Slice of Life #27: Organization Journaling

My Journal

I have been trying a new technique to keep myself organized this year. On September 14, on a whim, I divided my journal page for that day down the middle and wrote “Stuff I Did” on the left side and “Stuff to Do” on the right. I hadn’t done it before. In fact, I’d been using the journal mainly to meditate on the day—when I remembered to do it, which was not very often.

Something about making that list of all the things I had accomplished that day made me feel like I had been more productive. What I liked about having the “Stuff to Do” list is that it enabled me to keep things going for long-term projects or for incomplete work. I might have “grade essays” on there for a few days until they’re done, but having to keep writing it again on “Stuff to Do” makes me want to get it moved over to “Stuff I Did.”

I have played with the idea of doing a bullet journal. I’m drawn to the organization. Then again, this weird little system of mine works, so it may be self-defeating to tweak it. I find I enjoy the time I set aside to take stock of the day. Sometimes I write things down as I do them. Sometimes I wait until the end of the day. I do find I am working my way through my to-do lists more quickly, and the “Stuff to Do” list gives me a place to start the next day. I start the day’s list by looking back at the previous few days’ lists to see what needs doing and what I am going to continue to move over to today’s “Stuff to Do” list because it’s not going to happen today.

I also use the journal to take notes in meetings that are likely to involve tasks to do. For example, if I’m in a department chairs’ meeting or meeting with my Dean of Faculty, I will probably have new items to add to my “Stuff to Do” lists.

So that’s your peek into my journal. I have a separate Moleskine cahier notebook for taking notes and writing ideas.

And speaking of writing, I’m trying NaNoWriMo again this year. I didn’t do too badly for the first day. My goal was 1,667 words, and I wrote 1,793.  I have a fun idea, but it was hard to write myself into the story today. I am learning that I have become a much more fluent writer over the years. When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, meeting the word count was hard and often took hours. Now, I can generally do it fairly quickly, especially if I turn off my internal editor and let the ideas flow. I have been blogging for a long time—and I don’t blog as much as I used to—so I’m not sure why I’ve been more fluent the last few years I’ve participated. I can’t chalk it up to blogging, which is one way I’ve traditionally worked on my writing. I’m not handwriting my NaNo novel, but I am handwriting a lot of other things more often. I wonder if that’s it.  I won’t complain in any case. The big task I need to put on my “Stuff to Do” list is picking up one of my previous NaNo novels and revising it so I can do something with it.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Drama Isn’t a Grecian Urn

drama vase photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

I was intrigued by Jennifer Gonzalez’s recent post on Cult of Pedagogy, “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?” Basically, Gonzalez argues that teachers need to be careful that their favorite projects are actually assessing learning and are not fluffy ways to fill time. Gonzalez refers to the work of Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, particularly their description of one of the twin sins of design—activity-based instruction. If you are a long-time reader, you know I think Understanding by Design is the most important book on pedagogy for any teacher to read, and it has certainly been the most influential professional reading I have ever done.

I agree with a great deal of what Gonzalez says; she also adds that “all lessons have some educational value [and] any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning.” However, she also says that teachers should ask, “Does [this activity] consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact?” She concludes that “If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn.” She defines Grecian Urns as activities that consume time but don’t necessarily contribute to learning, naming such activities after a Grecian Urn project she describes in the post.

Gonzalez explains that “[c]oloring or [c]rafting” should be “used sparingly” after primary school, adding “[t]his doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning.” While I do see her point, I would argue that some might read her argument as an admonition to cut these art forms from assessments, and I can make a case for using almost all of them for educational purposes. What I fear is that teachers who do not want to incorporate these other ways of learning and demonstrating knowledge will find justification for other teaching methods that don’t work—such as coverage-based instruction (the other of the “twin sins” of design).

I ask students to cut when I give them a scene from Shakespeare and ask them to distill its essence, leaving the most important parts intact. In doing so, students are editing and thinking critically about the text. I ask students to act out scenes from literature, a method advocated by the Globe Theatre in London for teaching Shakespeare, because it helps students understand a text to speak it and create movements that communicate the characters’ feelings and actions and the time invested pays dividends in engagement and understanding. I ask students to draw symbols when creating literary reductions because these images help them explain their ideas.

