Digital Portfolios

Circled words, arrows, spiral notebookI am thinking of using digital portfolios this year. I have a wiki for my classes, and it would be easy for students to have a page on the wiki where they can collect their pieces and also pull in other items, like Glogs, images, videos, and audio. I really liked the idea of an interactive notebook, but I’m wondering if a digital portfolio wouldn’t be easier to grade.

Do you use digital portfolios? What tool do you use to create them? What suggestions would you have for implementation? Would it be better for students to create blogs? I don’t want to use too many different tools because I don’t want things to be confusing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: juliejordanscott

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Image Grammar

I have been on the lookout for books, websites, and other materials to help me teach grammar. If you have some good ideas for resources, please leave them in the comments.

A couple of things I have been trying with my students seem to be working fairly well. I used the Sentence Opening Strategy activity shared by Carol Sanders on the EC Ning to teach sentence variety. My students were fairly reflective about their writing in this activity. I also pulled out my copy of Spelling and Grammar: The Daily Spark, along with Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Devotional and have been posting grammar and writing puzzles on the SMARTBoard as a sort of journaling/opening activity while I take attendance and do other housekeeping. The students really like the grammar puzzles, and I found it sort of flexes their brains for writing.

Still, teaching grammar, and what I mean by that is correctness and variety (because everyone seems to disagree about what grammar is), is just hard. I want my students to be more fluent and fluid writers, and I want them to communicate clearly. Based on this goal, it would seem Harry Noden’s Image Grammar is an excellent choice.

I’ve read one chapter, and I like the way Noden organizes different writing techniques, such as using participles, as “brush strokes.” The accompanying CD has some good material, but in my opinion, the CD should probably be updated. The material on the CD is organized into HTML files, and they look a little archaic (think Geocities or Angelfire), but the material is solid. Noden also references a website that is no longer working—ah the joys of the Internet—as a source of images for writing prompts, but the Web does not lack examples of image sites that can be used to spark writing.

What I like best about the book so far is that Noden shows how to teach grammatical structures in a way that students will see their relevance to their own writing. I have had students who knew a great deal about grammatical structures out of context but could not apply these structures to make their own writing better. I have had students tell me that I taught them how to write well, but it’s an area in which I would like to improve.

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Editing Checklist

Let’s create an editing checklist. I think it’s helpful for students to have a guide for editing or peer editing. Suggest your idea for something that students should check for in the comments, and I will create the document and make it available here for free.

Here’s my contribution:

Mark every instance of the words “this,” “that,” “these,” and “those.” Make sure these words are being used as adjectives rather than pronouns. If they’re being used as pronouns, consider adding a noun, revising the sentence, or combining sentences to avoid vague pronouns.

I ran into that particular issue quite a few times while reading essays today.

I will be cross-posting this request at the EC Ning.

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I Need a Rewrite: Week in Reflection, 1/26-1/30

Teaching composition is difficult.  I think I had to teach it for several years before I felt comfortable.  One strategy I frequently use is peer editing.  Interestingly enough, students are often more able to help each other edit and revise than they can edit and revise on their own.  I’m not precisely sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that we know what we meant to say, and we don’t always realized we haven’t communicated what we meant to say.  It can be difficult to be objective about one’s own work.

I don’t have students peer edit every time they write, and I frequently don’t tell them in advance that they will have the opportunity to peer edit because I worry, perhaps falsely, that knowing they may not have a chance to edit will entice them to work harder on their drafts.

My students recently wrote short essays comparing and contrasting two versions of Act 2, Scene 2 (the Balcony Scene) in Romeo and Juliet.  Prior to viewing the scenes, we created a graphic organizer to take notes as we viewed.  We shared our notes.  Students noticed very interesting things about the scenes that I in fact had never noticed before.  For instance, did you know that Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is spelling out Romeo’s name on the wall with her finger when Romeo first spies her?  I never picked up on that small action before, but I found it to be an interesting choice on the part of the actress.  I sent them home to write their compositions, and I felt very good about everything they had learned.

