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.

Nurturing the Mindful Digital Citizen

johntspencer-twitter-quote-DC John Spencer posed a wonderful topic for #rechat saturday morning (feb 23rd).  The discussion lead to whether or not we should distinguish between digital citizenship and everyday run-of-the-mill citizenship.  Most agreed that there really wasn’t much of a difference between the two other than WHERE citizenship happens.  What became more difficult was defining citizenship. John Spencer tried to get participants to go beyond the simple “be nice to each other” definition that frequents citizenship lessons.  He believes that good citizenship is not about “playing nice” but instead encompasses ethics, critical thinking skills, and autonomy.

citizenship-def-johnt-quote

I would like to go a step further with his definition and say that being a good citizen requires a state of constant mindfulness.  Teenagers have a hard time stepping out of their own first-person point of view (to make a video game analogy).  They aren’t equipped with a natural ability to step outside of themselves to view how their actions affect other people.  This takes time to develop and requires a nurturing environment.  Good citizens acknowledge diversity, engage in honest inquiry, act on ethical decisions, and make mindful contributions to society.   We don’t want to create students who parrot the actions/reactions of others (whether it be kindness or malevolence).  We want students to be able to make their own decisions and be conscious of how their decisions affect them as well as others.  We do want them to act out of kindness, but not because social norms tell them to do so, but because they understand the positive effects of benevolence.

So, how does this translate to digital citizenship?  We want students to be able to question content placed on the internet.  We don’t want them to accept information at face value.  We want them to understand that information on the internet has permanence and multiplicity.  We want them to learn to dissect, sift and sort through information to help them expand their vocabulary, broaden their viewpoints, and develop their own values.  We want students to understand the value in using information to explore and support their own ideas, but we also want them to respect the effort that went into making that content readily available to them.  Most importantly, we want them to be able to add meaningful content to the world-wide web.

As an English teacher, it becomes increasingly difficult to get my students to understand plagiarism and why I believe that it is wrong.  Plagiarism is so rampant on the internet that it is difficult for my students to do the right thing when it comes to respecting copyright.  Intentional copyright infringement is not only profuse on the internet, but teachers frequently break copyright law in the name of “fair use”.  Teachers seem to misunderstand or are not educated on true fair use guidelines as it applies to educators.  Even if we are creating content for educational use, we should model appropriate citations on worksheets, PowerPoint/Keynote Presentations, and handouts.  I don’t think teachers realize the true legal repercussions of plagiarizing and are putting students in jeopardy for ignoring the opportunity to teach students about TRUE fair use and creative commons licenses.  For those of you unsure of what fair use for educators truly means, check out the copyright guidelines from the United States Copyright office.  This PDF File presents the law specifically as it relates to teachers and librarians.  If you want something a bit easier to read, try this chart from the Know Your Rights brochure disseminated by the Association of Research Libraries.  Most importantly, teachers should continually look for content within the creative commons (you may also get creative commons licensed materials from Global Grid For Learning).  Websites like Wikipedia, Google, Flickr all curate creative commons content that is searchable.  Teachers who create their own content should consider sharing this content with creativecommons.org.

Our students are frail sponges absorbing the world around them.  If we want our students to become conscious, mindful digital citizens, teachers must also be mindful digital citizens aware of the digital footprints they leave for students to follow.  To take a quote from Shakespeare:

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

[Emilia’s monologue, Othello, act IV scene iii]

Finding Authentic Readers to Foster Authentic Writers

My seniors just finished up a persuasive unit that included a research paper and a persuasive speech.  Working on this project was quite daunting both for me and my students.  There are so many skills that go into writing a GOOD research paper and then aggregating that information into a GOOD persuasive speech.  Not only do they have to demonstrate competency in these skills, but my students have to do it in two different languages (ASL and English).   Needless to say, they found this project more difficult than reading Beowulf.  I, on the other hand, found it difficult to grade these assignments, especially the persuasive speech.

I  don’t know about other English teachers out there, but I find it so hard to get students to revise their drafts.  Students automatically go from first draft to editing to final draft.  They don’t seem to understand why revision is important, even after a writing conference with me.  To my students, when they write something, it makes sense to them exactly how they wrote it the first time, so why change it.  They have a hard time considering how the sentence or paragraph might read to a different audience.  Likewise, I find it hard for me to separate feedback for revisions from feedback for editing.  I often break out the colored pen and mark student’s grammatical errors simultaneously with margin comments about coherency.  More often than not, the grammatical errors get the most attention and the students ignore my coherency feedback.  I need to revise the way I give feedback.