Another concern I have is that many people automatically assume technology-based projects are Grecian Urns. Yes, some are. But some are excellent projects, and Gonzalez makes the difference between valuable technology projects and Grecian Urns very clear. I do think some of the commenters on the article read the article as permission to dismiss technology. I would argue that in addition to considerations of time, which are important, we should also consider the value of the assignments, even if they take some time. Could the assignment be done more efficiently without technology? Does technology add any value to the assignment?

For example, I find working with digital texts cumbersome. Annotation of printed texts is much more efficient, though tools do exist to annotate online texts. If you have access to a printed text, however, it makes more sense to me to use it. My experience using these online annotation tools is that they just don’t replicate or work as well as what we can do with a pencil and printed text. We should never being using technology for the sake of using technology, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a Grecian Urn. To be clear, Gonzalez isn’t arguing that we should dismiss technology. But I could see some folks twisting her argument a bit to imply that technology is a time-waster.

Time isn’t the only factor we need to consider. We really need to figure out what it is we want students to know and be able to do as a result of a lesson or unit. As Gonzalez advocates, we need to use backwards design and design thinking to plan learning for our students so we can avoid Grecian Urn assignments, but I would suggest that we also think carefully before we decide a project is a Grecian Urn. And if it is, Gonzalez is right—it needs to go. I have stopped doing quite a few assignments over the years after holding them up to Wiggins and McTighe’s description of the “twin sins.” But there is a lot of value in integrating the arts and technology, and we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that value just because rich arts and technology projects take some time.

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Digital Storytelling Presentation at the NEATE Conference

This year is my first time attending the annual New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) Conference. I have been wanting to get more involved with NEATE since moving here, as I was involved with the Georgia Council of Teachers of English (GCTE) before I moved.

If you’d like to check out my presentation, my slide deck is below. There are links to resources and other information I used. If you came to the presentation, thank you!

My colleague, Lisa Iaccarino, also presented, and once she makes her materials available online, I’ll share them here as well because she rocked it!

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Class Size

classroom photo
Photo by Victor Björklund

My daughter’s school recently had a “Know Your School” night, and I heard one refrain all evening—class sizes are too big. Almost all of her teachers said something like “every desk in this class is full” or “I have over 30 students in this class.”

We have a growing teacher shortage in many places in the US, and it’s not hard to see why when you examine how teachers are treated and undervalued in this country. This teacher shortage is only one reason for large classes, which are a growing issue.

My friend Mark mentioned on Facebook earlier this year that he is teaching five classes. He has four classes with 32 students each and one class with 26 for a total of 154 students. Each time he takes up a stack of writing assignments, assuming these classes are one prep (which probably isn’t the case), he is taking up 154 writing assignments. Even if you grade pretty fast—let’s say about 15 minutes per paper (not always realistic), you’re looking at a full work week just to grade those writing assignments—38.5 hours. If you’re fast. I don’t know how he manages it, but he teaches literature and writing under those conditions.

My daughter was in an English class at the beginning of this school that had over 30 students in it. Her teacher thought she might be having difficulty, and we discussed changing her schedule. Ultimately, we decided it would be best for her to be in a different class. She was in an honors class, and I honestly don’t care what level she takes—I just want her to get good writing instruction. Given the size of her English class, I think I was right to be concerned. I even told her assistant principal that I just don’t know how you teach writing to classes with 30+ students.

When her schedule was changed, she was placed in a class with fewer than 20 students. I love her teacher. He is doing some great things with a group of students who are mostly “inclusion” and have IEP’s. I am fairly confident he is going to be able to do some good writing instruction with her class.

