Thursday, December 22, 2011

Enough (karate) chop?: Class Dojo Review

What is it?
Basically, Class Dojo is a classroom management system that helps teachers to track student behaviours (both positive and negative) and generates a report at the end of a session.  

In action, it looks kind of like this:

Class Dojo is designed to be shown to the class on the Interactive Whiteboard and each of the students can be identified by their own 'monster' alongside their name.  If a student demonstrates a positive behaviour, teachers can click on the student's name/monster and assign them a positive point (which comes up green and makes a lovely ping noise!) and likewise, if they are doing something that you want to discourage, you can click and assign them a negative, red point.  Any positive or negative feedback is shown on the screen in realtime, so the students can see exactly what they have been awarded. At the end of a session, it can provide you with instant feedback about the kinds of behaviour that students demonstrated during the lesson, helping teachers to give targeted feedback to students.  

It is currently running in beta and it is free (yes, free!) - plus the monsters are pretty cute, which is just a bonus really.

What's to like?
I used Class Dojo with my class for a day and the kids really loved it.  Sure, I think they are suckers for anything that moves and has bright colours, but the fact that lots of different children have asked about it (including those who got more negatives than positives on the test day), shows that it has made quite a splash with my Year 5/6 class. They keep asking when they can use it again and if they could add some of their on positive/negative behaviour suggestions onto the options.  You are able to change these options and add in some of your own (for example, I changed 'creativity' to 'lovely presentation' as this is a current focus in our class), although the default options are fairly inclusive.

As a teacher, I like it because it helps me to keep track of all sorts of things and I can generate a report to give feedback to my class.  It has really flagged up a few things that had kind of been going under the radar a bit - certain children who have been interrupting or getting out of their chairs more than necessary that I had kind of let slide a bit.  It also gives me evidence to then talk with parents about their child's progress and highlight areas that they are excelling in (such as being helpful) or need to work on (such has handing in their homework on time).

What's to loathe?
The main issue I have with Class Dojo is that it takes up the whole of the IWB screen and, in order to click on any of the students, you need to have it open, right there, taking up the whole board.  I find this distracting as it covers up whatever notes/work/etc you have open on the board and breaks the momentum of the lesson.  Plus, those children who will do anything for a distraction then just sit there staring at the monsters or the feedback that other students are getting.

If I could design this site, it would look like this:
  •  A toolbar along the bottom of the screen with a button for each student (with their name and a little monster, just to keep everyone happy!)  That way, students could be in control of their own behaviour and you could get them to go up to the board and give themselves the positive or negative reward.  That way, it also wouldn't take up the whole screen.
  • Pop-up messages that appear over the top of all other windows that say things like, "Great work, Grace.  You've been helping others!" when students get a reward.  That way, the students would be getting the positive reinforcement they thrive on and it wouldn't necessarily have to interrupt the entire lesson by taking over the big screen.
Lots of teachers have already provided Class Dojo with some great suggestions and feedback as to how to improve the site as part of their beta testing.  I really hoping that the good people at Class Dojo take these onboard and make the necessary improvements, as the site has a whole lot of potential.  

Personally, at this stage, I'm going to keep using it with my class, although not all of the time. Perhaps as a Thursday treat or just for one subject area?  It is fiddly to have to keep issuing the awards for different behaviour and takes everyone (teachers and students) off task a bit.  

But, I'm intrigued by what I've seen so far.  It could really be a useful tool and I'd like to see more before making my final decision.  Huh! 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

5 Tips for a Great Classroom Display

I'd be lying if I said that I'm not totally chuffed with the way my classroom is looking at the moment. 

Sure, it has taken about 12 weeks to get it looking like that, but finally, I feel like I can say with some conviction, that right now my classroom is reflecting my ideology when it comes to what a great learning environment should look like.  

I haven't always been that good at making displays.  I like the idea of being good at making displays and I like the creativity that comes with designing a large scale piece of art.  I just find that sometimes there is a gap between my vision for the display and the actual result.

