Continuing Our Battle of the Books with Even More Student Voices

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Each year we have a program called Battle of the Books in 3rd-5th grade.  This is a reading competition where teams of 5 students read a list of 10 books.  They work together to answer questions about the books in several rounds of competition in order to be crowned the Battle of the Books Champion.  Each year there are students who don’t participate in battle of the books for many reasons.  Sometimes they are unsure if they want to do it and by the time they decide it’s too late.  Sometimes they have too many other things going on that they can’t fit it in.  Whatever the reason, there are students who are left out. This year, one of our teachers, Ms. Mills, recognized that in 3rd grade and wanted to give these students a 2nd chance to participate.

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Since we are near the end of the year, reading the long chapter books that are on the regular list weren’t reasonable to consider, so she pulled several books that students could realistically finish, understand, and compete with.  Students read these books in small groups as well as during state testing when they finished their test.

Deciding to choose new books  meant that there weren’t questions written for these books, so she knew she would have to come up with every question asked.  I love what she decided to do.  She took the books to a 5th grade class and asked them if they would read the books and come up with questions to ask the 3rd graders.  The 5th grade students worked with their teacher to craft questions and they put their names on each question written.  During the competition, Ms. Mills or Ms. Garrett would say who a question was written by.

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We decided to broadcast the competition through Google Hangouts on Air so that all 3rd grade classes could watch and support their friends.  I setup the hangout and emailed the link to all of the teachers, and of course, we now have an archive of our competition for anyone else who wants to watch.  Students helped pull the questions from a basket of questions and the teachers asked them. Each team received 8 questions and the teachers kept track of which team got the most questions correct.  It was a tight competition because the students knew the books so well.

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I take no credit for any of this competition, but I just had to highlight what these teachers and students did.  Bravo to Ms. Mills and Ms. Garrett for giving even more of our students a voice in this fun competition during the busy end-of-the-year rush.  They all did an awesome job, represented our school well, and showed that they knew their books well!

Expecting the Miraculous Now and in the New Year

photo (4)Over the summer of 2013, I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reader copy of Flora & Ulysses:  The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo.  She is by far one of favorite authors because her words always seem to speak to me in some way beyond just the story.  On p. 130, I came across a quote that I have honestly carried with me in my heart and mind since reading it.  In fact, it has become a motto that I embrace in our school library because it exemplifies the brand that our library represents.

“All things are possible,” said Dr. Meescham.  “When I was a girl in Blundermeecen, the miraculous happened every day.  Or every third day.  Actually, sometimes it did not happen at all, even on the third day.  But still, we expected it.  You see what I’m saying?  Even when it didn’t happen, we were expecting it.  We knew the miraculous would come.” ~Kate DiCamillo

Expect the miraculous.  It’s the phrase that I cheezily say to myself as I enter school each day.  It’s what I remind myself of when I sit down to plan with teachers.  It’s what I whisper to myself in the midst of a technology fail.  It’s what came out of my mouth in a recent interview with School Library Journal:

For wary school librarians, Plemmons adds, “My philosophy is, if we don’t expect miraculous things to happen in our libraries, then we’re just limiting ourselves. Why totally shut a door when we don’t know where it leads to?”

I don’t want to put limits on what kids are allowed to do just because I might not be an expert in a particular tool or concept.  I’m willing to try anything new with any age of students and expect that something great will happen even if it’s not what I imagined happening in my head.  In Invent to Learn, Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager say,

“It is unacceptable and unnecessary to deny children the opportunity to work on something they are passionate about because the teacher is not an expert in that particular field.”

Looking back through my posts of 2013, I see so many incredible things that happened in our library because we (myself, students, teachers, families, connected educators, and special guests) expected the miraculous.  Here are just a few:

  • 5th graders working together to design, plan, persuade, collect, paint, and dedicate during the Little Free Library project.  We now have 2 Little Free Libraries thanks to their hard work.  We went into the project with so many unknowns, but we always expected that the libraries would exist in our community.  Check out the posts!
  • 2nd graders developing their writing skills through blogging and connecting with students in Van Meter, Iowa.  This project included a miraculous connection with author/illustrator Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw.  Check out the posts!  Post 1  Post 2   Post 3

  • 3rd graders engaging in action research to solve a real-world problem at our school.  Their investigations included webcam observations, indoor and outdoor observation, skyping with Cornell University and a former Barrow Buddy via Skype, and email communication with other experts.  Their work resulted in many attempts at saving birds from crashing into our school windows.  Post 1  Post 2
  • 1st graders using Twitter to write persuasive messages about our environment.  Check out the post!
  • Multiple connections for special events like World Read Aloud Day, World Book Night, Dia de los Ninos, Read for the Record, and Talk Like a Pirate Day.
  • Students purchasing books for our library with their very own student book budgets.  Check out the post!