The world of independent schools, at least in my experience, looks very different. Because I am a department chair, I teach three classes rather than a full load of four—chairing the department is more work than a single prep, I can tell you. Four classes are a full load at my school, though I have worked in schools with a five-class full load. My largest class has 16 students in it. I have one class with 15 students and another with 12. I have three preps, so I probably will not be collecting writing assignments from all my students at once, but if I did, I would collect a total of 43 essays. Assuming a fast grading time of 15 minutes per student, I am looking at nearly 11 hours of grading. It’s a significant investment of time, but not a whole work week. In fact, I can typically grade writing at school and turn it around fairly fast. Because I have 43 students, I can ask my students to do a lot of writing and give them feedback on their writing. Because I have 43 students, I can accept revisions and give students feedback on revisions.

As Mark says, “Class load and class size are important.” We can’t pretend we are doing right by our students when we pack them into classrooms like sardines and don’t give them opportunities to learn to write well. I often hear my own colleagues worry about class sizes when their numbers approach 20 in a class (never mind approaching 30, which would never happen at my school). In my years of experience, I have found that 12-15 students in a class is a great number for generating thoughtful and rich discussion that allows each student to be heard while still being manageable enough to do plenty of writing. And we are doubling and sometimes tripling these numbers in most classrooms. My daughter’s school is not unique in this respect. I would argue that teaching writing is the most important aspect of an English teacher’s job. And how do we do that when we have 154 students, some of whom are gifted, some of whom need remediation, and everything else you can imagine in between?

I don’t have a solution to this problem because to resolve the issue, there are a host of related issues we need to fix as well—increasing and encouraging professionalism among teachers, treating teachers like professionals, moving away from this toxic test-based educational system we’ve become, hiring more teachers and making their classes smaller and reducing their teaching loads, and making the profession more attractive and lucrative.

Yes, it’s true, I have known teachers who don’t seek to improve their practices through professional learning (although most teachers I know are not like this). We should be encouraging professional growth. I think part of that encouragement could come if we treat teachers more like other professionals.

As much as I like my daughter’s English teacher, even he mentioned that “creative writing isn’t on the MCAS” [Massachusetts’s test]. And he’s right. But he also told me with that comment that he has to prioritize teaching the kind of writing my daughter needs to do for a test instead of the kind of writing she needs to do for life. Students should be doing writing in every genre, for multiple audiences and multiple purposes. Not only is writing important for clear communication, but it also helps us learn and process and figure out what we think. Take a look at this article if you need evidence that we need to do better writing instruction.

We just need more teachers. Mark needs a clone—at minimum one more person—to do the job he is doing by himself. At my school, 154 students would be divided among about 10 classes. We would actually have two and half people doing Mark’s job. Mark should at least be teaching only four classes instead of five. Even if they took away his smaller class of 26, he could save almost an entire day’s work grading those essays (6.5 hours), assuming the figure of 15 minutes per essay. If his classes were also capped at 25—which would give my own colleagues hives, wondering how they’d assess such a large class—he would spend 25 hours grading those essays from 100 students. Of course, 25 hours is still a large time investment, but it’s 13.5 fewer hours than he is spending with 154 students.

We might actually attract more teachers to the profession if we paid them for doing this kind of work. However, teaching has never been a well-paid profession. While I don’t like the idea of luring less capable individuals to the profession with promises of fat paychecks, I also don’t see any reason why teachers should sacrifice the ability to support their families in order to do the job they love. They should make a healthy living wage. If teachers did earn fair pay for their work, we might be able to attract and keep more teachers. As it is, we lose large numbers of young teachers in the first five years of their career. I nearly left teaching myself four years in.

Perhaps visiting my daughter’s school and listening between the lines to her teachers’ concerns about the sizes of their classes, and subsequently, their ability to effectively teach what their students need to learn and manage the learning environment well, brought these concerns into sharp relief. Our children deserve better. So do our teachers.

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Slice of Life #26: Better

A few days ago, I offered up some topics on my mind and asked which ones you might be interested in hearing more about. There were exactly four votes, and they were split four ways. Isn’t that always the way!

Since it’s Tuesday, and I haven’t done a Slice of Life entry in while, perhaps I’ll go ahead and make one person happy and write about a health issue and better living through chemistry.

