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Archive for January, 2011

What’s Your Goal as a Team?

Teams need a goal, a personal team goal focusing on the students.  Not the school goals, not the district goals, not the data driven goals–these are all givens and teams need to work within their framework. However, teams also need a goal that helps them focus their purpose for being a team.  The most powerful teams not only ensure their students meet standards, but also help their students become better people.

In the Story of Alpha: A Multiage, Student-Centered Team—33 Years and Counting by Susan Kuntz, teachers reported they “were always on a mission.”  Their goal was to approach learning through activity-centered developmental units.  At Warsaw Middle School in Pittsfield, Maine the teams model the FISH philosophy: Be There, Play, Make Their Day, and Choose Your Attitude (http://www.charthouse.com/content.aspx?name=home2). Ross Burkhardt in Inventing Powerful Pedagogy describes how he and his teammate Cliff Lennon developed a set of attributes they called Distinctions (acknowledgement, appreciation, commitment, communication, cooperation, respect, responsibility, risk, and trust) that served as guiding principles for working with their students. Their goal was to use these distinctions as a lens for all of their work.

These are examples of teams that have been together for awhile and have established their team culture.  Newer teams might want to start with a simpler, more concrete goal that easily allows them to take positive first steps:

  • We will all work on making our lessons more interactive so each of our students has a voice.
  • We will agree to work together to build skills of collaboration among our students.
  • We will model reading as a life-long pursuit by sharing with our advisory each week one book or article we enjoyed reading.
  • We will model life-long learning by asking our students to teach us one new app for our phones or computers each week, and we will work to integrate into our units any learning apps they show us.
  • We will know each and every one of our student well.

Here’s a quick activity for the team teachers to do together to work toward the last example–knowing each and every student well:

  • If possible place individual pictures of your students out on a table.  If you do not have individual pictures, put their names on index cards–one name per card–and spread them out on the table.
  • Each of you needs a bunch of  sticky stars.  Place a star on each picture or index card of students you know well.  You know how they learn, what they like to do outside of school, whether they have a pet, etc.
  • Step back from the table and look at the pictures of index cards.  How many have no stars? How many have stars from all of you?
  • This simple exercise gives you a lot of data you can use to help the team meet the goal of knowing each and every student well!
  • During common planning time, begin to strategize how to build relationships with these students.

The middle grades are a vulnerable time for many students.  This factor is one of the main reasons for organizing a school in teams so that a small group of teachers can focus on a common group of students and their cognitive, social, and physical learning needs. Don’t waste that opportunity–be a team that inspires your students!

Make Wikis Work for Your Team

Time is always in short supply for middle grades teams. There’s always a parent that needs to be contacted, another form to fill in, more data to analyze, and learning issues to problem solve. To compound this issue is the trend in the  past few years to shrink the amount of common planning time available to teams.  With less time, teams have to find new ways to work together. Creating a team wiki is an easy and free way for teams to become more efficient and productive. Two types of wikis a team might create are a student workspace where students collaborate or an informational wiki for students and parents.  However, the focus for this post is a wiki just for the team teachers where they can share information and resources, hold asynchronous conversations, and brainstorm ideas.

Let me pause just to define two terms: wiki and asynchronous.  A wiki is a digital workspace that multiple people can access in order to write and edit.  It is available 24/7. It is interactive meaning links can be added and people can respond to what others have to say. Wikipedia, the ultimate wiki, defines this tool in great detail: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki. Here a great little video that also explains wikis: http://www.commoncraft.com/video-wikis-plain-english.

Asynchronous simply means “not at the same time”.  It’s a word that is used to describe digital conversations that occur on social networking and other digital sites.  It’s one of those words that is relatively new to my vocabulary, but I love to say it!

There are many uses for a team wiki:

  • Notes from meetings can be kept on the wiki, and information that doesn’t need to be discussed can just be posted for everyone’s reference.  Valuable common planning time doesn’t need to be spent listening to the team leader repeat information from the team leader’s meeting.
  • Information that the team needs at different times during the year is always accessible on the wiki.  It can’t get lost in pile of papers or left on a desk in another part of the building.  e.g. checklists for field trips, directions for entering grades on the school’s electronic grading program.
  • Resources and ideas can be recorded and available to everyone on the team 24/7.
  • Teammates who have a brilliant idea in the middle of the night or during vacation can post it on the wiki and not worry about forgetting it when they get back to school.
  • Everyone’s voice  on the team will be heard.  Let’s be honest, sometimes one or two people may dominate team meetings effectively silencing other members.  Asynchronous conversations on a wiki allow everyone to post ideas without being interrupted.
  • Team members have time to process ideas and information and post comments.  A discussion can begin prior to a team meeting or a document can be drafted thus allowing the face to face time to be focused and highly productive.

