Why Student Feedback Makes Teachers Better

First, I want to say thanks for all of my new followers here on my blog. I am trying hard to write more this school year. It is hard to believe my third week of school is over already.

This year as a staff we decided we wanted to follow a universal format for our students to write summaries. I presented the idea last year to our staff and it was accepted with open arms by everyone. To me, this was another proving point for me that as language arts teachers we need to be willing to reach across the isle and help other colleagues who aren’t so comfortable teaching students reading and writing skills. We decided to follow a format called TDPP, which comes from Get It Done! Writing and Analyzing Informational Texts to Make Things Happen by Jeff Wilhelm, Michael Smith, and Jim Fredricksen.

T – Cite the Topic

D – What are the key Details

P – How are the details are Patterned

P – What is the Point made about the topic of those patterned details

 

The social studies teacher and I have been working closely together to help students become better readers and writers over the past year by doing article of the week, working on a Civil War Research paper together and just making sure we are on the same page when it comes to teaching our students reading strategies. Working together has been phenomenal and because of our collaboration, our students are learning more and becoming better readers and writers.

This year as the TDPP process was being reintroduced to our 8th graders, who have already seen it for a year, the Social Studies teacher had a great conversation with the students about how to make the process easier and the students gave some remarkable feedback that was shared with me. As we discussed our students feedback on the process, it occurred to us that we needed to make some changes in the process and our approach to teaching it to help our students be more successful when writing summaries. Below are the changes that we made.

T – Cite the Topic

M – Describe the Main Ideas that support the topic (3 main idea sentences for 8th grade, advance 7th graders as the year progresses)

P –  Explain what Point is being made by the main ideas

P – Wrap-uP sentence

We made the changes because the 8th graders vocalized that they were getting confused with the Details part of the TDPP process as well as the last two P’s because they almost felt they were the same. Now, we didn’t want students copying down specific details from the articles they are reading so we changed the D to an M. When discussing this with students it was helpful to talk about a grocery list and how we write down what we want, which are main ideas, but we don’t write down specific brands, which are details. It helped the students make the difference between the two.

To us, we felt the students were taking charge of their learning and we were moved by the fact they were asking questions, engaged, and willing to take an active role in their education. This reflection and feedback not only allowed our students to perform better on a concept that can at times be difficult for even college students to write, but it gave us insight into how we were teaching the students and it made us better teachers.

Personally, I am really excited how much the 8th graders have grown and retained from last year. I am excited to see where the year takes us!

 

 

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Have I Failed?

For the last two weeks I have been struggling with my 8th graders when it comes to writing. It all came to a head for me last week when I asked one of my 8th graders to give me the definition of a sentence and they couldn’t.  Then, after they understood what a sentence was, they couldn’t determine what was wrong with the thesis statement they had written.  The clause read “How there are similarities and differences.” They believed it was a sentence.  The sentence situation was only the beginning.

This past weekend I was going over outlines for a compare/contrast paper they are working on now. Needless to say, they were not meeting my expectations. Poor sentence quality, lack of transitions, and students not knowing how to follow simple guidelines on finishing an appropriate outline.  I instructed the students today that anyone lower than a 9 had to make corrections. I wanted this writing project to take 2 weeks tops.  I am on week 3 due to the poor quality of writing. Ultimately, I am frustrated about the fact my students are content on just turning in a paper or any other assignment and thinking it is just good enough.

Naturally, as I reflect, I start to put blame onto myself.  I had these students as 7th graders. Was I blind to the fact they are in need of some major intervention as writers? Did I let them slide too much last year on their writing assignments?  What has happened? I am starting to think I have failed them.  Other data suggests that I haven’t, but I still feel that way.

Now, because I am noticing more and more deficiencies, I am making some changes. I offer help Tuesday’s and Thursday’s during lunch time. In addition, I am making students redo, redo, redo before we move forward. However, I struggle with moving too slowly and deciding when I have to move forward. Furthermore, I can only get on their cases so much before they start tuning me out and I sound like the Charlie Brown Teacher…”Whant whant, whant!”

I wonder too if our society in general is have an impact on them. Do students notice that mediocrity is okay? Look at our government! They are our biggest models of “it is okay to fail and still get paid for it”.

Anyways, I am not here for a political battle, I just want to know if other middle school or high school teachers encounter some of the same problems I have been enduring for the last 2 weeks.

Cheers!


1 on 1 With Young Writers

Today I spent a considerable amount of time meeting with my students individually about their writing.  While I was doing this, the rest of my students were walking through a checklist making sure they had everything they needed before handing in their final draft for grading.  For the last four years I have dedicated a lot of time to making sure I meet with my students one on one about the major writing assignments they have throughout the year.  I firmly believe my students grow as writers with this instructional practice I have put into place.

Depending on the assignment, the students come prepared to talk to me.  The conference should focus around the student talking about their writing.  Now, I want to provide constructive feedback to my students, but the focus is for the student to talk about their writing. Purdue Owl provides a good resource for teachers interested in  starting one on one writing conferences.

Below are the basics for my writing conferences with my students.