I went to my doctor (finally—yes, I can be avoidant) for two reasons in August: 1) I knew I needed a mammogram, and I thought my primary care physician would need to order one, and 2) my knees were killing me. Seriously, I thought I might be developing arthritis. Walking up stairs could be excruciating. Walking downstairs often hurt, too. I had to lean on railings. I didn’t think it was normal for a woman my age to have such a hard time with my knees.

The first thing my doctor did was examine my knees. She didn’t see anything concerning, but she pointed out the way I pronate when I walk isn’t good for knees, and she looked at my ankles. “Did you sprain your ankles a lot as a kid?” she asked me. Yes, in fact, I did a few times. “You have weak ankles. They aren’t doing their share of the work, and they’re causing strain on your knees.” Just to be sure, she ordered an x-ray of my knees, but there was nothing to see there. She also ordered some routine lab tests—something I think she does with all new patients, but which no doctor I’ve ever had before actually did. My lab results revealed that I have an underactive thyroid.

If you don’t have any thyroid issues, you might not be aware of how many issues thyroid problems can cause. Many of them completely unrelated to one another (or so it seems).

My husband was growing increasingly concerned about my fatigue after work. I crashed on the couch almost every day. I thought I just had a lot to do at work, and it was exhausting me.

My anxiety was through the roof, though it had calmed down quite a bit since we bought a new car in March, as our old car was the focus of a lot of my anxiety.

I’ve gained some weight over the years, and I couldn’t do anything to take it off, which I chalked up to metabolism changes due to aging.

I was almost always cold. I thought this was normal for me. Everyone else was comfortable, but I was cold. I didn’t even consider this a health-related issue.

It never occurred to me that these symptoms were related. I didn’t even consider all of them big problems. My doctor prescribed medication for me, and I’ve been taking it since August. I can’t even explain how different I feel, but I’ll try.

The fatigue has improved a great deal. I have more energy. I rarely nap after school now, and when I do, it’s because I clearly didn’t get enough sleep the night before. A normal day with normal activity doesn’t exhaust me anymore.

The anxiety issue has been interesting. My medication is not supposed to decrease anxiety. In fact, it has been shown to increase it. However, hypothyroidism can cause depression. Depression and anxiety are often twins, and it stands to reason if depression is decreased, anxiety will be as well. Medication is probably not the only factor in my decreased anxiety, but I think it’s a factor for sure. In any case, my mood has changed. I feel a lot more chipper most of the time.

The weight thing, well, that will take time, and to be honest, I haven’t been trying to lose weight lately. I am not technically overweight, but I should exercise more.

I am no longer cold all the time. That one is weird for me. In fact, there have been a few occasions when I felt fine and others felt cold. I can’t explain how weird that makes me feel.

The knees are a bit better, and I understand that an underactive thyroid can contribute to joint pain. I have to wonder if my medication is helping my knees, too.

I have no idea how long I was suffering with this issue, and I do say suffering because it diminished my quality of life quite a bit. I can’t believe pills I spend less than $10.00 per month to take can make such a difference in my quality of life. I just feel so much better, and I feel happier.

Better living through chemistry, indeed.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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On My Mind

cobwebs photo
Photo by randihausken

I’ve let the cobwebs collect around here again! All I can say is the same old thing everyone says: time. I always say people make time for things they feel are important, so for one reason or another, blogging has had to retreat to the background for me. I am always thinking about things I want to write about, but making time to do it has been a challenge. That’s not to say that I don’t feel the urge. Obviously, if I’m writing at the moment, I feel like I need to be writing.

I have several things on my mind, any number of which might make an interesting blog post:

