What a busy two weeks we had launching distance learning for the foreseeable future! This new adventure brings unique challenges for teaching and learning. When regular classroom activities are grounded in a philosophy of collaboration, connection, and conversation, distance learning is significant shift. During these first days, we began to get routines established, figure out technology tools, and adjust to being at home and apart from each other.
Our awesome fifth graders jumped into this new reality with smiles and good humor. Video conferencing via Zoom allowed us to connect each day to learn together, play a game, share family news, or clarify how things work. Students shared their pets, their creative creations, and their questions about our current situation. Though we had our fair share of tech glitches, what a blessing it was to be able to see each other every day to keep at least some of our classroom routines alive!
Our “Morning Announcements” project continued without a hiccup as students transferred announcements to a video format using Adobe Spark. You can check them out here! Our class Auction project material is slowly becoming the beginnings of a beautiful quilt. We began a novel study of Fever, 1793, an historical novel about the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia during the summer of 1793. It’s a challenging and interesting novel that provides an excellent chance to compare an historical event with our current situation. Students began keeping a Coronavirus Journal documenting their experiences during this pandemic. This journal will provide them a way to observe and reflect on their experiences as they create their own primary source documents of this historic event. Science, math lessons, Spanish class, and vocabulary lessons also kept us busy. Next week students will have the opportunity to connect with their Music and Art teachers as well.
There is no way that we can replicate our everyday classroom learning experiences, but we are doing our best to give students the chance to stay academically and socially engaged, healthy, and happy. Though no solution will be ideal, we’ll continue to connect with each other each day, to show grace to each other as we try new things, and to adjust regularly based on our experiences and lessons learned. As exceptional, courageous, independent learners, that’s just business as usual…even from a distance. Thank you to all of the PNA community for the positive support and flexibility as we grow together!
PNA’s project-based learning environment seeks to develop creativity and communication skills in our young learners, who are growing up in a technology and media-rich environment. Unlike previous generations, our students have instant access to an abundance of information; experience rapid changes in technology tools; and have the potential to collaborate and make individual contributions on an unprecedented scale. To be successful in the 21st century, they must be able to create, evaluate, and effectively use information, media, and technology. Some critical skills that they must develop include the ability to:
Access and Evaluate Information
We read, read, read across the day in 5th grade. We read to prepare our Morning Announcements; we read to learn about our various units of study; we read novels and articles and short stories and directions and websites. We read to learn, laugh, cry, and wonder. Students work hard to comprehend the texts they read and to stretch themselves as readers. As we move into our next writing unit, the literary essay, students will challenge themselves to read more deeply and closely than ever, searching to develop deeper understanding of literary texts and express that thinking in an organized, thoughtful essay.
Literary analysis asks learners to think critically about literature; to look beyond the words on the page; to analyze symbolism, theme, and literary devices. We’ve been doing this work regularly, in small doses, with small journal entries and class discussions, but our upcoming unit will push students to engage in this thinking process on their own as they carefully analyze a short story and write a literary essay about it.
We started this work in small steps this week as we began reading some picture books and short stories that are rich with meaning. Our mentor text, Fox, by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, will serve as a model throughout the process. This book is deceptively simple: the story is brief, but the characters’ motivations and the rich symbolism develop several universal themes that will resonate with readers for a long time. Watching our students as they listened to the story in utter silence and fascination was a delight, and hearing the stunned words from one of them, "That was such a good story…” foreshadowed the rich conversations we will have as we analyze this story in depth.
Over the next few weeks students will read many short stories, choose one to read more closely, and learn to dive deep. They will push beyond their initial understanding and question the text to find topics they want to analyze: characters, theme, literary devices, setting. They will look to answer a "why" question. Instead of simply describing the text, "why" pushes them to analyze and even synthesize to identify a relevant thesis related to modern-day issues and concepts. The goal is to think critically at higher levels and to express that thinking in an organized way. Students will stretch their abilities to push beyond mere description into ideas that are convincing, argumentative, and defend a position. They will explore how literature challenges us, delights us, empowers us. We are diving deep!
As the sun starts to appear earlier each day and stays later each afternoon, our school year feels like it is speeding up and hurtling down the road at light speed! We’ve been busy here at PNA, as students are growing and stretching themselves in so many ways! Here are just a few of their accomplishments these past few weeks:
-To honor and celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions and vision, our class joined with the rest of PNA to show kindness to each other and to serve others. We worked with our 2nd grade buddies to learn to sew “bat wraps,” special soft pillow/blankets used to help orphan bats survive. Our bat wraps will be sent to areas in the world where extreme weather is causing loss of habitat and safety for animals. This activity held just the right amount of challenge for our learners, who now have the sewing machine skills needed to work on our upcoming Auction art project. Additionally, our students were able to see how they could be connected to something happening across the globe: an important concept as they study Earth’s systems and how they interact.
