About Dana Huff

Wife, mother, indie writer, reader, book and education blogger, Technology Integration Specialist, and English teacher.  Fangirl.

Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2014, Part One

Me at the Folger LibraryYou’ll have to forgive my windswept look, but I took this picture after spending two thrilling days at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, working with participants in this year’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute.

My role at the institute is to teach and coach the participants in creating projects integrating technology. Here is the list of tools we talked about:

Some of the other instructors discussed other tools, and I also taught other tools during a “technology fair” in which TSI participants circled around for quick instruction and discussion about various tools.

If you are an English teacher, you really must try to find a way to go to a TSI. If you can’t give up four weeks of your summer (I know how that is because I couldn’t do it either and went instead to a mini-TSI), then you must seek out opportunities to see the Folger educators at conferences, such as NCTE, or try to bring them to your school. You will learn amazing things, and you will never teach Shakespeare the same way. You probably won’t teach other things the same way either. The Folger education folks are awesome at what they do.

I was thrilled to be asked to join them, and I had a wonderful personal tour of the library. I saw some unforgettable things. Of course, I was most excited to see a First Folio (I really wanted to touch it). Aside from that, perhaps my favorite item on exhibition right now is a vellum pedigree scroll commissioned by Edward IV for the purpose of legitimizing his kingship. It truly is incredible. Imagine that this scroll once belonged to Edward IV. THE Edward IV, as in the Yorkist king who overthrew the Lancastrian King Henry VI and was father to the two princes in the Tower and brother to the “evil” brother Richard III. That Edward IV. Can you imagine? Here are some details of the scroll: Detail 1 and Detail 2. Detail 1 shows Edward IV at the top, and begins his pedigree with God, moving down to Adam and Eve, and then Noah in Detail 2, and then forward to some (perhaps) more legitimate ancestry claims.

I also was able to see the drafts of the Shakespeare Coat of Arms from the College of Arms. It was really interesting to see such very old documents. Another real prize on exhibition is a family tree of Queen Elizabeth’s, starting with Henry III at the “root”—all the “branches” sprouting from Henry III’s stomach. You can see a detail of the pedigree here. Of course, through Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, Queen Elizabeth descends from the York family (daughter of Edward IV), and from Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth descends from the Lancaster family. Both the Yorks and the Lancasters find their “root” in Edward III, who was the father of both John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Edmund of Langley, Duke of York. It’s a fascinating document to look at, with so much detail.

Dan Bruno, who blogs for High School Matters (NCTE’s blog for the Secondary Section), has been capturing what being a part of the TSI is like for participants, and I would urge you to check out his blog, where you can learn much more about what is happening at the TSI.

The big takeaway about technology integration that Peggy O’Brien wanted participants to walk away with is that we don’t want to use technology for the sake of using technology. We want to use it to meet a need we have, which is exactly what the SAMR Model of technology integration asks teachers to examine. I took a stab at organizing the tools we discussed according to how I think they might fall on the SAMR Model, but of course, this organization scheme is subjective. Some people might use a tool as a mere substitution, while others might redefine an activity using that same tool.

Substitution Task can be done without the tool. The tool is used as a direct substitution and isn’t necessary for the task. There is no functional change. Scrible, ToonDoo
Augmentation The tool allows the task to be done more easily, with some functional change. Google Drive, Animoto, Shakespeare Searched
Modification The task is changed significantly because of the tool. There is more functional change; in fact, the tool might allow you to do the task in a way you couldn’t if you didn’t use the tool. VideoNot.es, Explain Everything/Educreations, Wordle/Tagxedo
Redefinition The task couldn’t be done without the tool. The tool allows for designing tasks that couldn’t be conceived of without the tool. Popcorn Maker, QR Codes GarageBand/Audacity, iMovie/Windows Movie Maker

My thinking on this grouping is that Scrible, which allows users to annotate websites and save those annotations in a library, essentially substitutes a technology tool for something you can already do. You can print articles/pages from websites and annotate them by hand. Scrible makes it unnecessary to print. ToonDoo is similar in that it allows you to create cartoons, but certainly we could always draw cartoons by hand. I see both of those tools as substitutions that don’t add real functionality. Of course, that is not to say that we shouldn’t use them. There is nothing wrong with substituting a technology tool for another kind of tool, but it is problematic if substitution is all we do when we say we are integrating technology.