A Maths Display, based on an activity from the website NRich called 'The Sweet Shop'.
Only 5 children completed this activity and you can see their mathematical reasoning in the speech bubbles.
This display created a lot of discussion within the class and there was definitely an increased interest in our mathematical challenges activities after it went up.

I believe that the displays in a classroom should be dynamic.  They should change regularly and reflect the learning that has and is taking place in the room.  They should be bright, eye-catching and inclusive of students' work and ideas.  Nothing worse than a display printed entirely from the internet with no personal touches whatsoever.  Furthermore, I think they should be interactive and challenge students to answer questions and ask more of their own.

That's a lot to ask from lots of coloured paper, some borders, blu-tack and a staple gun.

Another Maths display in my classroom at the moment.  What I really like about this one is the way that it includes students' work and key vocabulary from our topic on 2D shapes.  Plus there is a lot of gold paper and glitter for the 'Wow!' factor.
So what do I think are the key features of any worthwhile classroom display?

  • A Heading - This should be obviously in the largest font and one of the more eye-catching features of the display.  I like having a subject heading (like 'Maths' or 'English') and then a topic heading (like '2D Shapes' or 'Journey to the River Sea') but there isn't always room, so the subject heading will go.  Double mounting your heading or using pictures of the topic to do the lettering (like jungle for Journey to the River Sea) is a great way of making it stand out and tying together your colour scheme at the same time.
  • Information about the display - This usually takes the form of a couple of mounted sentences explaining the work behind your display.  For example, 'Our Year 5 mathematicians have been investigating adding and subtracting decimal numbers as part of our Maths work this term.  Have a look how they got on with this tricky problem ...' or 'Currently, Junior 1 are reading Journey to the River Sea.  We have been creating some fantastic pieces of work in response to what we have been reading.'

  • Vocabulary - I have only really come to appreciate the importance of including key vocabulary for students in the past 12 months. It never really occurred to me that putting the words that we are using in class on the wall (and matching it with a visual) would help those visual learners in the class and stop me from having to spell out tricky topic words to students over and over.  Now I just direct students to the display (or better yet, they just direct themselves!)  There are some great sites like Sparklebox and Twinkl that have lots of pre-made themed vocabulary cards that make a nice addition to any display.  Sticking the same vocabulary lists into the students' books also makes a nice connection too.
  • Interactive Elements - These are parts of the display that are designed to engage students.  They could include questions, lift the flap signs, take away copies of problems to solve, spin wheels - the possibilities are endless.  In the 'Journey to the River Sea' display above, you can see a blue book which is hanging on a string.  This contains research done by students on different animals that can be found in the Amazon and the students can borrow it to read at their desks.
  • Samples of Student Work - I really love using students' work in displays and believe that no display is complete without it.  There are a few different theories on this part - some people only include work that is absolutely perfect in a display and some people include work from the whole class, regardless of the standard.  I've never really been one for trying to achieve perfection, as I think this places undue pressure on the students and it means that some will be disappointed if their work is not included.  By the same token, I don't believe in displaying everyone's work, just for the sake of it.  In my classroom, which is quite limited in the display space, I try to have a balance - some features that have everyone's work (See 'Sweet 2D Shapes' above) and some displays that focus more on the 'process' of the work and include samples from different students for each step (See 'Journey to the River Sea' and 'The Sweet Shop' above).  Whatever the display, I always mount the students' work on a complementary coloured backing paper and ensure that it is clearly named.
Finally, some important considerations when putting together a display:
  • Colour Choice - In his 'Classroom Display Handbook', David Mawsfield includes some great ideas about using the colour wheel to choose your colours for display.  I generally find the best way to do it is to pick 2-3 colours and I use the students' work to do this. If the work has a lot of blue in it, then I will make the background blue and then mount the work on the same coloured paper as the borders.  Or if I'm feeling really keen, then I'll add another colour in and double mount some of the headings/interactives.  The same handbook above also makes some nice points on how to arrange work on a display.
  • Fonts - My rule when choosing fonts is to pick fonts that model what you want the childrens' writing to be like and that are easy to read.  If you want your children to be using cursive script, then provide them with fonts that mirror this.  I'd recommend not using any more than 2 fonts per display - one for headings and one for content. 
Having a fresh and exciting classroom environment can really help student motivation and enthusiasm for coming to school.   I know I've enjoyed coming to work each day and working in an exciting, dynamic environment that both the students and I can be proud of.