- Brown Bag Week was a fun and important chance for students to practice living the PNA mission. It takes courage to stand up in front of the student body to share a skill or talent, and it takes integrity to be a good audience member: to listen patiently and politely; to clap and encourage classmates; to cheer for performers of all ages and skill. Our class chose to share a funny skit with the school, and we were gratified to get lots of laughs. Two of our fifth graders also participated in the city-wide battle of the Books, where they did a fabulous job representing PNA!
- Last week the PNA's exceptional learners celebrated the 100th day of school! Fifth graders helped set up the many activities and then participated with gusto. They helped clean up afterwards as well. In fact, this group of young leaders can be counted on to lead the way and help cheerfully whenever they are needed!
- Academically the class has been continuing to build an understanding of the text structures of non-fiction. We’ve embarked on some non-fiction reading about extreme weather events, moved into a study of our US Constitution, finalized our informational writing about the American Revolution, started learning about energy transfer in science, and continued our study of US geography. Our Morning Announcements Project continues to challenge each student to be a good writer and speaker, and students recently began taking even more ownership of this project as they made some of their own format changes to our daily program and began experimenting with GarageBand to change up our accompanying music.
Yes, the light is returning, and it’s energizing us in wonderful ways! These next few months will fly by, and we are working to make every moment count!
As temperatures in Anchorage hit the negative single digits for a full week, PNA fifth graders headed back to school after a relaxing winter break! The best way to sum up our week is… BRRRRR!
Being in school full time after two weeks of late nights and sleeping in proved to be challenging AND fun! Students were happy to see their friends, enjoyed drawing with charcoal in Art class, playing floor hockey in Gym class, and discovering “Apples to Apples Junior” during break time. By Wednesday everyone was dragging a bit, but they dug deep and finished the week strong!
Reese from Australia joined us for a day to learn about PNA. We had fun getting to know her!
Reading logs moved online. Students track their reading each morning in our online Google sheet. This allows them to see their progress and make decisions about their reading goals. We also started using an online form to report about finished books.
Recess was indoors all but once this week. Many bodies packed the gym at recess time!
Reading workshop took a backseat to writing workshop as everyone worked to bring their American Revolution informational books to a satisfying conclusion. Peer editors made suggestions for revision via “comments” in Google Docs, and then students used cool techniques in Google Slides to publish their books. Lots of new tech learning this week!
Rug space opened up in our classroom. Our big screen was mounted on the wall over the break, and there is now more space in the classroom for circle time, game playing, and stretching out. Mrs. Henke is hunting the town’s stores for a nice rug for our new open space!
Reading the Weather, Reading the World is the name of our next reading unit, which dovetails nicely with our continued science study of Earth’s systems. Students will turn their attention to the skills and strategies of reading informational books about weather and other natural disasters while exploring the interactions of Earth’s atmosphere with other systems. A trip to the NOAA Weather Station is in our future!
The air was bracing, the landscape beautiful, and the students busy this week: a memorable beginning to a great new year!
Though we often think of smart phones and laptops when we hear the word “technology,” that term is more broadly defined than that. In fact, technology is any application scientific knowledge for practical purposes. It includes machines, but it also includes techniques and processes; early human technology included the wheel and the hammer. In a school context, slates and chalk gave way to pencils, which became pen and ink. Throughout human history, technological advances have ushered in new eras, new industries, and both negative and positive impacts.
When I was attending college to prepare for my teaching career, I was required to take a class on “instructional technology.” In this class, I learned how to effectively use tools such as an overhead projector, an opaque projector, and a 16 mm film projector to enhance my instruction. Then, as a new teacher, I learned how to use the technology of the mimeograph machine to create my own handouts and parent newsletters, and I spent many an evening removing purple mimeograph ink from my hands.
In fact, if you are older (like me), you might find this image humorous and familiar at the same time:
Throughout the ensuing years, new technologies constantly changed the way I taught and the things I asked my students to do. Overhead projectors became interactive whiteboards; typewriters were replaced with word processors; tape recorders became CDs and then MP3 players; TV shows evolved into video tapes, then DVDs, then video streamed on demand. In the last year or so, my use of the whiteboard and marker has reduced significantly as I learned to use my iPad and Apple Pencil. Every few years the technology changed, and there were new things to learn and new ways to enhance the educational experience. The biggest change of all was the introduction of personal computers.
