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I Want To Go To There

Today, I was lucky enough to take a day of leave time to visit a classroom I've been wanting to visit for the last two years. Kate Sommerville and Angela Patterson are 5th grade teachers at Swanson Elementary School in the Elmbrook School District who have destroyed the traditional model of instruction and have garnered praises and followers from around the region. I finally had the opportunity to see what they are doing first hand for an entire day, and well I think these clips best express what I am thinking.

What follows is a brief photo summary of my day.  You can find more about their game changing classroom at their blog.

What they have done with their classroom began a revolution in their school in the best possible way.  They blew out the wall separating two classrooms and combined the space.  Within the larger space they have created many unique learning environments.

They have 2 separate libraries for fiction and nonfiction.

They have a lecture area which is not designed around student desks.

Here's a picture of what their daily schedule looked like today from the perspective of learning targets.

In math, it is always very clear what is expected of students at the outset of the lesson.  The Smart Board is a fantastic tool for communicating without saying too much.  

There is a lot of differentiation and personalization in the math instruction.  The teachers use performance on the previous day's formative assessment to guide groupings for today's work.

There are multiple levels of student differentiation and personalization.

Those students who were proficient on the previous day's objective move on to today's On Your Own work after a brief bit of whole class instruction.  Those who did not demonstrate proficiency or were absent went to the bullpen for some small group instruction.  Please note that the bullpen is also used for enrichment opportunities as well.  Below, you can see Kate leading today's bullpen in practice.

Once students have finished their OYO work.  They can move on to enrichment activities based on their personal interests.  These range from puzzles related to the current math topics to more involved projects centered around the learning targets.  

Students can choose to sign up for small group seminars during this work time. 

Students use the SmartBoard to show when they have completed their "must do" work.  

The Writer's Workshop today introduced the idea of creating a good argument.  The lesson began with a spirited introduction to what an argument, counterargument, and evidence are as student were forced to take a stand on things such as favorite restaurants. After the introduction, students worked individually collecting evidence from sources for both sides of a given topic.  Today was all about collecting good evidence without incorporating personal bias.  Students accessed a variety of sources from written articles to short videos.  Students organized their evidence in a T chart while Angela nd Kate checked-in on student progress.

Tomorrow, students will begin analyzing their evidence as they construct their arguments.  What was interesting is that just today about 75% of my students were taking the ACT.  As a school, we have focused on improving our students argumentative writing.  On the ACT, the writing prompt requires then to take a stand on an issue, provide evidence in order to build a solid argument, and provide a counterargument.  

The Reader's Workshop was probably the part of the day I was most impressed with.  Students were divided into book clubs.  Each group focused on a specific conflict in history (such as the US Civil War and World War II).  Within the groups, each student read a historical fiction book.  Each student took notes on his or her reading regarding general historical themes found. These were taken on post it notes.  Today, students got into their book clubs and discussed what they read.  The groups then collaborated in order to find common historical themes within their different book. As a group, they were tasked to create one document which collected the notes that represented the common themes.  These products took many different forms from sheets of paper with collected post it notes to collaborative Google Docs in which book clubs typed in their common notes digitally.


This is where the students really shined.  They choose books that interested them. Read and took notes individually.  Then, discussed the readings to others.  Finally, collaborating as a group.  These are skills all of our students need!  Just fantastic literacy strategies combined with interpersonal skills. To hear the discussions these students were having and the love they had for reading was so refreshing.

Of course, this could not be done without our two fearless leaders.  They let their students take control of their learning, but are always present to hear the thoughts of their students and to push them further.  Kate and Angela are always giving their "friends" praise and providing gentle but firm redirection when appropriate.

I was energized by what I saw today and am committed to continue what is being done in our wonderfully elementary school classrooms.  The seeds have not simply been planted.  They are bearing fruit at the elementary level.  

I have so many other thoughts.  But, it's time for dinner.

Here's to the coaches of T.E.A.M Toghetherness.  Fantastic work  Angela and Kate!  You model the type of risk-taking and student-centered approaches that should guide all that we do as educators.  Did I mention they only have 30 minutes of prep time a day?!

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