As Dr. Z posted a while back, we have been experimenting with Schoology. Overall I have to say I really like it.
This week I have been tweaking how I ask kids to respond in the discussion platform. I like Schoology’s platform, it makes it really easy for me to monitor the discussion and I can follow along without much extra effort. However, I run into the same problem that many others do, which is that the online discussion becomes
…over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.
So, a great description of what happens that we DON’T want to happen. The passage is from a post by a grad school colleague of mine (Jesse Stommel, who along with others, writes about pedagogy from the University perspective at hybridpedagogy.com). I really liked how they continued the ‘farming’ metaphor:
With the right teacher and engaged students, discussion in the classroom includes carefully cultivated spontaneity, more akin to an organic garden. Online discussion forums require the same careful attention and engagement, the same understanding of when to train and prune and when to allow things to take their own course, flourish in their own way, on their own time. And in order for that to happen, the technology must make room for that spontaneity.
‘Organinc garden’ is exactly what we are hoping for, in class and out. And I really like the ‘cultivation’ part of the metaphor.
As I play with the Schoology platform, I find that it has made it easier for me to ‘cultivate’ this particular garden.
The social media style ‘like’ button is a useful way for me to respond quickly, and the threaded discussion format allows me to jump in at any point in the conversation. Because it is easy, I find my self doing so more regularly.
I also made a change to my students instructions for discussion posts. They always have a prompt, and some reading, to which they are required to respond. And while their responses are sometime insightful, they do often have the perfunctory tone described above.
This week, in addition to reading and them posting, I required them to also respond to a colleague’s post. Suddenly there was an explosion of dialogue. People responded in unexpected ways, and as the conversation developed, new posts were clearly informed by the earlier conversation, instead of existing in their own hermetically sealed (manufactured) container.
Was it perfect? Of course not. But it gave me a clue about direction. And, it improved my ability to coach the students in the skills of dialogue, which is something they need to be taught (it doesn’t magically appear, strangely). So I’ll be working on ‘cultivating’ in this arena as we move through the course.
This video was posted by a teacher friend this week. It’s Japanese (by Takuya Okada, from 2011, judging by the youtube channel), and from a bit of peripheral reading I picked up that it was inspired by conversations in Japan around the connection between inordinate pressure to succeed in school and the high suicide rate among Japanese school children. A light topic for Saturday morning. But a really interesting video statement on the subject.
As it happens, I teach an interdisciplinary class for honors students where a bit of media like this might make for a good conversation. I really had no idea how they would respond. I was happy to discover that they actually found it quite alien. As we discussed it they did draw some connection to the level of stress they sometimes feel as high performing students, but other aspects, such as the way students were depicted as being unable to speak, did not resonate with them at all. We had quite a conversation about how to interpret the end of the film. Is it positive? Not so much? Leave a comment below if you want to weigh in, and I’ll take your thoughts back to my students.
As much as we may feel our system doesn’t meet the needs of our students, this film did show me that it could be worse. The system depicted in the film is devoid of, and uninterested in, creativity and exploration.
We (at The Papergraders) are fortunate. We operate with a great degree of autonomy and encouragement to innovate. There is a lot of conversation in our building about how to teach creativity and critical thinking. I didn’t think twice about showing this film as a discussion starter in class. I know others are not so lucky. The truth is that the driving factor in our freedom is socio-economic status, but I’m grateful to have that luxury. The fact that not every school and teacher has the freedoms we do is one of the things that keeps us fired up. And keeps us writing.
I just got my school pictures back in my mailbox at school. Lifetouch does ours, they probably do yours too. Along with the two free 4x6s that each teacher gets every year (they do our school IDs), was the following:
I nearly had an aneurism. The ‘Welcome’ sign is cute idea. I might even use it. But putting my face (and all my colleagues’ faces) on a ‘Testing’ sign actually pissed me off. Testing is a political function unrelated to the judgement of actual educators. There is a considerable body of evidence that current testing regimes a) fail completely to achieve what they claim to have been intended to achieve, and b) produce net negative learning as well as actual and measurable harm to children.
To put my face on that sign is offensive. As a part of my job I do administer testing, but that is distinct from my professional judgements concerning testing, and this sign definitely would imply a position I do not hold, were I to use it, which I NEVER will.