Computers have impacted our world in revolutionary ways. Computers can represent our physical reality as a virtual world, and they can follow instructions to manipulate that world. Ideas, images, and information are translated into bits of data and processed in infinitely creative ways. Computers are more than just a tool: they are a medium for creative personal expression and critical problem solving.
As computers became more and more ubiquitous and user friendly, I enjoyed the challenge of helping students of all ages understand how to use them effectively and responsibly. We created music and video, made our own slide shows, created art and spreadsheets. And yet, there was a missing component to my curriculum: actual computer science. Computer science is the field of understanding why computers work and how to create those technologies., as well as the related rights, responsibilities, and applications. Instead of being passive consumers of computing technologies, students also needed to learn to be active producers and creators.
Why? Well, learning to code is not just for coders. Computer science has driven innovation in every field, and is powering approaches to many of our world’s toughest challenges. Computer science in this century opens more doors than any other discipline. Learning the basics will help students in any career—from architecture to zoology. 71% of all US jobs require digital skills. And high-skilled computing occupations are the fastest-growing, and now the largest sector, of all new wages in the US. Just as they learn how to write an essay or how electricity works, it’s important for every 21st century student to have a chance to design an app and learn how the internet works. These are critical literacies in their world and the key to solving problems and creating things we can't even imagine. How exciting it is to help them crack the code of the future!
As I continue my life-long journey as a teacher, I am always looking to improve my practice. These past couple of years, my newest learning has been in the area of PBL. Though most of the elements of PBL have been a part of my practice throughout the years, it’s a new challenge to bring those components together intentionally and cohesively.
Being a “Project Based Learning” classroom doesn’t mean that a full-blown project is always in full swing. It does, however, mean that I look for opportunities to implement the essential elements of gold standard PBL wherever and whenever I can. These research-informed essential elements have proven to be key components of engaging, challenging, enjoyable learning.
One of those elements is an authentic audience, also called public product. Authentic audiences connect student work to the real world, provide buy-in for students, and show students that their work and learning experiences are worthy of attention. We teachers often look for ways to make student work more public, because writing or creating or learning just for the teacher’s eyes isn’t really very motivating at all. Knowing that the work we do will be enjoyed by someone else changes the process in a compelling way.
As I reflect on the past few weeks, authentic audience has been popping up everywhere I look. This week we received some copies of the PNA holiday card. The delight in the fifth graders eyes and their excited exclamations were hard to miss; they themselves had created the artwork that will be sent to friends and family of PNA this holiday season. How exciting to know that your art work will warm so many people’s hearts!
Additionally, this week students participated in several rehearsals with Mr. Bissell, our music teacher. Many weeks of hard work and practice learning instruments culminated in a delightful Winter Concert, where family and friends and classmates enjoyed beautiful music. Learning was made public in the best possible way!
In their study of the American Revolution, the hard work of reading informational texts, taking notes, and drafting their own informational texts will also result in an audience. During reading and writing workshop this week, one student asked, “Are we going to publish these books we are writing?” The answer was, “Of course!” What good is writing with no one to read it?
As we journey throughout this fifth grade year, it is my hope that the activities and projects we work on somehow connect to larger purposes, an authentic audience, and opportunities to celebrate growth!
Our social studies standards are ambitious; built around the National Council for the Social Studies C3 Frameworks, they include standards for content and skills, but also standards for developing questions, planning inquiry, evaluating sources, using evidence, communicating conclusions, and taking informed action. The C3 framework states that there are four major disciplines in social studies—civics, economics, geography, and history—and that links to all four disciplines should be found in all social studies courses. There are six guiding principles of the C3 framework:
Inquiry is indeed at the heart of social studies instruction - of all instruction. When the goal is to develop students who are independent thinkers and exceptional learners, the best place to begin is with their natural curiosity and sense of wonder. When inquiry is at the heart of instruction, we support students in:
-living a life full of curiosity
-exploring ideas and issues that connect with the own interests and the wider world
-tackling big ideas, essential questions, and deep understandings as they read, write, and research
-reading and responding flexibly and with a critical stance
-thinking creatively and sharing new learning in creative ways
-engaging in collaborative learning and action.
