotes I wrote down regarding "success" (from all three classes) -
     "...depends on your goal in life."
     "If you are NOT successful, you learn more from failing."
     "It's not what others want you to do; it's different for everyone."
     "...friends, family, and education..."
     "...who you surround yourself with..."
     "If you hate yourself, are you not successful?"
     "It's how you feel about yourself - what makes you happy."
     "It's giving back..."
     "...doing the right thing..."
     "...helping others... bubbling with excitement..."
     "Success is hard work."
     "...if I tried my hardest... be patient..."
     "...persistence - don't be a quitter..."
     "You've succeeded if you have friends that are there for you."
     "Success is something YOU determine."
     "You have to keep elevating it... want to be superior to others..."
     "...make your way up there with smaller goals..."
     "You don't feel like you've successfully completed something if no one knows about it."
     "...as long as you do something that helps others..."
     "You might have to miss out on things..."
     "Do what is important to you."
     "Live in the present."
     "Only you can say that you've succeeded."

Oh, be still my heart. I love it when seventh graders make sense... Scroll down on this page to see some of their writing.

We will continue to add to this writing regarding success - after we read, analyze, and have more discussions regarding the first two chapters of Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.

* We have read two scenarios provided by Michael Smith - co-author of Fresh Takes on Teaching: Literary Elements - He had come to our school to share some great ideas!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Stepping it up a notch...

Oh, boy. I like calm waters. I don't like to stir things up. But I think it's time for me to step it up a notch...

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see Rick Wormeli this week. Oh, the enthusiasm that emanates from that man! He came skipping into the room, and even asked, "Is Joy Kirr here?" (No, I'm NOT a Twitter stalker, just an admirer!)

My big take-away from the (stellar) professional development today: I need to bring these ideas back to my team. The strongest question I heard today was, "To what degree will you allow your colleagues to keep doing what they're doing, even if you think it is not right?" Team time can be difficult when there are many strong opinions in the room, and we all think we're right. I feel I need to stop staying quiet (because I get intimidated), and start speaking up.

I'm always the one that supports good ideas - I get on the bandwagon and cheer! I try to help out where I can. I'm not one to challenge others. However, Rick got me thinking. Later in the afternoon, I found myself on Twitter asking someone about their tweet & the name of a contest for students - It's called the "Smart Student Blog Contest." The name just rubbed me the wrong way, so after a three-minute struggle in my mind about whether to even go there or not, I replied to the person who tweeted it out...
As soon as I tweeted it out, I regretted it. And yet, I didn't delete it. I wondered, "What's the worst that could happen - he unfollows me?" I don't follow him (for various reasons), but he was on a list of mine that showed up on my TweetDeck - the reason I saw his tweet. Still, I wasn't looking for a fight. I looked back at my tweet and saw that it wasn't negative, just inquisitive. I received this in reply:


And I replied back, because I was still irked by the name "Smart Student..."
Phew! That tiny challenge took a lot out of me. It was time for met to get off Twitter for the day!
This morning, I saw this tweet from a very well-respected member of my PLN:
I smiled, and replied...
What ensued at 6:15am today was a valuable conversation between Jill and I about what our role is as educators. Do we want the best for only OUR students, or for ALL students?

What am I scared of? I'm worried I'll be known as the teacher who thinks she knows it all. (But if they really knew me, they'd know I have no clue what I'm doing!) I don't want to be the bad guy. I don't want to look like a jerk. I don't want to stir the pot.

Do I have a record for stirring the pot? No. I did one time, two years ago, on opening day. I remember it clearly. I asked another teacher why she would ask the teachers in the grade below her to give her notes on students before she'd even met them. I asked, "Whatever happened to a 'clean slate?'" She has just started talking to me again... I don't want to burn bridges. Heck, I want to be liked - especially where I work.

It is, however, time for me to step it up a notch. I now have Rick Wormeli's question taped to my open laptop. It's there to remind me, while speaking with other teachers in a meeting about students, to challenge ideas I don't believe in. But how? How can I do so - nicely - so as to not burn bridges and keep the conversations going? I think I'm going to start with another tip from Rick and from many others I've heard from in the last two years I've been on Twitter - ask the right question, and then let the answers go around the room. Once it's been discussed by others, reflect what I hear, and ask again, if need be. Or... is it better to have this conversation one-on-one? Hopefully my coworker who attended with me will support my endeavors.

I need your help now... How do you do find this balance at your school? Or do you not? Let's keep the conversation going and encourage each other to do the same!

Want to know more about what I learned? My notes from Rick Wormeli's session are here on Storify.