Writing in the Digital Age

Last year our high school started a series of workshops called writing in the discipline. The goal of the workshop series was to help teachers find ways of including frequent (ideally daily) low stakes writing in their classrooms regardless of the content area they taught. All staff members and students received a composition notebook (my idea). Staff were expected to model writing and students were expected to bring their composition books to each class. The momentum at the beginning of the year quickly died out by second semester once students got the hang of using laptops and iPads 1:1. Not only that, the writing was missing an authentic audience.

We assumed that students would feel more comfortable with low stakes writing that was private and given less feedback. However, the Age of the Diary is long past. We now live in an insta-blogged world where students are used to viewing Instagram or Tumblr pictures, reading the minute statuses of hundred of “friends”, visiting blogs/vLogs about current issues and commenting on random posts all in hopes of increasing interaction and garnering 1,000+ likes. Today’s students are a lot more open to public exchange than students in the past.

Teachers, parents, administrators are right to be afraid of this increase in students’ public interactions but instead of blocking applications and writing stricter policy geared toward monitoring and reigning in student access to the internet, we should be providing them appropriate interactions that allow them to learn digital citizenship and engage in educational activities without making them digital hermits.

Students should be allowed to view and interact with a variety of content that can serve as models for writing. They should be allowed to blog/vLog on topics that interest them and share their posts with students from other states or countries. They should be allowed to share visual stories that highlight their unique take on current events. They should be allowed to create digital content that can be viewed all over the world. Having this freedom is a great way to motivate reluctant writers. It is also a great way to improve reading skills.

For those still concerned about the general public accessing student content, there are a variety of platforms (Edmodo, Versoapp, kidblog, Boom Writer, etc.) that allow you to create closed communities within a single classroom or throughout the entire school in which to share and respond to writing without risking student exposure to the general public. We need to prepare students for an increasingly digital future. We also need to continue to find ways to engage our insta-minded students in the sometimes arduous yet always useful writing process.

photo credit: Will Lion via photopin cc

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Engaging the Writer

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I made a promise to myself to blog more this summer and haven’t made good on that promise primarily because I didn’t have anything to write about. This fits exactly into what I want to discuss in this post. I am about to embark on a new journey in a new position at my school. I was chosen to become the new literacy coach for the high school and I’m both nervous and excited about the job.

One of the needs expressed by teachers this past spring was a desire to focus more on writing instruction. We have noticed that our students struggle quite a bit with writing. Even students who appear to have very little delay in reading. Students show an ability to understand what they are reading but struggle to pose their own thoughts in writing. What is missing in writing instruction that will help students make gains?

I recently read a fabulous article on Linking Genre to Standards. The premise of the article being that students need exigency in order to exact good form. It is a habit of writing programs to teach formulaic writing–especially when working with students who are performing several levels below Enrolled Grade Level. The problem with formulaic writing is that it may give students a “purpose” for writing, but it doesn’t make that purpose authentic and it doesn’t help students understand why the form is used. It also does not put the choice of form in the hands of the student.

Why do people write? It’s more than just PIE (persuade, inform, entertain). I like the following quote from the article:

As teachers, before we direct our students toward ways to engage the interest of the reader and state a clear purpose, we have to engage the interest of the writer in a real purpose.

When working on instructional planning, we have to do more than just make sure we check off the standard’s list of genres (making sure that students write at least one engaging short story, literary analysis essay, persuasive essay, research paper, etc.). We need to impress upon students that writing is an organic meaningful action. Students shouldn’t just write to receive a passing grade. Writing isn’t about playing “school”. It is about sharing a message. It is about expressing one’s thoughts and feelings. It is about engaging and interacting with an audience.  But, as the quote above stated, we cannot get our students to engage an audience without first making sure students are engaged in the topic. Their writing should have authentic purpose; it should be a meaningful, purposeful act.

The article stresses that we need to teach them “WHY” we write, not just “HOW” to write. So when looking at the standards we need to carefully consider our instructional approach. Suppose we look at the following TEKS standard:

(14) Writing/Literary Texts. Students write literary texts to express their ideas and feelings about real or imagined people, events, and ideas….Students are expected to:

(A) write an engaging story with a well-developed conflict and resolution, interesting and believable characters, a range of literary strategies (e.g., dialogue, suspense) and devices to enhance the plot, and sensory details that define the mood or tone;

We need to ask ourselves, what situation would students need to be in that would engage them as authentic writers? Why would/should they write this story?