Students turned in their essays after the weekend, and I noticed something interesting.  They had not shared all the interesting details in their writing that they had shared in class.  It may have been that my directions were not explicit, or it may have been a disconnect on the part of the students, but I knew that they could make their reader “see” the two films better with a revision and some more direction.  So I wrote my own paragraph, modeling for the students the types of details they had shared in class but not in writing and asked them to do a rewrite for me.  They did, and what improvement!  Interesting how with writing a little modeling goes farther than almost any other instructional strategy I’ve tried.  The students don’t know it yet, but they will revise one more time to correct some mechanical issues.  We learned all about commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, and I want to be sure students can use them correctly in composition.

Lesson learned: Model or scaffold at the start. I could have walked students through the process of moving their notes to a composition, but I incorrectly assumed the discussion would be sufficient for them to make the connections.  It was for some, but not for all.  I should have generated some questions and asked students how they planned to proceed.

I know time is hard to come by, and many of us have a lot of students.  Teaching composition effectively in those conditions can be difficult, particularly if your students have difficulty with writing.  It’s essential work, however.  In fact, I have often thought that teaching writing is at the heart of teaching English — is the most important thing we do as English teachers.  Students have to learn the writing process, that drafting is critical, that there is a lot of work before a piece of writing is “finished” (or that it never is?).

I may be blessed with smaller classes in my private school setting, which enables me to grade students’ drafts more quickly and provide more quality feedback than I think I could if I had classes of 30 students.  The best thing we could do to help our students become better writers is limit English classes to 15 students.  Still, if we are willing to sacrifice some of our sacred cows in the name of helping our students to be good communicators, it might be possible for students even in larger clases to obtain more individualized writing instruction, including modeling, drafting, revising, editing, and quality feedback.  How could we do it?  What should a writing classroom look like?  What is your dream writing classroom?  Money is no object, and you can create whatever you wish.

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Writing and Reflecting

After I viewed some pieces on the DVD that accompanies Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, I thought about my improvement as a teacher over the last few years, and I have decided that a lucky confluence of two events contributed to making me a better teacher: I began teaching at Weber four years ago, and a year later I began writing this blog.

Working at my school with an administration that has supported my efforts to grow and try new things, like blogging and wikis and other ideas, has been so freeing, and if I had not found Weber, I wonder if I would be blogging now or trying some of the other things I’ve tried.  In fact, I wonder if I would be teaching.

Here I am, in the middle of July, and I’m blogging about education and reading education books and blogs.  Why?  I can take a vacation, right?  The thing is, I really want to be back in school and try it all over again.  I am lucky in that my school doesn’t mind that I blog.  This is huge in an era when blogs are routinely blocked at schools, never mind encouraged.  I have always been able to blog about my journey as an educator, here, under my real name, and not worry about it.

And the blogging is what really made me a better educator.  I really began thinking and reflecting about my practice in a way I hadn’t done before.  I read professional literature and wrote about it here.  I jumped in and took risks with projects, and even if they failed, I felt better for having tried.  I shared.  I asked questions.  I helped.  I got feedback.  The audience I have here has truly been helpful to me as I struggled to figure out who I was as an educator and what I wanted to do.

I am excited about the next school year already.  Each year is better than the last.  I am learning and growing all the time.  Blogging has energized me and made me excited about my career.  I have struggled with my career in the past and even quit teaching for a time.  Now I just can’t imagine doing anything else, and this reflection, this space to think and discuss ideas, has given that to me.

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New Handouts

I began the process of adding more handouts and other content to this site. I removed some handouts I didn’t really think would be useful.

It made me wonder about content in general. What would be helpful? If I have it, I can put it up. I have some great research paper stuff that I need to scan, but I could put it up, too. Also, I have other handouts at school. Right now, most of my handouts are either writing or American literature, but I did add one handout for British literature. More should come as I gain more experience with the subject. I taught one section of it last year for a semester, but will teach two sections all year this coming year.