Some folks are leery or suspicious of wikis.  The good news is that the person who sets up the wiki controls who sees it and who writes on it.  So if I set up a wiki for my team, I would invite only my teammates and no one else to the workspace.  I would give them administrative privileges which means they can write, edit, & delete information. Notification is sent to me every time the wiki is altered, and there is a record of who wrote on the wiki and when. A small wiki is a pretty controlled space.

The bad news is that I wouldn’t want to vouch for security.  There is no s in the http. Therefore I personally would never put any information about specific students on the wiki, comment on any colleagues or parents, or post pictures of the team at the holiday party! Keeping those cautions in mind, the benefits of a wiki are terrific–a wiki allows teams to streamline adminstriva tasks so they can spend more time on the creative aspects of teaching and learning together.

I use PBWorks.com.  It’s easy and it’s free.  Everyone on the team would have to join, a very simple and did I mention free process. There are others to consider; Wikispaces is one. Click to read an article from The School Library Journal, “Which Wiki Is Right for You” that reviews different options. A tangent–here’s a list of wikis  focusing on different of topics (non-educational) that some of you might like to explore–The Wiki List. Playing around on a personal interest wiki often builds confidence so we feel comfortable trying them in their professional lives.

I created a demo Team Wiki on PBWorks: http://jillspencerteamwiki.pbworks.com/w/page/35055180/FrontPage. Both the internal and external links are live so it is possible to navigate around the wiki. You should be able to read it by just clicking on the link, however if you want to leave me a comment on the wiki you will have to join PBWorks!  Below is a screen shot of the front page so you can see what it contains (the links are not live on the screen shot).


Front Page Of a Team Wiki With Links to Useful Pages Within the Wiki

Naturally teams would create their wiki to fit their needs.

Businesses use highly secure (and expensive no doubt) wikis to communicate with clients about projects.  The client can respond and give and take is open and transparent.  Fortunately there is a free version of this excellent digital tool that middle grades teams can use to save time and increase collaboration.  If you are using wikis for team work I invite you to leave a comment and tell us about your experience.

In another post I will take up using wikis with students and parents.

Exploring Project or Problem Based Learning Approach to Learning

Many middle grades teams include one or more integrated units throughout the year.  Teachers often report that students work harder, have fewer behavioral issues, and really enjoy tackling intellectually challenging tasks.  Other teams are intrigued by this approach to unit design but are reluctant to experiment, despite the excellent outcomes.  Sometimes they are not sure how to get started or fear test scores will suffer.

There are a variety of ways to think about integrated units—single topic, themes, and problem based.  I think that problem based learning (sometimes called challenge based learning or project based learning) (PBL) is a tremendously effective way of teaching.  Now, purists may bristle and say project based and problem based learning are not identical.  I don’t worry too much about labels as long as students are involved in researching open-ended questions and creative problem solving.  It’s more important to spend time planning units that will engage students in critical and creative thinking as they work toward meeting standards  than debating what type of unit is being developed!

The really good news is that there is research that supports the validity of project based learning. Bob Lenz’s blog on Edutopia this past fall summarized the latest research and the Edutopia website also reviews research from the past 20 years.

OK…so there is evidence to show that project or problem based learning is effective and that students do just fine on standardized tests.  But what is it really?   How is it different from a traditional interdisciplinary unit?  I mentioned the Frayer Model as a strategy for teaching vocabulary in an earlier post, so I think I’ll use it here.

*** Because I list something as a non-example does not mean that I am condemning the unit, it just means it’s not a PBL type of unit.

Here’s a link to a short video that demonstrates how the pieces of PBL or Challenge Learning fit together: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOii_YyJQGA

Edutopia also has great resources to help teams learn how to plan a PBL learning experiences. Sometimes we have to take responsibility for our professional development and Edutopia’s module on PBL is a really good place to start learning about the PBL components.   There are also a multitude of videos that show the process and end results.  Two of my favorites are linked below.

Here is a video from Bath Middle School (Bath, Maine) that shows the product of a PBL unit that explored Malaga Island. (http://www.bms.rsu1.org/red/malagawebsite/) Like King Middle School in the kinetic art video, Bath uses the Expeditionary Learning approach that incorporates project-based principles.

Teachers need to reclaim teaching from the scripted curriculum and the narrowed focus of test prep. However, we need to be articulate in how we will ensure that students meet standards as well as develop the skills that have been labeled 21st century attributes of a successful citizen—collaborative, flexible, critical and creative problem solver.  PBL is a vehicle that provides students with opportunities to master content standards and hone learning and organizational skills while developing their problem solving strategies.  Planning PBL units as a team provides multiple perspectives and ideas, support and feedback as the unit evolves, and professional dialogue that helps us become more effective teachers.