I see Google Drive as having great potential. Depending on how it’s used, it can be redefining, but I placed it in Augmentation because we can certainly already use other tools to write, and we can either type or handwrite comments and feedback on that writing. What Google Drive does allow for is easier collaboration and editing of a document, so we do see a functional change. Google Drive has advantages over tools we have used to write with in the past. Animoto allows us to upload pictures and select a theme and music, and it organizes the pictures into a movie. We could certainly use other tools to do this same work, but Animoto does the editing for us quickly and easily, making it perhaps somewhat easier to use than, say, iMovie for editing a similar video. Shakespeare Searched similarly allows us to do something we could already do—search all the works of Shakespeare—but it adds a significant amount of functionality through the use of a search engine. We might take quite a long time to perform the same task without the tool.

I see the screencasting tools, word cloud tools, and VideoNot.es as offering something more than a functional change, however. Screencasting tools allow us to create videos of whatever we might be doing on a computer or iPad and share those videos with our students or the world. They offer opportunities to flip the classroom, or to demonstrate a technique or problem-solving process. Anything we can show someone how to do on a computer, we can also screencast. Theoretically, we could the same type of thing without the tool—but the tool allows for significant modification of the task. Word cloud tools, as much as we consider them to be somewhat simple technology tools, really do significantly modify a task. Can you imagine painstakingly filtering every word in a work of literature (if the work is long, the task is even more daunting), and taking a word count, then creating a word cloud indicating word frequency based on the size of the words in the cloud? Me either. I would never do this task with students if not for Wordle or Tagxedo, which means to me that these tools allow for significant modification of a task (perhaps even redefinition). VideoNot.es allows users to annotate videos. Sure, we can already take notes as we watch a video, but VideoNot.es integrates with our Google Drive account to save those notes to our drive, and it also allows us to navigate the video using our annotations.

I see Popcorn Maker, QR Codes, podcasting tools, and video editing tools as redefinition tools. Perhaps one could try to remix or put together various pictures and videos in iMovie, but Popcorn Maker doesn’t stop there: you can also add hyperlinks and social media to your remix, and you can also collaborate. I can’t think of a tool that allows users to do all of these things (or at least not as well as Popcorn Maker), so I see it as a tool that allows us to do tasks we couldn’t do without the tool. Podcasting can technically be done with a recording device, but GarageBand has a lot of elements that allow easy creation of podcasts and music. Frankly, I don’t know anyone who was using podcasting in their classroom before these tools came along. Actually, movie editing tools are similar. I think I made a movie with classmates for English class when I was in high school. We used a camcorder, which was cutting edge technology for the time. We certainly only did the one project, and it was quite unusual for students to create video projects at that time, and teachers just were not asking us to make them—most of us had no access to equipment that allowed us to make movies. Now, creating video projects is easy, and tools like iMovie make it simple to tell a digital story and edit it. I am seeing a lot more movie-making in classrooms today than I saw even five years ago. Going back ten years ago, it was rare, and fifteen years ago, when I was a fairly new teacher, no movie-making was happening in my school. Finally, I placed QR codes in the redefinition list because I was thinking of how I’ve seen them used. One project I was particularly proud of took place at my previous school. Students filmed each other working on art projects and talking about their artwork. Those videos were uploaded to YouTube and linked to QR codes. These codes were placed next to the works in exhibition around the building. This kind of interactive art exhibit wouldn’t have been possible to do without the QR codes—at least not with the kind of equipment we had. Worcester Academy had a QR code scavenger hunt for Digital Learning Day this year, and I don’t think the task could have been designed without the QR codes. Because they can link to anything, they’re useful in paper projects with digital elements. For example, one of my students created film as one of his genres for his multigenre project, but when he handed in the paper copy of the project, one page had a QR code linked to the film. It was quite handy.

In all, I think the discussion of exactly why you might want to use a tool, and what it can offer in terms of fuctionality and redesign of a task, is an important discussion to have. Substituting is fine, but if we really want to get the most out of our use of technology tools, we want to shoot more for modifying and redefining tasks using technology.

Related posts:

I Don’t Get What’s Wrong with Asking for PD

Every year during ISTE, a version of this tweet makes the rounds. It gets a lot of favorites and retweets.

I totally understand the spirit of the tweet. A lot of teachers don’t use a tool (or much technology at all), and some techy folks view asking for PD as an excuse not to use a tool. And there are probably quite a few teachers who can’t make the time for PD, but claim they don’t use tech tools because they haven’t had the PD.

The problem I have with this thinking is that I don’t understand why asking for PD is problematic. Most teachers I have worked with in the last few years I’ve been a tech integrator are quite interested in learning how to use technology. They set aside time to meet with me, or they come to PD sessions for the express purpose of learning to use technology. It makes them feel better to have a guide teach them the basics before they dive in on their own. I don’t blame them. There are several things I prefer to have help with when I do them.