Then, I think about best practices for teaching reading to students (I’m still not proficient in doing this consistently with students).  We annotate the text, make notes in the margins, jot down questions about portions that confuse us.  We also read together, read aloud, or get together as a group and discuss what we read and compare notes.  I also think about the comments section that I read fervently on some of my favorite blogs.  People have a wide variety of different views/interpretations on what they read.  I’m sure if readers were to give a grade, the grade would range from A-F.  I’m also sure blog writers take this feedback and apply it to future entries (or even to revise current ones).  I’m also sure that writers are a lot more careful at revising each of their blog posts before publishing them.  (I know this particular post has seen several mental and print revisions over the course of a week).  This made me realize that students need more authentic readers/viewers to give feedback on their writing (or signing).  It can’t just be me, and it certainly can’t just be peers within the class.

So what’s wrong with peer revision or teacher feedback?  As a class, we’ve developed a culture surrounding the teacher’s expectations.  Students have come to  learn what I look for in good writing.  They’ve acclimated to my definition of good writing.  Even reading each other’s writing, they all parrot similar responses: “This part is good, it grabs my interest!”  or “I was confused by this, can you clarify?”   or “I think you should consider adding more description.”  These responses all sound like something a teacher would say, not something you’d find within margin annotations or even a blog comment.  Our students are even afraid to fail at giving feedback.

So how can we mimic the type of feedback we get out in the real world?  We can start by not trying so hard to mimic it.  We should make use of publishing (blogging and actually having students invite people to read their blogs, disseminating an online student newspaper or magazine, asking authentic audience members to come in for text review, or to judge student presentations).  I think we’re afraid to give students this authenticity because the backlash can be biting.  We don’t want to damage a student’s self-esteem; however, students eventually need to face reality.  Not everyone is going to like what they wrote, but that doesn’t mean that what they wrote was awful.  We have to let our students know that feedback is feedback, the ultimate control of the final draft is theirs.  I bet our student’s motivation to write would drastically improve if they knew that they actually had an authentic voice (and not just a completed assignment).  Imagine if they knew a local author was going to take a look at their short stories, or that their blogs received a large number of views with relevant comments.   I’m sure there would be initial panic but I’m also sure we’d see better writing from them.  I know I’m more motivated to write on this blog after seeing it re-tweeted and hopefully I’ve become a better blogger through this process.

So, I decided to make the persuasive speeches a bit more authentic.  I wanted to do something like TED without scaring my students to death.  I invited a few “judges” and outsiders to come view my students’ persuasive speeches and it was a wonderful experience for them (and me).  They could see from the comments that the judges each had very different views of their speeches.  The judges all gave very detailed feedback on what they didn’t understand and what they felt the student did well.   It made me realize that something like “persuasion” is a matter of perception and should always be viewed by more than one person.   Their live speeches were also recorded and then posted on Voicethread; the Voicethread was then shared within the school so that students could continue to receive feedback and comments (much like TED).  Students will now be able to take this feedback and make revisions to their speeches.  I’m hoping they will be able to video record their final revisions to make polished speeches that we can broadcast school-wide.  (Let’s hope with all the upcoming testing that we actually have time to do this!)

I’ve done this sort of authentic assessment before.  In fact I do it every year since I started teaching high school. Every spring, I have seniors do a class magazine for their final project.  It is a great way for them to demonstrate their learning.  I consider myself the CEO and have very little role in the content they select for this project.  In fact, my one job is to “hire” editors to run the magazine (they all create resumes and cover letters explaining why they feel most qualified for the role of editor).  The editors are the true bosses that make sure that the magazine runs smoothly.  Every student contributes at least 4 articles to the magazine and they even design the layout as well as all of their own advertisements.  My husband, a professional photographer, is even “hired” to do the photography work for their advertisements (they must first storyboard their ideas and be able to clearly explain them to him on the day of  the shoot; they are also responsible for any props that are needed for the shoot.)  Students absolutely love this project, and I love it as well.  I give VERY little revising or editing feedback; all editors are responsible for making sure that drafts are print ready, and quite frankly, students are more than willing to revise their own work without being told.  Editors do evaluations on their employees and employees do evaluations on their editors.  Final magazines are published through ISSUU.com (although this year I plan to switch to Joomag so that students can add ASL videos).  It’s a fun project.  Every year I do this project, and I know that the reason it is successful is because students become authentic writers to an authentic audience.

However, despite knowing this, I still start every year in “teacher” mode, expecting that I have to teach all the skills before they are able to successfully do a project like this on their own.  I often ask myself, why can’t this project be year-around?  Is it possible to do this and still cover the required TEKS?  Likewise, why should I limit this only to my seniors? I teach 9th-12th, but usually reserve this as a “treat” for my seniors.  Shouldn’t this be something in which all students are able to participate?  Also, wouldn’t it be amazing to collaborate with another school on a project like this?  (Especially during years when current events are explosive–presidential elections, worldwide natural disasters, political issues that span the globe, etc.) So what’s stopping me?  I think, just like my students, I need an authentic audience.  I need validation and approval.  I need someone to collaborate with and discuss ideas about what may or may not work.  Are you, dear reader, interested?