Lifetouch is not an education company in any way. They make money by taking pictures of school children. And I know that some well meaning functionary of corporate bureaucracy made this decision (I checked- this was not requested by the school). But it evidences a total lack of awareness of real issues in education to do this. The ‘Welcome’ sign was a cute idea- you should have stopped there Lifetouch. Now we know how ignorant you are.
I was asked that question back at the beginning of the year. “Are you doing workshop?” The follow up questions usually revolve around something like ‘how will you fit it in?’ or ‘what will you not do?’ These questions reveal an understanding of ‘Workshop’ which is at odds with what is, or what it should be.
Workshop is not content. It is not skills. It is not the standards (insert local interpretation here). It is not texts, assignments, assessments or any other ‘thing’ that needs to be scheduled around. It displaces nothing. It does not entail changing your goals for your students in any way.
Workshop is a pedagogical stance, which suggests certain methodology in the classroom. This is independent of the standards, content or learning outcomes in any particular course. Any learning outcome can be taught using Workshop.
Mr. B articulated it really well a while ago. He said, “workshop is when we spend our time DOING what we’re learning instead of TALKING about what we’re learning.” If we’re learning something about writing, we write and experiment with it. If we’re learning something about reading, we read things that contain or demonstrate that thing.
I just finished a book called The Music Lesson by the bassist Victor Wooten (I have an alternative life as a musician). It is a very Carlos Castaneda/Dan Millman (if you know those writers) book, focusing on learning music as a spiritual pursuit. In it, the ‘teacher’ Michael, says repeatedly to the ‘student,’ “I can’t teach anyone anything, but I can show you things, and you can learn them by trying them.” That’s a great statement on workshop. If I talk at my students about writing they won’t really learn much about writing. If they write, they will.
Which brings us to the role of the teacher in workshop. As it happens, there is a role for the teacher. I do know something about writing and reading. And I know some things about how students learn. But if all I do is talk about what I know, there will be limited learning. And, if all that happens is that my students try stuff, without availing themselves of what I know, their learning will also be limited, though I would venture that it will still be better than my talking.
It’s the blending of the two that makes workshop really effective. In That Workshop Book by Samantha Bennett, she describes workshop as a cycle of mini-lesson, worktime and debrief. Her rough guide is that in a 50 minute period (which is about where we live most of the time), there would be 10 minutes of mini-lesson, thirty minutes of worktime, and a ten minute debrief. As a rough ratio I think that works pretty well.
Using Wooten’s idea of ‘showing,’ that gives me about ten minutes to show students something (a writing technique, a reading tactic, a strategy for revision), thirty minutes for them to try it with me looking over shoulders, answering questions, redirecting and all that other teacher stuff I do (which often is the REAL teacher stuff), and ten minutes for us to debrief, share, recap and look ahead. Bennett makes the point that the ‘mini-lesson’ doesn’t necessarily have to be a lesson either. It could be giving directions, stimulating them with a topic, having them do something in preparation. But it’s SHORT. So that they can get busy doing. And note that my job while they are doing doesn’t stop, anymore than a coach would. I am in there with them, often ‘doing’ the same thing as a model, often playing coach and helping them through the doing.
In that cycle, I cannot imagine much I could not teach. Doing a long term project? Scaffold it into parts, make the parts mini-lessons, and string them together. Reading a novel? Map out what reading skills you need to teach, break them into mini-lessons based on selections from the text, focus on specific passages as practice for students. Teaching them writer’s conferences- do a demo with a student or colleague, provide them with directions, let them do it. In each example, repeat the same cycle- mini-lesson, worktime, debrief.
Understood like that, ‘workshop’ is a constructivist pedagogy applicable pretty much anywhere. It displaces nothing. It does require that teachers focus more on what their students are actually learning than what teachers are ‘covering.’ But just because you said something in front of students does not mean that they learned it. Workshop focuses us on what students actually learn. And so what I do in class becomes much less important than what they do.
Many others have pointed out that being truly student focused means disposing of a lot of what we traditionally ‘cover,’ and focusing on key skills and knowledge that students need to do what we expect them to do (Marzano, Hattie and Romano pop immediately to mind), then watching closely (Bennett calls it ‘listening’) to see if students do or do not get there. Workshop leaves lots of time for students to work through challenges at their own pace, time for teachers to support students individually, and in my experience produces more actual learning and enjoyment than my talking- and I’m a good talker!