The other problem I see is that when I introduce a tech tool to students, I always take time to teach them how to use it. Sure, some of them prefer to dive in and figure it out, but often, I find students are not the tech savvy digital natives they’re believed to be. There are things they know how to do, and tools they know how to use well, but they don’t know how to do everything, and there is a lot they don’t know about working with some technology. So yes, I have had students ask me to show them how to use technology. In a sense, isn’t that asking for PD?

I would much rather teachers and students both felt comfortable asking me for help when they need it than that they felt there was something wrong with asking for help. Am I just not getting it or something?

Related posts:

Summer PD Reading Book Club

Some of you may remember that I have hosted summer PD reading in the past. I hope to get another summer PD reading book club off the ground this summer. I have narrowed the selections down to three choices:

Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts:

Falling in Love with Close Reading shows that studying text closely can be rigorous, meaningful, and joyous. You’ll empower students to not only analyze texts but to admire the craft of a beloved book, study favorite songs and video games, and challenge peers in evidence-based discussions. Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts offer a clear, fresh approach to close reading that students can use independently and with any text. Falling in Love with Close Reading helps you guide students to independence and support the transfer of analytical skills to media and their lives with lessons that include:

    • strategies for close reading narratives, informational texts, and arguments.
    • suggestions for differentiation
    • sample charts and student work from real classrooms
    • connections to the Common Core
    • a focus on “reading” media and life closely

Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst

Just as rigor does not reside in the barbell but in the act of lifting it, rigor in reading is not an attribute of a text but rather of a reader’s behavior—engaged, observant, responsive, questioning, analytical. The close reading Strategies in Notice & Note will help you cultivate those critical reading habits that will make your students more attentive, thoughtful, independent readers. In this timely and practical guide, Kylene and Bob:

  • examine the new emphasis on text-dependent questions, rigor, text complexity, and what it means to be literate in the 21st century
  • identify 6 signposts that help readers notice significant moments in a work of literature
  • provide 6 text-dependent anchor questions that help readers take note and read more closely
  • offer 6 Notice and Note model lessons that help you introduce each signpost to your students

Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire by Tom Romano

What does it mean to write fearlessly? Tom Romano illustrates the power of multigenre papers to push students beyond the “safety zone” of narrative and exposition into a place where fact meets imagination, and research meets creativity. A place to try the untried. Fearless Writing empowers students to leap into this personal, multifaceted take on research writing by giving you specific strategies and practical ideas to help students:

  • generate topic ideas
  • design research plans
  • develop core elements of a multigenre project
  • create innovative genres and “golden threads” of unifying elements

While multigenre papers address many Common Core standards, Tom’s passionate response to both the strengths and weaknesses of the Common Core serves as a lightning bolt of awareness, and a rallying cry for a writing curriculum of genre diversity. Expand your notion of writing and teaching writing, fearlessly.

While I cannot make promises or offer guarantees, it is possible that I can persuade the writers to become involved in our discussions. We can work out logistics in terms of how we want to conduct the discussions, and if you have suggestions, by all means, share in the comments.

Please vote in the poll if you want to participate. The poll closes on July 5 at midnight, so please share this post with colleagues and friends who might be interested in joining us.

Which book do you want to read?

  • Falling in Love with Close Reading, Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts (39%)
  • Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst (36%)
  • Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire, Tom Romano (25%)

Total Votes: 28

Loading ... Loading …

Related posts:

Nine Years of Blogging

nine birthday photo

I first posted to this blog nine years ago today. My first post, in case you are interested, was a review of Constance Weaver’s book Teaching Grammar in Context. It’s not the most comprehensive or reflective review. I actually re-read a few of my early posts and cringed a little. I like to think I became much more reflective over time, and this blog is a big reason why.

If I had not started this blog, I sometimes wonder if I’d still be teaching. I was in a frustrating position as a teacher for a very long period of my career. I learned a lot. One thing I learned is that there were people out there, people with whom I connected over this blog or their blog or later, Twitter, and they were going through some of the same difficulties, and they shared some of my opinions. It meant so much to have a source of validation. It can be so hard to teach on your own. It took me a long time to realize I was just not teaching in the right place. I’m so thankful that I am teaching in the right place now. However, I wonder—if I had not had this blog and the connections I made starting here, would I have been able to stick it out, or would I have made the assumption teaching wasn’t right for me rather than that I was just in the wrong place?

So I am grateful for my blog because it is the first step I took into being connected to other educators, and it helped me find my voice, and figure out what I believed. I have not always been the most prolific blogger, and I know I don’t post often, but it means a lot to me that this space is always here for me.

