Saturday, March 18, 2017

Station Rotations in Sixth Grade Math

    My math classroom is quite the collection of students this year! I have 24 sixth graders of all ability levels. We have a demanding curriculum (Math in Focus). The bumpy rollout of our curriculum when these students were in fourth grade has left them with a few holes in their math knowledge, holes that I didn't even know to look for at the start of the year.

    But most importantly they are a collection of delightful individuals who need the most math that I can teach them. This year, I've been trying to figure out the best way that I can do this. One thing that I know from my years of teaching ELA is that there often is no single best way--that I must be constantly changing up my strategy, working on my plans, and altering routines to fit my students at that moment.

    In October I attended a workshop about hybrid station rotation, and I decided to implement it right away. My class does break pretty evenly into three groups. I'm really lucky this year in that the gifted teacher can take a group for enrichment during two days of the cycle, and an instructional assistant comes in during all of math.

    With these advantages, hybrid rotations should have worked out perfectly, right? Well, it was bumpy.

    My first problem was in my arrangement of teacher lessons. In the first week, I saw the middle group first, the struggling group second, and the enrichment group last. (With students, of course, I called them by content-based names instead of these terms.) This arrangement
crashed and burned. My enrichment group consisted of the largest personalities in my class, and leaving them to their own devices for the first 40 minutes of math was not successful.
     Technology use was another issue. I needed at least 5 computers per class, and these was not always easy to secure. While students said that they liked watching the videos, they struggled with learning from them. Another issue was that the method required 100% of my focus and attention. There were at least 12 discrete tasks that I needed to complete for each math lesson!
It took a great deal of Saturday time to plan each lesson, and most of my lunch to get ready for it each day.

Workshop Station Rotation
    We took December, January, and part of February off from station rotation, moving to a more traditional model. Special events in December made this essential, and we kept the routine in January as students were enjoying it.
    In the middle of February, though, we were all ready to try stations again. But I had some changes in mind! First of all, I changed my rotation. The hybrid model works wonderfully in
some situations, but I wanted something different.

Whole Group Lessons
    I've limited my stations to 15 minutes each instead of 20, which means that I have 20 minutes for a whole group lesson in each class as well. This helps us all to stay on track.

Homework/Review Station
    I've been having great results with a homework packet due Friday mornings. I use great materials put together by Maneuvering the Middle. When students have questions or problems, I have used time in the morning before school, at the start of recess, or at the end of math to help them.
   Why not use class time for this? The homework and review station is time each day for students to work on their homework packets, reviewing key skills from the entire school year. Even better, students could help each other by explaining their work and showing their steps.
    In the middle of the week, as students are finishing their homework, I add some Reteach or Extra Practice pages from my math curriculum to this station.

Teacher Station
    Now, instead of planning a lesson to fill my entire 20-minute block, I prepared a single problem or technique to show students. The remainder of the time I kept open for emerging issues. What problems did you encounter at the other stations? What would you like me to show you?
    This method works perfectly with our current unit, Area of Polygons. After I started with some basic whole group lessons, students moved on to finding area of more complex shapes. They would bring their questions to me and we would work on those tougher problems together.

Lab Station
    This station is especially useful for manipulatives-heavy topics like geometry. Here, students extended our learning in projects or activities. I use a combination of prepared activities, like these, and homemade projects here. An example of a homemade project is pattern blocks--we worked in the teacher small group to calculate the area of pattern blocks, and then students made composite shapes and showed the area of them.

    The Workshop Station Rotation model is prone to a beautiful entropy. In the last few days I've found that the structure is not as necessary. Students are moving into a workshop model in which they are trying things out, doing the math, and working with each other. And that is amazing!

Is it the model or the content? Are students doing well because the routine works well for them, or because they enjoy working with area? I'm not sure if the answer is necessary.

Every classroom routine has its ups and downs, its pluses and minuses. Have you tried station rotations? How have they worked for you?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ongoing Science

As a young child I visited a summer camp high in the Laurel Mountains of western Pennsylvania. In a sunny glade there was a small log cabin, the demesne of "Miss Alice" the nature teacher. The cabin was filled with all kinds of interesting objects, from turtle shells to paper wasp nests to butterfly wings. Posters of all different ages lined the walls, and new field guides mingled with old mimeographed booklets. It was a place that invited inquiry and curiosity.

Thirty-five years later, I try to cultivate a classroom that feels like the nature cabin. I used to feel embarrassed about this and wish that my classroom looked more orderly and tidy. But I've decided not to feel embarrassed at all. Just like the nature cabin invited me to explore and ask questions, I want my classroom to invite students to do the same.

One of my classroom jobs is the "ornithologist", and these students have the task of refilling the birdfeeders each day. I do buy my own birdseed for the classroom, large bags of black oil sunflower seed and suet cakes every few weeks.

It's interesting to watch how students interact with the window and the birds. Many stop by to take a look outdoors as they are going from task to task. They have their own names for the birds--"the chipmunk bird" (wren) and "the one with the mohawk" (tufted titmouse), and they correct each other quickly when needed.

This week I overheard two boys talking about their favorite birds: "I like the female cardinal best. The orange beak is just so cool."

The other student said, "I like it when the blue jays come. They're awesome."

Pond water
Science instruction should be ongoing and pervasive. While one-shot lessons and visitors are fun and engaging, real learning happens when students have many opportunities to explore. Too often teachers get out the microscopes for a single unit (usually a "Science Tools" unit in my area) and then neatly wrap the cords and put them away.

I like to keep the microscopes out for weeks at a time! Right now, I have a pond water exploration station in my classroom. This is a great time to get pond water because there aren't yet any mosquito larvae, but there are lots of copepods, mites, and clam shrimp.

A simple set of guidelines lets students know what to do, and then the station runs itself. Just like with the birds, students stop by, engage for awhile, and then go on to other tasks. It's so interesting to see that some students have extraordinary microscopy skills and can focus patiently on very small creatures. One student called me over to the more powerful microscope to show me the tiny clam shrimp swimming!

So while my classroom may not be the tidiest, I definitely love having natural objects for students to explore. How is your room like a nature cabin?

News and Notes
I finished another Summary and Analysis packet! This one includes a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, a summarizing page, a text-dependent analysis, and a comprehension quiz. Robert Louis Stevenson is frequently anthologized and his writing often appears on standardized tests (my cynical opinion: his writing is public domain, so using a story or passage of his cuts down on costs!) Helping students to see how his writing related to his life and times was an interesting activity.

Close Reading with Chronological Order Texts Grades 5-6  is a reimagined version of some previously published chronological order texts. It includes lesson plans, activities, and a text-dependent analysis prompt. Try it out and let me know what you think! (If you have already purchased the original Chronological Order texts set, re-download and you'll get the new items for free.)