I’m not taking requests, mind. If I don’t already have it or don’t have a use for it myself, I don’t see the point in creating it, especially not for free. However, if I have it made up, and it’s just a matter of uploading it or even if I don’t have it but think I can use it myself, I can upload it.

Here’s a Power Point on the twenty most common writing errors:

Update: I know that the 20th slide isn’t rendering properly, but I can’t fix it because it’s SlideShare’s problem. If you download the file, it should be correct because the transcript is correct; however, if it’s not, you can easily change it.

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A Writing Teacher’s Pet Peeves

In my ten years of composition instruction, I have developed a set of pet peeves associated with the body of student writing I have read.  Any of my students reading this should keep in mind that I do not direct this at any particular student — this list is a synthesis of common writing errors that I often find in student papers at every grade level 6-12 and every academic level, including Honors or AP.

  1. Referring to an author by his/her first name only in a literary analysis.  It sounds too much like they’re writing about their old pal Walt instead of the poet Walt Whitman.
  2. Not using proper format.  I require MLA format.  I provide samples.  I correct it. I don’t know how much plainer it gets.
  3. Punctuation of titles.  I admit that I am probably harsher on students than is warranted because punctuation of titles comes so easily to me, but I cannot figure out why students cannot remember that short works go inside quotation marks and longer works are italicized or underlined.
  4. Use of second person in formal composition.
  5. Apostrophes used to designate words as plural.  Why?  Think of the poor overworked little punctuation marks!  Don’t they already have enough to do with possessives and contractions, not to mention quotes within quotes?
  6. Run-ons, comma splices, and fragments.  Subject+verb+complete thought=sentence.  Commas cannot join independent clauses.  Independent clauses cannot simply be mashed together either.  Let me introduce you to the semicolon.  He is your friend.
  7. Strange format decisions.  It is my experience that many young writers do not feel comfortable turning in work unless their own title is somehow different from the essay — a different font, font size, bold font, etc.  Why can’t it just be plain size-12 Times New Roman?
  8. And while we’re discussing titles, how about this attention grabber: “Essay”; or if that doesn’t grab you, how about “Scarlet Letter Essay.”  The title of the novel, of course either in quotation marks or not punctuated at all.
  9. Not reading feedback.  I spend anywhere between 15-30 minutes reading every paper.  Students flip to the grade and ask why they earned that particular grade before reading the half-page to full-page of written or typed comments I attached to the piece.  When this happens, a part of me dies inside.  And I think God kills a kitten, too.
  10. Commonly confused words and nonstandard usage: “loose” for “lose,” “then” for “than”; the whole to/two/too and there/their/they’re.  “Alright.”  “Alot.”  “Can not.”  “Irregardless.”

Professional writers are not exempt.  I had to quit reading the work of a popular writer whose plots I enjoy because I couldn’t stand the fact that she, and apparently her editor, can’t identify a comma splice.

Please don’t think I take a red pen to comments and correspondence.  I don’t think twice about it.  Formal writing, especially published writing, has to meet a different standard.

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The Best Laid Plans

Some weeks ago, I shared exciting news that my students were collaborating with a girls’ school in Israel on a joint wiki writing project. Just as we got our wikis off the ground, a teachers’ strike in Israel put our plans on hold. The strike has now lasted more than a month. If it is not resolved before the winter break in about three weeks, the project will be on hold indefinitely as my students will be writing a research paper from January to March.

I know that the teachers I am working with are saddened about this turn of events, and I think we all agree that the timing of our collaboration was unfortunate in light of the strike. However, I think our situation poses an interesting lesson for all of us who are interested in embarking upon global collaboration in our classrooms.

What do we do when the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley?

And what does it say about the project that the kids are still chatting through the discussion area of the wiki and friending each other on Facebook even though the project is on hiatus?

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Flat Judaism?