  1. Conference shouldn’t last any longer than 3-4 minutes TOPS
  2. Student finds one specific area in their writing that they want to discuss with me (This may vary depending on the assignment)
  3. Student discusses their strengths in the piece of writing.
  4. Student discusses their weakness in the piece and what they are doing to improve their weakness.

I am in a unique situation where I get to teach both 7th an 8th grade English, which means I see the students for two years.  Writing conferences take time for the students to learn.  On most occasions when I begin writing conferences, the students expect me to do all of the talking.  Modeling the procedure is something I would suggest so students start to understand what their expectations will be during the meeting with them.  Unfortunately, it takes time and for my students it takes 3 or 4 times before they completely have a grasp on the procedure.

Taking time to talk one on one with my students about their writing not only helps my students as writers, but it helps me to build a trusting relationship with my students when it comes to their writing.  In addition, my students and I are talking and they are learning conversation skills that are a crucial life skill.

I am looking forward to seeing the amount of growth in this year’s 7th graders like I am seeing in the 8th graders.

Cheers!

 

 

 


The Power and Questions of Revision

Just over a month ago I was asked to write a chapter for a book dealing with Technology and writing.  Another colleague and I had originally submitted a proposal for the book and our piece was accepted for a different project that spawned from the original proposal.  We declined to use our submitted proposal due to some personal preferences on both our parts as writers. I was relieved because I am co-authoring a book and I could see my life becoming more busy and with school, I knew it would be a challenge.

Just over a month ago I received an email to consider submitting the proposal that was originally submitted. I knew that I would be on my own with writing it and because I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity or back down from any challenge, I said yes! Insert big GULP! I had a week to type a 9-15 page chapter, single space.  Needless to say, I flipped out! I spent a few nights staying up until midnight getting it done.  Once submitted, I knew I was going to have to make some changes and I knew there were plenty of errors in it, but with the timeline given to me I did my best and submitted it for review.

About 3 weeks ago I received the reviews back and I knew it was time to get to work!  On the other hand, I was not expecting to reduce my 15 single paged chapter to be reduced to 8 pages double spaced as requested by the publisher.  I was starting to feel more pressure and the need to scream at the top of my lungs.  To make a long story short, I was able to effectively revise my original submission after some collaboration with great mentor and friend. I was even a day early and only 4 lines over 8 pages. WOOO HOOO!

After giving my brain a rest, I decided to discuss with my 8th graders what I had to do.  Their jaws dropped down to the ground. I actually had them do a quick write on it.  I asked them what would they do if they were in my shoes. Many of their responses were entertaining, from giving up hope to reducing the font down to 8, I laughed with sincerity at all of their silly responses.

Though I might have received some off the wall answers, when it came down to it, I was pleased with some of the serious replies they gave me.  Below are a list of suggestions my students had.

  • Go back and look at the requirements and decide what is most important.
  • Get rid of fluff or filler
  • Find what is more important and focus on making that better.
  • Record yourself reading the chapter and listen to it.  Decide where to cut based on recording.

There were other responses, but I continued to challenge my student’s thinking.  I posed three questions to them.

  1. How do writers, such as yourselves, determine what details are more important?
  2. What is classified as “filler” in a piece of writing?
  3. How do I determine that I need to reorganize or move things in my writing?

These were questions that my students struggled to answer.  I feel they are higher order thinking questions.  Often, at this time of year, 8th graders aren’t in the mood to think.  Nonetheless, I had a job to do and I wanted them to think.  Many students talked about going back to requirements/guidelines/rubrics to help determine what was more important.  In terms of moving sentences or chunks around, they struggled a bit with the question.

What this solidifies for me is that revision is not an easy process. Students in general have the misconception that revision is nothing more than fixing spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc.  This is not the case!  Those items I mentioned are part of editing, not revising.

Revision is a difficult task to master and it takes time to understand what quality revision actually looks like.  For middle school students, they want nothing more than to complete the assignment and get it handed in.  The one strategy I found to be effective is to walk through my writing and talk through my thought process with my students so they can see what my thinking is and why I choose to move parts or eliminate them all together.  In order for our students to feel comfortable and motivated to revise their writing, we as teacher need to be comfortable with our own writing and be willing to show our students how we struggle with our own writing from day to day. I feel it is then we start to get our students to understand the power of revision.

Cheers!


Just Hanging Out…and Learning

This week has been crazy to say the least.  On the other hand, it has been phenomenal!

Tuesday, my 2nd hour seventh grade class began an adventure I felt was worth taking.  For quite some time a writing project colleague and myself had discussed having our classes collaborate with each other using Google Hangout.  If you do not have prior knowledge of Google Hangout, it is just that, an online space for people to collaborate via web cams and voice chat, or…hangout!  I believe up to 10 people can chat at the same time. The idea was brought on by our discussions we have had previously about using digital portfolios.  Eventually we decided we wanted our students to collaborate and discuss the myths that each our classrooms were reading and writing along with have the students publish their writing to a broader audience.

