Kagan Cooperative Learning

Several years ago the district I was teaching in at the time sent three other teachers and myself to a week long workshop.  I was dreading it.  I had just finished my Master’s degree and during that time I had quickly realized I don’t do well on the other side of the desk and here I was going to be sitting in a room six hours a day for five days.  I just knew I was going to be bored out of my mind.  I could not have been more wrong!

Kagan Cooperative Learning is the brain child of Dr. Spencer Kagan.  Unlike what many of us experienced in schools that was supposed to be cooperative learning and was in reality group work where one or two people did all of the work this is truly cooperative, everyone takes a turn, everyone participates.  I LOVE IT!

Walking into the large ballroom where the conference was being held we were met with music, food, a little shop, posters, just a fun atmosphere.  It was that first step through the door that began changing my mind.  We didn’t just get lectured to, we weren’t just given a list of pre-generated ideas, we weren’t bored to tears.  We were first put into teams just as students are put into teams for Kagan structures.  Now they didn’t team us the exact same way rather we were in teams of teachers with similar disciplines and grade levels the first day or two.  As each new structure or bit of information was introduced we tried it ourselves, there was a slide show of ways other teachers had used it, and then we were given time to brainstorm with our team other ways we might use it.  From the first day I couldn’t wait to get home to start planning and get school started so I could use the structures.  My team the first few days got along so well that we were rather disappointed when we had to switch teams, fortunately near the end of the conference we switched again and managed to meet up, which gave me a hint of something to watch for in my students LOL.

When we got back home my co-teacher and I began planning and looking at how we would use the structures in class.  While I was excited about the prospect of what might happen when utilizing these structures I was still nervous and wondering if it would work for my kids.  We teamed our kids and routinely did class building and team building activities but it was the first time we used a structure in class rather than the typical teacher ask a question and wait for kids to answer that convinced that this was the best thing I’d ever come across, and five years later I’m still convinced, every time I use a structure it just reaffirms for me this is a great program.

Let me share with you that first experience, well as much as I can remember as some details are lost from the excitement :).  We were reading The Outsiders with our eighth grade classes always a good book to get discussion from but in the traditional classroom style we had used previously there were still kids that were able to just sit back and let others do the talking.  We read a chapter and stopped to ask a question as we normally did, however this time we asked all the kids to first think. *Think time is one of my favorite parts of the Kagan structures as it requires me to stop and allow all kids enough time to think, we all know not every kid comes up with answers right away and yet often in our effort to keep class going and get everything covered we call on that first hand or two before all the kids have even had a chance to think.  I actually count slowly with my fingers to ten before giving further instructions with Think Time, and have found that when I do pose a question in the traditional style I allow more time between asking the question and calling on someone.  I also don’t allow my kids to raise their hands during think time, I don’t want slower thinkers/processors to become discouraged because others already know what they want to say* OK back to the scene: Kids are thinking and no I don’t remember the question I wish I did, finally we explain they will be doing a Round Robin, each student will answer the question they are allowed to pass once but when the others are done sharing they have to share something.  Students are also not allowed to just say “I agree with Robin.” they must give a reason why they agree.  We told them the person closest to the door would go first and they would share clockwise around the table.  Nervously I said “Go” and then we just grinned at each other as the kids started talking, 25% talking at once and almost everyone else engaged and listening.  The comments were insightful, kids felt safer knowing they only had to share with three others rather than with the whole class.  We grinned at each other, I know I for one quite literally began jumping for joy which did not distract the kids at all as they were quite used to my strangeness 🙂  Even better after the Round Robin we chose one student from each team to share something said in their group, it did not have to be their own idea just something heard.  one particularly quiet girl turned red but smiled when her teammate shared what she had said and others in the class reacted positively.  We began to use this follow-up each time we did a reading response RR.  Kids came out of their shells more and more, that quiet girl began raising her hand on those occasions where we did ask questions more traditionally.  It was just so exhilarating, I can’t stop smiling now remembering it and thinking about how it works in my room right now.  

If you ever have a chance to go to a Kagan training GO, GO, GO!!!  Find a way and go!  I attended another one day workshop and can’t wait to go back for more!


What is reading?

When I was teaching middle school communication arts I would ask my student this question early in the year.  The answer was invariably: books said more often than not with a sigh of resignation.  I actually looked forward to this answer because it gave me the chance to raise an eyebrow, cock my head to the side, and say “That’s it, just books?  Really?  Because I don’t know about you but I read a lot of books but most of my reading each day isn’t in books. So think for a minute what else do you read?”