  • I discovered in August that I have an underactive thyroid. I’ve been on medication for it, and I feel almost like a different person.
  • I have my first New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) conference coming up in a couple of weeks. I am actually presenting at my first one—on my digital storytelling project. Speaking of which, I have an article in English Journal coming out in January on the same subject.
  • I am visiting Atlanta for the first time in over four years, when I moved from Georgia to Massachusetts, when I go to NCTE. I’m really, really excited.
  • But I’m also concerned about NCTE. It’s becoming an echo chamber, and, honestly, cliquish. I don’t like to see it.
  • I am having a blast with my AP Literature class, and I’m doing a much better job the second time around. Plus, I have some cool tools to share. I haven’t participated in #aplitchat in some time. I need to make time for that.
  • I’m teaching 9th grade for the first time in a while, and it’s been interesting in some ways. My freshmen are a lot of fun. I also have a new advisory group of freshmen as well, so I feel like a part of that class.
  • I have an office. This is a very interesting development. My previous school gave me an office, but I elected to use the common desk space in the computer lab with my colleagues instead because I felt lonely. My new office is not cut off from the rest of the people in my building, so I don’t feel lonely. Plus I am super-productive. I can’t even compare the difference. Part of is a new organization scheme (plus a place of my own to put things).
  • I went to Know your School Night, and just about all of my daughter’s classes have 30-ish students. That’s too many, but it’s not just her school. It’s the norm. That’s wrong when we know what we know about class sizes and effective instruction. I heard over and over (listening between the lines) about classroom management challenges my daughter’s teachers face because of the size of their classes.
  • Also, I am noticing another issue with my daughter’s school that I have encountered before: grading behaviors instead of student work. That’s a whole blog post, for sure, but folks, we can’t hand out a list of rules and give a quiz over the rules. It shows students right off the bat that what you value is compliance and not learning. Come on. Do better.

All of these thoughts probably merit a post on their own. If you want to have some fun, you can vote below. Which one do you want to read about the most? The poll will stay open until midnight on October 9, 2016.

What do you want to read about first?

  • How much better I feel (25%)
  • My concerns about NCTE (25%)
  • AP Lit (25%)
  • Class size concerns (25%)
  • My NEATE presentation (0%)
  • Returning to 9th grade (0%)
  • My office and new organization scheme (0%)
  • Concerns about grading behavior instead of work (0%)

Total Votes: 4

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Fun fact: I have tried to spell “behavior” the British way twice while writing this post, and I have no idea why my brain did that.

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The First Day of School

I haven’t seen any better advice for how to introduce yourselves to your students than that of Carol Jago:

What do I plan to do on the first day?

My classes all meet for 30 minutes, which allows for teachers to give students course information and expectations, go over supplies needed, etc. I have a handout with all of that. We also have an online learning management system where students can check this information any time. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I have read that students form a first impression of their teachers in about four seconds. That’s not even enough time to speak!

Instead of going over all the rules and procedures, I post essential questions for the course in a chalk talk. Each question gets its own sticky poster. I have about four or five questions total. I give students sticky notes. I ask them to think about the questions and respond with their thoughts on the sticky note. They put the sticky note on the poster. Then they move to another poster and do the same with the question on that poster. They don’t have to answer all the questions. After they have posted their answers, they go around and read others’ responses. If they see connections, they draw lines. They can comment on the answers, too.

This activity gets students thinking about what they will learn on day one. It also gets them up and moving around a bit. We follow with a class discussion, and usually it’s time to go. Of course, they get their course expectations handout on the way out, and I post it as homework to read it.

This activity reaps bonus rewards if you pull the posters out at the end of the year so students can reflect on their responses to those questions on the first day.

What do you do the first day?

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My Hosting Frustrations

frustration photo
Photo by e-magic

If you have tried to visit this site or any of the other sites I run over the last few days, you may have come across a notice from my host that my site was suspended. I received an email from Bluehost with the following information:

Dear Dana:

Your web hosting account for huffenglish.com has been deactivated, as of 08/09/2016. (reason: site causing performance problems)

This deactivation was due to a Terms of Service violation associated with your account. At sign-up, all users state that they have read through, understand, and agree to our terms. These terms are legal and binding.

Please contact our Terms of Service team immediately to resolve the violation; your account will remain deactivated until you contact us and the issue is resolved.

Contact us if you feel the deactivation was a mistake. You must contact us to regain access to your account. Please call and speak with our Terms of Service Compliance department as soon as possible at 888-401-4678 (ext. 3).
Please read the following, derived from our Terms of Service agreement, for additional information regarding the matter.