One could argue that standardized testing does not engage readers or writers and I would agree, which is why I would encourage administrators not to put so much stock in standardized test scores. Should writing instruction be designed around testing parameters? or should we work to develop meaningful writing skills and hope for transfer? Teaching form as formula may have short-term benefits that help prepare students for immediate writing tasks. However, it also creates limited writing competencies and disconnected learners. Skills don’t “stick” and writing loses voice.  In developing an effective writing program, we cannot continue to go the route of formulaic instruction in order to meet the demands of a singular assessment. We must help students find meaning in writing and write with their own purpose in mind. We must consider the “why” along with the “how” when designing lessons. We must create meaningful learning situations that prompt specific genres or forms of writing. We don’t just want students to do well in school or on tests, we want them to do well in their respective communities. We want them to be able to see writing as a meaningful tool for participating in social action.

I write this blog because I have something to say. Having something to say motivates me to write well. Having something to say and a desire to share it with an audience encourages me to carefully select my words and consider how my writing might be received by others. This is what we want our students to do. They must be reflective readers and writers, but first, they must find something to say. Rather than give them something to say, give them a reason to say it. Incite them, move them to action–show them that writing is more than just structure, grammar and words on a page. Writing is power.

End of Year Reflections

During #txed chat Wednesday night (June 4th), participants were asked to blog their end of the year reflections and share them with the group. The following quote came to mind when I began this reflection:

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” –Thomas Paine

This has definitely been one of the most trying years I’ve had in all my 7 years of teaching. I felt like a failure in about 75% of what I did this past year. I also watched myself commit several teaching misdemeanors and knew deep in my heart for a majority of my actions that I should be doing something different, but I continued to convince myself that what I was doing was somehow necessary. To go back to my parent analogy, what I did was equivalent to spanking.

I told myself before I had children that I would never spank because I had experienced it as a child and it scarred my relationship with my parents. However, there have been moments where I spanked my daughter and knew it was the wrong thing to do but I always invented a reason why it had to be done–most of the time my actions were reactive stemming from extreme frustration, maybe even a place of anger and most definitely feeling pressed for time.

The same goes for my reactions to my students. I was extremely frustrated and more than once angry. Also, I was overwhelmed trying to complete a mountain of tasks. So I resorted to lecturing (on video or in person), or assigning books I knew my students couldn’t read simply because I had lots of resources on the book and then assigned chapter quizzes hoping to cattle prod my students into reading by dangling carrot grades or I continued with a certain unit even though it was clear my students were not understanding. I graded based on behavior and spent very little time giving constructive feedback. I assigned busy work and worksheets just to catch my breath. I went home at the end of the day rather than stay to contact parents and update them on student progress and I became lax in my documentation (a worksheet is evidence isn’t it?). I ended the school year extremely exhausted, stressed and positive that had lost my will to teach. None of this was the fault of my students and yet, they were punished. I was not angry with them but with a system that has such unrealistic expectations for teachers. No, I did not spank my students, but they also did not get the best teacher I know that I can be. They did not receive the exemplary education they deserve and they did not receive the attention they needed.

Now, I am not the worst teacher in the world, but I also know better and am capable of BEING better. My students will go on and hopefully have a better teacher next year. I’m also sure other teachers have similar stories and that many have gone on to do wonderful things. We live, we learn.

It’s time for a Year of Magical Thinking, time to repurpose myself and recollect my dreams. It’s time to put my own mastery to the forefront and approach the year with an abundance of positivity. I’m taking my summer to relax and enjoy my family. I’ve purchased some professional books that have reinvigorated my thinking and I’m ready for a fall of new possibilities. I will not make lofty goals for the new year as I do not know what to expect but I will continue to hope for the best.

To Grade or Not to Grade…Is that the Question?

I recently read a fabulous article by a middle school principal who is asking very important questions about what grading should look like.  Make sure you read the entire article!  I had originally planned to write my own two cents, but then the title of this post popped into my head.  I started to think, could I actually take Hamlet’s soliloquy and create a monologue of my own about grading?  So without further ado….