This sparked a great list and if the kids didn’t come up with some of my favorite answers I’d fill them in or give them hints.  I’ve had to try to remind myself of this question lately though in the struggle to get my son to read regularly, read books that is.  I’ve had to remind myself that he does sit down with the Lego Club magazine when it comes in and devour it cover to cover.  He has recently discovered that he really can’t play most of the video games we own without reading as he goes, we like RPGs at our house Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts are favorites though he being all boy has fallen hard for Halo 1 and 2 lately.  He reads signs and billboards as we drive down the road, he reads the boxes in the pantry and he’s starting to read more and more online.  Not a day goes by that he doesn’t grab the comics from the paper and read them all, so he does read and I’d forgotten how much.

When I required my students to complete a reading log each week I found they were more likely to do the log if they could count things besides books.  I still wanted at least half of their reading to be from books but the other half could be any of the above and yes I included video games, well depending on the game 😉  I introduced students and their parents as I felt they should have permission before visiting any place online to the site fanfiction.net  (which reminds me I need to see if there are any acceptable Diary of Wimpy Kid fan fics on the site for T).  I have found myself lost in stories using my favorite movie, tv, and book characters many times.  

When it came to books I wanted my students to be exposed to the wide world of books: graphic novels (my son’s new favorite) and manga, fiction, non-fiction, serials, free verse, all of the various genres.  The more variety kids and adults for that matter see, the more likely it is that they will find something they actually want to read.

Last day of school

So here it is the last day of school and as always it’s filled with mixed emotions.  I’m excited to have the summer to enjoy with my son while he’s still young enough to want to spend time with mom, seeing as hes going into 4th grade next year that time is limited.  I’m sad to see the year end because I’ve really enjoyed this year.  I’m going to miss the kids and my co-workers.  I know I have my job next year but I am still looking for a classroom position for many reasons and don’t know if that will happen I do know it will probably be late July or August before I get any calls for interviews.  In the meantime I’ll plan for next year for the job I have, always better to be prepared then if I do get a classroom I can pass off my plans to the next person.    Almost time to say goodbye, so I’m going to go enjoy the last minutes I have with these kiddos.

Final MOREAP answers

Here are the last three questions on the REAP application and my expanded answers:

5) What four key components do you believe you must include in your plan?

REAP answer: A good introduction to catch the students’ attention and interest them in the lesson, instruction/modeling time to demonstrate the information to the students, followed by guided and/or independent practice to reinforce learning, and a closing time to review the material learned are necessary.

Expanded answer: (This answer almost seems to formulaic in its brevity to me and I wrote it) A good lesson plan begins with a strong introduction.  I need to catch the students attention, draw them in and get them ready to learn.  This may be a short reading, a short video, pictures, an accessible text on the topic, a quick group brainstorm, or any number of other ideas.  After the introduction comes instruction/modeling as well as guided and or independent practice.  How this is handled depends on the topic at hand.  Sometimes I model only once and then have students try it out in small groups or partners and move quickly on to independent practice.  Other lessons require more modeling with students working at the same time so that I can move around the room for quick formative assessment.  Setting up learning on a scale like this where students move from being highly supported to highly independent I believe leads to more success.  Finally a closing time is necessary, unfortunately I think this is the component that most often falls by the wayside, I know that I am guilty of leaving it out and not always intentionally.  Sometimes the lesson is taking longer than you planned, maybe kids have gotten excited about what you are doing that day and you just keep going until glancing at the clock you realize you’ve run out of time for that closing activity.  In our technologically driven society where so many students have computers or other devices at home we can implement exit tickets online using Google Forms, maybe they respond to a class blog post on the topic.  At the beginning of class maybe students are handed a card to fill in something new or interesting they learn at any point during the lesson and they take the last two minutes of class to share that information with their tablemates.  For me it was learning that closing really can be a quick activity (very much a formative assessment) that helped me to get it implemented more regularly as I want it to be.


6) When you think about your students, in what major ways do you want to influence their lives?

REAP answer: I want them to leave my class loving books and reading.  I want to instill in them a sense of respect for others, responsibility to themselves, and the self-motivation to explore new topics on their own. I want to help them build up their sense of self-worth.