Engaging in any activity that, in Bluehost’s sole and absolute discretion, disrupts, interferes with, or is harmful to (or threatens to disrupt, interfere with, or be harmful to) Bluehost’s services, Bluehost’s business, operations, reputation, goodwill, subscribers and/or subscriber relations, or the ability of Bluehost’s subscribers to effectively use Bluehost’s services is prohibited.

Please review the current copy of our Terms of Service here:
http://www.bluehost.com/cgi/terms

Thank you,
Bluehost Technical Support
http://www.bluehost.com
For support go to http://bluehost.com/help

I called Bluehost, and they couldn’t tell me why all of a sudden my site was causing performance problems or even what those problems were. I was given a list of about four things I could check, and I should add that the average person using a hosting service wouldn’t really know how to do any of them. First, I was told to check my access logs to see if I was being attacked. I could then blacklist that IP. I was also told to check if I was getting bot spam. To do this, I was told to take a look at my databases and see if any of them had over 100K rows. I was told I could try getting a CDN. I could also check error logs and slow queries on my database. I was offered tech support to “optimize” my website for $300. I declined and decided I’d try to see what I could do. The only assistance I would be given for free was links to Bluehost’s knowledge base articles. I got through the first two and could find nothing wrong—and in fact, I’m inclined to believe there was nothing wrong—so I stopped checking and asked my host via chat if they could reactivate my site so I could check on some things. I was told they were working on the server on which my site was hosted, so they couldn’t do anything until the work was finished. Check back in a couple of hours, tech support said.

I have been with Bluehost for around ten years. I have not had any real issues with them until the last couple of years. Recently, my entire site went down twice and I had to restore it from a backup. How does that even happen? Or worse, how does it happen and the host cannot tell you why or how it happened? Twice in about a week. They have never been very helpful when I contact their tech support. I basically just have to be able to figure out how to fix things on my own. I have found this to be the case in almost all of my dealings with them. However, I stayed because changing hosts is painful, and the last time I did it was so long ago, I wasn’t sure if I could figure out everything I needed to do and get everything set up correctly. I was willing to put up with what I saw as lackluster support in exchange for making things easier in the short run. I should have bolted the first time my site went down several months ago. I am beyond frustrated that keeping me as a customer had so little value for Bluehost. I took my frustration to Twitter.

This was their reply.

That is not customer service. I signed up with a new host the same day. I am still in the process of moving everything I need to move. My sites are not yet resolved to my new host completely, so some people are likely seeing my old site still, which has a warning about my site being deactivated. It took me over 24 hours just to download all the files from my host, and it took me another 8 or so to upload them to my new one. I was finally able to see one of my sites last night, and I was able to see this one today.

In the next few days, after I am sure my new sites are all up and running they way they should be, I will be closing my account with Bluehost entirely. They are currently running promos for really cheap hosting. It is too bad they are working so hard to get new customers and not attempting to retain the ones they already have. I walked away from this experience with the distinct impression that Bluehost didn’t care a thing about me or my sites. Or at least the money I have been paying them to host my site and register my domains. I couldn’t believe the lack of support I was given, which was abysmal even by the standards I’m used to from Bluehost. And as you can see from the tweet above, I am not their only customer whose site was deactivated this week. A quick search of Twitter, and I was able to find plenty of disgruntled customers. Many of them had been long-time customers like me. Despite many issues encountered by WordPress users, WordPress continues to endorse Bluehost as a good host for WordPress (a quick Google search is all you need, but I found this article articulated the problem well).

All I really have left to do at this point is figure out whether or not to get my emails off Bluehost. I never really liked the amount of spam I was getting on those accounts, so I am considering just giving them up. It looks nice to have email go to your domain, but it also complicates things to have a bunch of email addresses. I’m tempted to just call it day and route those emails to my Gmail account. Here is hoping I have much better luck with my new host. I’m already finding their knowledge base articles more helpful. I was actually able to get everything up and running again without contacting tech support. Once I see that my domain name servers are propagated (meaning when I search to see who hosts my domain, it’s my new host’s servers that show up instead of Bluehost’s), I will completely deactivate my account with Bluehost. I will warn anyone who asks me about starting a blog away from them. Honestly, the easiest thing to do is get a blog hosted by Blogger, WordPress.com, Weebly, or similar. I have been using self-hosted WordPress for so long and have so much invested in my sites at this point that I don’t think I can just ditch them and use a hosted blog. If you want a self-hosted blog, my personal recommendation is to steer clear of Bluehost—for engaging in activity that in my sole and absolute discretion, disrupts, interferes with, or is harmful to (or threatens to disrupt, interfere with, or be harmful to) running a website. You don’t have to take my word for it, though.

