The Students Have Begun Driving the Dojo!

My students are, like, so cool.  At the end of last week, I introduced the idea that student learning teams would be designing some dojo achievement challenges. (Background on the dojo, the badges, and whatnot can be found here and here.)   Then I asked them to mull over some possibilities for a while, and we got busy with the academic business.  Today we revisited the idea and teams had a short time period to discuss and list possibilities.  The three guidelines I gave were that the achievements had to:  involve learning of some kind, be reasonably achievable for all students, and be enjoyable.

I was so impressed with the initial discussions.  Groups were going in different directions–some wanted to set up reading challenges (eg “Read 4 chapter books in a single month”), and others wanted to do some sort of knowledge-based challenge (eg “Name 10 different kinds of dinosaurs.”)  Lots of questions, wrangling over parameters, and some laughing as I walked around.

In my wanderings, I heard two groups talking about achievements related to our behavior expectations.  They are:

C-Commit to Learning

R-Respect Others

E-Everyone is Safe

E-Everyone is Responsible

K-Kindness Counts

This is the standard for the whole district, and being a “CREEK kid” is kind of a big deal at our school.  One team was discussing how to create an achievement for kindness. “What if you ding by getting 5 kindness points in the dojo?”  (Ding = level up or gain an achievement) This caught my attention.  We’ve never done anything specific with the point breakdown in our Class Dojo, but we do have points based on the above expectations.  I had NEVER even considered this (bad gamer!  no cookie!), and I find the idea intriguing.  Aren’t kids so good at making games?  I’m hoping this idea gets developed, because I want to add just one twist–the kindness points must be rewarded by fellow students, not me.

I look forward to working with students to develop opportunities for using Class Dojo and Classbadges.  It could be disastrous.  It could be wondrous.  Whatever happens, it surely won’t be boring!


Missives from the Dojo

Back in November I wrote about using a couple of new tools for motivating students and managing/tracking behavior, Class Dojo and  We’ve been at it for a few months now, and I’ve learned a few things.

1.  I am pretty good with the whole Positive Behavior Management thing, and using the dojo helps me to stay on track.  Since every point that a child gets has to be immediately classified, I can give specific feedback about behavior–no “caught being ‘good'” scenarios for me!  And I’ve trained my students that, if another staff member hands them that kind of thing, they need to ask WHY they are being rewarded.  Because guess what?  Before I taught them to ask, most student did NOT know why they were getting little reward cards.

2.  I have some routine items that students expect.  Each day I pick one or two points that everyone gets a dojo point opportunity on–sometimes as simple as having first and last name at the top of assignments, other times showing reflective listening skills in partner talk.  Y’know, positive behaviors.  That keeps me from forgetting completely as we get immersed in lessons.

3.  I kind of suck at tracking negative behaviors.  I am not as consistent about making sure that these behaviors are recorded in the dojo.  It’s just so HARD to lose instructional time, even a few seconds beyond that already lost in giving corrective feedback and problem-solving these behaviors.  I haven’t got this part down.  Yet.

4.  So far students are still invested in the Dojo leveling process I’ve cooked up, and I haven’t seen any competitiveness or jerk-like behaviors.  Kids have their badges displayed proudly, stuck on their desks or on a binder.  We do a badge/dojo mini-ceremony once every two weeks, and the students seem to be invested in earning badges.

5.  The struggle is keeping each “level” fresh.  We’ve talked about how, in most games, leveling up sometimes comes with rewards, and sometimes just comes with the glory of achievement.  Students are at various levels, from Level 2 to Level 4, and most have earned some achievement badges that are separate from the dojo/leveling, for things like mastering math facts or visiting a local museum or planetarium on their own time.  I want to do more event-based badges, just for the fun of it.  Partly because, that’s how achievements in most games work, and also because I don’t want this to become a “grind-fest” for points and levels. (Non-gamers–grinding in a game is when you have to complete tasks that are repetitive and non-engaging simply to move forward in a game.)

I am still pretty excited about this aspect of our classroom community, and ready to take some next steps.  First, I’d like to have students design some achievements.  Second, I think I’m ready to invite parents into this experience more.  Class Dojo has a reporting form and classbadges has special logins for both students and parents to view achievements.

So this week, students will work in groups to design proposals for achievement and also perks for leveling.  I’ll get back to you on that.

One more thing.  I would not–no way, uh-uh, forgetaboutit–attempt classroom management/motivation stuff this complex without the support of these technology tools.  Time is an incredibly precious resource to all teachers, and I am so not an exception to that rule.  The dojo and badge systems are quick to use, easy to manage, and simple to communicate to others.


