SOLE: Self-Organized Learning Environment

This blog could easily have been called Genius Hour: Part IV.

I have been doing Genius Hour for a while now. It all started with the TED talk about the School in the Cloud experiment in India. Sugata Mitra designed the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children could explore and learn from each other — using resources and mentoring from the cloud. His vision led to the creation of SOLE or Self Organized Learning Environments.

Screen Shot 2017-02-19 at 1.25.43 PM.pngThis is very much like Genius Hour…students start with a big question or idea, they choose their own partners/small groups, and they present their findings at the end. The teacher walks around and helps when needed, but does little in terms of instruction. SOLE does differ in that each small group (3-5 students) can only use one device. This helps with collaboration and teamwork. Also, members of the group may leave the group, to share or get ideas from other groups, but must ultimately present with their original group.

This video is probably the most profound thing I have read, seen, or watched in many years. “Before the internet, there was great value in knowing and remembering. Yet, this is the lowest level of learning.” With Google at our fingertips, why does a 4th grader need to know how many cups are in a pint, or how many feet in a yard? While it is good to have a frame of reference for these things, no longer do we need to spend so much time memorizing facts. We have the world at our fingertips! “Today it is more critical to know how to find answers than it is to remember them. We are able to free up our educational process on high order skills such as evaluation and creation.”

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My role as a teacher is no longer to be the “keeper of the knowledge” standing in front of rows of students, imparting my “wisdom” into their brains, but as a facilitator; someone who sets a process in motion, then stands back as learning occurs naturally. I am grateful for the GT instructor at my school who originally showed me Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk, and helped get Genius Hour rolling for my students, and for a co-worker who reminded me about SOLE and how to use in my daily teaching! Borrowing and stealing!


Socratic Seminar with Kids

I have been doing a “Revolutionary Roundtable” for four years now as the summative assessment from my “Who We Are” IB Unit called Rebel Rousers. (This is for 56 fourth graders, who would be working with the SC standard 4.3.1: Explain the major political and economic factors leading to the American Revolution, including the French and Indian War, the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, and the Intolerable Acts as well as American resistance to these acts through boycotts, petitions, and congresses.)


We have about 90% GT population in fourth grade and I did this lesson whole group (although the other fourth grade teacher and I split the round table so that half of her students participate in my room while half of my students participate in hers.) The first three years of this assignment, the students researched a historical figure and wrote a biography paper, then dressed as their figure for the roundtable and held a debate. This sounded great in practice, but it never went as planned. The students have been writing biography papers since second grade and I was bored to tears reading thirty of them. Also, it never addressed the central idea of our IB unit which states, “People sometimes seek independence from the authorities that rule over them.” A third problem was that students who drew names like George Washington and King George III were dominating the roundtable, and shyer students or less known historical figures kept pretty quiet. When I saw a socratic seminar with the MYP students at my school, I reflected on how I could improve the roundtable for my grade level.


As part of a course I am taking, I was tasked with “Instructional Rounds.” This was modeled after medical rounds, taking turns in all departments of the hospital. I went to several other classrooms in my building to get ideas to use in my room. I admire both the English and Humanities teachers at my school and went to visit their Socratic Seminars. The students read a novel, were given several conversation starters, and researched their possible responses. I took this and adapted it for fourth grade. Instead of a biography paper, the students would write a Research Based Question (based off of our Document based Questions that we have practiced all year.) They would be writing a paper about what independence meant to their historical figure. This was getting closer to my unit’s central idea.

Students worked to identify allies and foes and develop questions for both sides for the roundtable. They also worked on possible questions that could be asked of them, and had time to formulate their responses. Then, on the roundtable day, the students were able to bring their index cards into the seminar with them. During the roundtable, I arranged my classroom so that all the chairs made a large circle, but there was a smaller circle of five seats in the middle. These were the “hot seats” and were open to anyone. I let my students move to the center when the timer went off and the first five to sit down would then have 4-5 minutes inside. The students were given a blanket 60 points for entering the hot seat. They earned an additional five points for the following: asking a question, challenging an opponent, having a quality response, being an active listener, using textual support, and wearing a costume/bringing a prop. They received the last ten points when they turned in their notecards (all or nothing). I also tweaked the middle school socratic seminar tracking sheet and had the students’ names listed on the left. While another teacher and I observed the roundtable, we were checking things off this list. (CCSD employees can get a copy here.)


The hot seat was a great success. I never once had to ask the students to fill in, because they were loving going in. Even the shy students got involved because they were facing four peers instead of 28. Several students even took two or three turns in the hot seat. I was also expecting some general boredom/misbehavior from the students sitting in the outer circle, but there was none. The students had textual evidence from their research and asked each other some higher level thinking questions, and had generally thoughtful responses. The checklist was helpful for me and the other teachers because we had something to listen for and could mark it quickly. The students loved the whole process so much, they started asking when we could do it again.

