Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ipads in the Classroom: Skills not Tools

At the end of June last school year I was asked if I wanted to be part of a study group, made up of teachers grades 6-8, who would study the best way to utilize iPads in a classroom.  Visions of sugarplums danced in my head! Disorganized students never forgetting a notebook in his or her locker, instant research of concepts and mentor texts, on the spot blogging to reflect on learning, and even distance learning from home over sites like Edmodo . . .

Then, of course, the financial reality hit:  our group of six teachers would be sharing one cart of 30 iPads.  To quote Dory from Finding Nemo, "Good feelings gone!"  How could I best utilize these iPads to enhance learning and not just use them in one-week injections for "projects" that could just as easily be done on a desktop?

Our group decided that passing the cart around one week at a time was not the best way to create transformative learning.  Students needed to use the iPads as consistently as possible, so we created a schedule that allowed each teacher to expect the cart on the same day each 6 day cycle.  Teachers could plan lessons knowing that they'd have the cart a certain day. Since I'm on a block schedule and only see my classes every other day, I will be getting the cart each day 5 and 6.  But, what will I do with them on those days?

My first reaction was "find an app,"  but do apps really transform learning?  Unfortunately, I couldn't find one I really felt would.  Let the research begin!  I started with some great hardcopy resources.  Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms is a great read by Will Richardson that offers practical advice to ground my excitement with reality.  I ordered iWrite: Using Blogs, Wikis, and Digital Stories in the English Classroom by Dana J. Wilber.  I stumbled (quite divinely!) over the site Langwitches and suddenly the answer hit me like a ton of iPads:  blogs.  Yes, students can create blogs with desktops, but not quite as proficiently as they can on an iPad.  Being a beginner blogger myself, I knew I needed to start becoming a regular reader in order to get a feel for the characteristics of the genre.  What was the purpose of a blog?  How could it help enhance my students' learning?  How could I keep them from boring their audience to death with menial lists of their everyday activities?  I enrolled in Wordpress and was pleased with the depth of writing that I found there.  These are not whiny teens blogging about what they ate for dinner the night before and who was dating whom.  These are talented authors essaying about life-realizations and idiosyncrasies.  Real-life argumentative writing!  Blogs like this and this.  I simply Googled "best blogs" and found this.  Bingo.

I've tweeted a request for help finding a platform for my students to blog.  I'm planning to start my iPad rotation next week, and dig in to our blog genre study.  Let's see how it goes!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Making Sense of My State Test Scores and How They Will Drive Instruction

I timidly opened my emailed yesterday with the subject "State Test Scores."  Unfortunately I pay attention to my gut feelings, and my gut was feeling like I had just eaten jalapeno poppers with the seeds baked in.  Yikes.  I knew my students had struggled with the test this year.  I felt like the vocabulary was tough, and New York had definitely upped the ante in what they expect kids to do to score well.

Ugh.  Gut feeling right.  I've never seen so many 2's in my life.  Of course I scoured through my own students first, only to find that none of my remedial students scored a 3.  Very few special education students scored higher than a 2.  To make it worse, even my best and brightest readers and writers (you know the kids -- the ones who seem to be born with a book and pencil in hand) only scored 3's. To make it even worse, grades 5-8 looked about the same.  What happened?  Where did I, we, go wrong?  I now have some data, but how can I use it to drive my instruction?

I know I need to evaluate the data I have, but this is where the brick wall pops up.  New York State does not give us access to the test.  I can't look at the questions my students were asked, let alone which questions they missed the most.  I don't have access to where they went wrong in their reading or writing other than general performance indicators for the multiple choice questions:

--  Interpret characters, plot, setting, theme, and dialogue, using evidence from the text
--  Recognize how the author’s use of language creates images or feelings
--  Identify the author’s point of view, such as first person narrator and omniscient narrator
--  Determine how the use and meaning of literary devices, such as symbolism, metaphor and simile,    illustration, personification, flashback, and foreshadowing, convey the author’s message or intent
  • --  Evaluate the validity and accuracy of 
  • information, ideas, themes, opinions, and 
  • experiences in texts: for example, -identify 
  • multiple levels of meaning
  • --  Draw conclusions and make inferences on the 
  • basis of explicit and implied information
  • --  Use knowledge of structure, content, and 
  • vocabulary to understand informational text
  • --  Condense, combine, or categorize new 
  • information from one or more sources
  • --  Use text structure and literary devices to aid 
  • comprehension and response
  • --  Determine the meaning of unfamiliar words by 
  • using context clues, a dictionary, a glossary, and 
  • structural analysis (i.e., looking at roots, 
  • prefixes, and suffixes of words)
  • --  Recall significant ideas and details and the 
  • relationships between and among them
  • --  Respond appropriately to what is heard
  • --  Write accurate and complete responses to 
  • questions about informational material
  • --  Present clear analyses, using examples, details, 
  • and reasons from text
  • --  Make, confirm, or revise predictions

  • Where do I go from here?  Even though I have limited data, are there ways it can be useful?

