Friday, December 11, 2009

Writing Outside of English Class

Something amazing happened yesterday - something that you'd think would happen all the time, but rarely does. The science teacher on my team conducted a writing lesson during class.

I think it's every English teacher's dream to get the other content areas to buy in to the standards and the guidelines that we set forth for our students' writing. However, the reality is that other subject areas focus on their content and rarely think about matching their writing expectations to ours.

Yesterday, though, Mr. Musselman did just that. Earlier in the week, he approached me about doing a writing lesson, and after a brief conversation in which we actually talked about standards, guidelines, and expectations for writing, he was off planning. Two days later he followed up the assignment with a peer review activity complete with rubrics and FCAs.

After, we talked about how it went, and (thankfully) how easy it seemed to go for him in class - how the students bought into the idea that writing for one class should be the same as writing for another class. Then came my big question...

"Do you think you could do an activity or assignment like this at least once a month?"

With a look of disbelief he said it wasn't even a question. Of course he could. It should be happening all the time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

MassCUE: One Year Later

Sitting here at my second MassCUE conference, I can't help but think back to a year ago when I was walking the halls of the Sturbridge absorbing as much new information as is humanly possible in just two short days. Now, a year later I'm thinking about all that's changed for me professionally.

Since the '08 MassCUE conference, I've:
  • become a regular user of Twitter.

  • created a valuable PLN of educators from all over the world.

  • used Skype to link my classroom to other classrooms across the country.

  • become a regular (for the most part) blogger.

  • created a classroom blog that is predominately driven by student content.

  • set up all of my students on blogs.

  • begun to manage and assess more than 50% of my students work virtually.

  • created movies and have posted them online.

  • allowed students to use cell phones in class.

  • provided students opportunities to collaborate online to create new content for Wikipedia.

  • done a lot more than I can think of right now...

My first pass at the '09 MassCUE program guide left me feeling like there wasn't much new that I didn't already know about or that I hadn't already explored to some extent. At first I felt pretty proud of myself and my colleagues. Relative to the rest of the education world, we're ahead of the technological curve. But, then I realized that just because I know about something doesn't mean that I've fully explored how to use it -- especially in the classroom.

So, for the past 36 hours, I've spent this conference attending sessions hosted by really smart people and picking their brains -- asking questions about how to use all these new tools more efficiently. While last year I felt overwhelmed by everything new, this year I feel focused and even more determined to make technology a seamless part of my classroom.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More Than Words

I did something I don't normally do yesterday - something so simple, yet something that often eludes me in my regular business of teaching and interacting with kids. Something so light and casual, but yet something that carries so much weight and seriousness.

I told a student, "Good job."

I know, right? Me? The one who has adopted the motto, "Fail. Try again. Fail better." The one who will not accept a writing unless it's nearly perfect and will return it over and over again until it is. The one who goes out of his way NOT to give a student a high five or a fist bump in the hallway. Me?

I continued. "I love reading everything that you write. Keep up the good work."

It was brief and to the point. A quick exchange as she came into class from the hallway. I caught her a little off guard, and I think she thought she might have been in trouble. And then, a funny thing happened. Something that I imagined might happen, but perhaps wasn't entirely prepared for.

She smiled.

And, as she walked away, I thought that maybe I had caught myself a little off guard, too. Like when the Grinch hears singing rising up from the valley below, I was suddenly surprised at how important it is to actually compliment a student face to face. How their efforts need to be acknowledged by more than a note at the bottom of the page or an exclamation point after a grade at the top.

Later, the student stopped by my room at the end of the day. "Thanks for the compliment. That was really nice. It made my day."

Friday, September 11, 2009

When Our Students Go Public

I've been following the conversation going on at Wes Fryer's blog, Moving at the Speed of Creativity, for a few days now, ever since his daughter's video response to President Obama's education speech was posted on YouTube. It has created quite a stir, and as it approaches 100,000 views, it makes me think that as I keep encouraging my students to publicize their work, one day soon we'll be facing the same kinds of issues and questions.

One of the most important is managing comments. Many of us understand that inviting comments is a necessary part of the writing process -- that simply publishing work is not the end of the process, but only a step. And, most of us understand that it is important to moderate those comments is necessary to filter out the spam, the vulgarity, and those that seek to vandalize. However, as Wes is finding out, that when a video or a blog post goes "viral," moderating the comments and protecting the younger students from obscenity and disparaging remarks can easily become a full time job.