“To Grade Or Not To Grade”: Based on Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

To grade, or not to grade: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous assignments,
Or to take arms against a sea of percentages,
And by opposing end them? To grade: to rank;
No more; and by a rank to say we favor
The brown-nosing and the thousand plagiarized words
That students are heir to, ’tis not a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To grade, to quantify;
To measure: perchance to learn: ay, there’s the rub;
For in the quantification of grades what learning can be measured
When we have marked the book with but a single letter,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long an education;
For who would bear the scorns of measuring mastery,
The staggering standards, the proud parents’ aspirations,
The pangs of planning differentiated instruction, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and standardized testing
That overturns our plot for individualized pacing,
When teacher might find it easier to mark
With a simple letter grade? who would bear the risk,
To grunt and sweat under weary planning,
But that the dread of no quantifiable data,
The undiscover’d country from which it is believed that
No student passes, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear what makes us comfortable
Than to risk a change of which we have no guarantee?
Thus holding fast to gradebooks makes cowards of us all;
And thus our natural desire to do what’s best for children
becomes weak with over thinking
Mastery should be considered but gets misdirected

and stops being the purpose of a grade at all.

Why We Blog too

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Blogging has become a popular topic in twitter edu-chats. There is often the debate about whether student blogging is authentic or not. This particular post is not about student blogging, but an effort to take a look at why teachers are beginning to blog.

Those of us who are English teachers know the importance of writing frequently as a means of improving literacy. It stands to reason that teachers who write frequently will have a better understanding of how to teach writing or at least incorporate writing into their lessons. If we want our students to become digital citizens and blog with an authentic audience, then we need to get a sense of what that entails and what it feels like to have an audience of our own.

Teachers are often encouraged to reflect on teaching practices as a way to improve and develop best practices. Blogging can be away to openly reflect and interact with an audience. Blogging helps me delve deeper into a personal discourse with myself about my teaching methods or about educational policy and best practices. At the same time, blogging creates a platform that forces me to consider how my thoughts will be received by others and mandates special attention and revision as I compose posts.

The nature of a blog does not guarantee an audience, your writing does. The better you write and more aware you are of what connections you make with potential readers, the more likely you are to produce work that gets followed. It is a brave endeavor to put yourself out their, but it is the first step to better writing instruction. If you are not able to compose works that you assign to your students, how can you be sure that your instruction will meet with success? Also, writing becomes more enjoyable when someone interacts with you and let’s you know you are on the right track.

I encourage all teachers to start a blog. It doesn’t have to be an educational blog. Find something you want to say or choose a topic you feel knowledgable and share your knowledge with others. At the very least,if you ask your students to blog, you should blog with them. Let them see you plan and revise a post. Discuss with them the type of audience you wish to reach. Share your writing goals and how you plan to accomplish them. Your experience as a writer will frame their experiences and make the writing process authentic for your students.

Re-Framing the Teacher

horrible-mothersI remember becoming pregnant with my daughter and the absolute mix of excitement and trepidation I felt at the very idea of becoming a parent.  When she was born, I promised myself I would learn as much as I could and work my absolute hardest at becoming the best parent I could be.  I read TONS of books, watched all the baby shows and joined several discussion boards.  The information overload often stressed me out to the point that I was constantly worrying about whether or not I was making the best choices for my daughter.  There were the never-ending debates on breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, cloth vs disposable, cry it out or co-sleep, to vaccinate or not. Then there was the incessant comparison of so and so’s son/daughter already potty trained at 12 months while another mother’s kid was still in pull-ups at 4; one kid walking at 9 months while another kid didn’t start walking until nearly 2; worrying because someone’s kid got a rash that turned out to be the bubonic plague (ok, I’m exaggerating this one but you know what I mean).  I remember feeling excited to chat with other parents going through similar issues at the same time, I was overwhelmed and more often than not, felt as if I was doing everything wrong.  What do you do as a new parent when another parent tells you that any mother that lets her infant cry it out should be considered a child abuser?  Or that using disposable diapers is “lazy parenting”?  At one point, I just stopped reading, stopped checking the mommy boards, and I looked at my daughter.  She smiled at me, hugged me, and said, “Mommy, you’re my best friend.”  That’s my feedback, she’s the only one I need to listen to as far as what I do as a parent.  Every child is different, and I couldn’t mimic another parent’s results with 100% success even if I tried.  I now know that my husband and I will always do what’s best for our children.  Why? Because we love and care about them.  We wish to see them grow into spectacular adults.  We will make mistakes along the way, but constant criticism paralyzes.  It does nothing to move the dialogue forward.

So, how does this apply to teaching?  I read a wonderful post by David Theriault.  He has been encouraging his students to blog using topics that students “re-frame” to match their own understanding.  I love this idea, and decided to try it on my own.

So, here I am, re-framing teachers.  We all know that teaching is like parenting, but the constant criticism we receive as teachers –not just from politicians, media and the like–but from each other parallels the criticism parents receive.  It is tough to hear comments like “Any teacher who hands out worksheets is damaging student learning!”  or “Teachers who aren’t constantly asking students what they want to learn should not be teaching!” or “Stressed out teachers are pathetic!”  It takes a lot not to let the criticism paralyze you.