Check out  these resources and give me some feedback.  Also I hope you will share any PBL resources you find useful and any units you have developed. Thanks!

Will Social Networking Change Teams and Their Work?

“Teamwork has become the safe and default way of working in organizations. In fact most of us have a long-lasting romance with teams. Yet managers rarely stop and question the assumptions behind team mania. Like breathing, we just do it. Is teamwork still a safe bet or is it last century?” from “The Dream Team of the Future” at Management-Issues (http://www.management-issues.com/2011/1/12/opinion/the-dream-team-of-the-future.asp).

The author of this article, Karsten Jonsen, is describing, of course, teams in the business world, not middle grades teams or groups of young adolescents working in groups on a project.  It would be like comparing apples and oranges to make too many direct connections between what happens with teams in the business world and middle grades interdisciplinary teams.  However she makes an important point about social networking changing the dynamics of teaming that suggests some interesting possibilities for middle schools and their teams to consider.

Jonsen states, “The new generations (i.e. millennium kids or project generation) like to form their own teams, networks, Facebook groups, hang-out meetings or whatever it takes. They need freedom and support for different ways of working.”

Hmmmmm…how might teams make good use of social networking in school?  Here are some things that I know are already happening in middle schools and a couple of ideas I’ve just brainstormed:

  • Students work in groups across classes, teams, and grade level using tools like iChat, IM, Skype, Google docs.
  • Students work with students in other parts of their state, our country, and  across the world on projects using sites like ePals (http://www.epals.com/).
  • Students invite experts in the field to be part of their team when working on projects (Vital Signs: http://www.gmri.org/education/vitalsigns.asp).
  • International teams of students and teachers are created and work together for a year using technology like Tanberg Video (http://www.tandberg.com/ & at Skowhegan Area Middle School: http://www.msad54.org/sams/tandbergprojects/wales/index.shtml).
  • Students collect their own data for research projects by using their social networks—Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • Teachers have mentors from beyond their school to help them improve their pedagogy and content knowledge using video conferencing.
  • Students and teachers join Internet groups of folks with similar interests and the ideas and skills they learn in these groups are integrated into their school studies.

Of course any of these ideas need careful thought and planning, and sites need to be vetted for safety and appropriateness.  However, now that we are in the second decade of the 21st century it is time to stop lollygagging around and fully integrate the power of technology into our schools’ curriculum, instruction and assessment!

Check out the Maine International Center for Digital Learning (MICDL) for research and resources.

I would love to hear how others are using social networking tools to advance teaching and learning—please leave a comment.

Teach Academic Words as a Team

One of the biggest predictors of student achievement is their breadth of vocabulary knowledge!  Children entering kindergarten with few literacy experiences such as books in the home or having been read to or talked with know and use many fewer words than their classmates who have enjoyed multiple literacy experiences.  This vocabulary gap continues to grow throughout school unless curriculum and instruction explicitly address vocabulary acquisition.

Do you realize that it takes 15-30 encounters with a new word before most of us really internalize the word?   What do I mean by internalize?

  • Use correctly in written and spoken language.
  • Understand its denotations, connotations and how context can change its meaning.
  • Comprehend its meaning when we read it or hear it.
  • Recognize examples in real life.

Middle grades teams are in the perfect position to provide 15-30 meaningful encounters because teachers can collaborate throughout the day and across the curriculum.  Someone is thinking right now—isn’t that the language arts teacher’s job?  Yes and No–It’s everyone’s job and here’s why!  Reading comprehension in ALL subject areas is affected by a student’s command of  “academic words”.  Academic words, sometimes called Tier 2 words, are found more in written language than in conversations and are sophisticated synonyms for commonly known words (e.g. leery for suspicious). These words are in textbooks and newspapers, online, and used in the media.  Without a broad academic vocabulary, students will have difficulty understanding text even if they have learned content-specific vocabulary.  This comprehension issue is a powerful reason to work together as a team to build vocabulary.

Here is a strategy teams can use.  Each week during common planning time identify 3 academic words (remember these are not content-specific words like isotope or tetrahedron or butte) that the team will teach in a collaborative manner.  Find a list of academic vocabulary at

Or, look through your texts and identify words you anticipate might cause your students some problems.  Then decide which of you will explicitly teach the word and how everyone will find ways to use the words in their instruction. Here are some ideas:

Explicit instruction


Frayer Model

Concept Circle for Democracy

Follow-up encounters

  • Homeroom contests using words in limericks, short poems, raps, & song lyrics
  • Word walls (http://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/lesson/lesson328.shtml)
  • Using the word when teaching; be sure to mention you are using a word of the week or make it a contest for kids to catch you using these words
  • Student made posters
  • Students using words in their writing

Using Academic Words (sly) on Posters and in Writing

Please notice that nowhere do I suggest you ask the students to look up the word and use it in a sentence.  This strategy is probably the least effective way to help students build their vocabulary knowledge.

