I Love to Teach

There is something maddening about leaving a classroom and realizing that your objective was not exactly met.  Yes, it was close, and there were several bright lights lit within the room, but equally as many blew out the candle out of either frustration, confusion, or failure to see the relevance.

What I love about teaching, and education in general, is our ability to come out swinging the following day.  We can do better by our students through a bit of analysis and inspection.

Over the last week, I’ve been working with groups of teachers from Camden Tech in Camden County, New Jersey on student writing.  Here’s the workshop description:

Progressive and innovative educators everywhere have long pushed for a re-emergence of critical thinking skills within student work, and in our era of standardized testing whereby we tend to place an emphasis on being either right or wrong, our students sorely need to be able to break out of those boxes (or bubbles).  The constant cry of employers in the 21st Century has been for thinkers and communicators–they want those who can think their way through complex problems.  Are we helping our students to do that?  Of all the advantages technology has availed us of in the past few years, has it truly led us closer to understanding how students think when they write?  In this session, we will talk about how simple, free tools can lead us to a greater understanding of what our students are thinking when they write, and give us another tool to use when we conference with our student writers.

My original intent was to help them see how to use the revision history within Google Docs and things like PiratePad to show how you can follow the way in which students wrote the paper.  By clicking on the “Next” button in the revision history, you can track through a student paper.  This idea, gleaned from conversations with Drs. Miller and Hammond from Plangere Writing Center at Rutgers University, lets you see whether students are writing from 0-500 words in a straight shot, or if there is some recursion going on.  Plus, when feedback is given in the form of comments, are students responding to it in a positive way.

However, after a conversation with Zac Chase while he was awaiting his last dinner in South Africa, he got me thinking about something altogether different through a series of questions he dropped into my planning document.  After taking a look at my description above, he asked me:

  • Ask about the writing they do in their daily lives (digital and not). Why do they do it? Where do you they do it?
  • What’s the point of asking learners to write? What’s the endgame? Is there one? Should there be?
  • Why do we give feedback?

Side note: I still think that skyping someone into your world from another continent ranks as one of the coolest things you can do.  Granted, Zac lives in Philly, but physically he was in South Africa.  Just saying.

So from that description I originally came up with, and taking into consideration Zac’s questions, I decided that the learners in this workshop would need to be driving the bus.  Zac and I talked about how his students needed to trust him before they would write for him in any meaningful capacity.   Think about it, would you go out on a limb and write with your best voice for someone you had no faith in?  Especially young writers struggling to figure out their writing voices.  Will they take compositional risks for adults they don’t think can handle it?

Working off of that logic, how can we expect students to write well in standardized situations, especially if we value voice and audience?

Zac’s push led me to these questions that I posed to all participants in both sessions:

  • How can we both develop student confidence as writers and give them timely and effective feedback?
  • What formats are the most fitting for student writing styles?
  • Which technologies fit well into my idea/purpose behind getting students to write?

Here is the slidedeck I used:

And here is the site I built to house the activities and resources I pulled from.

Friday, I met with a group of 26 teachers, Monday, 16.  I walked away from Friday’s sessions thinking to myself that I had about a 50/50 split, and the survey’s revealed as much.  I looked closely at the comments and realized that the order of the workshop could be changed.  Instead of spending the bulk of the time on authentic writing, which the Friday group really go into quickly and produced writing quickly, I altered the focus to spend time on creating environments where they could play with the feedback aspect of Google Docs.

Result?  Much better feedback and a smoother running workshop. My only wish is that I could have the Friday group back again.

More of This, Please

I read Eric Langhorst’s blog, I’ll confess, not for the great history links he sends out, but for ideas about how I would run my my own classroom.  In one of his latest posts/podcasts, Eric talks about how his class skyped in author Pat Hughes to talk about her work (and it magically fit right into what they were studying–imagine the serendipity!).  If you know how to use skype, you understand how simple and easy it is to use.  My mother uses it.  My kids can almost use it now.  It’s simple to pick up. After our impromptu conference with Shelly Blake-Plock last week, I began thinking about why we don’t bring others into our classrooms this way more often.  It’s not all that crazy to plan–anytime I have done one, it originated from an idea, that led to an email, that became a brainstorm for a date and time, and then some quick tech set-up.  Voila.  Instant access to smarter, more interesting people (choose your interviews wisely). The next level then becomes something like this once you’ve become more established: This was taken from Silvia Tolisano who uses htis with her students to help them engage more fully in the many conversations they have with people from around the world.  I’ve said this before in this space, and Sylvia characterizes it nicely here, but we need to be outsourcing more of what we do to our students.  By creating all of these opportunities for student learning out of one phone call (augmented with video, of course), Sylvia and others who do this sort of thing, have given students the opportunity to explore something more than just the history book or primary source documents.  The teachers who do this sort of thing are creating avenues for curiosity and exploration.  And that’s something we need to be doing more of.

Side note: if you get the chance, check out Silvia’s flickr visuals.  They are the bees knees.

A Foray into the Paperless Fray

Today we were fortunate to Skype in Shelley Blake-Plock into a lunch-hour session in our high school.  Blake-Plock, the driving force behind the recent paperless push by educators on Earth Day, spoke to our staff about his classroom design, philosophy, and practice in a 45-minute session today.