I’m also grateful to my blog for helping me reflect. Having an audience and space to talk about what I was reading, doing, and thinking really helped me grow as an educator. I felt myself becoming a better teacher as I began blogging. I taught for about six years before I started blogging, but it was after I started blogging that I became interested in integrating technology. I would never have thought, when I started teaching, that I would ever be “tech savvy.” I certainly didn’t think I’d ever have a real website or anything.

Finally, I’m grateful for you, those of you who have read and sometimes commented. It helped me to know you were out there, somewhere, and that we could talk about whatever was on our minds, read books together, and share ideas.

Photo by LifeSupercharger

Related posts:

On the Horizon

On the Horizon photoI’m interrupting my alphabet series as the year closes. Today was our last day of post-planning, or post-sessionals, as my school terms it. I had a great year. My students were awesome, and I tried some great things in my classroom.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned my changing role on this blog yet. A few years ago, I went into technology integration. I am going back to teaching English full time next year as the English department chair at my school. I am very excited about this changing role, and I believe in some ways it’s a return to my first love. I did enjoy technology integration, but if it had ever taken me completely out of the classroom, I’m not sure I could have handled it. I don’t think this transition means I will not be talking about technology. I do anticipate this blog will shift back towards more of a focus on teaching English, however.

My school is moving toward backwards design/UbD, and long-time readers of this blog will know how thrilled I am about it. Many of our teachers already use the format for planning, but with a more institutional focus on UbD, I think the teaching and learning will become even better. I work with some excellent teachers, and I think we have the best kids anywhere, so I’m really excited to see the ways in which project-based learning and UbD makes my school even better.

Even more exciting than seeing our school embrace UbD? Grant Wiggins is coming to our school to do a workshop during our pre-planning (pre-sessional) meetings. I am so excited to have the opportunity to meet Grant and learn from him in person.

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a CLA/CWRA Performance Task Academy led by Marc Chun. If you have ever struggled with creating performance tasks, I can highly recommend the workshop, which really helps break down the process and offers opportunities for you to build your performance task with Marc’s guidance.

In preparation for working with Grant, my school has combined our curriculum mapping (which greatly resembled UbD) with our new learning management system. I was one of the early adopters, and I was asked to flesh out one of my unit pages so that I could model use of the LMS to colleagues. I chose to flesh out my unit on The Catcher in the Rye. I will be teaching the novel again next year in a sophomore World Literature class (and I will also be teaching American literature again after a few years’ hiatus—perhaps folks who have been reading a while will remember I taught American literature for quite a long time, and that it was the focus of many blog entries and lesson ideas posted here). Because I’d recently been to the Performance Task Academy, and also perhaps because I love planning, I couldn’t just build my unit page without actually tackling my UbD unit for The Catcher in the Rye. I did borrow the idea behind the performance task that Wiggins and McTighe describe on pp. 199-200 of Understanding by Design. I have used the performance task before without as much success as I would have liked. I realized at the Performance Task Academy that the missing piece was grounding the performance task more solidly in a real-world situation and giving more definitive parameters. The general idea is the same, but the performance task as I revised it will make more use of real-world tools and materials and will have real-world stakes that more closely mimic the work a psychiatrist treating Holden might do. I am really happy with it, though the unit as it is posted is still a little incomplete, as I haven’t finished thinking about discussion questions I will want to use in class discussion.

I have also been fortunate enough to find a fabulous friend and mentor in my Dean of Faculty, Cindy (and I hope she doesn’t mind my calling her out on my blog when I didn’t ask first). It’s been so refreshing to work with her this year (and last), especially as I transition into my new role. She’s my English teaching soulmate, and anyone who has ever worked in a vacuum with no like-minded administrators knows how it feels to find someone like that in your workplace. It doesn’t just make it easier to go to work every day, it makes it fun, invigorating, and challenging (in the best way) to go to work every day. Under her leadership, I joined our school’s Vision Committee, and it has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done with colleagues. Together we designed a professional development day unconference.

With all of this buzzing around in my mind, I’m so eager to get started on planning for next year. I’m really excited about the work on the horizon.

Related posts:

F is for Failure

A light bulb but no (good) ideas... (17/365)No one expects a batter to hit a home run on the first try. In fact, even experienced hitters rarely accomplish this feat. Batters strike out more often than they hit, especially at the professional level. We expect it, and we don’t consider it failure because at that level, hitting the ball is difficult.

