By Lindsay Sauer
Be careful reading this post about CCIRCA because after I attended, I will never go back to the way I was teaching before. In this year alone I have learned so much about myself as an educator and have grown more than any other year I’ve taught. In reflecting on what has had the biggest impact on the drastic shift of my teaching, I’ve narrowed it down to two contributing factors: the birth of my son and attending CCIRA for the first time.
I had the pleasurable opportunity of staying home with my son for his first year and when I went back to the classroom, I realized one huge thing that my classroom was missing. Students need more play! This insight came from interacting with my son during his first year and being so aware of his constant need to play and be active. I then realized that my first graders were not much different and they too needed to be active and play in order to be successful. I attribute this as the beginning of some radical changes in the way I run my classroom.
I implemented an abundance of hands on learning activities and opportunities for students to play while learning. I came to the realization that it was not only MY classroom but more importantly, the students; this classroom was OURS. At this realization, here came another huge shift in our room. I felt I had to do more fostering student choice and ownership in the classroom. I wanted students to be proud of their class and the learning that was happening inside.
I had been trying to implement student choice and voice all year by using flexible seating, connection circles, as well as a variety of other tools. I thought I was giving all the choices they could handle. However, after attending CCIRA for the first time and getting to hear Debbie Miller speak about her new book, I understood I was still missing a huge part of student voice. She asked something that really made me stop and think about everything I had previously learned about teaching literacy. “Are there rules to workshop?” (Miller, 2018, p. xvi)
At first I immediately thought yes of course there are. You have a 10-15 minute mini lesson, guided groups are conducted, and then closure. But then she blew my mind when she showed that it doesn’t have to be the same thing every time and how we can teach in different ways and that workshop can look different depending on the needs of our STUDENTS. Of course, this was my biggest take away. What do our students need? After all, our teaching is all about the students and their needs.
Debbie then took it a step further and asked us what would happen if we let the students own the work. She stated to let students show their learning in whatever way works for them. This really made me stop and think. Was I letting my students have enough choice? Was I allowing them the freedom to show their learning in a way that worked for them? The answer was no. I realized that we discussed the learning target everyday and why it was important. We discussed our success criteria but in the end, I was the one truly owning it. I had put my first graders in a box and it really broke my heart to think that. Well I walked out of the session knowing that my teaching had completely changed and that I had to take immediate action.
I went back that following Monday and knew that student work time was going to look completely different. Instead of the normal, “Here’s how you need to complete your independent work”, I told students, “Show your learning in a way that works for you.” Well I bet you can imagine the looks on their faces… they were lost. I had so many questions and I was intently very vague. We discussed the learning target one more time and I said simply said ‘go’. As you can probably also imagine, day one ended up being a total disaster and honestly most students didn’t get anything done. It was a huge learning experience.
During planning time, my teammate and I got together and discussed what we needed to do differently to better support our students. We made a few different examples to show students some ideas of ways to show their learning. As a grade level, we use Seesaw so we showed students all the different tools offered on the application to support their learning. Some examples included recordings, drawings, typing, and writing. After providing a few examples, I was amazed at the depth of learning and understanding of our students. We have since continued to fine tune how this works.
Allowing students to have true ownership over their learning, I have seen just how brilliant my students are and how they differentiate for their own needs. I am constantly in awe of the creative work they continue to produce, as well as their deep understanding of their own learning. They are the true owners of the work now and it shows.
Eventually my teammate and I decided we were ready to fine-tune this process a step further and we created our first micro-progression. This happened after listening to Maggie Roberts speak about the importance of micro progressions in the classroom. “Micro-progressions house the way toward higher levels of work. By providing actual examples of work that’s improving, as well as listing the qualities that make up each “level” of work, micro-progressions allow for both self-assessment and self-assignment.” (Roberts & Roberts, 2016, p. 17)
We decided to try it out with our character unit and made our first micro-progression for character traits. We started backwards and created 4 levels of understanding of character traits. We discussed the four levels and again gave students the opportunity to show their learning in a way that worked for them.
I was blown away at not only their depth of understanding of character traits, but also the ability to assess themselves at the level they were working at. Learning these two tools at CCIRA has changed the way our classrooms look. If you walk into our classroom, you see students engaged in literacy and taking ownership of their learning. You will hear students discussing with one another their understanding of their learning target and how to increase their level of understanding. So I leave you with this – “If we’re not teaching children to be independent thinkers, what are we teaching them?”(Miller, 2018, p. 171)
Lindsay Sauer is a first grade teacher in Arvada, Colorado. Arvada. She’s been teaching for six years and is passionate about education and making a difference. Follow her classroom on Instagram @sweetnsauerfirsties.
Miller, D. (2018). What’s The Best That Could Happen? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Roberts, K., & Roberts, M. B. (2016). DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Independence, and Rigor. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.