I conjecture that most of us are trying to do what is best for our students.  I pose that we all make mistakes and that no one method is the magic elixir that will suddenly make students LOVE school.  We all have DIFFERENT students with very different needs.  For myself, I need to stop thinking that everyone else knows what is best for my students.  I see them every day, I work with them every day.  I care about each one of them and no one feels it more than I do when they fail (except maybe the parents).  No one on those message boards carries that guilt heavier that maybe something I did made the student fall through the cracks.  However, I also know it is my job to continue to learn.

Unlike parents, we aren’t stuck in our roles.  We are teachers by choice.  Some great teachers are leaving the field because of the “out with the old, in with the new” mentality that has been infecting our dialogue.  Suddenly things these teacher won accolades for have become cliché and inappropriate for the “21st century learner”.  There has to be a way to connect with teachers who have over 30 years of experience, find out how to take their knowledge and skills, and apply it to the new demands of our ever-changing student body.  Experienced teachers also have to be open-minded about innovative practices and allow the new teachers to share knowledge.  In the end, teachers must meet the needs of their individual students.  As all teachers know, what works one year may not work the next.  We ALL make mistakes.  No one is an exemplary human being all of the time.  You have to trust the decisions you make and hope that your young ones will turn into phenomenal adults.

I always consider at least two things when I post comments on twitter:

1. Does my comment reflect a desire to build connections?

2. Am I being honest about my own practices as an educator?

I have to be careful not to make Twitter a sound board for my complaints but demonstrate a desire to learn from them.  I also want to make sure that new teachers know, just like new parents, that whether or not you are a good teacher (parent) depends largely on the relationship you share with your students (children).  Don’t let others decide what kind of teacher you will be.

From Celebration to Participation

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I receive the ASCD Smart Brief newsletter every so often.  Today this article  jumped out at me.  I was drawn to the title:

Are We Creating a Generation of Observers?

This is a good question and although I struggled to understand most of his smaller points, I want to see if I can summarize his message:

We celebrate things like “Black History Month” or “Deaf History Month” in an effort to educate students about our (their) history and hopefully tie it to the present; however, these celebrations often result in a rehashing of the same information each year.  When students hear the same stories every year about Martin Luther King Jr or Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, they do not draw from it a sense of purpose; they don’t see the relevance.  Why do we celebrate Black History Month? It can’t simply be “lest we forget.”   Is there a way for us to take a celebration and create an experience that allows students to celebrate themselves rather than simply observe the celebration of others?  Can we push students to take history and make history?  Can we convince students to use celebration to bring about true social change?

My students are about to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but first I’m having them research the time period to get a better sense of the setting and themes  in the novel.  Many of my students had not seen or heard of Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education or they had on a very superficial level (oh that was featured in our textbook or on a poster somewhere).  I was completely shocked by this.  When we began discussing the separation of blacks and whites during that time period, I was struck by how apathetic my students were.  They get that it was hard, they get that life sucked for black people back then, but it wasn’t relevant. They might as well have asked, “What does that have to do with me?”  And they are right, we don’t spend any amount of time answering that question.  We simply expect that they will show respect for a history that has made certain freedoms possible.

That doesn’t mean that the history that students are currently living in isn’t without it’s own obstacles to overcome.  My students are deaf and hard of hearing.  They are constantly being encouraged (and in some cases drilled) to have a sense of “Deaf Pride” and “Deaf Empowerment” but the image they are encouraged to portray is based on a historical definition of what it means to be Deaf.   Our students live in a world where cochlear implants are becoming the norm, more and more hard of hearing students are joining schools for the deaf, students have mixed language abilities that include Sign Language, spoken English, and in some cases a blend of home languages or sign systems (Spanish, SEE, creoles, etc.).  My students also come from a variety of cultures and ethnicities.  Students are unsure of who they are or what labels they want to attach to themselves. Shouldn’t they be the ones to define their own self pride?

I am reminded of when I was in high school.  I grew up around white people with very little exposure to the black community.  I often got picked on about this and was often told that I wasn’t “black” enough.  I was expected to label myself as black, but being bi-racial, I was also white.  I wasn’t allowed to recognize this part of myself, doing so meant I was somehow disrespecting my black side.  However, during black history month, I felt the power of the message more than my friends on both sides of the coin because it hit me that without the struggles fought during the civil rights movement, I would not have been born.  This relevance has made the celebration more valuable, I felt valuable in my light skin and I wanted to make a contribution to society.