The takeaway here is the big part in the middle that involves students doing things. If your classroom revolves around students actually trying the things you want them to do- in class, every day, in meaningful ways- then you are probably doing workshop, or something pretty close.
If students only ‘do’ when they go home at night, and most of your class time is filled with your voice, then you aren’t. What you’re trying to teach doesn’t really make a difference.
I’m writing this post for entirely selfish purposes.
Tonight is back-to-school night, and I need to get my head around what I want to say. Things are different in my classroom this year in some pretty significant ways. I’m all workshop (finally!). I’m not giving them grades until the end of the semester (now for the 4th semester–read about my gradeless journey here). I’m on Schoology for the first time.
So that’s my list I think of what I need to share with parents in the ten minutes I get with each group (parents run through a mini-version of their child’s schedule). But what do I want to say about these things?
Resources: I’ll show parents how to find resources and information about my class–on my school webpage that parents have access to (including this document that I’ve written just for parents).
Grades: I’ll refer them to this document on my school webpage and talk about why I don’t put grades on individual assignments but focus on feedback instead.
Schoology: I’ll show them the Schoology page for their student’s class and point out where the critical resources are (like where to find info on assignments and where to go to see what happened in class if absent). I’ll invite them to ask their student to take them on a tour and let them know that I can get them parent access codes for the course if they want to have their own direct access.
Workshop: I don’t have a huge amount of time for all of this information, so I need to figure out what one bit of info will give the parents the best vision of what this means. I think the portfolio is the answer (freshmen, seniors) because this will help me to communicate that students have lots of choices about their work but it’s all held together by the what the portfolio will ask them to have completed by the end of the semester.
Reading: I’ll tell parents that they should expect their students to always have a book going for my class. Right now the seniors are reading Into the Wild. Right now the freshmen are reading choice books.
Flexible attendance: This is an issue for my seniors only, but in a few weeks we will move to our flexible attendance model where Fridays are optional for students who are totally on top of their work. We’ve been doing this for several years and have found it helps us to better differentiate the course for our students. What I need to tell parents is why we do the flexible attendance thing and that it’s perfectly fine for them to check the box on the parent letter that says “no, I do not want my student to have the option to attend on optional days,” no matter what their child says.
And this goes without saying but I always start by telling them how awesome their children and how much fun I’m having already getting to know them. And I always end with an invitation to keep in touch and information about how to get in contact with me.
How do you spend your 10 minutes with parents on back-to-school night?
Phones–these little devices make me crazy. Last spring, my students could not keep their hands off of them. The combination of senioritis and Snapchat became potent. I felt powerless against it. I even got my own Snapchat account to figure out if there was any way I could make it work in class somehow (if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em?). (I still haven’t quite figured that out–my Snapchat account has become the place where my 12 year old daughter sends me goofy pictures of the fur children with mustaches drawn upon them when she’s actually supposed to be doing her homework.)
The phone distractions got so bad last year that I tried something new. I found an inexpensive green plastic box in my house and wrote on one side in Sharpie, “Phones” and on the other “Can’t ignore your phone, eh?” I announced to my students that if I noticed they were having a difficult time not being distracted by their phones, I would walk the box over to them and collect their phones. I even started class by inviting anyone who anticipated the phone would be too distracting on a given day to go ahead and drop it in the box (some did!).
This worked for a few days, but then it just got really annoying for me. It put me in this place where I was the one monitoring their phone use and deciding when they were too distracted. They were hiding their phones from me.
And then one day in early May, the phone box went missing. I heard nothing until I got mentioned in a Tweet from a mysterious Twitter account, @BoxTheif (note the misspelling!):
Donuts for all slcc classes or the box endures serious pain. @DocZerwin
SLCC stands for Senior Literature, Composition, and Communication, the year-long course I teach for seniors to get them ready for life and college and whatever comes next for them after graduation. The boxnapper wanted donuts for all three of my classes in exchange for the safe return of the phone box. I did not reply to this demand, so the next day there were a couple more Tweets, this time with pictures. I DID respond to these:
I found the whole thing horribly clever and hilarious. I had a suspicion about who the boxnapper was–confirmed the day I told the whole class about the Twitter account (they too found it hilarious). I pointed out the misspelling and the suspected student put his head in his hands.