Some critical thinking questions that could be used in a future roundtable are as follows:

  1. To what extent was the American revolution a revolt against taxes?
  2. When was the turning point of the war? What was the significance of this event? The consequences?
  3. To what extent did the Declaration of Independence establish the foundation of the American government?
Digital Teaching Resources, Uncategorized

My Top 6 Digital TpT Purchases

Everyone loves a good printable. But while printables and worksheets look cute, they’re not always the best for higher order thinking, collaboration, and creativity. I was asked during a Digital Cohort class to go around the school where the class was taking place and to take pictures of student work around the building. What we noticed were the “cute” things hanging on the wall were all the same (slightly differently colored) versions of the exact same thing.

Here are my top five TpT purchases that have helped me differentiate, personalize, and keep my sanity.

1. Error Analysis & Constructed Response (Math problems). During math rotations I usually do some variation of: Math with Me, Math by Myself, Math with a Partner, and Math with my iPad. During the collaborative station, I have the students work in pairs to answer a constructed response question or look at a problem that was solved incorrectly to find and analyze the mistake. I’m killing two birds with one stone; the students are working on collaboration and communication skills, but also looking deeply at math problems .


2. Marzano Learning Scale Templates. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have an entire binder that is color-coded by math standard. Each math standard has the learning scale listed on one side and a QR code on the back. The learning/proficiency scale lets the students know what is expected of them in kid friendly terms. The QR codes take them to a padlet page (see previous post) with videos, examples, and practice problems for each standard.


3. QR Code Task Cards. There are too many to post. When I am working with small groups in math, the students working independently, or with pairs are not allowed to interrupt my group to ask questions. Having them do problems with QR codes showing them the answers lets them self-assess and I don’t get interrupted every five minutes.


4. Writer’s Workshop Deli-Style Conferencing and Smartboard Attendance. In two words: life savers. Both of these interactive downloads save me time. The attendance smartboard has a different page for each month of the year (and a few extra). The students move their name each morning and I can quickly glance at the board to see who’s absent. (The kids especially loved January, where they “threw” their snowballs to show they were present.) The writer’s workshop powerpoint has students take a number. When I’m ready to conference with the next student, I click the spacebar on my laptop, and the next number pops up on the smartboard (plus a ‘ding’ chime) which alerts the class I’m ready to move on. Who doesn’t love streamlining and saving time?!


5. Pre and Post Tests (Math Standards). I am working on a document that will have all of my pre and post test in one place. In the mean time, creating questions for each math standard by myself is beyond time consuming. I’m not trying to create more work for myself, so using some pre-made questions, or tweaking them slightly is another way to save some time. Work smarter, not harder!


6. Data checklists (ELA & Math). I use these checklists to chart all the data I receive from pre and post math tests. I can write in level 4, 3, 2, 1 depending on the results and change them as they prove they’ve mastered a standard. Again, I didn’t want to recreate the wheel. These are close to what I would have created myself.

Digital Teaching Resources, Genius Hour, Uncategorized

Genius Hour: Part III

Genius Hour is by far the best part of my week and my students would agree. Every Thursday, they walk down the hallway asking if we will be doing Genius Hour today. (The answer is always “yes”!) Each Genius Hour brings up some struggle to be addressed or genius idea to implement in the future. Here is how our following weeks went.

Week 6: I had just attended a Digital Cohort meeting where we watched a video from Common Sense Media called Digital Bytes. With a sort of choose-your-ending novel feel, the students click on one of the following responses to the question: Which are you feeling like today? The choices are: creator, thinker, doer, and pioneer. My class chose creator for the day.

After a series of other questions, we ended up at this video about Caine’s Cardboard Arcade. Common Sense Media asks a question after you watch the video, so students get a chance to reflect.



While Genius Hour is usually about students working together to research questions of their choice and a short presentation, this week, I sent out a quick email request for any cardboard lying around the school. Within minutes, I had tons of boxes and every kid was creating something original from cardboard. And this Genius “Hour” turned into Genius Day.

Week 7: The SAIL teacher and I were in the middle of another Genius Hour when we walked around and noticed that most of the students were starting with their presentation and then doing the research. We paused and told the students they would need to have us approve their topic and research before they could start on their presentation. Then we realized, the fourth graders didn’t know how to research! They were copying and pasting whole paragraphs from websites to Google Slides and calling it a project. We spent some more time discussing how research should look (bulleted information, not complete sentences) and it took several tries and frustrated students before they started to get the hang of it. This week’s presentations were by far the best yet. Students weren’t reading large paragraphs from their presentation, but were looking at the audience, and paraphrasing.


Finally, instead of doing all of our presentations on one day, we decided to create a sign-up sheet with different slots throughout the week. This way, we can do a few presentations a day to ensure students are prepared, and the audience doesn’t have to sit through so many in one sitting.

Digital Teaching Resources, Uncategorized

Teaching with Padlet

This blog post could easily be titled Year Four: Personalized Learning because it ties in with my previous posts. While students are working at their own pace in my math class through ALEKS and their tracking sheets, I also have Padlet pages for every standard. (I use their app on my iPad, too).