When I originally contacted Shelley last week to inquire as to whether or not he would be willing to talk to my staff, he jumped right in, and he didn’t disappoint.  What impressed me most about him as I listened to him describe his practice was his clear vision of what it meant for his students to function in a classroom that he designed: it was about them learning.  He truly designed the environment with their learning–their unbridled learning–in mind.  His decision was not a secretarial one, but rather came from a desire to push students to take control of information gathering, processing, and creating.

At one point, a teacher from our Social Studies department asked about how he assesses his students if he doesn’t give tests or quizzes on paper.  Did he design them through some sort of CMS in the formed of timed essays, or online quizzes?

Shelley’s answer was flat-out brilliant.  He described the manner in which students are required to keep a blog that he is tied into via RSS, and daily they add content to that blog in the form of class notes, personal reflections, or other media.  His assessment then becomes his analysis of their thinking and reaction, and he does this using screencasting (he uses Jing).  This way, instead of notes in the margin that are loosely tied to anchors in the text, he can pinpoint exactly where in the writing he is talking about and offer precise, quasi-one-on-one feedback even though he is not present.  I just dug this.  We often bemoan our students willingness to skip past any comments we make on their writing in their desperate rush to find out their grade, but what Shelley is doing is removing much of that and asking students to take constant feedback and do something with it.  Our teachers have long lamented the amount of grading that has to be done, our parents and students complain about the length of time it takes to get it back, and all research shows that feedback given after a certain point is nearly useless to the student in terms of increasing achievement.

What if they got feedback consistently over time?  Would that change the final outcome (the grade)?  In my follow-up with the staff, I am going to be sure to inquire about that one.  With a budget that includes nearly 60% of supplies being cut, looking at alternative options in terms of assessment–and those options that are grounded in formative assessment–is necessary.

Conversations with Really Bright People

I confess, my new favorite thing, besides twitter, is to talk to people much brighter than myself, and do it in a situation that aides more people around me. For example, I started getting the idea to skype people into my workshops, beginning last week with Konrad, Clay, and Carolyn. This week, I did the same, only I was able to get Steve Dembo of Discovery Education to speak about some of the more “Web 2.0-ey” features of United Streaming. Here is the audio, if you want to listen.

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In addition to Steve, I also asked Carolyn back to talk about one of the digital storytelling projects that she worked on regarding the Vietnam War Memorial and the Virtual Wall. If you haven’t seen some of them yet, I highly recommend them to you. One of the most amazing things about the project is that it sneaks up on you. We had just finished our call with Carolyn and were at her blog watching one of the student movies, and we were a wreck afterwards; the movies really touch a chord within you regardless of your age or generation.

In one of the most connected moments I have ever had, Carolyn then skype-chatted us an address to a site where Vietnam Veterans had watched these videos by the students, and took the time to thank them and share more stories about the individuals the students profiled in their videos. As I looked at the site and read the commentary, the vision of school as center of community really began to become clearer. This type of project makes changes happen, forces understanding across generations, and really forges a deeper understanding of community by its members. Bravo Carolyn, and your students too!

Me, Removed

Have you ever been intimidated by your blog? Strangely, I have stared blankly into my scribefire box over 10 times in the last few days, trying to find something that fits nicely. Call it writer’s block, but this is terrible. There is so much going on in my world that is worthy of at least a note, but, alas, it just won’t come.

This is meant to be the chisel to break through whatever I am going through. I’ll break it down by topic to make it easier on me.

Introducing: Teen Book Sleuth

Two weeks ago, my colleague David Gorecki and I ran the 2nd Annual Sparta Academy of Digital Media, where we take a group of students through the process of creating digital media. We usually break it down into movie making and web creation. With all that I have learned this year via this blog and the various people who I have the pleasure of reading, it was truly a great opportunity to let students explore their interests and learn some great skills. Out of the 16 students that we worked with, only one chose to focus on website creation. That in itself is telling. However, the student that did, we will call her Teen Book Sleuth after the site she created, really blew us away with her ability and interest level. She worked for most of the week using FrontPage, but after talking with her and getting the OK from mom and dad, we set her up with an account at weebly.com. She transferred her content from FrontPage to the weebly site and customized it to include a blog.

To say that we were surprised at her writing ability is an understatement. She is a wonderful writer and and avid reader. Her site is set up as a review of books in the Young Adult category. I can only imagine what she will produce as she moves along in her studies and her reading. Please visit the site and leave a comment on her blog. She is expecting you.

Connective Writing Workshop

I am in the process of putting together resources for a workshop on connective writing on Monday and Tuesday of this week. The wiki is nearly complete, and I will release the address when I finish it up. To that end, I would like to thank Sheryl Nussbaum-Beech, on whose wiki at APBC I have relied on for resources. What I have found in the past is that teachers respond very well to other teachers who have done something successfully. In that light, I have asked some people from the edublogosphere to participate in the workshop via Skype. Already, I have two people who will be skyped in (one on Monday and one on Tuesday). If you are interested, let me know and we will work something out. It would be a great honor to have some of you talk to the staff I work with.

This workshop is a pivotal one for me, as I would really like to use it as a springboard to get a cohort of teachers blogging from out district. As it is now, very few have taken to it. I am not distressed over it, but blogging and connecting to the myriad resources available through blogging will be a key way to move our pedagogy forward here in Sparta. That’s a lot of pressure, but I think it’s warranted.