Saturday, January 6, 2018

SPIDER Web Discussions

     In January of 2013, Google launched an initiative called, “Project Oxygen.” They used thousands of performance reviews, surveys, employee nominations, and every byte of hiring and firing data since the company started in 1998 to crunch the numbers and find out the characteristics of their best managers. What Google found out shocked everyone. They call the list The Big Eight, and here are the traits ranked in order of importance:



  1. Be a good coach. Give specific, balanced, positive and negative feedback.
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage. 
  3. Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being. Possess insights into others including their values and different points of view.
  4. Be productive and results-oriented.
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team.
  6. Help your employees with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  8. Have key technical skills so you can help advise the team.


     Last on the list is “technical skills.” The majority of the most desired skills for managers are “soft skills” having to do with collaboration and communication. Google was also able to identify some pitfalls of the company’s worst managers. Essentially, they found out how crucial it was to be able to work well with a group.
     Google provides a glimpse of what the real world is requiring of our graduates: good collaborators, communicators, and feedback givers and receivers. The natural question then is what are we doing on a daily basis to prepare our students to be better communicators, collaborators, and critical/creative thinkers? How are we assessing those skills? How are we tracking growth? How are we developing our students’ ability to work as teams?
     Developing a trusting classroom culture is crucial for learning, and I don’t know of a single classroom teacher that doesn’t try to build and maintain a positive climate throughout the year. I also know that it’s a common practice to do team building activities. But, in my search for wanting my students to dive deeper into meaningful conversations, I found and am learning more about Spider Web Discussion- a tweak to the popular Socratic Seminar.
     Spider is an acronym for Synergetic, Practiced, Independent, Developed, Exploration, with a Rubric. The Web comes from the web-like graph that the teacher draws to document the discussion in real time and uses it for debriefing. The teacher prepares by using backward design and identifies the goals of the classroom discussion by listing them for a rubric. Short and sweet rubrics are best. For example, I want everyone to participate and strive for a balance of voices in the discussion. This requires that those students that love to talk to monitor themselves and not monopolize the conversation and my quieter students to stretch and contribute. I also want my students to listen to understand by using specific language that encourages others to share or elaborate on their thinking.
     Secondly, the teacher will want to choose a good discussion topic and/or text. The key is to find something engaging that your students will be eager to talk about with their peers. Before any discussion, I like to give my students time to reflect and write down some thoughts on the topic. This is a good strategy that helps all students but is almost essential for my more introverted students because they need more time to process and think before speaking. When we’re ready to start, students sit in a circle so that everyone can see each other. I quickly review the rubric. The goal is for the class to collaborative work together to “earn an A.” I’m not grading them for a grade in the grade book, but I am encouraging them to reflect and improve after each discussion. During the discussion, I map the flow of the conversation and note the number of interruptions, great questions, and insights, encouraging phrases, etc. Unlike the Socratic seminar, the students conduct the conversation, and the teacher “disappears.” They have to work collaboratively to keep the discussion moving forward with everyone participating and showing respect and understanding for various points of view. After the discussion, the teacher debriefs with the kids and fills out the rubric. An excellent book about Spider Web Discussions in great detail is The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders by Alexis Wiggins. It is a step by step guide and an easy, quick read.
    My first attempt at having a Spider Web discussion was amazing! I was in awe as I watched and listened to my students. Students never cease to amaze me when there are high expectations, and they are empowered with their learning! I can’t wait to continue using this “strategy” and to track their growth. (I think of this type of discussion as more about classroom culture rather than a teaching strategy.) I was able to visually see evidence of who talked the most, who didn’t participate, who asked thought-provoking questions, who used encouraging language, who interrupted, who had inspiring insights, who was willing to take risks, and who was able to jump into the conversation but only repeated what had already been said. Although I could have predicted much of the outcome, there were a few surprises. I was also really proud of my class for being able to honestly reflect and talk about how they could improve for the next discussion. In my opinion, I think the Spider Web discussion tweak has the potential to be a real game-changer!


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Anticipation...It's Almost Here!

Winter break is a great time to rejuvenate and reflect. This year, I had an extra long break because of shifting to B track in a year-round school. I have to admit that I spent a little too much time in my PJs and my favorite blanket curled up reading. It was awesome! Part of my time was spent planning for the next chunk of time with my kids at school. 

While most people will be groaning and dreading going back to school in a couple of days, I'm completely excited! The anticipation is almost more than I can stand! I haven't seen my kiddos for over a month and I miss them! 