I'm suddenly thinking about my students and their Edublog accounts that we'll be setting up in the next few days. As the class administrator, I'll take on the responsibility of moderating the comments for everyone -- one, to help teach them all how to comment effectively, and two, to protect them from things that maybe they aren't ready to deal with yet. At four full classes of students, it's a lot of comment moderating, and I'm not sure how I'll even begin to manage.

However, the point is that I'm going to try. Like Wes and Sarah have done, we need to put the work out there and learn from what comes next. Sitting back and wondering "what if" will not help us or our students. If things don't work out, I'll go back and rethink my goals. But, if things go well, then...I don't know. It'll be great, I'm sure.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer as Prewriting

This week President Barack Obama is starting his family vacation in Martha's Vineyard, just a week after we finished our own little family vacation on the Cape. And, while it was pretty impressive to see the Secret Service helicopters cruising down Route 28, it made me imagine that just like us teachers, the President is never really "on vacation." If you're the one of the most powerful leaders in the world, can you seriously take a break and tune out? I know that when I'm away from my classroom, I never really stop thinking about it. I can only imagine what it's like for the President.

As always, this summer for me has been about thinking, planning, and brainstorming -- even though some would say that I've just been on vacation. Just like we tell our students to make time to activate their thinking before a project or a writing, we teachers need to set aside time to assess the previous year and contemplate how to adjust for the upcoming year. It's an ongoing process, but one that is necessary to improve our instruction.

Aside from reading a whole bunch of YA novels, attending a training or two, keeping up with my PLN, reading a lot of professional articles and blogs, and crunching some student data, here are five things I've been thinking about this summer:

Using Student Blogging as a Regular Activity -- One theme that will be guiding much of the work in our building this year is to help students reach an audience greater than themselves. Blogging seems like a natural path to this end. Allowing students to write for each other and for people outside of their classroom community seems much more important and authentic than just writing for me or for themselves. My concern is how to manage and provide guidance and feedback for 100 student blogs. I'd like to think it's no different from a stack of papers, but I know differently.

Getting Students to Read More -- It's been a long time coming, but I'm finally getting around to losing the idea that I have to direct everything that students read in class. Giving students choices and helping them make informed decisions about what they read seems a lot more appealing lately. Ultimately, this is about differentiating instruction to meet each student's individual needs, but the reality is that I need to read a whole lot more in order to be a more effective guide to learning.

Helping Other Content Area Teachers Incorporate More Writing Activities and Projects -- It drives me crazy when a student's writing in my class looks vastly different than in someone else's class. We should all be on the same page -- teachers and students included. A student shouldn't expect to write differently in a science class, and a science teacher shouldn't accept lower standards. "This isn't English" and "I'm not a writing teacher" aren't excuses.

Working With Half the Time -- This year will be the first time in eight years that I won't be teaching a double block. I admit it will be quite a challenge to work in just 50 minutes, and I'm a little worried that I'll lose a lot of that one-to-one time that I have with individual students and groups during an activity. And, what about that buffer time to troubleshoot when technology goes awry...

Empowering Students -- I've never been one for doling out classroom "jobs," but I'm thinking that this year will be different. I've read a lot about using social media to open up the classroom to the outside world this summer, and I think that there is a lot of great learning potential there. So, my "baby step" into this is to develop at least two classroom jobs. One student will be the classroom blogger, who will summarize the day's lesson and post it to the classroom blog. The other job will be a classroom microblogger, who will be responsible for posting live updates of the class to Twitter. With hope, these will take off and provide students, parents, and other teachers, additional resources to their learning.

Of course, these are only a few of the things that are swirling around in my head right now. Still, they are the ones that are rising to prominence. And, like any good prewriting session, I know that the next step, the first draft, means to jump in and get messy. Throughout the year I'll continue to revise and edit, and in June I'm sure I'll have a more perfect draft.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Taking Off the Training Wheels

We live on an amazing cul-de-sac in a quiet neighborhood teeming with elementary school aged children. On most days there are about a half dozen kids out riding bikes, playing pick-up hockey, or just doing goofy kid stuff. But last October when my then four-year-old son had his feelings hurt by another boy from down the street, I went into protective daddy mode.

You see five months earlier I bought him his first training-wheeled bike. It was a little big, though, and he had trouble putting both feet on the ground while sitting on it. Still, I thought, it would be ok because he'd have the whole summer to get used to riding with training wheels, and by next spring, when he'd grown a little, I'd take them off.