Expanded answer: There is so many ways I hope to influence my students.  I want them to leave my class loving books, loving reading, choosing to read for enjoyment.  If nothing else I want them to have found at least one book that they can’t put down.  I want them to understand that reading isn’t just books.  Kids read every day be it the cereal box at the breakfast table, signs as you drive down the road, stories on the internet, and some kids read an amazing amount in video games.  I want my students to clearly demonstrate a sense of respect for others, to understand what that means and to do it.  I hope to instill in my students a sense of responsibility to themselves and the self-motivation to explore topics they are already interested in as well as new topics on their own.   I want to help my students build their sense of self-worth by asking them how they feel when they accomplish things and helping them to notice when they have done well.  I want my students to leave my class being able to think for themselves.  My job is not to teach my students what to think but how to think, and respect others right to think differently.


7) List and describe two core teaching strategies you most utilized in your classroom.

REAP answer: I often use real-life situations and television shows as a bridge for writing exercises and to make connections during reading to aid in comprehension.  I also often have the students explain back to me how the work is to be done in their own words to be sure they comprehend the instructions.

Expanded answer: I often use real-life situation and television shows as a bridge for writing exercises and to make connections during reading to aid in comprehension.  Specifically I have used episodes of M*A*S*H when teaching propaganda techniques after contacting Fox studios for permission. When discussing the importance of research questions and asking the right questions I share the story of our first house.  My husband and I did not do our research and did not ask the right questions when looking for our first house, we ended up with a house built by a builder with a bad reputation, our walls were not straight, our slab was not flat, the kitchen floor tiles cracked, seam tape on the ceiling began peeling away in just a few months, and many more issues.  I also often have students explain back to me how the work is to be done in their own words to be sure they comprehend the instructions.  This is pretty self explanatory but I ask students to tell me what I’m asking them to do step by step to be sure they understand.  I use many other strategies as well.  One that I use consistently is cooperative learning the Kagan way.  I use the Kagan structures on a daily basis, even when I’m not using a structure I use “think time” my students know this means think quietly, keep your ideas in your head until I tell you what we’re going to do with them.  This has also required me to allow my students more time to think, teachers all know some kids think faster than others, we need to slow down and give everyone a chance to process what we’re asking.  Think time as described in the Kagan structures has taught me to do just that.

More MOREAP answers

Today I’m going to share two more of my expanded answers to the questions on the REAP application:

3) What three things do you most want to know about your students?

REAP answer: In order to best work with my students, I need to know something about their family and educational backgrounds, past successes and failures, as well as their feelings about learning.

Expanded answer: (I think much of what I would address here I already did in my expanded answer for question 2 so I’ll stick with just expanding the last part here) I want to know how my students’ feel about learning.  How do they feel about how they have learned in the past?  How to they feel about each subject area?  The approach I use with students is different depending on this.  When students were in my communication arts class and made it clear they didn’t like reading and writing I made the effort to find things in subjects they were interested in to engage them.  The student who was in to social studies, especially the WWII and politics I found books on those topics.  Students who really enjoyed math were ones who tended to enjoy getting formulas for how to write a good strong sentence or paragraph.  Students who did better with visuals often enjoyed diagramming sentences.  If a student feels overall that they are just not a good learner it is up to me to point out their strengths and successes every chance I get, to help them to begin recognizing their own successes.


4) What do you need to know in order to begin lesson planning for a class?

REAP answer: In order to begin my lesson planning I need to be familiar with the core curriculum standards and areas of the MAP in which students scored lower than proficient previously, I also need to ascertain my students background knowledge in the area for which I am planning.

Expanded answer:  To plan an effective lesson I need to know what my students already know, what they are expected to learn during my class and what they will be expected to know in the future.  As the common core standards build on each other year after year I need to know what the standards are for the grade previous to what I’m teaching, the standards for my grade, and those of the next grade.  I want to know what my district/school has pulled out as the Essential Learning Objectives of the CCSS.  Have they unpacked the standards if so what did were the results.  I do want to know as a whole how students in my building and grade scored on the MAP test not because I think it is a good indicator of what students truly know but as a general indicator.  I want to know how the students from my previous year scored on the MAP so that I can better assess my teaching.  Did I lean too heavily towards fiction and not have enough non-fiction or vice versa?  Do my students score well on multiple choice but not on constructed response?  I begin my lesson planning with a unit plan that starts with the learning objectives, then write the summative assessment, then write my lesson plans.  I also want to do a pre-assessment to see what background knowledge my students have in that area.

Feeling torn

It’s here the end of the school year, just a few more days to go and I can’t believe we’re here already.  I have really enjoyed this year.