Tuesday morning, I'm going to take my kids on a field trip to ancient Greece. Earlier, I sent out invitations to them to come prepared to wear their chiton/toga for the next couple of weeks. I'm sure that they're wondering, "What is Ms. King doing now?" I only had a little over an hour to decorate the hallway and classroom. I don't have everything set up yet, but I'll get there! (A disadvantage of year-round schools is moving classrooms. It's a lot of work!) Things don't look exactly how I'd envisioned them, but it'll be enough for the kids to get the idea.


Here's my plan:

There will temporarily be an empty room next to mine. I'm going to take my kids in there for attendance, lunch count, morning announcements, etc. When everyone is dressed and ready, we'll go next door into our classroom where we'll be on Mount Olympus complete with fog and music in the background. Kids are divided up into city-states. They will work with their polis to complete the QR hunt to build background knowledge of ancient Greece.

When I taught sixth grade, the study of ancient Greece was a five-week simulation. But since I teach fifth grade, I only want the kids to have a little bit of background knowledge. I'm tying ancient Greece in with our study of government, Latin-Greek roots, speaking/debate, Olympics, and science. Of course, reading and writing skills are embedded into all of our learning.

After the QR hunt, we'll play a game to test their newfound knowledge. Our next activity is the one I'm most looking forward to. While sitting on the floor in a circle, eating olives and fish crackers, we'll discuss their off-track activities and the books that they read. It's downtime to some, but I see it as an opportunity to build relationships and get to know my students a little bit better. The day will continue with hands-on activities centered around our science unit of magnetism and electricity. I hope it'll be a fun day. I hope to create a MOMENT to be remembered.

I haven't done this before in fifth grade. I don't know exactly how things will go, but that's the fun part. We'll see!


Friday, December 29, 2017

One Word 2018: Arete!


     The ancient Greeks examined their life and set goals to achieve. They called this quest arete (air-ah-tay) which roughly translated means the pursuit of excellence.

     During 2018, my one word and focus will be Arete.

     Although there is no direct English translation, arete to me is an all-encompassing word that includes many of my values, goals, and aspirations. It is climbing the mountain before me with courage, focus, and grit. Arete is about learning, growing, and improving. This is my quest.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

It's Not Always About Fear...

unsplash-logoDan Roizer 
The speed of change in how we teach our kids has changed dramatically during the last decade! Technology makes it possible for students to learn and create in ways never before imagined.  There is a myriad of tech tools for teachers to use to engage their students. However, it can be overwhelming for teachers to learn and implement everything that's "out there." Each app or web-based program comes with its own learning curve. The learning doesn't stop once the basics are learned because each tool is continuously being updated and changed- sometimes to the point of not being recognizable. And then there's always the issue of investing the time to learn something only to have it disappear. Along with the many pedagogical shifts of the last decade, the age of testing and accountability, and the many school and district initiatives, the plate gets pretty full! Losing focus is easy if the attention is on all of the shiny new tools. Teachers need to keep experimenting and learning new ways of engaging students to avoid becoming stagnant and irrelevant. But, they also should remain focused on student learning outcomes as they plan their lessons.  Just using technology is not the same thing as integrating technology to enhance a learning experience. Great teachers engage students in creating, communicating, collaboration, and critical thinking. Yes, there are many tools to use. It's not always about a fear to not try them. It's more about taking the TIME to augment great Tier 1 instruction with technology. Administrators can be supportive by recognizing the effort that teachers take to learn and implement even a few tools well.

My Favorite Things

Seesaw and Flipgrid
Promote student voices.
All things with Google give people more choices.
Edmodo, Class Dojo, Kahoot and Buncee
There are many web tools for teachers to see.

Remind to get updates and Classcraft gold pieces
Creating with Touchcast the fun never ceases
Newsela and Reflex Animoto and more
Tech tools for teachers- so much to explore!


Plickers, Socrative
Assessment that’s quick
Nearpod, GoNoodle, for learning to stick
Improving our reading with Lyrics2Learn
Hundreds of tech tools wherever you turn.


When the time’s short
When my plate’s full
When I need to plan
I simply remember a few focused things.
And then I don’t feel so bad!

Edpuzzle and Thinglink
Plus apps that are free
QR codes and Augmented reality
Kidblog and Tynker
Powtoon IXL
Using these tech tools
Help kids to excel.

GoFormative, Quizziz,
Whiteboards to write on
Learnzillion for flipping
Math lessons from Al Khan
Storybird, Quizlet to name a few more
Extensions for Chromebooks you just can’t ignore.

Singing with Flocab, writing with Quill
StoryboardThat and 100’s more still!
Smore for newsletters- There’s no end in sight!
SAMR helps teachers use all the tech right!