Last word—be playful with word acquisition.  Avoid at all costs of making it tedious and full of drudgery.

Teaming Rocks! Collaborate in Powerful Ways to Ensure Student Success has an entire chapter on ways teams can collaborate to address the vocabulary gap. For additional information about vocabulary instruction, check out the work of Janet Allen, Isabel Beck, Kate Kinsella, & Robert Marzano.

Building Community Through Problem-Solving Challenges

A “strong sense of team community” is one of the seven attributes of highly effective middle grades teams identified in the 2004 NMSA Research Summary, “Interdisciplinary Teaming” (http://www.nmsa.org/Research/ResearchSummaries/Summary21/tabid/250/Default.aspx).  A strong community is a secure and nurturing place for its members.  Children, adolescents, and adults learn better when they feel physically and psychologically safe.  This kind of atmosphere and its accompanying healthy sense of community just doesn’t develop magically on its own—you need to provide academic and social opportunities for your students to participate in, thus developing their own team culture.

Physical problem-solving challenges are just one effective strategy you should employ to develop a strong sense of team community with your students.  These challenges require critical and creative thinking, collaboration and should include significant time for reflection and adaptation of lessons learned.

These types of challenges might be used exclusively in advisory periods, however by adding a metaphorical thinking component they can be used in academic classes to help students internalize ideas and concepts. Marzano and colleagues have identified comparing and contrasting as a strategy with a high probability of improving achievement.  Metaphors, similes, and analogies require this type of thinking.

One of my favorite activities is often called the marshmallow challenge. Ted Wujec, a developer of new technologies, describes this challenge and its importance in a TED lecture (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0_yKBitO8M). Watch the video! Wujec frames the challenge as more than just a fun team building activity.

Here’s the challenge:

  • Divide the participants into groups of 4
  • Give each group the following materials:
  1. 20 strands of uncooked spaghetti
  2. 3 feet of tape
  3. 3 feet of string
  4. 1 marshmallow
  • Provide the following prompt: Build the tallest, free standing structure that you can with the materials provided. The entire marshmallow must be on top.  
  • Give the group a time limit: 15 to 20 minutes

When time is up, record the height of each structure and record it next to the names in each group.


The most important part of the challenge, reflection, comes at the end of the construction period.

  • If it is a small group, ask each quartet to explain their process for building their structure.  In a larger group, pair up the quartets and have them share.
  • Then, ask the entire group three questions:
  1. Why was your team able to successfully meet this challenge?
  2. What might your group do differently the next time?
  3. How would we apply the strategies we used here to group projects we do in class? (Chart these ideas to use later in class.)

Wujec makes the point in his TED Talk that the majority of groups don’t try to incorporate the marshmallow until the last minute, and its weight causes the structure to collapse.  He points out that most endeavors have a “marshmallow” that provides a crushing weight that sends plans astray.  Use the marshmallow effect to help students think metaphorically about current studies:

  • What was the “marshmallow” in the years leading up to the American Civil War?
  • What do some scientists believe will be the “marshmallow” in climate change?
  • Think about Scrooge’s 3 visitors.  Which experience do you think was the “marshmallow” that led him to change his ways?

Another exercise in metaphorical thinking might be to ask student to compare the different materials in the challenge (spaghetti, tape, string, marshmallow) to elements of a concept:

  • What do the string, spaghetti, tape, and marshmallow represent in the process of photosynthesis?
  • How are the materials in the challenge similar to the steps of solving an equation?

There are multiple ways to help your students reflect on the process they used to solve this challenge. Too often it is a step we leave out of group work because we feel pressed for time.  This omission is a mistake.  Asking students to figure out how to adapt and use their process in another situation will lead to critical thinking.  Having your students work together on a non-graded activity will allow them to practice collaboration in a low stress situation that can be transferred to their academic studies.

Have the groups repeat the challenge with the goal of besting the height of their first structure.  With this approach the emphasis is not on competition among groups but rather on improving the group’s personal best.  It’s easy to make the second or third time a bit more challenging by adding a complication.  No one can talk or everyone holds one arm behind their back so each person  has the use of only one hand.  As long as the “complication” doesn’t make things unsafe for the students, your imagination is the only limit.  Using the same challenge multiple times throughout the year with additional complexities will develop flexible thinking in your students.

One last twist. Recruit another staff member to come and facilitate so that the you and your teammates can join in the activity. Working together as one of the groups models collaboration and demonstrates that adults also struggle with problem solving challenges.  Both good lessons for your students to observe. Have fun!

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