Despite how entertaining this all was, it definitely gave me some things to think about. The phone box was not the right approach to address the problem that my students’ phones had become. It wasn’t really working anyhow. Things that students see as valuable and useful don’t usually become targets for their shenanigans. So when this ornery senior needed an outlet for his intense desire to pull a senior prank (something very seriously discouraged at our school with threats of not being able to walk at graduation), he took advantage of a moment where I had to step into the hall to speak with a colleague, and he made off with the phone box.
You may be thinking that I should have taken a zero tolerance approach–take the phones, turn them into the office, call the parents, whatever it takes. This is not my style, and I really don’t think it serves our students either.
Smartphones give students access to all of human knowledge basically–why on earth would I want to restrict that from them in my classroom?
As distracting as these devices can be, we do not help our students to learn how to manage that distraction if we take the hard line, zero tolerance approach.
I also advise the newspaper at my school, and we started a new tradition last year. The editors-in-chief end up staying late after school several afternoons a year to finalize the pages for the print newsmagazine they publish. By the time they upload the files to the company that prints for us, they are hungry and tired. So we started going to the Noodles and Company down the street to celebrate getting another issue completed and to have a planning meeting for the time ahead. The first time we did this, we claimed a booth and one of the editors-in-chief announced, “family dinner!” This prompted them all to take out their phones and stack them in the middle of the table. They looked at me to make it clear they expected my phone to join theirs in the stack too. Hence, we were all present for each other for the meal and the conversation.
My husband (who teaches at my same school and blogs about teaching science at Mr. Dr. Science Teacher) had tried something similar in his class for his lab groups to keep everyone focused on the work at hand and not distracted by their phones. I wondered if this might be a solution for my classroom.
I had a few concerns–if I asked my students to get out their phones at the start of class and place them in the middle of their pod of desks where everyone could see them, what about the students who don’t have phones? I always have a few in every class. Would they feel like I was drawing attention to something that they don’t have and maybe wish they did? And would students compare their phones? Would it be uncomfortable for the student with the old school flip phone to see it sitting there, possibly surrounded by a shiny iPhone 6 or two or three?
These concerns are valid for sure, but I decided to try the family dinner approach anyhow. I want to place the value on helping my students to manage the devices that will likely be a part of their lives for a while. I want to emphasize to my students that when they choose to engage in interaction via their phones with others who aren’t in the same physical space as they are, they impact the people who are in their immediate physical space. In short, it’s rude to be distracted by your phone when you need to be present with people–at the family dinner table, in the classroom, wherever your presence as a human being is required. And if students choose to not be fully present in the classroom, they are choosing to learn less. It hurts them individually too.
I started the very first day of school (and have started every day since) with three mindful breaths all together (our building has a grant from the Department of Education this year to teach our students mindfulness) and then this, “Thank you for putting your phone out where we can all see that it is not distracting you, and if you don’t have a phone on you today that’s awesome–you don’t have to fight the distraction.”
With this, I remind my students that they need to be present and focused on what we are doing in class, focused on being a part of a small response-group community (they sit with their groups every day).
With this, I acknowledge the devices that so much of their lives revolve around rather than making them taboo in my classroom space. If phones are not taboo, students are less likely to be sneaky with them.
With this, I am able to have meaningful conversations with them about when it makes sense to use their phones. “Can I grab my phone to make a note about that?” “Can I grab my phone to look something up?” “Do you mind if I step in the hall to text my mom? I need to get word to her about what’s happening after school.”
With this, I make the phone issue a community issue. They are accountable to each other for their presence or distraction in my class. They ask me and each other in their groups if it’s ok to use a phone for something, rather than just mindlessly doing whatever comes to mind on their phones like is so easy for all of us to do.
What I love best about this is that I can see all of their phones and I know that they are not using them. All the phones in the room are in plain sight. Their hands are not on them. My students are not hiding their phones under the desk or in their huge purses on top of their desk or behind a book or under their writer’s notebook. I’m no longer policing their phones, a role I really don’t find useful in any way. The phones are close enough for them to grab and use if they need them for a valid reason–I want my students making notes in their phones about their homework or using apps to keep organized or looking up answers to questions or checking looking at Schoology so they can use the resources I’ve posted there. And sometimes I use tools like Poll Everywhere which requires their phones. I think this family dinner approach with the phones is emphasizing those uses of their devices rather than the distracting Snapchat/Instagram-type uses.