Our class is knee deep in our American Revolution inquiry this month. Students are challenged to become experts on this topic in reading workshop, so they can share their knowledge with others during writing workshop. Students are developing questions, reading fiction and non-fiction texts of all kinds, and discussing their reading understanding and connections to events and ideas that formed the core of our nation’s beginning. They are connecting their growing knowledge of US geography with the historical events of this exciting time in US history. Atlases, videos, primary sources, historical novels - all these are rich content pushing the inquiry forward.
Students are asking important questions and viewing the events from multiple perspectives. History, geography, economics, and civics all take center stage as students learn about boycotts, legislative bodies, taxes, and key historical events. Each question leads to another as they wrestle with the thorny, multi-faceted, messy realities of history. Why was it called the “Boston Massacre?” Was it a massacre? Why did Parliament impose the Intolerable Acts? In 1776, what was it like to be a Loyalist? A Patriot? A slave? A woman? A Native American? A merchant? A soldier? How did thirteen very different and independent colonies come together as one united entity? How does one define “liberty,” and for whom?"
Inquiring minds want to know.
Our 5th grade social studies standards: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1BdXbNBidIF6bQOydKwZCl3oQTDrUW2wk65U67AghoLs/edit?usp=sharing
After two weeks of unusual school scheduling, it was important for us to settle back into familiar instructional routines, especially as we approached the excitement of Halloween! Our class readily embraced the work of digging into studies of colonial America, reading a slightly spooky tale about “zombies,” and continuing our study of character and theme in “The Tiger Rising.” We practiced keyboarding and cursive, studied US geography and map skills, and worked on grammar and punctuation. We also had some fun with a little Halloween inspired art project, creating crazy “cursive critters.”
How do we work through these various activities when students work at different paces and have different strengths and needs? An instructional routine/structure that builds independence and responsibility while differentiating for students’ needs that I’ve used in my classroom for many years is Study Stars. My goal is to build independence and a solid work ethic while allowing students to work at a pace that works for each individual. Here’s how it works:
Study Stars is basically a listing of assignments, activities, and possibilities for student work. Some items are required, some items are optional. Each day the items are placed in order based on due date, instructional need, student interest, and variation of learning experience. Some items in the list must be completed in a particular order; others can be completed in any order. The goal is to help students prioritize their work schedule for the time they have available, to support them in meeting due dates, to allow students to work at the pace that’s appropriate for them, and to allow voice and choice in learning. While students work independently or even in partners, I am able to confer with individuals or small groups.
In any school setting, each day's schedule varies greatly. So on some days we have a long Study Stars time; on other days, we have little or no Study Stars time. But the structure is always there, predictable, adaptable, and flexible, providing the opportunity for each student to shine.
Science concepts can seem easy to teach and to learn, especially with the many videos, simulations, and resources at our fingertips these days. But all of us can voice facts but not truly understand them. Students can read and discuss scientific phenomenon but not truly understand and apply a concept. That’s why hands-on activities are so crucial. Sometimes the activities might feel “easy,” and yet those activities cement understanding in very unique and critical way.
After spending a full week talking about space, reading about space, and watching movies about space, we spent a bit of time during our Parent Lunch actually conducting a little model-building exercise to extend and deepen understanding of some critical science concepts.
The Next Generation Science Standards call for important core “content” to be taught, but also focus on more “processes and practices” and “cross-cutting concepts” to be understood. For example, in Earth science, a disciplinary core idea for students to learn is:
ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System: The orbits of Earth around the sun and of the moon around Earth, together with the rotation of Earth about an axis between its North and South poles, cause observable patterns. These include day and night; daily changes in the length and direction of shadows; and different positions of the sun, moon, and stars at different times of the day, month, and year.
The standards also call, however, for students to engage in critical thinking and practices that are also expected in other content areas, such as:
Many students in grade 5 can talk about the core ideas of the orbits, day length, and shadows, since they have been told about them from the time they were very young. They’ve read about them, seen pictures of sun dials, experienced the effects daily. But creating a sun dial; monitoring weekly changes in the length of our days and nights and graphing that data; watching shadow phenomena and making conjectures about them: these are the activities that make learning real, and these activities can reveal misconceptions and partial understandings. From there, we can build more activities and experiences to correct those misconceptions.
Parents: thank you for joining us at lunch on Wednesday and helping to build and test our sun clocks! We had a lovely time together, and your contributions to our science lesson were much appreciated! We will continue to explore natural phenomena to deepen understanding of our world, because it is more critical than ever. Thank you for all you do help along the way!
Martina Henke has been a K-8 educator for 30+ years. A life-long learner, she loves working with kids of all ages, new technology, great books, fiber arts, and her wonderful family!