The problem is I’m feeling really torn right now.  As my current position is a classroom assistant position, though I do teach technology classes to all K-2 students and to 4-5 students not taking strings, I’m looking for a classroom position.

I love my building, I enjoy the staff and students I work with, I’m really enjoying the challenge of teaching technology, keeping it interesting, and keeping it relevant, preparing kids to use technology in their everyday lives.  I don’t want to leave, but I do because I want to be a contracted teacher, I want the responsibility of grades again, and to be perfectly honest I want the salary that goes with the education and experience I have that I can only get as a classroom teacher, ok to be even more honest my family needs that salary to pay our bills.

If my current job were to become a certified position with a contract I’d happily stay right where I am.  Actually knowing that I have this job next year I’ve become more discriminating in the certified positions I do apply for.

I’ll be happy to get a classroom but I will really miss this job and the positive community of this building!  It’s just so hard which I never thought it would be.  Ah well such is life I suppose.

MOREAP answers

The limited number of characters to answer the questions on the REAP application leaves me feeling like I’m giving an incomplete answer wanting to better explain my thinking so I thought I’d expand on my answers here.

1) What are your three most important reasons for wanting to be a teacher?

REAP answer: I love children and I love to watch the light go on in their eyes when they learn something new. I enjoy helping my students explore and learn about the world around them.  I greatly value the connections made with my students, the opportunity to help them grow as people as discover who they are.

Expanded answer: I love children, I have been babysitting and working with kids since I was 12.  Throughout college I worked in day cares every summer.  I have actually thought about trying to find a job in another field as classroom positions are so few for the number of applicants but there is just no other field I can see myself working in.  I do love the watch the light go on in kids eyes when they learn something new or figure out something they have been struggling with.  That was where the realization came to me that I should be a teacher.  I tell in my Why I Became a Teacher post and page about the first time I saw that spark go on in a child’s eye.  I enjoy helping my students explore and learn about the world around them.  Students I’ve worked with at various ages, yes even middle schoolers still sometimes react with awe or wonder at some of the things we learn.  Working with kids keeps me young, helps me see the world with young eyes every day.  I greatly value the connections made with my students.  Hearing from students that they never liked to read until I “made” them read *fill in the blank, usual answer is The Giver or The Outsiders* makes my day every time!  I once had a parent who said his daughter never read until I assigned Number the Stars for class then he caught her under the covers with the flashlight after she was supposed to be asleep.  He said he was thrilled but joked I shouldn’t assign more books like that because she needs her sleep.  I wanted to jump for joy.  These successes don’t happen every day or with every student so when they do they are extra special.  I treasure that I have the opportunity to help my students grow to watch as they begin to discover who they are as people, who they are in the world.

2) How much do you want to know about your students to be helpful to them?

REAP answer:I need to know my students’ family and educational backgrounds, their learning styles, how they relate to other students and adults, their past successes and failures, and things that are of special interest to them that may help me to make a connection with them.

Expanded answer: I need to know what my students’ family backgrounds are, where do they come from, what cultures are they a part of as I want to recognize and celebrate those cultures.  I’d like to know their families educational backgrounds not because I believe a parent’s education level is any indicator of student intelligence but because I have often seen students under great pressure to do well in school because parents have high levels of education themselves or because parents want their child to be the first in the family to go to college.  I want to know how my students have performed in the past.  My students always start the year in my class with an empty slate but I do want to know where they excelled in the past and where they struggled.  I want to know how they learn best.  Varying the type of activities in class is something I try to do as much as possible but when I know that there are students that learn a certain way (say kinesthetically) I make sure to include activities that address that learning style.  Successes and failures, it’s always good when you can remind a student of things they have done well in the past.  Telling them a previous teacher bragged about how well they did in fractions, story writing, or science experiments is a great way to pull them out of a funk.  All kids get frustrated at times it helps to remind them that though they may be struggling in some areas they excel in others, it’s a reminder of how each person is an individual.  Recognizing students for their strengths by allowing them to assist others in those areas helps build community and build self-confidence.  On the opposite end I want to know where they had troubles in the past, I want to be prepared to help them, I can then watch for every opportunity to give positive reinforcement in those areas.  Finding out my students interests has been a way to connect with them when we have similar interests, motivate them by allowing them to pick a song from a pre-selected school appropriate playlist to play when they finish working, or get them reading by finding books and stories that match those interests.

Ok so there are answers for the first two questions with more to follow.  I just wish I could share these versions on REAP.