How do you address the phone issue in your class? And has anyone found a useful way to use Snapchat in the classroom?
I’ve been pretty quiet for the last year or so. As I posted back then, I was in a program to get my administrative license, and as a part of that process I ended up serving a year as the Dean of Students for our school last year. Which was a departure for office 831. That was an incredible challenging, interesting, exhausting and illuminating…and I’m REALLY glad it’s over.
To be clear, I had the chance to work with a amazing team, all of whom were incredibly kind and patient with me. I was allowed to do the work in a way that seemed to fit me and feel like the right approach, and I think I did a decent job. I even ended up with my admin license. But I really didn’t like it.
Which is especially clear to me now that I’m back in the classroom.
I’m back teaching 9th grade for the first time in ten years.
I’m back teaching Theory of Knowledge for the first time in five years.
I’m not in office 831. Okay, so it’s not ALL rosy. But I’m right down the hall.
I have a student teacher this semester.
I don’t carry a radio.
I’mmmmm sooooooooo haaaaaaaaappppppppyyyyyyyyyy.
I like being a teacher. I’m glad I had that learning experience. It will be meaningful in how I deal with students. I’m even glad I had some time away from the classroom for the first time in 13 years. I will do some writing this year about last year and I may share some of that writing here. Some of it will be funny. Some will not. Really not.
But mostly I just want to say a joyful hello to my students, and to you, our readers.
We have the 9th graders in the building tomorrow for orientation. Then everyone on Friday.
Well, I’m not actually ready in terms of lesson plans sketched out in detail and copies made and seating charts ready to go.
But I’m ready for the school year. Ready to meet my students. Ready to put into practice the things I figured out this summer in my thinking and writing. Ready to work with colleagues to figure out how to make each other’s classrooms awesome.
I’m ready to see those 2-dimensional photos in Infinite Campus become the 3-dimensional people that I will get to spend 180 days with between now and the end of May.
I’m ready for walks around the lake in the park below our school, talking and thinking with my colleagues, watching the leaves change and fall, the snow cover the grass, the flowers poking out of the earth, the baby leaves to emerge. I’m ready for the seasons of a high school: back to school, homecoming, Halloween, hoping for snow days (but never getting them), final exams, winter break, a new semester, hoping for snow days (but never getting them), spring break, seniors counting down to graduation, finals, summer!
I’m ready for cool fall football fields, loud basketball gyms, soccer fields. I’m ready for seeing the stage full of the singing/dancing/acting talent that walks our halls. I’m ready for hearing from our house the marching band practice in the evenings, the cadence of the drums rumbling off the houses.
I’m ready to see the school full of the human beings that are the whole reason we exist. We do it all for them. For them collectively and for them each as individuals. We do it to help them become who they are, to help them imagine what their future could be, to support them as they move toward that future, to challenge them to be better, to insist that they are kind, to listen, to understand, to watch carefully to figure out how to invite them each to think like writers and readers or scientists or mathematicians or musicians or historians or linguists or artists.
All the meetings over the last week, all the hours spent reviewing legal expectations, safety guidelines, concussion protocols, the intervention pipeline, the next steps of the strategic plan, teacher evaluation, curricular changes…we’ve taken notes, listened, asked questions, laughed, caught up, told stories about our summer adventures, welcomed new colleagues, smiled for our new staff IDs, figured out the new iteration of the grade book, gone out to lunch (so civilized!)…
But now it’s time to fill the building with the students.
I’ve been putting off this post, even at one point thought I could just not write it. But I must–this is the weak link in my classroom. I have umpteen ideas and plans about how to help my students become more engaged writers. I’m already building lesson plans in my head. I’m imagining my future students (whom I’ll meet next Friday) as writers, composing powerful texts that means something to them as human beings. (By the way, this is the third and final in a series about the feedback I collected from my students at the end of last year–see here for my post on what my students had to say about how my class helped them as writers and here for my post on what they had to say about the digital tools we used.)