UPDATE 8/16/2016: I have opted to keep my email addresses, and I have them set up on my new host, but I did not retain emails, so if you contacted me recently and didn’t hear back (and you weren’t asking me if you could do a guest blog or place an ad, because I have made it very clear that I ignore those emails), you can try to contact me again. Also, I canceled my account at Bluehost, and things should be up and running properly with my new host.

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Digital Stories: Feedback from Students

feedback photo
Photo by Skley

After we viewed the digital stories my students had created this year, I asked students to evaluate themselves using the rubric I had given them. Next year, I will definitely make time to create the rubric with the students in advance. The rubric I have is good, but the students could make it better. On the back of the rubric, I asked students to give me feedback about the project. I wanted to collect some of their feedback here for those who might be thinking about this project and are feeling on the fence. This feedback represents what the students actually said (warts and all).

Don’t change this from being the final exam because it’s an absolutely great way to end the year and it’s really fun. I don’t think anything needs to be tweaked, the timing is perfect, the spacing for due dates is good and the help given is great.

I loved the project and how we could all pick whatever we wanted and got to watch everyones. Don’t have to change anything, it was great.

In all honesty, I think this project is a lot of fun to put together and all the criteria make sense, even when you don’t think you have a story to tell. It fits for everyone, especially with all you can choose from.

I think the idea of this project is awesome. I had a lot of fun with it and finally learned how to use iMovie. I didn’t find anything wrong with the project.

I liked this project. It was very fun and I enjoyed watching the videos at the end. I liked being able to pick your own idea instead of being told what to do. I wouldn’t take anything out. I liked where you checked our script too. It really helped me at least with knowing it was ok.

The project is great! I enjoyed every part and was excited to do it every step of the way. The one part I had difficulties with was the sound aspect. The sites are great [sites I provided for finding public domain and Creative Commons media] with so many options, but I’m not good at picking things like that. Thank you for helping me find the “perfect” one (better than I could have done).

I don’t know how you could improve it. I thought it was well explained and fun. I would keep everything the same.

I don’t think there should be many changes to the project at all. It’s a really good and fun project. I enjoyed making my video and going back to find everything.

You should keep this project next year. I really enjoy doing the digital story.

The project was very clear and I really like how our final was a project. The project helped me become more creative and engaging. Personally, I really like it and nothing should be changed. Also, I learned a lot in this class, and thank you for a great year, Mrs. Huff!

This project was very fun. I enjoyed our own choice of theme. It was even fun looking back at old pictures and reliving my little league life. One thing that did frustrate me was learning to use different applications on my computer. If I was taught throughout the year to use these different sources this project would have been much more enjoyable. Overall a great project.

I have to point out that last feedback came from a student who struggled with the technology to the point of wanting to give up and take a zero. He persevered, and he did a fabulous job in the end. He was very proud of his work. His feedback about using the software earlier and more often is legitimate. Many students tell me this project is the first time they have opened the iMovie and GarageBand applications on their school-issued computers.

I had a lot of fun doing the project, I enjoyed showing where I’m from and I hope my video would inspire someone to visit one day.

I like the project and we have enough time to do it.

A few trends emerge for me from this feedback:

  1. Students seem to love this project, and even those who struggled said it was a great project and should be kept in the curriculum.
  2. Students seemed to feel they had enough time to complete it. I was worried about that because I gave them more time last year.
  3. Students appreciated the agency they had as they created the project: picking the topic and telling the story they wanted to tell was an important reason why they enjoyed the project.
  4. Student felt proud of their work. They didn’t exactly say so in so many words of feedback to me, but it shone through in the feedback they gave themselves. Here are some snippets:

I am very happy with my music choice and the amount of pictures I chose.