    Yes.  I can use these performance indicators as foundation pieces in my reading and writing workshops.  When I plan questions for my read-alouds, I can focus my questions around these indicators.  During reading conferences, I can focus some conversation around these indicators. When students respond to texts in writing, these indicators can drive my minilessons, especially the indicators my students did poorly on.  For word study, I can concentrate on the indicators that reflect vocabulary. I will be the first to admit that indicators such as "respond appropriately to what is heard" and "write accurate and complete responses to questions about information material" make me say HUH? but data is data, and it is our job to use it as much as we can.

    For my students who scored a 1 or 2 on the test and are assigned "Additional Instructional Support" (AIS) I have access through NYSTART ( to student reports that can support individualized and small group instruction.  These indicators can also support guided reading groups in my remedial classes.

    Although these reports are pretty general, they are a starting point.  They don't force me to "teach to the test," but rather can influence the skills my students need to be working with anyway.  Yes, I'd rather be able to look at the test and pour over the questions with a student's individual test by my side.  But, something is better than nothing, and we need to use every bit of information we have to move our kids forward.

    Monday, June 4, 2012

    Summer Writing Camp

    Hmmmmm ... Making time to write. Tough one. I will most likely cut out the tv time in my evening to get some word from my head to paper. I feel much like a couple other people posted: most of my writing ideas never make it to paper (or iPad). I would like to shoot for 15 minutes a day. Attainable? I sure hope so. I'm gonna try!! Another reason I'm trying out this summer writing camp thing is to try and get a feel for what I ask my students to do. I ask them to do quick writes and I'm already noticing that it's more difficult than I thought to keep writing for 2 minutes without stopping to think! I've tried writing many times; I've always wanted to be published in NCTE or somewhere noticeable, but don't set the time aside necessary to make it work. I'm hoping this writing camp will help me to experience some authentic writing that can help me be a better teacher of writing.

    Monday, May 21, 2012

    When does constructivism not work?

    A special education teacher came to me today excited about a lesson his students had just been through in English class -- diagraming sentences.  He brought samples of their work, showing the original draft in their writer's notebooks filled with run-ons and fragments and then their current drafts, with corrections and improvements to their grammar.  It got me thinking -- is there worth to lessons like this?  A true constructivist would have to say no, and the constructivist in me agrees:  the sentences might have been correct, but it made for a terrrible reading of short, choppy chunks of writing that make me stumble through the piece as a reader.  On the other hand, is it worse if they have a page full of run-ons? 

    Maybe a bit of both is needed.  There are times when students need to learn grammar rules, but not to be simply memorized and rotely spit back into neat little subjects and predicates.  When one reads essays in magazines or slice-of-life writing in the Sunday newspaper or paperback novels, run-ons and fragments are everywhere!  Students need to understand why authors punctuate.  They need to understand that intimacy between a writer and her readers that is formed because of those punctuation marks.  Those short, choppy sentences that add sarcasm to Craig Wilson's slice of life pieces.  The repeated sentences that stab your heart when you read Sandra Cisneros.  The long, flowing descriptions that seem to go on for a page when you read JK Rowling. 

    It's not the rules students need to study, it's the punctuation marks and their uses.  It's when to use a fragment and a run-on.  When to create a compound sentence using a comma and conjunction.  Those punctuation marks are like the tiny stitches that hold the words in the writing together and give them meaning. 

    Sounds like the constructivist in me wins again!

    Saturday, March 10, 2012

    Be the Change You Want to See

    This morning I sat flipping through Twitter and read tweet after tweet about the hardships teachers face. As usual, my stomach started to roll, my cheeks felt hot.  I started to get that uncomfortable feeling in my gut that I am busting my butt for my students and teachers fruitlessly.  But, like a hand reaching down to pluck me from the sea of tweets, the mug of my morning coffee spoke to me.  Loudly.  Across it, seemingly written a bit more boldly today, was the quote from Ghandi:  Be the change you want to see in the world.  