How often do we give students one chance to learn, though? Lately, I’ve heard educators beginning to say we need to reassess failure. Some even say it should stand for “first attempt in learning.” One of the things I have come to value as a student myself, both in my master’s program and in online courses I’ve taken through Coursera, is the opportunity to retake quizzes and revise work. Whether or not you want to allow revisions largely depends on your purpose for assessment. If you just want to gauge whether or not students did a reading assignment, perhaps not, but if you want to see what students have learned, then why wouldn’t you?

One of our math teachers allows students to revise their tests. Students grade their own tests and know how they have done before he does. He explains the process in this presentation:

Instead of crumpling their tests and shoving them into the deepest recesses of their backpacks, or worse—throwing them away—students are actually learning from tests. What a concept! Using assessments to learn instead of playing gotcha!

In an English class, this sort of revision can be fairly common—the writing process is designed to teach students that one-and-done drafts don’t really exist. However, grading all these drafts takes time, so not all teachers truly teach the process. I found some success in placing the emphasis on the process through writing workshop this year, and what I found is that students revised even after work had been graded, sometimes continuing to revise for weeks or months (no, not every student). Student writing also improved.

We have created a school culture in which students must do well on their first attempt or risk bad grades, but we complain that students only care about grades and not about their learning. The only way to help students care more about their learning is to allow them to fail. If their first attempt in learning isn’t successful, they need to try again. Otherwise, they receive the message that only the first try counts, and they absolutely must not fail on the first attempt.

I struggle with this idea myself. It’s not easy to make the kind of time we need to make in order to help students truly learn. But if that is the goal, then we need to design lessons that will help students learn, and we need to allow students to struggle a bit with the learning. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right about the time when grades start really mattering, students seem to lose their curiosity. They are not interested in exploring; they want to know the answer. The stakes are too high. There isn’t time to try and try again.

Perhaps there isn’t time on every single assignment, but teachers need to give students opportunities to revise, to try again… to learn. Otherwise, I’m not sure what we’re all doing in school.

Related posts:

E is for English Language Learners

Yare

For most of my career, I have taught in independent schools. At my previous school, being an independent school teacher meant that I didn’t have English language learners in my classroom. In the eight years I taught at my previous school, I had one student who was learning English when she entered my classroom. Unfortunately for her, we were in the midst of studying Romeo and Juliet. She spent hours and and hours every day learning English and used an electronic translator in class (I didn’t mind). By the time she graduated, she spoke and wrote well and was inducted in the National Honor Society. We are still in touch.

I know learning English was hard for her, but she was dedicated, and she had been admitted to the school with the condition that the school not be responsible for helping her learn English—she needed to gain proficiency and perform at the level of the other students. It was harsh. I didn’t agree with it, and I was inclined to help her along as much as I could as well as evaluate her writing with the thought in mind that she was still learning the language. And let’s face it—English is a tough language to learn.

My current school has many international boarding students from all over the world. We have English classes for English language learners. These classes help students learn conversational and written English and include high-interest/low-level reading that is accessible and engaging. These students typically do well and move into regular English classes within a year or two.

I have noticed several things about teaching international students: 1) they typically work very hard to achieve the same results as their native-speaking peers; 2) they are often quiet in class discussion, leading to the familiar refrain on progress reports—”Student X needs to participate more in class discussion”; 3) they have difficulty with verbs, agreement, and prepositions; 4) they sometimes struggle with directions.

I am not sure there is anything you can do about the first issue. There is no way around the fact that learning in a second (or third, and so on) language is more difficult. However, there are some things you can do that will make it easier.

One tip I learned from the ELL teachers at my school is to give an ELL student a question I want them to answer in class the next day at the end of a class period. It gives them time to process and think so that they can participate. Often, these students have much to say, but they are translating and thinking, and by the time they want to contribute, we have moved on to the next topic. Another way to give ELL students time to think is to engage the whole class in a Socratic seminar and give all students the questions in advance. The international students still have trouble jumping into these discussions at times, but they are prepared with written comments and often do better in these kinds of discussions than in typical class discussions, when they don’t know the questions in advance. Another great way to engage these students in discussion is to leverage technology. If your school has a learning management system or online course with discussion forums, you can ask them questions online, and allow them to respond online, which gives them time to process and think about a response to the question.

Language issues in writing are often best dealt with on and individual basis. You can point students in the direction of resources. If a learning management system allows you to individually assign practice assignments, you can try that as well, but one of the best tools for working on writing issues of any stripe is writing workshop. The more students are exposed to models of writing and work through drafts, they better they will write.

