Learning alongside students in France

Students at UNIS study French or Spanish from kindergarten, and in 8th grade they get the chance to do a 10 day trip/homestay. I was fortunate enough to join them in Montpelier, France this May. After studying French from 1997-2001, I was so excited to finally get to France and feeling rusty about my French skills.
First, France was an amazing place to visit and a great host. Montpelier was so enjoyable from sunrise to lights out. Beautiful, walkable streets – this huge plaza used to be a traffic roundabout but is now full of life and people.

IMG_20170513_072228513Every part of every meal was so thoughtful, fresh and delicious. Locals were friendly, easy-going and warm.

As for speaking French, I was thrust right back in the frustration and triumph of being a student. My French did come back a bit thanks to many patient teachers and a growth mindset. Growth mindset has transformed my approach to learning – I just shift my awareness from frustration to small moments of accomplishment, confident that these will add up in the big picture.
Finally, in addition to the many great activities we did (Street Art tour, Roquefort Cheese cave tour, language classes, etc.), the students and teachers went to an adventure park on the last day. This was a fun day for all, and reminded me of all the challenge-by-choice learning I did at Project Adventure. In the U.S., challenges are often heavily facilitated and guided by the instructor, with students waiting most of the time as students go one-by-one. In France, students received a brief, effective lesson on using the safety harness system, and then guide themselves through courses at their own pace and in their own way. Courses were even labeled in difficulty, a la color-coded ski slopes. Whaaaa? This is exactly the type of independence that 8th graders need. They still need to be harnessed into a safety system, but navigate their own problems in their own way.

The entire trip was really a blast, especially working with a leader who was on top of everything (Anne Lhullier) and a great team of chaperones.
To France!


What’s Happening in Writing?

2016 has been an exciting year in writing instruction at the UNIS Middle School. The 6th-8th grade English teachers (Pooja, Sam, Gina, Judy, Amanda, Linda and myself) have formed a Professional Learning Conference to coordinate curriculum and strategies for reading and writing. I can already see the benefit to students and their ability to transfer skills when teachers are on the same page.  Here is what we are working on:

Self-Regulated Strategy Development
Self-Regulated Strategy Development is practiced by several teachers at my school, and they were happy to share their pedagogy. SRSD teaches the writing process, and includes:
-Explicit teaching of the writing process, including memorization of nmonics to help students internalize its components.
-A self-talk component of the process that uncovers blocks that student writers have and uses growth mindset to help students move beyond.
-Goal setting that progresses with each writing task.
-Student-centereed checklists that give students more clarity and ownership of writing and editing.

The current eighth graders all learned SRSD in 7th grade, and many know if from 6th grade. Starting out with many of these writers in eighth grade, the level of transfer is incredible. Throughout my teaching career, I have felt like I am starting from the beginning with every grade. It felt Sisyphaen. Now, I pres-assess and look for what students already know about the writing process, then use a common language (that is increasingly schoolwide) to access their skills. It feels like a more efficient process, and students really know their planning and organizing.

SRSD fills in the gaps of Writing Workshop perfectly. Writing Workshop (from the Reading and Writing Project at Teacher’s College) inspired me to rediscover the writing process and instill it in my students. Specific parts of “workshop,” as it is affectionately known, that inspire me are:
-Students must write (and read) every day.
-Units focused around an authentic writing task
-Students begin the writing task on day one (rather than work on one-off practices or drills and then tack writing task to the end) and add to it every day.
-Teacher and students have a “grand conversation” about writing framed in the active language of “writers narrow their focus”  or “writers use specific evidence.”

Workshop has many great components, but I was concerned that some skills and strategies were being glossed over, and students weren’t really mastering them. Along came SRSD, which is compatible with the components of workshop mentioned above.


Blended Learning

For the past two weeks, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to initiate, collaborate, and be coached to improve instruction and curriculum delivery. The Blended Learning Lab, under the leadership of our Office of Innovation and Research and several Content Strategists, emulates the start-up culture feel. I was openly, overly excited about this part and it fulfilled my wishes. Free snacks! Comfortable chairs!


Using GOA‘s Catalyst Cards and daily focus sessions, I ended up innovating an eighth-grade English unit on journalism. I focused on these goals:

Public Learning Goals (including linking them to the Mastery feature of our reporting tool) Navigation – Guided Inquiry
Content Curation
Competency Learning
Page design
Self-management skills

Assessment and Feedback:
Culminating Task
Teacher to student feedback
Student to student feedback

One of the best features of the Blended Learning Lab was the integration of student participants. Middle school (and high school) students served as collaborators and focus groups alongside us. Overall, the Lab was a massive success and I am very grateful to have participated. Here is a screencast walking through my unit on Schoology.


Content Strategist Training with Global Online Academy

Summer. There is no more wonderful word in the world. It is the reason New Yorkers trudge through winter, the time we drift from one social event to another, and a long, beautiful break from school. In the week since school has ended, I have discovered brain capacity that has been maxed for quite some time. So it is time to get ideas flowing before summer brain sets in too much.


The UNIS Middle School hosted Content Strategist training by the Global Online Academy. GOA coached several teachers in…coaching! We learned strategies like paraphrasing and asking reflective questions to prompt colleagues to think in new ways about their instruction. In my experience, the most productive conversations happen when teachers take ego out of the equation. Paraphrasing and prompting protocols are an effective way to do this. Why?


-Both sides can here all the facts with built in pause time before kneejerk response.
-The person posing the situation looks within themselves to evaluate solutions.
Listening is drawn out as a distinct part of the conversation.
-Participants are able to see their challenges from a new perspective.

The basics of the protocol are PPPP.
Pause, Paraphrase, Pause, Pose

An Ode to my Co-teacher

Happy New Year! Welcome to Adventures in Humanities. My goal for this year is a blog post per month, so get ready for 12 posts. I do teach writing so it’s only fair that I become more prolific.

Team Teaching
Sam Mosher and I are team-teaching! This is a new development in the UNIS Middle School. After puzzling over theory and application of team-teaching (which is new to me,) I realized that I am blessed to have a wonderful, sensitive, and simpatico partner. So, my advice is to have a great co-teacher. Team-teaching has been all about opening up our practices and designing purposeful instruction. So far it has been a super positive experience, and here are my main take-aways:

Every conversation is grounded in purpose and action.
Whether teaching non-fiction writing in journalism or getting kids on their feet and tackling Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, our focus on reading, writing and honoring the text. When starting with this simple premise, it is easier to remain focused on what is important. I am antsy about getting to the concrete action stage, but Sam is great about slowing my process down and really thinking about purpose.

Stick to the plan?
Having a co-teacher is somewhat like having a constant reflection on your classroom. I’ve realized about myself: I like to be super planned and know exactly what I’m doing (stubborn Taurus!l) and then change it up whenever it strikes my fancy. Paradox! Flexibility is key, and I admire Sam’s ability to adapt while staying true to herself.

Now, the nuts and bolts.
So what has worked in our classroom?
1. Weekly planning meetings. Checking in about the flow of the week. Collaborate? Divide and conquer? Assess? Laugh and chat? Yes, yes, yes and yes.
2. Staying present and complimenting the current dynamic. Because this specific classroom experience is new to both Sam and I, it helps to keep eyes and ears open and be ready to jump in wherever needed. Expect anything, and use your wealth of experience on the spot.
3. Parallel teaching. This specific model of co-teaching has worked very well for our group.