Well, he "went to town" on his bike. The first day alone he rode for nearly four hours straight - without a break for lunch or the potty, and he continued to ride it every day, faster and better each time. He learned how to pedal standing up, how to make a long skid, and by the end of summer, how to go over a small jump - all on his training wheels. Neighborhood parents kept asking me, "He's doing real well. When are those training wheels coming off?" Each time I stuck to my rationalization about safety, and his feet touching the ground, and not wanting to rush him.

That all changed in those weeks leading up to Halloween when another little boy (also four and NOT on training wheels) blocked the ramp and declared, as only preschoolers can, that boys who were on training wheels were not allowed to go over jumps. My son cried for an hour.

The next day I took off the training wheels.

Much to my surprise, he just started riding. He didn't fall. He hardly even wobbled. It took exactly three minutes for him to learn to ride a real two-wheeled bike. Within thirty minutes, he was racing another girl, standing up on the pedals and skidding to a stop across the imaginary finish line.

Clearly he was ready to ride on two wheels, and apparently had been ready for quite some time. I was the one who was nervous and had been holding him back.

I called my wife and told her to hurry home to bear witness to the new milestone that had been reached. Of course he crashed into her car as soon as she pulled into the driveway. But, he got right back up, and with a slight nudge in the right direction, he was back to riding, and he hasn't stopped since.

For me, and my guess is probably for a lot of you, this past year has also been about taking off those training wheels - exploring the world with a new sense of freedom and opportunity, and providing students with new and exciting ways for them grow and learn. And, as my son proved to me, we've been ready for quite a while.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Video Killed the Middle School Star

I've known that feeling. The same kind of feeling I have when I press "publish post," or when I have to present in front of a large group of teachers, or when my wife drags me out to an empty dance floor, or when I had poison ivy on my face on the first day of middle school...

I hadn't considered that sensation would be something the students would have felt, too. Nothing like a Skype video conference to stir the pot.

For the past few weeks, my classes have been reading Red Scarf Girl, a memoir of the Cultural Revolution in China that began in 1966. During that time I set up many different activities to help them comprehend the novel and make meaning from it. Students read and discussed in small groups -- both student led and teacher directed. They used reflective writing exercises to ask questions and explore themes, and they connected the story's events and ideas to experiences in their own lives and to other novels.

Along the way we hooked up with another 6th grade teacher (thank you Twitter) and her classes from Cary, NC for a project in which we uploaded new content to the book's page on Wikipedia. For the most part our classes worked indpendently from each other and never really interacted. Certainly, the students were aware they were writing for a larger, more public audience, but the activity didn't seem much different than anything else we had done throughout the year. Probably the greatest amount of collaboration and interaction between the schools was between us teachers who were setting it up.

Skype changed all that.

As a culminating activity we set up a video class discussion via Skype. That morning things started our as planned. At 8:15am we popped up the feeds, and instantly our classes, one in Massachusetts and one in North Carolina, were staring face to face.

Without warning, my kids froze.

One of the most talkative students couldn't say the name of our school or where we are located. Another student, one of the most boisterous, reverted to speech so babyish, it would have made my toddler blush. The best adjective that another student could come up with to describe our community was "ghetto." Not what I would have ever dreamed would come out of the mouth of the one student in class who's done missionary work overseas. There was nervous chatter and laughter from some, while others simply became silent. It was as if my entire class had been reborn from giant alien space pods straight out of a 1950s B movie.

Now, of course looking back at the video, I'll admit that in general things went really well. Several of my students stepped up with some very thoughtful and interesting points, carrying our side of the discussion, and making it more than a worthwhile endeavor. And, I guess in the bigger picture, I'd go so far as to say it was wildly successful. We were able to do many of those things we always talk about -- use the web to remove classroom walls, engage in meaningful discussion across great distances, participate in authentic learning experiences. Still though, I had much higher expectations for my students' participation, and I couldn't help but wonder why such academic stars failed to shine as I know they can.

It was that nervousness. They didn't want to look silly. They thought that the other class used "big words" and was really smart. They didn't want to be perceived as not knowing what they were talking about, and so they clung tightly to old adage, "better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt." Really? Is that all it takes to shake a student's confidence? A video feed?

It makes me believe that these kinds of authentic interactions are even more important than ever. Students need opportunities to practice communicating not only with their peers, not only in publishable writing activities, but in ways that foster discussion, collaboration, and communication that stretches students into unfamiliar territory to places where their status quo might be disrupted. They need to become comfortable with the consquenses of publishing their posts, to speak their minds in face to face conversations, and to be the first ones out on the dance floor.