So I’ve joined a learning community at my local ISD called Tech2Teach. We will meet in person only a few times, but will connect via Edmodo, Google Drive, and who knows what else at various times during the year.
Today was our launch, and we had lots of time and guidance to explore apps like Edmodo, and later to share other useful apps for increasing productivity and engaging students in meaningful learning opportunities.
Honestly, I was a bit worried this would be a basic tech usage deal, but there is a lot of encouragement for participants to plot their own course as learners.
So what should my course be?  Here’s what I’m thinking:

1.  I started using Class Dojo as a replacement for the positive behavior support program in my school, which has kind of devolved into one of those “Caught Being Good” scenarios where we hand out tickets to children for doing what they should be doing anyway.  I like the dojo because I can take it anywhere (iPad) and track both positive and negative behaviors.  The students seems to like it to–it has a novelty factor, and they enjoy the cartoon-y monster avatars.  I started by giving each child the same avatar, and they were allowed to “level up” when they accumulated 10 net positive points in a single week.  Then they could choose from a couple dozen avatars–this was a BIG deal for them, and thankfully everyone has managed to get this far.

2.  Once I started the whole leveling process, I knew I had to keep it up.  So now the default leveling is the net 10 points in a week.  Most kids made it to level 2.  But the level needs to have some kind of marker, as it would in any video game.  This is about the time I heard a podcast featuring the developers of Class Badges.  I could customize badges for the levels!

3.  So I set my class up at Class Badges and created a level 2 badge.  I sweetened the deal with a coupon that allows one late assignment to be turned in without lateness counting against the student.  They were MORE interested in the cool sticker I made of the badge that they could stick to their desks.

4.  And then I started thinking about the badges and video games.  One of my favorite parts of many games is earning special achievements.  So I started creating achievement badges–one for math facts, another for eating a bug during a special larva-eating event in my class.  The kids love earning achievements and getting badges–it’s crazy!

5.  Which brings me to my work in Tech2Teach.  I’m thinking I want to continue to “gamefy” my classroom management using both Class Dojo and the badge system throughout the year, tracking student engagement and trying to make strategic use of the tools to maximize student learning.

I like it, but it sounds hard-ish.  But it does combine two things I love–teaching kids and video games.  And the research on gaming and education is very hot right now.  Huh.  Could be cool.

What I’ve Learned about Being a Kick-Butt Fifth Grade Reading Teacher–Part 1

Everybody has been in the closet about something or other, right?  Well, I have a closet of closets, but one of my most closely-guarded secrets was how I ran reading in my class.  As years passed, I found more and more time diverted from direct instruction and assigned reading to self-selected individual reading and talking about books.  This was during the heyday of the 10-minute mini-lesson, but instead of cycling through group after group of guided reading, we were mostly just….reading.  I worried that if my colleagues, or heaven forbid, my bosses, knew about this practice, I’d be…well, something horrible but unclear would happen.  Thank God for Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer!  Her words confirmed what I’d seen in my own teaching practice, that lots of independent reading, coupled with strategic and clear instruction, makes readers.

It’s sad that I couldn’t just trust my own experiences and share my practice openly, but I’m “out” now, and I’ve been thinking about what works in how I teach reading.  Needless to say, most of what works for me, I got from wiser practitioners and adapted to suit my own teaching style and students’ needs.  First and foremost, I read.  I’ve always been a reader, so that part is fairly easy for me, but I’ve found that reading widely in children’s literature is an essential practice, not a hobby.  My students, from the strugglingest strugglers to the zoomiest zoomers, want guidance in their reading lives, want a mentor who helps them discover their own identities as readers.  So I have to know the books in their world, from Henry and Mudge to The Hunger Games.  That is not always easy, because I read a lot of books that I wouldn’t choose for myself (although I also read a lot of fantastic books)–it is a professional obligation that is often a pleasure, but not always.  The reading never ends, either, because the world of children’s books is HUGE and EVER-GROWING.  I know a little bit about a lot of books, and a lot about a few books.