Struggling with directions is a problem certainly not limited to English language learners, but I have noticed they sometimes are not sure what they are being asked to do. You can help by making directions as explicit as possible (clear, no ambiguous language, direct vocabulary). It also helps to hear directions aloud and see them in print. It helps to allow students to ask questions. English language learners sometimes hesitate to ask questions either because of cultural reasons or because they don’t want to look like they don’t understand. Some cultures believe it is insulting to ask teachers questions because it insinuates the teacher didn’t explain well enough. Students from these cultures should be encouraged not to look at asking questions in this way, but it can still be difficult for them to overcome. They sometimes feel more comfortable asking questions in private, so making time to meet with students (office hours, help sessions, email) can go a long way toward helping students feel more comfortable asking questions.

I don’t have all the answers, especially given my limited experience with English language learners in my classroom. What tips would you add? What issues do you see arise?

Related posts:

D is for Deeper Learning

EinsteinWhen I taught pre-K, science was my favorite subject to teach because all of the science lessons I taught involved experiments. What happens if you plant a potato eye? What happens if you let an egg sit in a glass of cola? How can you make a tornado out of two bottles? My favorite science teacher was Mr. Tusa. I was in 7th grade. All I remember about his class was doing experimental labs—everything from combining chemicals and recording reactions to raising small rodents.

Science wasn’t my only experience with deeper learning, or inquiry-based learning, when I was in school. I have written previously about a role-playing game my 7th grade history teacher had us play. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write about the “twin sins of design.” The “sin” more often committed at the secondary level (in my experience) is focus on coverage-based teaching. Coverage-based teaching is marching through the content, often at breakneck speed, which doesn’t allow for deeper learning.

Deeper learning offers students an opportunity to explore a topic. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has a good explanation of what, exactly, deeper learning is. One persistent criticism I have heard about deeper learning, project-based learning, and its cousins is that it removes any emphasis on knowledge and comprehension, the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I don’t think deeper learning or project-based learning means you do away with these foundational types of learning, but I think it asks that you not stop there and that you move into application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

The ways in which I try to engage my students in deeper learning mostly involve writing. I have recently described the writing workshop model at the center of my classroom:

Writing workshop involves student collaboration in writing and opportunities to give and receive feedback. It has also improved my students’ writing. Yes, it takes longer, and it results in higher grades (two somewhat controversial sticking points). However, I would argue that the goal of teaching writing is that students become better writers. Period. The goal is not to write essays every single week if students never engage deeply enough with the writing to revise and edit their work, much less receive and offer feedback. Nor is the goal to slap a grade on it and move on to the next one. I know too many English teachers who use writing as a stick to hold students back, and I don’t understand why. I’m not sure they’re consciously doing it, but they are making students hate writing instead of engaging them in learning how to write well.

My students recently selected topics for multigenre writing projects. The way I described the projects was that they were a way to “go deeper” with the material we had learned in class this year. I want to write more about multigenre writing projects later when I get to letter “m,” but essentially I asked the students to pick something we had studied this year that they wished they could learn more about or go deeper with, and the end result was an incredible variety of genres and a profound connection to the texts. One of my students declared, “I’d rather do two of these projects than write one essay.” Truthfully, the multigenre projects were more work than a traditional essay. However, students enjoyed the choice and creative license that the projects offered.

As I was writing, I rediscovered an old post in which I described writing a test with my students. I haven’t tried writing a test or a quiz with my students in a while, and it was a worthwhile activity. I should try it again. It was, I recalled as I re-read the piece, an interesting way to engage students in deeper learning, thinking about the material in ways they had not. It also made instructional design and assessment explicit to them.

One thing we have to consider when we teach, especially at the secondary level, and especially in AP courses, is whether or not we are giving students the time and space to engage deeply with the subject matter. We need to allow them to see the relevance of what they are learning by giving them opportunities to apply it, take it apart, put it together, and connect it. Deeper learning takes more time, and it means not “covering” everything.

Related posts:

C is for Collaboration

Working TogetherI recently had an exchange with the parent of one of my advisees. He shared a paper his older daughter wrote in college with me. I don’t have permission to reprint any of it here, but she made some interesting comments about collaboration in schools. She made the comment that academics collaborate all the time on lab reports and journal articles, but collaboration among undergraduates and K-12 students is more rare. In some extreme cases, we might call it cheating.