I had a lot of good pictures.

I liked how I had the music start after I said the title.

I liked the pictures.

I thought I had the perfect music and well placed pictures.

I did not have many pictures, but I was able to think of ways to get around lacking pictures.

I paid lots of effort on it and I really enjoy this project.

I did well with the pictures as well as the story.

This project was very challenging for me from the start. After figuring it out things began to come together. Once my voiceover came in I started to enjoy the project.

I think my video has pretty good background music and photos that go along with the voice.

All these comments tell me that the students feel good about what they were able to do. They offered fair criticisms as well. Most of them didn’t feel 100% confident their voiceovers were as good as they could be, but that could also be they are not used to hearing their voices and worry about how they sound (most of us feel that way when we hear ourselves on a recording).

This project makes for a great culminating narrative. They worked on narrative writing, and putting their personal narratives together with image and music to tell a story using video was a great way to see what they had learned about telling a story. And as it turns out, they learned a lot. I’m really proud of them.

Related posts:

Digital Stories 2016

Last year, I shared my students’ digital stories. While I did have some good work, I knew the end results could be improved. I did some reflecting and retooling, and I made a few changes to the project for this year. First, I introduced more checkpoints that counted for a grade. For example, bringing an idea (or several) to writing workshop, which was part of the project last year, became a small quiz grade. Just like last year, I asked students to write a draft of their script, and I conferred with each student about the draft.

I added in checkpoints as well. Students needed to show me a collection of images so that I could help them if it looked like they might not have enough material to work with. Collecting images was a problem last year, but I didn’t realize until too late that many of my students were struggling with this issue, and they didn’t realize it was a problem until they tried to assemble their movies and didn’t feel they had enough images. I also wanted to see the draft of the movie, which was graded, so I could give them feedback on potential issues such as a runaway Ken Burns effect (common if you are using iMovie and don’t know how to correct it) or music overpowering the voiceover audio.

Another change I made that actually worried me: I gave students less time to do the project than I did last year. It was an accident. I looked at the calendar, and I realized we hadn’t started the project yet. I freaked out a little, and then I sat down with a calendar to figure it out. It would be tight, I thought, but we could still do it. I gave a copy of the calendar to the students so they would know exactly what was due and when.

I think that reducing the amount of time I gave my students actually resulted in better work from them. I am not sure why this is unless the pressure of completing it in a shorter period of time meant students actually attended to it in a more timely fashion than they would have if they had more time and were tempted to put it off until the last minute. I think procrastination may have been a much larger issue last year because students felt like they had more time. I suppose it is true that we use all of the time we have to complete a project, and if the deadline is tighter, perhaps we put our shoulders to the wheel.

I am really happy with the results this year. Students were thoughtful and reflective. Their stories sound like them and reflect who they are. What a great group of writers!

As always, there were some hiccups. Students do not know how to use this software. The biggest mistake educators make is assuming kids are digital natives and can figure this stuff out. No, you need to teach them how to use it, and you need to be prepared to be a guide on the side for the entire movie project if you are asking students to make films. If there is one thing I could ask educators to stop doing, it is assigning technology-based projects without helping guide the students through the use of the tools. I hear it over and over again from educators that students just know how to use the software.

Another issue: students at my school have MacBooks, but they don’t keep them updated. Several had to get the latest version of iMovie because older versions didn’t work well on their computers. I asked them to check on updates before the project, but of course, not all of them did. We had a few setbacks as students struggled with lack of RAM (they really need to stop opening every program on their computer at once). One student’s computer apparently imploded right after he uploaded his video to his Google Drive account. I am so relieved it waited until after the project (so was he!). Students really ran into problems as a result of the way in which they use the computers: not updating, keeping too many programs open, not restarting regularly.

Because I gave the students a calendar, absences were not a problem (for the most part). Students definitely need support for this project. I think the results are worthwhile, however, and with this excellent crop of digital stories this year, I can’t wait to see what next year’s students create.

Related posts:

Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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