Reviving the Dead by Killing the Sage

Reflection is quite a process that starkly resembles standing in front of a full-length mirror under a spotlight. Every wrinkle, blemish, and unsightly hair becomes grossly apparent.  While there are certainly highlights (like the way a single tendril of hair curls in a perfect spiral), the ugly truth always seems a lot more pronounced and hard to ignore.  My most recent blemish feels like an oxymoron.  I’m a Deaf woman who apparently does not like silence.  This is even more astounding if you know me.  I’m the wall flower that hovers in the corners with my arms and legs crossed, the body language of a defensive, private persona.  I even laugh silently.

So, where does this fear of silence come from?  I get stage fright when standing and presenting/speaking in front of a crowd (including  students).  In order to feel comfortable, there has to be an exchange.  I like collaboration because it allows me to bounce my ideas off “quietly”.  In other words, I prefer doubles tennis to randomly smacking a ball against the wall with a racquet.  How on earth I became a teacher who must stand in front of classroom full of mildly disinterested high school students is an enigma.

A big buzzword going around educational circles, and one I wholeheartedly advocate, is Inquiry Based Learning.  I love the idea of students “discovering” learning and finding their own way around things that adults have determined our students “MUST” learn.  Without getting into a debate about overly narrowed standards, I want to focus on the belief that questioning is the most important part of learning.  So, I ask my students questions all the time.  The problem is, often, they don’t answer.  Worse yet, the ultimate paradox, I often attempt to answer my own questions.  When I catch myself doing this, I immediately respond “well, that’s just one idea, you don’t have to use it.”  Well, guess what?  They use it, verbatim, on responses to test questions, in parroted responses when I try to get them to follow with another possible answer, or when turning to talk with a partner.  They regurgitate.  It’s a horrible feeling as a teacher to watch a class full of students upchucking the proverbial hairball, MY hairball.

BUT, I have begun to hit upon why I do this.  I fear silence.  I fear that maybe students don’t understand the material; maybe they need an idea or an example to get them started; maybe they lack experience with the topic; maybe my principal will come in and find students unengaged.   However, I’ve also come to the conclusion that my students don’t answer because they smell my fear.  They know that if they just stay quiet long enough, I’ll help them out with an answer.

So, dear friends, what is a teacher like me to do?  My Answer (see, I can’t help myself!): Shut up.  I don’t have to be the sage on the stage.  I don’t have to have all of the answers, and I need to stop spending so much time asking questions that I can easily answer on my own.  I need to expand critical thinking skills by getting students to explore ideas.  I want to develop an environment where there are no wrong answers, but rather valid or invalid premises.  I’ve begun giving my students questions and letting them know that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  Instead, I expect them to support/justify their answer with evidence.  A funny thing happens, students start answering.  At first, their answers are clipped and look more like questions (wanting so badly to be the student that gets the answer right).  Then, you start to see wheels turning and students come up with some pretty neat ideas.

Yet some days it is really hard to sit back and wait for students to discover learning.  The truth is, I’m waiting for them to discover MY way of learning–I have to remind myself that this mentality is one that assumes that what I know and teach is the “right” way to do things.  We don’t want students to blindly accept what teachers tell them or what textbooks state.  So I’m going to try to kill the sage and instead help my students to become sages of their own.

Why I’m Struggling this Year

This blog was started, not to brag or “Showcase” my classroom, but to reflect on my teaching and hopefully improve.  Based on this year’s outcomes, I’d say I have a lot to improve upon.  I started the year wanting to become skilled with technology integration in the form of a flipped classroom.  I can’t say it has been successful.  At the same time, I can’t say that any other method would have been any better.  What is my struggle this year? Why do I feel like such a failure in everything that I am trying to do?  I’d say the biggest hindrance is not being able to connect with others in the same situation as me and not having a collaborative PLN.

In the past, I’ve been able to bounce ideas off of others, find wonderful resources on the internet; I  have been content with being a voiceless bystander who soaks in information by watching.  First, many people in my school are resistant to trying the flipped model and I’m starting to understand why.  With the advent of video and flipped learning comes a whole class of resources that I cannot use simply because they are not accessible.  Flipped was supposed to be this revolutionary concept that makes learning accessible, but as a teacher who is deaf, I’m not able to access a large majority of dialogue or even shared lessons that are exchanged in flipping PLNs.   This means I have to create a lot of content on my own which becomes very time-consuming.    I joined discussion groups and even twitter chats.  So what about bouncing ideas off of other flippers through Ning or Twitter?  Just as before, I gleaned some wonderful information but nobody was interested in my questions or my struggles in the deaf ed classroom.  Nobody seems to want to understand the challenges of accessibility for those who are disabled.  It brings us right back to why IDEA was necessary.   Children with disabilities, especially hearing or vision loss, always get pushed aside as “somebody else’s problem.”   As long as the hearing community continues to put accessibility on the back burner, people with disabilities will continue to fall behind.  Isn’t the entire point of the flipped model to provide accessibility to students?  To give students access to resources they may not have at home?  Something as simple as captions can open up an entire world to a student who is deaf or hard of hearing.