When the time’s short,
When my plate’s full,
When I need to plan,
I simply remember a few focused things.
And then I don’t feel so bad!


Saturday, November 4, 2017

Wounded But Not Weakened

And with a broken wing
She still sings
She keeps an eye on the sky
With a broken wing
She carries her dreams
Man you ought to see her fly


Martina McBride

Confession: I have a love/hate relationship with the first parent, student, teacher conferences of the year. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these meetings come and go without incident, and I genuinely enjoy the conversations that I have with parents. It is rewarding to celebrate their child’s progress and to set new goals. However, occasionally preparing for those first conferences is a little more stressful than usual as I anticipate some difficult conversations. I've usually had several discussions with more difficult parents, but I never quite know what to expect. Even one or two upset parents can feel like a full-scale attack. It’s hard not to take criticism personally. It’s hard not to fall into the trap of “we against them.” It’s hard to listen, understand their point of view, and to learn from the feedback. Criticism hurts us deeply because we are so passionate about education and our students. After the recent conferences that I had this year, I feel like a bird with a wounded wing. I’ve cried. I’ve rationalized my thinking and played the blame game. But mostly, I’ve done a lot of reflecting.
     Over the span of my career, I’ve worked with some of the most amazing parents! The last five years have been more than I could ever dream of as a teacher. Parents were in my classroom every day, and I felt like we were indeed partners with common goals. They were engaged and often empowered as we made instructional decisions together. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was trying many new things, and the parents thoroughly trusted and supported me. But, I changed schools and went to an entirely different community. Problems started to develop because I failed to build strong relationships with my new parents. I didn’t bank enough trust but continued to implement practices that were entirely new. I thought my reputation would follow me and I didn't put in the work. I failed to build from the ground up. I made assumptions. And so now, I have to back up, slow down, and hopefully, develop some credibility and move forward. I think I’ve learned some things that can help other teachers and leaders.

Use critical feedback as a chance to reflect on your practices and grow. This is hard! We have to be careful not to be defensive rather than listening to understand. There usually is a little nugget of truth behind every complaint. And, we shouldn’t feel defensive if we are making our decisions based on what’s best for the students. Every parent wants to feel listened to and understood. Listen and clarify your understanding. Apologize if you make a mistake. Be open and honest. Language such as, “I am sorry that happened,” allows you to keep your dignity while demonstrating to the parents that you are empathetic and want to be an educational partner. Being reflective is a chance to ask yourself some hard questions and define your “Why.” Ask yourself if you’ve communicated your vision to your parents. In my case, I failed to explain my “Why” of blended learning, no homework, flexible seating, standards-based grading, etc. I had good intentions and plans and thought I was sending out plenty of information. My failure was not making it a priority to teach parents more.

Traditional practices are what parents know. As teachers make the shift from more traditional methods to different ways of doing things, it’s important to keep parents in the loop. For the past eight years, I’ve used a learning management system with my students, and they’ve loved it. I’ve had a 1:1 Chromebook classroom environment for the last four years. Being paperless is not new to me. I forget that this is a new concept for many people. The transition for parents is sometimes challenging. I was caught a little off-guard that parents complained about not seeing worksheets and worksheet packets especially in the community where I’m currently teaching. I’ve had to find some compromises to meet parents where they are at and move forward from there. It’s not about giving in to a parent’s every demand. It’s about helping parents to feel like I’m on their side and that I’m attempting to understand their point of view. I’m still very confident in the direction that I’m moving and in my abilities as a teacher. I just need to show parents effective ways to support their children’s learning without depending on a worksheet.

Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! I’ve heard it said a million times that you can never communicate enough. Most problems arise because of a lack of communication and misunderstandings. Even when you think you’ve sent out a lot of information and used many platforms, you can always communicate on a more consistent and regular basis. I also think it’s important for teachers to communicate with simple language absent of educational jargon and buzzwords. I love the idea recently shared with me by a great mentor about the 7-11 principle. The local corner convenience store will have a mix of people with varying backgrounds in the store at any one time. Are you communicating in such a way that the people in the convenience store clearly understand your vision? Another mistake of mine that I’m trying to remedy is that I need to do better at two-way communication. Sometimes we educators think it’s enough to send out information, but fail to provide ways that parents can give us regular feedback. Parents who feel listened to will be much more likely to trust you.