The reading piece, though, flummoxes me a bit. The default for high school ELA teachers is what we’ve experienced as students ourselves: the college professor chose the book, we all read it and came to class ready to discuss, and then we wrote papers about the book. But honestly, I was able to be successful in this model of an English class without actually reading the books. You need only pay close attention to the teacher’s interpretation and there you go–everything you need to say in an essay or on an exam.
I want more as a reading experience for my students. I have always wanted more for my students. And I’ve made important movement away from that more traditional model. There are some important things to achieve through a group of people all reading a book together, so my students and I read one book together each semester and then they choose their own independent reading texts. Those choices are guided by a semester-long research project wherein they are pursuing an answer to an essential question–the one for our class as a whole and related questions they each develop on their own. They present their findings from their reading in their final project presentations. And I’ve been conferencing with them about their reading and keeping rich data on those conversations. This is all great.
But I’m definitely not quite there yet. For teaching writing, I have writing invitations and focus lessons and revision activities galore. For teaching reading, well, I don’t have as much. So far it’s been time to read mostly that I’ve given my students, and choice about what to read, and a dialogue space with me to talk about the reading. These things are working, but not as well as I want them to toward creating the engaged readers I want to send out into the world beyond my classroom.
What helped your growth as a reader? (percent of students who said it helped)
reading books on my own that I chose: 79%
time to read in class: 54%
reading books together as a class: 54%
reading at least 2 hours per week: 48%
whole class discussions about reading: 45%
conferencing with Doc Z about your reading: 42%
weekly reading update form: 28%
book talks from the librarian: 23%
writing about the reading in writer’s notebooks: 18%
your response group: 14%
tracking your growth toward reading standards you selected: 11%
I love that at the top of the list here is “reading books on my own that I chose.” Nearly 80% of my students said that helped their growth as readers (and only 4% of them identified that as something that didn’t help their growth as readers). This choice reading is so key to creating engaged readers in the high school classroom. And not choice reading as “outside” reading as it often becomes, but choice reading as a centerpiece of the classroom, as THE place where students are doing the lion share of their reading for a course. It’s been a challenge to figure out how to make choice reading that central, and for me it works when I’ve got a long-term research task for a semester that requires students’ choice reading to complete. That provides a focus for title selection, a reason to keep going, and a forum for sharing what they discovered through their reading with their classmates. When I choose all the books and we read them all together at the same pace, it does not place reading at the center of students’ lives as human beings. It places reading as something done to students by a class/teacher and they just need to survive it any way they can (I’m speaking from my own experiences as a student here). I’d rather that my students develop lives as readers, and this means they need to make important choices about what they read.
Next on the list is the reading time–54% of my students said the time provided in class to read helped their growth as readers (and only 4% of them identified that as something that did not help their growth as readers). I will continue this. Students learn to value what we spend time in class doing. If reading is important, than we should prove it by reserving precious class time for it. Last year it was one day a week of silent reading. This year it will be 10 minutes every day plus one reading workshop day. This day will sometimes be silent reading of independent book choices and will sometimes be collective reading of shorter shared texts with discussion and explicit instruction in reading strategies. Yes, high school students still need explicit instruction in reading strategies.
As I said above, there are important things to gain from a group of people reading a book together, and 54% of my students identified that the two times we did that did indeed help them as readers. We’ll continue this–first semester we’ll start with Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Second semester we’ll start with a selection of novels and the class will either choose one to all read together or we’ll break into groups and read them in book groups. I will have to wait and see what seems best for my classes. A similar percentage of students (48%) indicated that having to read two hours per week outside of class helped them grow as readers and only 9% of them said it did not help them as readers. I think it’s important to have some sort of expectation out there about how much they should be reading outside of school. I have the same expectation for myself–more than two hours though. And I talk with them about the things I need to do to carve out the time. Less Facebook, for instance, gives me more time to read.
Forty-five percent of my students said that whole-class discussions of reading helped them grow as readers. This is something we’ll keep doing, but this tells me I could do a better job at making this more effective. I think that my new-found dedication to the workshop structure each and every day (mini lesson, work time, share time) will help because it will make me more intentional about our purpose each day. When we get to the share time on a reading workshop day, students should be primed and ready to talk after the mini lesson sets them up for what they need to focus on in the reading time.