  • Students from throughout the school crowd-sourcing a poem using Google Forms for Poem In Your Pocket Day.  Check out the post!
  • Our annual Poem In Your Pocket Days live on Adobe Connect with viewers in multiple states and countries.  Post 1   Post 2
  • Kindergarten students becoming experts inTux Paint and making an informational video to teach others to use the program.  They even connected with students in Van Meter, Iowa to share their expertise.  Post 1  Post 2

  • Moving into a brand new library and working together to learn how to use it.  Check out the post!
  • The entire 4th grade working together in the library over several days to research explorers and Native Americans as well as challenge their thinking about heroes and villains.  Check out the post!
  • 2nd graders using Thinglink to publish monster stories.  Check out the post!
  • A Picture Book Month Smackdown with 2 authors and schools in 5 different states.  Check out the post!

  • After our district decided not to buy a 3D printer, we continued expecting the miraculous.  Miraculously, Donors Choose and Makerbot created a partnership and overnight a 3D printer was funded for our library!  Check out the post!
  • Classes in every grade level committed to exploring computer programming during the Hour of Code.  I’m expecting more miraculous things to come out of this one hour experience.  Post 1  Post 2
  • Our very first student-made design was printed on our 3D printer.  Grant and I expected the miraculous (even though we were prepared for failure).  Check out the post!

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When we give kids the space to explore, the tools to create, the connections to expertise and collaboration, and a global audience to share with, miraculous things will happen.  I know that not everyone believes this.  Recently, an article was published in the Athens Banner Herald highlighting out Hour of Code activities.  In the article, I was quoted saying:

“I encourage them to think about how coders aren’t afraid to make mistakes,” Plemmons said. And when they do make a mistake, they work with their peers to fix it.

Even though I try to avoid reading online comments (and I wish I had used the word failure instead of mistake), I was disturbed by one commenter’s post.  She said:

Such a lax attitude is not acceptable in my book. I am afraid to make mistakes in my work so I make sure all possibilities are considered and all details are addressed and included. I also make great effort to anticipate any questions my clients may have and am ready with an answer before I sit down at a meeting. I don’t need to ask others to help me fix any problems; I’ve already fixed them.

It’s good to tell kids to relax and not worry about making a mistake as they learn, but that real work for hire must be near perfect without wasting a lot of people’s time or your own.

The most disturbing part of this comment to me was the notion that giving kids space to fail, step back, re-evaluate, and try again is having a lax attitude.  Many major companies encourage their employees to fail early and fail often. This allows their employees the freedom to be innovative and take risks knowing that those risks are what unveil the latest great ideas. By failing early, learning from failure, and fine tuning their products, companies are able to release the best quality product that they can. In the digital world, companies continue to listen to the consumer and push out updates to improve any mistakes or ideas that they missed. This is the same kind of situation with students. They aren’t publishing final products online that are full of mistakes. Rather, they are attempting to make the computer do what they want it to do, trying some code, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and fine tuning their work. No one sits down and makes a perfect product without first failing.  Expecting the miraculous certainly doesn’t mean that you are expecting things to be perfect on the first try.

I was reminded of the importance of failure when I was recently reading Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.  Reynolds says:

“The fear of making a mistake, risking an error, or being told you are wrong is constantly with us. And that’s a shame. Making mistakes is not the same thing as being creative, but if you are not willing to make mistakes, then it is impossible to be truly creative. If your state of mind is coming from a place of fear and risk avoidance, then you will always settle for the safe solutions–the solutions already applied many times before.”

“Children are naturally creative, playful, and experimental. If you ask me, we were the most human when we were young kids. We worked on our art, sometimes for hours without a break, because it was in us, although we didn’t intellectualize it. As we got older, fears crept in along with doubts, self censoring, and overthinking.”

In 2014, I am going to continue expecting the miraculous with my students, my collaborators, my families, and my peers.  We will embrace our failures, learn from them, and continue to create innovative work together.

I am going to start 2014 by asking my students, “What miraculous things do you expect in 2014?”  They will record their responses on a Flipgrid.  I invite you to add your own expectations to the same Flipgrid.  Go ahead.  Give it a try.  Expect the miraculous.

Day 2 (3)