If you're a bit stuck for ideas, there are a few places to visit to get inspired:
  • Belair Display Books - They were the inspiration for my 'Sweet 2D Shapes' display and I've got lots of other ideas from there that I'm keen to try.  I'd never thought about reading a book on making displays but I have found them very inspiration.
  • Sparklebox Display Galleries - A variety of displays made by teachers.  I particularly like the pirate ones!
  • Teaching Photos - Again, a variety but a good starting place to get some ideas!
If you've got a display that you are particularly chuffed with, send it through to me via email and I'll pop it up here for everyone to check out!

Twitter Crush #2: ICT Magic

Today I'd like to send a shout out to one Martin Burnett of ICT Magic and to congratulate him on being named as my second 'Twitter Crush'. (Yes, yes - I can hear all of the 'Ooohs' and 'Aaahs' right now at the mention of such a prestigious award!)

When I sat down to write this post, I realised that really, it is long overdue.  I have been following Martin @ictmagic for a while now and I have to say that he has introduced me to a huge number of resources to use in the classroom.

Whilst I do find the wikispaces formatting of his site a bit overwhelming at times (it is very wide on the screen with a lot of the information crammed over to the far right), there really is something for everyone to be found there.

For example -

For my Year 5 Maths class, I found The Legend of Dick & Dom to use as a Mental Oral Starter for one of our decimals lessons.  Kids were totally into it.

My Year 6 English classes have enjoyed seeing ways to add interest and detail to their sentences with Telescopic Text.

For The Boyfriend, to keep him entertained whilst I'm blogging away the hours here, there is the Traveler IQ Game.  Getting him onto this, then led to the world of mentally stimulating diversions that is Sporcle and I've barely heard boo from him since.

And for me?  Well my latest favourite thing is Class Dojo. I've just signed up for the Beta version and it is looking like a fab tool.  I tested it out with the kids for the first time on Friday and they really enjoyed it as an alternative rewards system to the ones we currently use.  They're dead keen on the monster icons that it uses, which is already a great start! I've been busy thinking of ways it could be used in conjunction with our 'Team Points' and 'Superboard' systems in place at the moment.  Once the designers add in some of the improvements that have already been suggested by users (such as having the rewards pop-up in front of your current screen rather than have to have their website as the top screen), then it is really going to be a tool to watch.

So really - thank you @ICTMagic!  You are really making life for teachers that bit easier with all of your Web 2.0 offerings.  Great stuff!    

Saturday, December 3, 2011

That (Fateful) Toaster

As many of you will be familiar from my earlier posts, I've been really looking forward to taking apart a toaster with my Year 6 Science class:
In Year 6, we are currently looking at electricity in our science lessons.  Perfect timing really, for deconstructing an appliance or two.  I've recently acquired a toaster for my students and I've got the screwdrivers on my desk ready for them to take it apart and tell me how they think it works, what all of the parts do.  Their guess will be as good as mine too, as I've never taken one apart myself. 

And you will be pleased to hear that on Wednesday, we finally did attack the toaster with scissors, pliers and screwdrivers to see what was going on in there.

The session started off calmly enough. We had a look at the outside and talked about the safety stuff - you know, "Please don't try this at home with Mum's fancy red enamel coated toasted sandwich press, especially not if it is plugged in and if nobody else is home to watch you do it".  We talked about what we might find inside and how there might be things that are sharp, pointy, rough, etc that we would need to be careful of.  We even had a chat about taking turns and no using the screwdrivers to have sword fights whilst you were waiting.

The actual disassembly started off well.  The children took turns at taking out the screws in the plug and having a look inside, whilst the rest of them stood by seriously saying things like, "Wow!  Look at that ... wow!" and "Look at those wires.  They're green and yellow. We don't have any like that. And what does that bit do? Unscrew that bit over there next."