Forty-two percent of my students said that reading conferences with me helped them as readers. Seems kind of low, but only 10% of them said they didn’t help at all. I really grew to look forward to these conversations with students about their reading. I used a google form to collect thoughts on each conference so that I could build a database of students’ reading experiences throughout the year and track their growth. This I will continue, but I think I’ll simplify the form so it works faster for me–I want to focus on the conversation, not on filling out the form, as I’m talking to my students. One thing I will keep on the form though is a question about whether or not they got their two hours of reading in during the past week. It’s important to check in with students about these kinds of expectations and help them problem solve if they’re having a difficult time finding the space to read.
The last few things on the list–book talks from the librarian, writing about reading in writer’s notebooks, response groups, and tracking learning toward reading standards–didn’t get a very glowing review from my students. I need to think about these things. The writer’s notebooks and response groups are two things that I will focus on much more intentionally this next year–they were both things that came up rated lower than I had hoped in my students’ feedback on what helped their growth as writers as well. And as for the book talks from the librarian–the point of that was to get possible titles in front of students so they would always have lists of books they wanted to read. There are other ways we can accomplish this–maybe even some sort of student database of books they read and recommend to each other. I could look at Goodreads for this. I’ve done this with a Google Form in the past and I can’t remember why I stopped doing that.
Here are my students’ responses to my question about what didn’t help their growth as readers–I’ve already discussed much of this above so I’ll mostly just put it here for you to see in case you’re curious:
What didn’t help your growth as a reader? (percent of students who said it didn’t help)
your response group 51%
weekly reading update form: 34%
tracking your growth toward the reading standards you chose: 32%
book talks from the librarian: 30%
writing about reading in writer’s notebooks: 30%
reading books together as a class: 24%
whole-class discussions about reading: 16%
conferencing with Doc Z about your reading: 10%
reading for at least 2 hours per week: 9%
reading books on my own that I chose: 4%
time to read in class: 4%
So here’s what I’ve learned: reading went okay last year, but I can improve on how I help my students grow as readers. To do this I will continue with choice reading AND whole-class reading, time to read in class, the expectation of at least two hours a week outside of class reading, and reading conferences. I’ll think about some new ways to get book title options in front of students more frequently and will be more intentional about writer’s notebook work and building response groups where students support each other as readers. I’ll work to be more focused on reading days to provide purpose and structure to conversations we’ll have as a class about our reading. Hopefully this will all help me toward my goal of helping my students to cultivate fuller lives as readers.
Our school district just adopted Schoology as our official learning management system. When I first heard this news I thought, “I’m so set with how I use Google sites and drive and docs to manage my courses that I don’t think I’ll need Schoology.” But then some colleagues whom I respect said some good things about Schoology, and I know the people in IT who made this decision and trust that they think it’s a decent resource, so I started to explore Schoology to see how I could use it in my classroom.
Here’s the thing: technology evolves and so must I. And ever since I made the jump from overhead projectors and transparencies to PowerPoint slides projected from my computer, my thinking about technology remains the same. I use technology only if it allows me to do something important I cannot do without it. Sometimes the chalk board is literally the perfect tech tool for the job. In the case of PowerPoint, I could work more efficiently in designing slides rather than overhead transparencies, I could keep from getting overhead marker ink on my hands, and the slides engaged my students more effectively than what I had on the transparencies. It was technology that allowed me to do some important things that I could not do without it.
One of the best examples of a technology application that allows me to do something I cannot do without it is using Google Docs for writing. The collaborative nature of a Google Doc makes it possible for a student and I (and peers who read and respond) to engage in a conversation in the margins of a piece of writing. All of my feedback and the discussion we have about it is preserved right there on the document. Revision history shows the evolution of the piece of writing from the very first letters typed on the page. And suggesting mode makes it so easy for me to see the changes my students make as they revise. Google Docs is indispensable for me as a teacher of writing. I will never go back to dealing with writing on paper, with multiple drafts stapled together, with having to carry stacks of papers to and from school. Students can’t lose papers anymore (there’s no physical paper to lose or floppy disk to become corrupted or flash drive to disappear…) and my students and I will be able to see exactly what has happened to a particular piece of writing from beginning to end through the writing process and several iterations of feedback and revision. Powerful.