So, I’m becoming burnt out in trying to recreate all the wonderful resources that are already out there in a form that is accessible for my students.   It takes me twice the time to workout a video that includes ASL.  I know I’m doing something that will not only benefit my students, but maybe even other deaf students and deaf teachers but at present it is a huge source of frustration for me.  I’m hoping to one day meet another deaf teacher who wants to give collaboration  shot.  Maybe then flipped model won’t feel so hard.  For now, let me share some resources with hearing people who DO wish to broaden their definition of accessibility and open their videos beyond their classrooms:

Caption It Yourself— this web resource provides some wonderful guidelines for captioning your own videos and gives a wide variety of links to web-based captioning tools.

Many flippers already use Camtasia Studio which comes with a captioning tool.

Re-Evaluating FLIP

I embraced the flipped methodology whole heartedly as I researched it during the summer last year. I entered the fall fully believing that it would revolutionize my classroom. I still believe in the flip but have now come to re-evaluate it and redefine it. After thinking about all I have done half way through the year, I’ve found that I don’t really “flip” all that much in my classroom. At least, not by original Khan Academy definition. I don’t send home lectures/lessons to students and then do work in class. In fact, the flip has made me realize how pointless homework has become. Just by seeing that my students don’t even watch the videos I so painstakingly put together, I came to realize that it doesn’t matter if it is a worksheet or a cool video lesson. Students do not want nor seem to have time to complete all the homework they are assigned.

I’ve changed my view on what I want my classroom to look like. I want students to LEARN not just DO. I want them to MASTER concepts, not simply be EXPOSED TO concepts. I want QUALITATIVE results, not QUANTITATIVE results. I want AUTHENTIC learning objectives, not STANDARDIZED objectives. I want all students to feel a level of SUCCESS with their learning. I don’t want them to obsess about grades.

This fall I am making an effort to get rid of homework all together. If students are not able to finish in class, it gets pushed until the next time I see them. I’m also making an effort to allow for self-pacing. I want students to be able to master skills at a pace that makes sense to them. It is possible to have a set of standards for all students to master, but it is NOT possible to have all students master them at the same time, especially within one classroom.

I find that I stil make the occasional video or keynote for students to view on their own time but these are resources for students to access. They are still responsible for their learning. I rarely lecture in front of the class and I spend most of my time roaming around the room checking in on students and helping where needed. I like this the most. I hand out a list of assignments/skills for students to work on and they go through the list deciding what they want to work on and when. They check their own work and move on when they feel ready. They see me if they want extra practice in a particular skill and they take quizzes to gauge their mastery. Today a student came up to me after class and said…”I like this class.” He managed to complete all of his assignments and found that his reading level had jumped a grade level (this was a big deal to him and me). He said he finally understood how to improve his reading, and he’s anxious to see his reading improve even more. He is proud because he knows HE did all of the work. He is motivated because now he has something that applies to him on a personal level. He has a goal that is not something the teacher set for him, but something he decided for himself. This is empowerment.

I have a long way to go before my classes become what I want them to be (or better yet, what students want them to be). I still have troubles relinquishing control over the assignments or control over what students should be doing during class. I had one class where I was constantly shushing students and asking them to stay on task. I deducted points for chatting, and constantly became frustrated and angry that they would not listen or pay attention to each other. I finally said, “you know what, as long as you complete the work and understand what we are doing today, then I don’t care if you chat or get all silly, etc.” Of course, several students took this as a sign to chat through the whole class and I sat there literally on my hands with my mouth in a tight line, but at the end of class, every one of them turned in their assignments and could respond to exit slip questions. I realized that I was trying to control something that really wasn’t important. Now, if my principal were to come into the classroom for evaluation, it might look like my class is a zoo, but they are learning in their own way.

Then I think to myself about attending workshops or department meetings in which sometimes teachers chat with each other while a person is presenting. These side conversations may or may not be related to the information being presented, but I also don’t believe that they are not getting the information.

We have to begin to instill a sense of responsibility in our students. They have to take ownership of their learning and their behavior. We have to let go of control and give students the opportunity to tell us what it is they want to learn and why. They have to be able to leave the classroom and take something with them when they move on into the world. It’s a BIG lesson that will take me time to master, but I’m hoping that I can begin to connect with my students more and encourage them to make the most of school.