I recently tried out a new way of teaching writing which involves collaboration. You can read my posts about here:

I have had an opportunity to present how it works both to my own colleagues and at a local conference (here’s hoping NCTE is interested as well; we find out next month). One of the things I pointed out both times is that if we write professionally, we expect to have an editor. No one says we don’t really know how to write on our own if someone edits our work. No one says we’re cheating. Yet, with students, I have heard teachers argue that students need to write in isolation. As I mentioned in the post, I have seen students revise much more often now that we are doing writing workshop, but one of the other byproducts of writing workshop has been a classroom community that I didn’t anticipate. I have noticed it even if we’re not writing. Students are friendly and collegial with one another. They have learned to value each other’s voices and opinions. They work together readily.

We were recently working on multigenre writing projects in the classroom, and as I came in the room and prepared to start class, I noticed two students who had both chosen to write about Edgar Allan Poe sitting together. They do not normally sit right next to each other. They had their heads together sharing their work with each other and talking about the different types of writing they were doing for the project. Would another teacher have wanted to keep them apart because they were working on similar projects? Possibly. Why? They shared great ideas with each other, and their projects will be stronger for the sharing and feedback. I think we are afraid sometimes that it is not original work if students collaborate, but truthfully, we often benefit from models. Models can show us how to do something and give us ideas we might otherwise not have had. A recent study by Thomas N. Wisdom, Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone from University of Indiana explores the ways in which social learning can improve problem solving. The implications of the study suggest that sharing ideas and encouraging individuals to work as a team will result in better learning:

The results of both experiments show that imitation can be productive for groups as well as individuals, because it enables the preservation of good tentative solutions in “group memory” and their further improvement through cumulative exploration. These results also showed that the pursuit of larger amounts of exploration can result in diminishing returns for both individuals and groups. (Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone 1419)

One of the things I have noticed about writing workshop is that students often open their laptops and revise their own writing when we are collectively editing a peer’s paper. They notice something they want to change or that they want to try, or they have an idea based on something their peer has said. As such, my students’ writing has strengthened a great deal over the course of the year.

Students might not necessarily go on to be professional writers, but often, the situations in which professional writers work mimic the writer’s workshop more than writing in isolation does. Journalists always collaborate. It’s understood that an editor and copyeditor will work on a journalist’s writing. The writing room for just about every television show you can name involves collaborative writing. Students can apply these skills to the other work that they do.

Students have commented on first trimester course evaluations that the class is “like a family” and that they are “always collaborating.” Second trimester, one student said they “are asked to work together and by ourselves. We do a lot of group work.” The same student added that I make “sure we understand things before we move on.” Another student remarked that the class is “an opportunity to meet challenges.” I share these comments because I think they are a window into how establishing a classroom community and offering opportunities for collaboration helps students learn better and enjoy their learning more. We are reading article after article about the skills employers are looking for in college graduates, and over and over, we read that the ability to work as a team and to collaborate and to communicate well are important. However, we are strangely selective about the opportunities we give students to collaborate. We rarely allow students to write together, and having seen the ways in which collaborating in this way have not only contributed to my students’ ability to write but has also built a strong classroom community, I’m convinced that collaborative learning like writer’s workshop is the way to prepare students for the real work of the world.

Work Cited:

Wisdom, Thomas N., Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone. “Social Learning Strategies in a Networked Group.” Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 1383-1425. Print.

Image by Lolly Man

Related posts:

B is for Books

443545349_fee917a0ca1As teachers of English, one of our goals is that students will become lifelong readers. We hope they will understand that reading is a great tool for understanding the world around us. In the words of Mark Twain, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” We read articles like this one at The Washington Post, and we’re frightened about the future, which is starting to look more and more like this:

Photo by Will Lion

Photo by Will Lion

We are concerned about the state of reading in the world, and we long to foster a lifelong love of reading in our students. But how to do it?

I am afraid that so much of what we do in our English language arts classes kills the desire to read that most students seem to have when they first learn to read in elementary school. I don’t have all the solutions, and I am sure I’ve been a part of the problem at times (for various reasons), but here are some issues I often see:

  • Students don’t read for pleasure. They read what is required (if they read that).
  • Students have no choices about what they read. The most common form of reading seems to be the whole-class literature study (more on that in a minute).
  • Everything students read is assessed. They are accountable for every page.
  • Schools and teachers cram the curriculum with as many texts as possible rather than go deep with fewer texts.
  • The whole-class literature study often focuses on literature that students do not like and have difficulty relating to.
  • Some teachers have trouble helping students find the literature selections relevant to themselves and their world.
  • We don’t allow students to express their opinions about the books (and they should be taught to back those opinions up with textual evidence), so they learn to feel weird if they don’t like the characters or stories.
  • If it’s fun, and they would choose to read it on their own, it tends not to be something we’d consider for classroom reading, and we wind up teaching students that reading is something that is supposed to be hard work instead of hard (or not hard) fun.
  • We tell them what to read over the summer and don’t allow them choices about how to spend their reading “free” time, either.