Since those early years of my teaching career (I’m now starting year 19) when PowerPoint seemed so sparkly and new, my technology tools have evolved significantly. Google’s apps shifted the landscape completely. I was religious about keeping a lesson plan book for years. I used the traditional teacher’s plan book with the grid for each week to do my week-by-week planning and wrote more detailed daily plans in a spiral that I kept at my side constantly. Once I set up a Google Site, where daily plans showed up in the “what happened in class” page so students could easily see what we did if absent, I stopped writing my daily lesson plans in a spiral–it felt redundant. I simply taught off of my lesson plan posted on the website each day–where I could link to the resources I needed for that day and students could access everything later as needed.
And because google documents were hyperlinkable, all of the resources I created for my students could be available on my website as links. This way, if I updated the document in my google drive, the link to it from my website would take the student to that updated version. This was a huge efficiency for me.
I loved how the Google Site was infinitely customizable. Over five years, I built and used a site that became not only my daily teaching tool, but a rich archive of all of the materials I had created during those years. Resources lived in my Google Drive and I used my Google Site to link to them and make them accessible to my students.
These powerful tools changed everything. And I imagined that I would never step away from my Google Site.
But it’s time. Schoology allows me to do more that I cannot do without it.
Years ago while working on my master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I remember vividly the first time I went to the graduate library. I knew that the library housed the largest collection of a public university in our country, so I was intrigued to see it for myself. Only graduate students are permitted to enter (if undergrads need books that live there, they submit the call number at the desk and someone goes to get the book for them), and the first room you go into is massive. I walked around looking for what I needed, but something was amiss. It seemed that there were gaps in the call numbers–not everything seemed to be there. But then I noticed a big door near the back, and I headed toward it. Very slowly I began to realize that the room I had entered was essentially an anteroom. It housed only new arrivals or something… (can’t remember exactly which books lived there or why). Beyond it were (I think) nine floors of books, nine floors of moveable book cases in order to make the very most of every inch of floor space. This creeping feeling slowly took over me–the library was far more massive than I had imagined, and I stood at the doorway to it, ready to slowly and carefully make my way into the stacks to find the books I needed to form the theoretical underpinning of my master’s thesis.
I tell you this story because from what I’ve learned thus far about Schoology, I feel like I’m standing in another anteroom at the doorway to a much larger landscape with resources I can only barely glimpse and imagine from where I am right now. Schoology will permit me to do everything I’ve used my Google Site for–posting daily lesson plans, linking to resources, posting everything students need to complete the work for my class. But it will do this in a fully socially networked space, one that students will be familiar with pretty much instantly because it functions much like other social network spaces, and one that has the potential to connect my students and me to the world beyond our school in ways not possible without Schoology. I can use Schoology as home base for a PLC with teachers across the country, for example. I can share resources with teachers in Mississippi or Ohio or Alaska. Students can see on ONE PAGE all of their work, current and upcoming for all of their classes, and can post questions to teachers and classmates right there. I can post assignments of many types: quizzes (with instant feedback to students about how they did), discussions–and it will keep track for me of who has completed things and who has not. All of these are huge efficiencies that will enable me to spend more time responding to students and planning instruction to respond to their needs. There is potential here for rich, engaging, interactive work for students too.
At first I thought I would still keep up my Google Site as home base for my classroom and just use Schoology to link to the resources there, but I have known for a while that my Site is cluttered and visually overwhelming to some students. There’s more there than they need. Moving things to Schoology is forcing me to identify exactly what students need so I can have everything there in one place for them, archived for them to find it easily, and in a space where they can send me questions at the moment they have them. Schoology will enable me to work faster and smarter, able to better individualize my instruction for my students.
So I’m totally jumping ship. Well not totally. I’m not abandoning the powerful google apps that I use for teaching writing, collecting student data, and creating resources for my students (google docs, drive, slides, forms). And a Google Site is still the choice for our department’s new grade 9-12 digital portfolio. We built a template and filled with the Common Core State Standards, where students can collect their work across four years. There are portfolios within Schoology, but not something that my department can structure with a common template for all students so they all have the same pieces from year to year. And I will maintain my google site that’s about me, my professional home base as a teacher.
But Schoology will become my new home base for my classroom, and I can’t wait to see where it takes my students and me. I’m just peeking through the door right now–aware of the tremendous potential but not totally understanding how it all works. So I will just walk in, slowly, carefully, and see what I can find and learn.