Heads up, this is a bit of a longer post than I normally put up.
This has been one of the most challenging years for me as a teacher. I have had the privilege of teaching the first class at the TDSB Girls Leadership Academy. This is one of the programs of choice created by the TDSB; others include the Boys Leadership, Music, Sports and Wellness, and Africentric academies. The challenge I speak of is not teaching 25 girls -while there are challenges there too. No, my challenge is covering 3 grades and include time for play and discovery. You read correctly, I teach a grade 4/5/6 split grade class, and yes I believe there should be time for play. I am not the only teacher to teach 3 grades in one class. It is possible, just challenging. I have been fortunate to have support from a morning resource teacher for at least one period a day, great student teachers and Instructional Leaders. But I digress, The point of this post is not to talk about the challenges of teaching 3 grades at once, but how I was able to use centres to get to target some small group instruction, useful class production, and play at the same time. It only took 7 months.
I have been toying with centres in the junior grades for years (in the library, working with classroom teachers as a teacher librarian), but I have never really got the right balance of activities to ensure that the time is used effectively, but I think I got it, or that I am at least approaching a balance. My concern was making the centres both engaging and purposeful. I still think there are things that need to be tweaked, but for a first attempt it went far better than I had expected.
In our class we have 4 groups of six students with one student sitting alone (her choice). One group is all grade 5 students, and the other groups are made up of four grade 4 students and two grade 6 students. We have a 30 computers, and that means that this year we have one computer per students, plus 4 on standby. Next year, we won't have that luxury, but for this year it is a pretty nice setup. Computers can be used at all the centres, but only really needed at one.
Here is the centre breakdown: Writers Workshop, Silent-ish reading, Research and Minecraft. At almost every centre students had the choice to work on or offline. Each table started where they were and then rotated to the other centres, logging off at each centre before rotating, except at the Minecraft centre where they stayed logged into their Minecraft accounts. This was done to minimize laptop movement, and to make transition in and out of the Minecraft centre smoother. Most students choose to use the computers, and in the research centre, students used a mixture of books and computers. I was actually surprised that many students wanted to use the computers over books at silent reading centre, but it gave me the opportunity to show students some of the ebook resource the TDSB has to offer, mostly Follett Shelf, but others wanted to read articles too. In the next couple of weeks I will be spending more time at the reading centre to help facilitate online reading choices -one of the problems was that some students were choosing ebooks that were either far to easy.
The Minecraft centre was the centre where I had to give almost no support. The girls helped each other for the most part, giving advice, and help to each other. The only time I was called upon, was when someone got stuck in a hole, or if there was a message for me from one of the teachers playing on the server in another school. I had one student opt out of playing, but by the end of the class she seemed to be open to trying it out if given another opportunity. I think the main reason behind that change is that one of her peers was very happy to be able to play and was excited to see their mutual friend from another school (Highland Heights) online at the same time, and it gave her the chance to have sanctioned chat time in class. Little did she know, I was happy with her chatting, as she is a reluctant writer and anything that gets her writing is a step in the right direction. I look forward to their future chats, and am interested to see if their chatting leads to play. I have already talked to the teachers at Highland Heights to see if we could plan to be on at the same time again. I also want to see what students will create, how will they play -one student has already made it clear that she wants to play separately- and how/if I should make them report on their time.
Some of my students have been asking if we could construct villages in Minecraft to represent the societies we have been studying (Midieval, Early and First Nations). I am inclined to do this, but I really want it to be from them more than from me. In Math, as a culminating task for area and perimeter we designed our dream home -on poster board not Minecraft, and I think that maybe I will let them know that if want to design a village they need to first show me their plans and then find them time to construct their villages. I will see how this flies this week.
All of these centre, with the exception on the Minecraft centre have been a part of the regular class program, but instead of having students work a full 50 minutes on their current research/inquiry project, or writing piece they want to workshop, students have 15 minutes to get to work then move on. There was also a couple of minutes transition time between centres that was not included in the 15 minutes. I wanted the centres to change every 20 minutes, but we had a later start than I hoped. Next time we should be able to be able to do it that way. The feedback at the end of the period was mostly positive, with the only negatives being; that there wasn't enough time at each centre, and it was difficult to work with Follett Shelf. The second complaint I took with a grain of salt, because I hadn't really planned to introduce Follett Shelf, except that students were choosing to read ebooks off other sites that were not very challenging and I intervened with a brief intro to Follett, and they really didn't have a very long time to practice using it before they had to rotate. So, all in all, it was a positive experience. Depending on how things go I may even split the centres over two days, but that's a challenge for future me.