I don’t know what you remember about elementary school reading, but I remember we were allowed to pick a lot of the books we read. We had a lot of choices. I used to pick audio books about dinosaurs. I listened to them all the time. I liked the audio books because they taught me how to pronounce the dinosaurs’ difficult names correctly. I do remember sometimes sitting in a circle with the teacher and reading stories out of a basal reader, but I don’t remember hating it. Other students for whom learning to read was difficult might have a different memory, however. I chose books all the time, and teachers read books to us, and I really liked that, too.

Partly, we need to do a good job educating parents. They need to read to their children, and they need to model enjoyment of reading for their children. We need to continue to allow students to make choices about their reading as they go through middle and high school. Are they going to choose to read YA fiction? Yes, some of them will. We need to stop thinking of that as some kind of crime. One of the things I detest in some adults is book snobbery. Some adults I know actually look down their noses at readers who like to read genre fiction or comic books. I mean, we all know real readers read Lit-ra-chure (you have to read that word in your poshest, snobbiest accent). I have never met a K-12 student who is a book snob.

I give reading quizzes all the time, but I stopped giving tests some years ago. I don’t find testing students on the details of their reading comprehension after we’ve done a unit to be all that helpful. I use quizzes mainly to make sure students do read, but the questions tend to be open-ended questions about the connections they make and their opinions. I don’t hold them accountable for every page. Do students sometimes not do their reading for my class? Probably. As a result, they don’t have the opportunity to engage in the discussion, and they missed out on a good book. Too bad for them. A student’s education belongs to that student, and they have to be responsible to themselves for choosing not to engage.

Alternative assessments are also fun. One of my favorites is a Cartoon “Did You Read” Quiz (you might need to join the Making Curriculum Pop Ning to see it, but it’s worth it—great Ning). Or why not use quizzes as a chance to engage with the text and characters: “What did you think about the way Okonwo treated Nwoye?” or “Which character do you like best so far and why?” Give students more opportunities to wrestle with the text through Socratic seminar discussions. I just did a Socratic seminar over the first seven chapters of Things Fall Apart this week, and it was amazing. You should have heard the kids speak. Did they read it? Most of them did, and they were quite articulate about what they read. A couple of students missed out. I feel bad for them. It was a really interesting discussion, and they were left out.

Cramming as many texts into a curriculum as we can is meant, I think, to look like rigor, but what winds up happening is that we cover a book more superficially rather than having deep and engaging discussions and writing reflectively about the reading. I don’t agree that we are doing students a favor by “exposing” them to a large number of texts when they can’t delve deeply. If they engage deeply with a fewer number of texts, they will develop a fondness for reading that will lead them to more reading. It would be interesting to do a study some time, but it’s hard because you’d need to have a control group. I’m not volunteering my students, and I can’t think of teachers who would (at least, not intentionally). And so what if they never read Nineteen-Eighty-Four? I haven’t. And I’m still alive. (I do plan to read it at some point, though.)

I admit I love the whole-class literature study, and I do it a lot, but why not try to integrate more choice? Why not literature circles? Why not allow students to pick three Poe stories to read instead of assigning the same ones to each student? Why not allow them to find poems to bring to class to discuss? I think students do benefit from discussing a book with a whole class, but we should think about which selections we teach. The intended audience for many of the novels we teach tends to skew older than our students. I happen to love The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, but I can see why a tenth grade boy might not. On the other hand, I think some teachers can teach these novels, even to teenagers, and make them relevant and interesting. We need to help students make connections to the characters in the literature they read and to understand the ways in which literature mirrors our society.

Students need opportunities to choose what they read so that they will learn what they like to read. If we choose every single text they read, even their summer reading, when do they have an opportunity to figure that out? And if they don’t like what they read in class, isn’t it logical for them to assume they don’t like reading and choose not to do it after they graduate? I think often we discourage thoughtful criticism of books students read, too. I think students should feel free not to like a book and to express those feelings. We need to teach them to articulate their reasons. “Because it sucks” doesn’t fly, but students should feel safe in expressing their opinions. I struggle with this idea sometimes, too, and my students don’t always love the books I wish they loved. It makes me sad when they don’t love those books. There are a lot of books I don’t love, however, that other people really love. I think we have to let go. In the same way we should stop dictating every reading selection, we should also stop dictating how students should feel about the reading selections. And yes, I do think how one feels about a book is important. We become lifelong readers because of how books make us feel.

I don’t have all the answers, but we should be having conversations about this issues.

Related posts: