INSIDE OUR SCHOOLS: Technology and discussions drive student work classroom

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 26, 2013 

Michelle Hornof teaches 5th grade at Alderwood Elementary School.

BELLINGHAM PUBLIC SCHOOLS — COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

"Good morning, Ms. Hornof. I brought the camera back. And, yes, don't worry, I got my homework done!" says Chad as he greets me in the morning in the schoolyard at Alderwood Elementary when I pick up my fifth-grade class. Students file in with freshly washed faces, backpacks, smiles, and more "good mornings."

After a quick homework check, a few students are ready to share the photos of their lives that they took overnight with our class cameras. They download the pictures on the computer and project them on our large screen. After explaining their photos, the rest of the class asks questions or comments. "What kind of dog is Karma?" "I know that house that you live in!" "You look just like your older sister. No wonder Ms. Hornof mixes up your names!" In this way, the class gets to know and care about each other.

Next it is time for math workshop. The students join me on the rug in the front of the room with their math notebook as I deliver a short lesson. Often I pull up a video from the Khan Academy; sometimes I just model in my own math notebook. The students practice the lesson briefly, often showing their work to the whole class on the document camera or the interactive whiteboard. If they disagree with a student's answer, they raise their hand and explain why. The class discusses the problem and uses mathematical thinking to solve it.

After about 10-15 minutes, the students return to their desks, sitting side-by-side with their math partner. They know that there is not just one teacher in the room, but that they are all teachers, so they check their math partner's work often. If they have different answers they ask, "How did you get that answer?" or "I did it differently. Let me show you." They work together to figure it out. After partner work time, we correct some problems as a whole class. Again, we look for places where students have different answers. Students know I love a good debate and are willing to dive in and learn from it.

Next we move on to the Read Aloud. We cozy up at the rug and share a story together. Currently I am reading Nikki Grimes "Words With Wings," a new collection of poems that tell a story. Every so often, I stop reading and ask the students to turn and talk to the person next to them about the story. The room bursts into a sea of discussion. I guide them to grow theories about characters, talk about the changes in the plot, think about the message of the text, or talk about what they learned. One of my favorite sounds each day is when I stop reading aloud and hear a collective groan from the class. "No, don't stop!" I know they are experiencing the grip of well-written literature.

Time for reading workshop. Again, I deliver a short lesson. Then students move to a comfortable spot to stretch out and read self-selected books from the class or school library for about 30-40 minutes. Students read at their desks, lay on their stomach on the carpet, and tuck themselves in a nook between bookshelves. During this time, I meet with small groups and individual students to deliver lessons that pinpoint student needs. Finally, we wrap up the lesson by sharing things that we learned about reading. Sometimes students talk with their reading partner about their favorite parts of their books, sometimes they share whole group, recommending books to each other or teaching facts they learned.

The rest of the day is followed by a mix of subjects: writing, science, social studies, art. Students also get a different specialist class for 40 minutes each day: physical education, music, library or Spanish.

We have a lot of technology, interesting discussions and engaging materials to teach rigorous academics in the classroom today. Students learn a lot and have fun at the same time. But no matter how innovative I try to make my teaching, I still get the same answer to the age-old question: What is your favorite subject? Most students still smile mischievously and answer, "Recess." Perhaps some things just never change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This is one in a series of columns by area teachers exploring education today. Michelle Hornof teaches at Alderwood Elementary in Bellingham.

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