Cui bono?  The benefit is to my young readers.  Here’s what they get:

  • An adult who knows them, and can help them select books that they connect with in powerful ways, so that readers workshop is a time of rich silence, punctuated with sighs, short explosions of laughter, stifled giggles, and gasps of surprise.
  • Time and guidance to develop identities as readers, to learn what they love and what they don’t in books–and why, through conversations with fellow readers that are not only encouraged, but expected.
  • Invitations to talk books and share recommendations that create opportunities to expand their reading horizons, whether by subject or theme or genre or structure.
  • A role model who has a passion for reading, who lives her own struggles with ideas, characters, and reading choices out where they can see and consider from their own perspectives.
  • A fellow reader who is always willing to talk books and take recommendations from them as often as she give recommendations to them.
Time-consuming.  Occasionally expensive.  Unpredictable.  Complicated.  But it’s so worthwhile as, over the course of a given year, I see the kind of growth that endures.  That’s one thing I do that makes me a kick-butt reading teacher.

Paying Attention to both the How and the Why

So I stumbled upon this video on TeacherTube, and watched it with interest. It is in the vein of so many persuasive pieces that are done to convince others of the importance of technology (specifically the web) and its impact on children’s lives and development. Surely someone is doing a Ph.D. thesis on these “did you know” pieces and whether they make any difference.

“Paying Attention” prevails upon educators to recognize–and tap into–the digital lives of students. On the heels of the RCWP Tech Matters experience of last week, I’m wishing I’d found this video sooner. I think it illustrates where so many in education are at; we recognize the need to capitalize on new tech in order to maximize student learning. We get that.

And I think more and more teachers are adopting new tech, whether it is open sourceware, web apps like wikis or blogs, or even tools for digital storytelling. No doubt there are some roadblocks, from finecky firewalls to limited computer lab time to a lack of support for learning new tech. But these challenges would be overcome if teachers had a vision of the power new tech has to engage and prepare their students for this digital world.

How is easy, which I think is why how has been such a fun space to occupy–wikis, blogs, podcasts, voicethread, moodle, cell phones and on and on. Why is the difficult real estate to live in–envisioning, planning, and implementing strategic use of new tech in ways that are authentic, that do more than substitute digital paper for paper paper.

Do I walk the “why” as well as I’d like? No–I’m still standing at the boundary where how bumps up uncomfortably against the Sea of Why, dipping an occasional toe into those rough waters. I’m going to list the ways, off the top of my curly hair, that I can think of how new tech is being used in my classroom, in the hopes that it will prompt me to wade into the water more.
I use/have used new tech to…

  • share video and audio content, including videos from and audio from iTunes, that goes beyond our other classroom materials and engages students to listen and view (critically, if I’m earning my pay that day)
  • allow students to “publish” their writing using our class blog or podcast page (while still allowing for the choices of author’s chair or classroom posting as valuable ways of sharing)
  • have students work in collaborative groups to research issues of pressing interest to the world and their own lives (this past year we work a lot with researching endangered species)
  • use Kidspiration software with students to organize research and ideas from social studies
  • collaborate with students to create a wiki of our social studies curriculum
  • allow students to access computers for supervised emailing and Accelerated Reader quizzes
  • provide links to academically relevant and interesting websites using my delicious account to organize links into easily accessible categories/tags
  • capture student conversations and conferences so that both my students and I can reflect on how we are using conversation to drive learning

That’s enough for now–I hope to come back to this list, add to it, and more importantly look at the tech choices I’m making in the context of how they are driving student learning beyond being a fun “hook” for engagement (important, but not the whole game, right?)

Wikification of my Social Studies Curriculum

Progress is slow on the social studies wiki.  It has occurred to me that this is because I’m not working with a focus.  My class next year will have a significant number of students with learning disabilities, focus issues, and rather low reading skills.  So as I’m working on this wiki, I’m thinking about how I can bring in essential knowledge in ways that are accessible, but leave room for students to reach out and explore beyond the required curriculum.  I want to leave room for students to add and grow the wiki.  I don’t know if I want to incorporate any assignment-y questions or directives…

Part of me wishes I were the sort to think things through, but as I write I know what will happen;  I will just blunder on, making mistakes until I hit on the framework/s that feel right.  I’m already realizing that different units of study will look differently on the wiki–some strictly reading material, others prompts for research.  Onward, ever onward…

Digital Storytelling

My class completed their digital stories a couple of weeks ago.  For their first attempt, they’re pretty good.  Having to collaborate on a group project and doing informational pieces made the projects extra-challenging.  I wish I could share them online, but they used lots of copyrighted images, so these particular projects will have to stay private.  In honor of their work, I made a digital story of my own, the subject being the Battle at Lexington and Concord.  Since my piece is chock-full of my mediocre photos from my own camera, I happily deposit a link here for any who care to see.


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