Build trust and strong relationships with parents. An ounce of prevention goes a long way. I’m glad that I made “deposits” in parent bank accounts at the first of the year with positive phone calls home, notes, and emails. My epic fail was that I neglected to send home consistent positive communication. I let my priority of cultivating trust and positive relationships take a back seat as the school year jumped into full speed, and I got busier. I allowed myself to be distracted and lost focus. This is a mistake that I hope I never repeat! I knew better. Communicating in good times was precisely when I should have been doing more to make sure that parents were informed. I know that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast when implementing change. But, I’m not always very patient. I want to innovate, to feel like I’m changing the status quo, and to be on the cutting edge. But by not going slow, I nearly fell off the edge! I’ve learned. It’s easy for me to respect the journey that teachers are making. Everyone is at a different place. I also need to appreciate the journey that parents are taking as shifts happen in education.

I feel a little wounded, but I will heal. I can still sing (figuratively, not in real life), hop around, flap my good wing and dream of where I want to be. Parents are not an enemy of teachers. In fact, I’ve found that I soar the highest when parents are my partners. I’m looking forward to implementing some tweaks to what I’m doing. I’m looking forward to building stronger relationships with the parents in my new school community. Although I’m not entirely there yet, I think that I’ll look forward to the next parent, student, teacher conferences. I've learned a lot.

Most birds take shelter from a storm. An eagle stretches its wings, leans into the wind current, and uses adversity for an opportunity for lift and leverage. The greater the opposing wind, the higher the eagle flies!

I will fly again.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hierarchy of Our Words


Personally, this has been a tough start to a school year. For various reasons that I am unable to articulate, my confidence and teacher self-efficacy has waxed and waned as I’ve navigated through the first months of school. There’s no one cause that I can pinpoint, but it’s instead a combination of factors. I’m usually a pretty confident person, and along with that, I’ve been quite confident in my ability as a teacher. But, I’ve struggled this year to consistently feel the same level of confidence that is my norm.
The other day, I jumped onto Twitter (which I hadn’t done for a long time), and I noticed a graphic made by a principal. Instead of signing the graphic with the common closing of “principal, instructional coach, lead learner” or other similar titles before the name, there were the words “educator, ” and it hit me like a ton of bricks! Yes! I am an educator! We (teachers, administrators, coaches, curriculum directors, etc.) are educators! Immediately, the Youtube video explaining the subtle difference between teacher and educator came to mind.
By definition, a teacher shows or explains, gives information about or instructs, encourages someone to accept something as fact, or causes someone to learn. An educator inspires, coaches, illuminates, advises, empowers and mentors. Educator came from educare and is related to educere bring out, lead forth.”
In essence, we are (or strive to be) educators regardless of formal titles and positions. We are in fact leaders in education working to “bring out” the greatness of those we serve. Teachers are not “just” teachers. Teachers are educational leaders! The subtle language and mindset shift are empowering.



At a time when we know collaborative leadership and teacher efficacy is so essential to student learning, I can’t help but wonder if the hierarchy of the words we choose make a difference. For example, many teachers think of themselves as “just” teachers! It’s as if they don’t have any value, creative autonomy, and ability to make meaningful instructional decisions. Great teachers in millions of classrooms fail to see themselves as leaders, and yet they’re leading their classes and others within their circle of influence every day. There is nothing more important than the work of an educator in the classroom who mentors and inspires students. Teacher efficacy, the belief in one’s capability to make a difference in the lives of students, impacts teacher behavior, their goals, and student performance. Without teacher efficacy, it’s much more difficult to expand the idea to collective efficacy and collective teacher efficacy.
If we are all educators/leaders if we’re all learners and if we all are focused on improving student learning, do we need to use titles as a means to show that one leader has more value than another? Why does the title of instructional coach, team leader, or department chair have more value and prestige than the title of a teacher? Why is the title of a principal more valued than a vice principal or instructional coach and so on up the chain?  Is it possible to address ourselves as an educator or even as an educational leader rather than using titles as a means to show that one person has more value in a school system than another? Can we flatten the school hierarchy by choosing different language? Can we change the paradigm that the person highest in the hierarchy should single-handedly make all of the decisions? Or can we slightly change the culture to be more collaborative just by the words we use? Titles need to be used for practical purposes, but maybe they don’t need to carry as much weight or significance in a school community of educators who have the mindset that everyone has strengths and leadership capacity. A common goal to increase the growth of every student will happen when teachers view themselves as educational leaders rather than “just” teachers and of less value than others in the traditional hierarchy of school leadership.



Saturday, October 7, 2017

Evidence of Neglecting to Blog

I just spent the last 30 + minutes trying to figure out how to log into the account associated with this blog. I couldn't remember the gmail account information nor the password. Sigh.....

It's not that I haven't been thinking and writing down ideas. I have. I'm just having a hard time blogging and even being on any social media at all. I don't know why.