    I could complain and tweet all day about too many tests, too little money, too much unfairness all around.  But does complaining change anything?  I could go and lobby Washington.  I could be more involved in my Union.  I could leave the teaching profession altogether and go work at Wegmans.  Or, I could be the change I want to see and TEACH.

    Although I get it that state testing is done out the yingus and teachers are going to be held accountable way too much for those results, should that stop me from being a good teacher?  I grow weary of teachers complaining they have to "teach to the test."  Why?  The tests don't measure skills that are unreasonable.  Shouldn't we be teaching those skills anyway?  Shouldn't they be embedded in exceptional instruction?  And if students are failing the test because of circumstances out of our control, then teaching to the test won't change that.  I wonder what would happen if teachers stopped seeing things like the Common Core Standards as the enemy, and started focusing on any positive aspect we could find.  As a way to bring us together as educators in solidarity and common vision.  Focus on the continuum that it creates to make state lines invisible.  Start using it to get desks out of straight rows and to stop lecturing for 50 minutes, making students take notes to memorize for next week's test.  Start using it to wake up the administrators who hide in their offices all day and only interact with students when there's a problem.  Use it to reflect on your teaching and create bonds between disciplines and within departments and grade levels.  Tweet about the ways it can be a positive influence on education and educators who use it together.  As my other coffee mug says:  When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.

    If all we do is focus on the negative, negative is what we will get.  "Be the change you want to see in the world," says my coffee mug.  I'd like to change education, so I'm starting with my own classroom.

    Sunday, December 4, 2011

    Wondering what your student writers need? Watch yourself write.

    I recently was asked by a former student to write a recommendation letter for college.  Of course I didn't hesitate to agree, but as I sat down to start typing I realized, I have never written a college recommendation letter before.  I have no idea what to write!

    The last time you needed to write in an unfamiliar genre, what did you do?  How did you figure out where to begin?  Details to include?  How to organize the writing?  Tone?  Structure?

    When we ask students to write in unfamiliar genres, teachers need to think about the process they use and allow students to grasp the same generative skills.  Often we assume that students know how to brainstorm and find models of the genres we ask them to write.  Sometimes we even ask them to write in ways that they can't find models for because the genres only exist in school (like the 5 paragraph essay or DBQ).  We've all heard the addage "Teach the writer, not the writing," but how does one truly follow that?  What does it mean to teach the writer?

    The key word is: generative.  What skills can we teach our writers that they will carry to any piece of writing they approach henceforth?  We can teach a writer to write an introduction for the formulaic five-paragraph "essay," but will memorizing the number of sentences to plug in help him or her when it's time to write an article or literary criticism?  Rather, allow students to look in Time, Newsweek, and Discovery at the essays written by professional authors.  Check out the introductions:  some of them only have one sentence!  Yikes!  That certainly doesn't fit the old 3 to 5 sentences rule!  But what can they notice from these introductions?  That the authors lead readers into the piece in ways that are funny, serious, awe-inspiring, and reflective.  The skill is generative:  introductions are writers' tools that engage a reader, no matter what the genre.  Mentor texts themselves are generative:  when in doubt, look to the professionals.

    As for my college recommendation letter, I searched online to find mentor texts and recommendations.  I brainstormed characteristics of the student I felt were important to include.  I sent it to a colleague to proofread and comment on.  I ran spell-check and reread it after printing it.  Writers are not born with a golden pen in hand.  They read, they talk with other writers, they brainstorm and draft and play with the words on the page.  Maya Angelou states it beautifully:  "Some critics will write 'Maya Angelou is a natural writer' - which is right after being a natural heart surgeon."  Our students deserve to learn the skills that will carry them as gifted writers long past their years of school.  Think generative.

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    Why common assessments?

    We are currently under pressure to create common assessments for ELA.  Often this makes more questions than answers arise:
    • What kind of common assessment?  What should it look like?
    • What are we assessing?
    • When do we give the assessment?  How do we score it?
    • What do we do with the results?
    Common assessments are meant to be helpful.  They are meant to be formative in nature, and inform instruction.  But, more often than not, they end up being summative and punitive to the student.  A grade that is averaged into the report card that never truly moves a student forward.  So, the real question is:  How do we create a common assessment that will help move our students forward?