Many of my students feel a strong connection to Israel and have visited Israel at least once.  Some of my students are Israeli.  When an opportunity for my students to work with students in Israel on a “flat classroom” type of project, I jumped at the chance.  I am pleased to introduce you to our project, which I am calling “Faces of Judaism.”  Together with the Neveh Channah Torah High School for Girls, my students at the Weber School are exploring their Jewish identity through writing.  Some questions guiding our exploration:

  • What does it mean to be Jewish in Israel?  In America?
  • What is my home really like from my point of view as compared with how others see it or portray it in the media?
  • Who am I, and how does my religion form that identity?

We are still very much in the nascent stages of our joint writing venture, and unfortunately, a teacher strike in Israel didn’t come at the most opportune time, but we are soldiering forward despite this setback.

You can check us out at the Weber Writers Wiki and Israel Faces Wiki.

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Best Practices for Teaching Writing

I want to thank everyone who commented on my previous post, “Writing: Best Practices.” I said I would share my own thoughts, but wanted to hear what you all had to say first.

First of all, I am a firm believer in teaching students how to write using the process model. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve worked with who tried to turn in first drafts that had not only not been edited, but hadn’t even been outlined or planned first, and it always shows. Their writing tended to be disorganized and weak on development. I think, however, that we have to help students find a prewriting format that works for them. One student of mine never did prewriting until I showed him how to organize his papers using webbing. He mentioned offhand some time very much later that he found it very helpful and used it all the time. I utilize peer editing, and I have to give credit to the Reflective Teacher who comes up with great peer editing activities. I found great success with peer editing in my class last year.

Depending on the assignment, I like to try to book the computer lab so that we can write the essays in class. Conversations that happen between the students and me as I look over their writing are invaluable. They can catch it if they’re way off track early on. Also, if they are on the right track, they feel more confident continuing if I can tell them so. They can ask me questions about something they’re just having trouble with. I think writing in class is especially valuable if you are dealing with younger writers or weaker writers. I teach a writing seminar course, and last year, our class became quite close as we shared our writing and helped each other improve. It was a wonderful teaching experience.

One thing I am still working on is an effective way to deliver feedback. I would like to do more conferencing, but I also think having written feedback so that when the students walk away to do revisions and forget what we said (which happens to the best of us), they have written suggestions. I admit I usually write comments in cursive, which many of my students have trouble reading. It’s not that my handwriting is bad, but I am finding that my students are arriving at high school in increasing numbers without being able to read or write cursive. I suppose it’s going the way of the dinosaur, but it frustrates me that a mode of communication I have successfully used so often in the past is now becoming closed to me. One thing I do occasionally — not with each essay — is type comments and attach them to the essay. These comments are usually quite long — anywhere from a half a page to a page single-spaced. I’m a very fast typist, so sometimes these comments take me about as much time as handwriting about a paragraph’s worth of comments on a student essay.

One thing I have found extremely effective is to use models or pull samples from students’ own writing to share. In a recent class, my students who had read A Lesson Before Dying wrote persuasive essays about whether or not we should abolish the death penalty. I pulled example paragraphs from three student essays (with their permission, of course) using statistics and the Torah to develop arguments. I think it really helped the students to see what a really good paragraph written by one of their peers looks like. I showed the same paragraphs to another class with students who have more writing problems before they began their essays. It will be interesting to see what effect seeing the models beforehand has on the student writers. What I don’t do well and need to improve is saving examples like this from year to year so I have a repository of examples. Frankly, now that I have a SMART Board, I have no excuse for not saving these samples from year to year. There’s nothing like seeing a model to help a student realize how they can improve.

I like to ask students to reflect, which I admit I don’t do often enough. I think portfolios are valuable. Something I am trying this year is to allow students to revise one graded essay each nine weeks for a higher grade. I will ask them to attach a reflection to these pieces, although I haven’t yet determined what sorts of questions I will want them to answer for the reflection. I do think using guiding questions will be important.

Basically, I was just curious to see what others are or were doing. I knew I was getting good results based on what I was doing, so I wasn’t worried about my practices. I suppose I just wanted to collect some data. Thanks for sharing if you did, and if you didn’t, feel free to chime in.

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