It was just magical and we were all having a great time.  You could just see the children's' brains boggling as we talked and looked and touched and thought.

I would love to say that it was the best afternoon of my teaching career, but alas, there was a bit of a downside to the lesson.

After unscrewing the end crumb tray and flipping it open, one of the students tried to remove the tray so we could have a good look inside. The tray, which should have really been easy to remove, was held on by two small metal clips and as she pulled it off the clips, the edge of tray slid past the hand which she was using to hold the toaster and cut her on the side her index finger.

It went something like this:
Student: "Oh, I just cut myself."
Me: "Are you alright?"
Student: "Yes."(Looks at hand.) "Oh. No, it is actually bleeding a bit."
Me: (Trying not to sound panicked) "Let's have a look." (Looks at inch long clean slice which is suitably deep and filling with more than a bit of dark blood. Really trying not to sound panicked so going for a cheery, sing song kind of voice.) "Oh, it is bleeding a bit.  Let's get a tissue and some pressure on that."

After, I returned from sorting out all of the First Aid*, got some colour back in my face and tried in vain my heart from jumping out of my chest,  I retrieved my class from the room next door where they had been sent to be supervised whilst I sorted out the crisis, we did actually finish taking apart the toaster.

The students were able to identify all of the parts, what they thought they did and they even made lots of connections between the circuits that we have been making in class and the inside of the toaster.  It was great to see that the girls, in particular, were really engaged in the activity and didn't just sit back and let the boys take over.  And they were asking for more.

It was a really great afternoon, blood and related stress aside.  Would I do this activity again?  Absolutely.  Although I would get the kids to bring in some heavy gardening gloves as, from our research, we can tell you that there are a lot of sharp parts to the inside of a toaster!

The long and short of it is that I'm pretty sure that it was a lesson that none of us will be forgetting for quite some time!

(*For the record, student is now fine!  She went to the medical centre, got it cleaned up and steri-stripped together and is now sporting an impressive bandage. Her parents were particularly lovely about it too. And my heart rate is beginning to go down too.)

A Miscalculation?

The use of calculators will be looked at as part of a national curriculum review, after the schools minister, Nick Gibb, expressed concern that children's mental and written arithmetic was suffering because of reliance on the devices.

I was pretty surprised when I read this article in The Guardian suggesting that children today are too reliant on using calculators when it comes to completing maths activities and that they are being introduced to calculators at too young an age.  And that in the associated online Yes/No survey, over 80% of people have agreed with Gibb.

My theory on the use of calculators has always been this: they only do what you tell them to do.  

If students don't understand the question they are being asked, then a calculator has no value to them whatsoever.  And even if they do understand what to instruct the calculator to do, students quickly realise that there are some things that are quicker to do in your head than getting out the ol' push button number cruncher to do it for you.

I strongly believe that calculators do have their place in the classroom.   Sure, I am not about to go giving them to a five year old and say, "Here you go. Use this to calculate your number facts to 10."  But I'm more than happy to give one to a child and say, "Right, you know what 1 x 1 is and you know what 10 x 10 is.  Can you tell me what 100 x 100 is?  What about 1000 x 1000? 10 000 x 10 000?  Now have a look at your answers and let me know if you can see any kind of pattern."

Calculators make big numbers accessible to children.  They allow them to complete calculations often beyond the capacity of their current mental calculation abilities.  They encourage pupils to check their answers and support lower attaining students to take on tasks that would otherwise prove too difficult. Plus, the kids love using them. The added excitement factor of being able to use calculators into a lesson is quite alarming.  

If used in a well managed and thoughtful classroom environment, then calculators can be truly empowering learning tools.  

So as far as I'm concerned, it isn't the calculators that should cleared from the National Curriculum.  Instead, some guidelines, suggested activities for different mathematical concepts and professional learning opportunities could be provided to teachers to help them to decide when it is suitable for their class of unique, individual students to be using calculators.  

Just in case they can't calculate it for themselves.

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