Perhaps we should spend more time celebrating our students as they are. I’m not saying give up Black History month or Deaf History month, but instead find ways to make it relevant and purposeful.   While it’s nice that students look back in history and can identify who invented the cotton gin, perhaps it’s more important that we tell students that right here and now YOU matter-right here and now you can make a difference. How else will we build the Martin Luther Kings of the future?

Should We Define the 21st Century Learner?

This buzz word has been grating on my nerves recently. I’m sure I’ve used it in twitter chat euphoria; however, after thinking about it, I don’t understand the logic behind the moniker.  When I look at a list of supposed “21st century learning” competencies or skills, I often see things like: critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, communication, global citizenship, and technology/media literacy.  I’m forced to ask, why are these skills relegated to the 21st century learner? Are these competencies really that new?  They certainly aren’t innovative.  It seems to me that good teaching has held these skills as valuable competencies for at least since I entered kindergarten over 30 years ago (including preparing students for future technological advancements–though “technology” may have had a different label back then).  I’m not sure why the advent of the iPad and other mobile technology suddenly makes for overhauling pedagogy.

I think there needs to be a discussion about best practices and not on defining and labeling learners in the predictive sense.  Developing best practices requires us to look at the learner on an individual basis and adapt instruction accordingly.  We don’t need blanketed cookie-cutter curricula claiming to be the academic elixir for the so-called 21st century kid.  We definitely shouldn’t be shoving technology down students’ throats simply because “they should know this stuff by now!”  Skilled teachers know that every year we usher in a new blend of students that will ultimately change how we approach instruction.   Master teachers also know that technology should be approached as a tool to support curriculum and not the foundation by which we build curriculum.  I’m not alone in my thinking either.  I was happy to find this post.  The author summarizes my thoughts exactly:

I’m not particularly bothered by a murky vision of the future ahead, or the prospect of making it all up as we go along–curriculum, instruction, technology use, learning goals and prioritized skills. You can (and probably will) interpret that as typically muddle-headed eduspeak, but truly proficient teachers adjust the parameters of their practice constantly, to fit the unique students in their class, the resources available and, sometimes, the day’s headlines. Planning blind is sometimes part of an effective change process. And sniping over an exact delineation of what 21st century learners need is more about the snipers than the students.

Are today’s students different from yesterday’s students? Yes. Do we need to adjust instructional methods to reflect that change? Yes.  Is this an innovative concept? I should hope not!  I’m not against finding innovative ways to meet the needs of current and future students.  I am against labels that serve to pigeonhole an entire century’s worth of students present and future under one brand. I think our students deserve better.

Moments that Made Me Smile

This week has been a good week.  I always say that post spring break is my favorite time of the year.  By that time, students have had plenty of time to get used to my expectations and they actually start to enjoy class.  This week I’ve hit an unusual number of moments that made me smile but I want to share two that put a boost in my step.

#1  I’m doing my annual magazine project with the Seniors again this year (yea, I know I talk about this project a lot but I love it).  Normally it takes two weeks to get them all set up and ready to work independently.  This year, because of my efforts to flip instruction, my current seniors were ready to go within minutes.  On Monday, they had already applied for positions and had made press badges.  On Wednesday I announced the editor positions and we started our first team meeting for the first section of the Magazine.  The two chosen editors ran the team meeting and even assigned me a role.  My job was secretary: to take notes on the meeting.  It was awesome! The first section of the magazine will focus on local, national and world news.  The class made their recommendations for article ideas and the two editors listened to ideas, asked for clarification, vetoed ideas (by explaining why they were against topic) and ended the day by giving their writers an assignment.  Students were 100% directing their learning and they were excited about writing!  I can’t wait to see the results of their writing next week.

#2 I joined #flipclass chat with a wonderful topic about what a personal PLN means to teachers.  It is quite the emotional topic for me because my personal PLN has completely changed my outlook on teaching.  I shared my struggles from the fall and even mentioned that back then I was ready to hand in my letter of resignation.   Jonathan Bergmann, one of the authors of Flip Your Classroom, asked if I would write a guest post sharing my experience on how attempting to flip my classroom has kept me from leaving the profession.  I was so honored to write that post.  Feel free to read it and please do share your comments! I’d love to hear what you think.

I am starting to feel valued as an educator and I am remembering why I became a teacher in the first place.  I enjoy watching my students grow and learn together.  I will always have struggles to reflect on but I need to remember to relish the sweet spots too.