In my 12 years of teaching sixth grade, I’ve tried my best to constantly learn, grow, and improve my teaching practice, both to prepare my students for the next years in school and also to be successful in life.
Over the years I’ve taught reading, language arts, and social studies. Whatever the subject, I’ve discovered that the most frustrating or unsatisfying lessons often turn out to be the best learning tools for my own future professional growth.
Because of these experiences, I have a firm belief that my students also grow and achieve more when they learn to overcome obstacles and persevere. One way to encourage that can-do attitude is to invite others to recognize my students for their effort and success.
Recognition from outside the classroom sparks something in students that leads to bigger and better things. I want to share a story about how that happened for me and my students this year.
Climbing the SAMR ladder
Recently I had my 6th grade social studies students complete a current events project with the Explain Everything collaborative whiteboard on their iPads. The final products turned out quite well content-wise, but the same products could have been produced using good old-fashioned poster board.
I was frustrated. Our district had provided us with these potentially education-changing tools, and I was not utilizing them to their highest potential. So I asked our Digital Age Learning Coach, Mary Stec, to help me brainstorm how I could elevate my students’ use of technology on the SAMR ladder.
We also thought about ways I could use technology to help students get a better understanding of the benefits of possessing a growth mindset – including the value of getting critical feedback about their work from multiple perspectives. Together, Mary and I came up with a plan.
First, some background
Last year, taking an idea about promoting personalized learning from 7th grade history teacher Anne Schmitt (@AnneSchmittBMS), my colleague and friend Michele Kandl and I adjusted for the different content and designed our 6th grade Ancient Egypt Personal Learning Project. This is a great activity where students can choose their topic, their method of research, and the final iPad product they will create to show their understanding.
Spinning off our SAMR brainstorming session, Mary Stec helped me create Padlet museum walls to display and share the links to my students’ culminating personal learning projects. The kids chose a wide variety of apps and tools to present their work, including Google Slides, Explain Everything, Prezi, Book Creator and Keynote, among others.
While the students were spending class time researching, note-taking, and creating their actual presentations, I spent time attempting to network with friends and colleagues in and around Barrington (IL) School District 220 in hopes of getting other schools to partner with me and create a wider audience for my students to present their projects.
To increase audience diversity even more, I also reached out to colleagues I know across the nation through my personal learning network. Lastly, I sent out over 50 “feelers” on Twitter to random middle school accounts, hoping for some response.
The response was awesome!
The response I received was exciting and surprising. Immediately, the 5th grade teachers throughout my district jumped on board, agreeing to view the student work and provide feedback. The high school Global Studies teachers in Barrington also spent some of their class time viewing and commenting on the projects.
Then some of my professional and personal connections around the state began to respond positively. I was able to forge connections with schools in Lake Zurich, Arlington Heights, Mundelein, and Prospect Heights. The icing on the cake was that a principal from an academy in New York returned one of my Twitter feelers and we agreed to move forward with a collaboration!
Managing the feedback
After making these professional connections, I again sought out Mary to figure out how to make this work as painless (for me) and easy (for my own students and the students and teachers around the country who agreed to partner with me) as possible.
Like the saint she is, Mary walked me through the steps of creating web-based feedback docs using GoogleForms, and using the GoogleSheets add-on autoCrat to compile all the feedback for individual students in one common folder. Then, as the feedback came in, I could easily share it with each child.
After the feedback came POURING IN, we had a “Feedback Day” where the students finally were able to read comments from 6th graders in other towns as well as older and younger students around the state and the nation. This prompted an outstanding discussion about what makes feedback beneficial and how the students could use the feedback to improve future products, both in my class and in others.
This discussion also provided an outstanding opportunity to talk about perspective (as in “multiple perspectives”) which is a concept we discuss all year long. I’d have to say that my favorite part of the whole feedback experience was seeing how genuinely excited and eager my students were to receive and read the feedback from the different schools.
Reinforcing the growth mindset outlook
The final step of this newly designed unit was an action plan I had the students fill out as a template for future projects. The goal for this part of the unit is to reinforce the idea of maintaining a growth mindset as we journey through school.
I asked them to pretend that they were able to travel back in history a few weeks to before the Personal Learning Project started and use what they know now that they didn’t know then (final grade, peer feedback, state and national feedback from all ages) to create a step-by-step action plan that would help them better deal with the actual obstacles they eventually faced.
In the vast majority of cases, the feedback received helped the student recognize a mistake or an area of weakness in their learning and/or production process. To the extent their action plans addressed these weaknesses, they can serve as productive reminders to students as they move forward with future projects, both in my social studies class and with projects in other classes this year and beyond.
I grew as a connected educator
Not only did this unit benefit my students, I gained personally from the experience. Did it take a lot of planning and effort on my part? Of course! But I learned so much, and I made sure the students understood from my example that the need for a growth mindset is something that really never goes away.
Working so closely with so many talented educators helped me finally see both how to elevate my students’ use of technology and also reap the benefits of redefining lessons using technology. I was able to create greater student ownership of learning, provide them a global audience, and help them gain a much more diverse range of feedback than they’d likely ever had before.
This experience also proved to me that being part of a collaborative professional learning community, both face-to-face and in the connected world of the internet, allows me to tap into the generous spirit of fellow educators and work unselfishly for the benefit of student learning. Collaboration just makes everyone better.
I’m looking forward to continuing my professional collaborations with teachers from across Illinois and the country as a whole. If anyone is interested in possibly connecting our classes for future learning opportunities, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @BMSPKramer.
Tim Kramer is a 6th grade social studies teacher at Barrington Middle School–Prairie Campus in Barrington, Illinois. Tim’s goal is to energize his students’ love of history while engaging them to be critical thinkers about the world around them. A passionate reader, Tim frequently adds entries to a middle grade and YA book blog that can be viewed at mrkramersbookblog.blogspot.com