Padlet is a virtual bulletin board. I can post pictures, videos, links, task cards, practice problems, and so much more to one page. My students have an understanding of what the standards mean (NSF stands for Number Sense Fractions) since they track their own learning each day (see previous post). Here is my Padlet from standard 4.NSF.1:


I have a Padlet page for every single standard. If a student is working on 4.NSF.1 and I’m working with a small group, they know they can not bother me. If they are having a problem understanding the concept, they click the link to Khan Academy or Math Antics video through the Padlet. They can work on practice problems too, to see if they truly understand.  I also love Anchor Charts, but I have terrible handwriting. So, I search the standard on Pinterest and copy and paste someone else’s anchor chart image and save it to Padlet. Is that borrowing or stealing? 


At the start of this year, I created a Proficiency Scale using what my district provided and this resource I bought on TpT. I printed them out and color coded them by standard. On the back of each proficiency scale is a QR code that takes them directly to that standard’s Padlet page.


This has worked so well for me in math, I am planning on creating Padlet pages for each science and social studies standard as well. I’m teaching US Government right now and can just picture links to the White House, video clips, and even School House Rocks. (I’m just a bill, on Capital Hill).

Digital Teaching Resources, Uncategorized

Involving Parents

There is nothing worse than spending an hour creating a weekly class newsletter, no matter how cute, and finding out that no one reads it. I’d import pictures, type up class events, create a class calendar, and I’d still get several parent emails a week asking me for information that was in my newsletter.

Then I stumbled upon this WeAreTeachers article comparing Bloomz and Remind (two classroom communication apps). Two years ago, I signed up for Bloomz and haven’t looked back since.



Through Bloomz, I am able to message all parents at the same time. I post documents like flyers and study guides. And every Friday, I post pictures from the week. My old newsletter only had space for one or two pictures. Now I attach 10-20 a week. Because Bloomz has an app, I attach the photos straight from my phone and save the step of emailing the pictures to myself. Parents have been very receptive to Bloomz because they know what’s going on at all times. (The downside is the messenger portion. I’d much rather have a parent email me, in case their message needs to be forwarded to the front office or school nurse). I’ve gotten several other teachers at my school to join Bloomz and they love it.


In addition to Bloomz, I have created a class Instagram account begborrowstealclass. This is a way for parents in my class to see what is going on daily, without waiting for my Friday Bloomz post. I also post short videos here, like of science experiments, field trips, and spirit days. Its mostly for the parents, but I have several former students who also follow me, and reminisce about their time in my class.



Digital Teaching Resources, Genius Hour, Personalized Learning, Uncategorized

Top 5 Reasons I use Technology in my Classroom

It was my first year teaching at a new school and I was handed 28 iPads around October. Now what? The kids were excited and had used them at home for games and videos. It has taken me four years to get my students to see them as tools for learning, but here are the top five reason why I would never go back to teaching without them.

1. I’m saving trees. I used to spend hours at the copy machine loading ream after ream of paper into the sorter. I still print some things…interactive notebook pages, extra credit holiday packets, and some math sheets, but almost everything else is attached to Google Classroom in the form of a Google Doc or PDF. (We use an app called PDF Expert and even type, draw, highlight on PDF docs).


2. My students know how to collaborate. I use the term “elbow-partner” multiple times a day. My classroom has flexible seating. (My students may sit wherever they like when they come in each morning, as long as it follows certain criteria. I have seats with stationary bikes, standing tables with spooner boards, Hokki stools, and bean bag chairs. Students can’t sit at the same table twice in a week and must have an even number of girls and boys at each table.) My students work with their elbow partner daily, for quizzing each other on math facts, or completing assignments. I know they don’t always want to work with their elbow partner, but they know I won’t let them work independently on certain assignments, so they just get down to work, usually through a collaborative Google Document.

3. I’ve saved time grading assignments. I use Google Forms for quick quizzes or checkpoints that are graded automatically. I get immediate feedback, and so do the students. They can go home and tell their parents their grade and don’t have to wait a full week for the assessments to go home in their weekly folders. I also choose to send response receipts so they students can see the questions, their responses, and the correct answers to learn from their mistakes. I also use Google Sheets for digital rubrics. (CCSD employees can open and copy this rubric here.) I borrowed this idea from another presenter at the Google Summit.


4. The kids sometimes forget they’re learning. We’ve been using the “A Google A Day” feature recently. Google posts a random question that takes multiple searches to find the answer to. My fourth graders love this game and we get to bring in our research standards as well as digital citizenship and internet safety discussions. Genius Hour has also helped with this (see previous post). No longer do we need to go to the library, search the card catalog, or find an encyclopedia. The internet is at our fingertips (or in our pockets… some of my students have newer cell phones than I do!) With this wealth of knowledge at their fingertips, its our duty to teach them how to use it.


5. The future is digital. When I got my first teaching job, my father gave me this picture of his mother’s kindergarten class. If you look at classroom, not much has changed. There is a teacher, a chalkboard, and rows of kids. The global workforce is more and more dependent on technology (walk anywhere and see how people are on iPhones, laptops, etc.) Technology isn’t going away, and if we want students to be successful in higher education and the workplace, they must get used to using technology as a tool or textbook and not just as source of mindless entertainment.