As we searched for a common time for our students to meet online, it occurred to us that we needed to introduce our students to each other before we did any real collaboration about the myths.  Each of our classes had written “This I Believe” essays, and we decided we would use these essays as a mean for our students to get to know one another. Because my own students had already written their essays at the beginning of the year, it was a great time for my students to reflect back on their writing to polish it and decide if their beliefs had changed at all.  Furthermore, they needed to understand their writing was going out into the bigger world for people to see and they needed to clean it up before publishing.

Prior to work with the essays, we showed our classes our school websites, discussing  with students what they noticed.  In addition, any questions they might have.  Before our meeting on Tuesday each of our classes composed questions to ask one another.  As we were hanging out, the students went in front of the camera  and asked questions about each other’s school.  For example:

  1. What types of writing have you done this year?
  2. How many students do you have in your middle school?
  3. What sports can you play at your school
  4. What do you do for fun?
  5. Can you choose your own electives in middle school?

After the students took turns asking questions and answering them, we talked with the students about what we were going to do next with them.

As I mentioned earlier, the students are using their “This I Believe Essay”  to get to know each other more. My colleague and I decided we would have the students post their essays on Youth Voices. Youth Voices is an online platform where students can publish their writing where other students can discuss the same topics or issues.  By having the students post here, they could read each other’s essays and respond appropriately.

Youth Voices (youthvoices.net)

Youth Voices (youthvoices.net)

This allows the students to see what beliefs they may have in common or what they may not have in common as well.  Regardless, we feel that our students are now publishing their writing for a broader audience besides their teacher or classmates. Furthermore, they will get feedback that can have the potential to make them better writers in the future.  After our students have posted to Youth Voices and everyone has had a chance to be paired up to respond to at least one other student, we will move forward and participate in doing more live hangouts where our students can discuss myths.

Reflection

Doing something this simple with technology has long lasting impacts on the students from each class.  First, I would like to say our schools are very different when it comes to the dynamics of the number of students and the cultural diversity.  My middle school consists of 120 seventh and eighth graders.  My colleague has just over 500 in the same two grades.  My school consists of about 98% whites where his school has Latinos, Hispanics, Arab, African American, and whites.  With this being said, I felt it was wonderful for my students to be emerged into this type of cultural diversity.  Our students need to learn they will be working with a very diverse culture when they enter the work force.

I was also surprised at how my students “locked up” when it came time to talk on camera.  They were dead silent and if it wasn’t for the fact I had students assigned for each question being asked, I would not have had volunteers.  My students were very shy and I was shocked at this.  In the end, when it came to them talking on camera, they needed to speak up too.  My colleague actually felt his students were rude and too loud.  A concern, I actually thought was going to arise.

Overall, Google Hangout and Youth Voices are great tools, especially ones that can help meet the demands of the Common Core Standards. The ideas behind using the online tools were to:

  • Collaborate
  • Practice communication skills
  • Publish student writing to a broader audience
  • Receive feedback on student writing
  • Become connected with other learners
  • Be exposed to more diversity as is such in the real world

Cheers!


Why Twitter is Valuable in the Classroom

Have you ever looked at the idea of teaching informational writing and thought to yourself it was going to be a struggle to motivate your students?  I honestly used to dread teaching any type of informational writing to my students.  I always felt my students were very disconnected in the informational world of writing.  I have taught compare/contrast, and a straight up expository writing where students had to pick a topic and “explain” it or give information on the topic they chose.

Well, without a doubt it is safe to say I was being a lousy teacher in the past.  Sometimes I wish I could have those days back when I could have done so much more for my students. 

Now, because I can’t change the past,  I won’t dwell on it. Today, my students are exploring several different pieces of informational text.  As mentioned in my last post, my students know informational writing already. I have to give them a lot of credit.  On the other hand, when it came to introducing them to Twitter, they were not so well versed.  Out of the three 7th grade classes I teach I had a total of eight students raise their hand when I asked who had a Twitter account.  This led me to ask them about their use of Twitter and only two of the eight students actually use Twitter at least once a week.  This has led me to do some thinking about social media.  Is the hype over using social media winding down? I believe I even mentioned this in my last post about Facebook.  Students, or at least my students, don’t seem to be connected as much to the social media sites.

Now, my students are well aware of what Twitter is and they know about people following you and you following others. As our discussion progressed we discussed professional uses and business uses of Twitter.  Students came to the understanding that businesses use it because it is free advertising for companies that would otherwise have to pay for commercials, billboards, or magazine ads. They were spot on when we talked about reaching audiences who were technology savy and may do their shopping online.  We even talked about free giveaways (like the one I am having now). 

When it came to the professional use of Twitter, it was a tougher conversation.  Students needed to understand how Twitter can be rich with information that can be valuable to them and adults such as myself.  It is much more than following what Justin Beiber is doing. I shared with my classes who I follow and what I am trying to get out of Twitter. I talked about how it is my professional community where I can obtain resources and information about teaching, education, reading, and writing.

At this point, this is where we discuss the idea of hash-tags and what they are used for on Twitter. For my class, we will be using hash-tags to display items like examples of complex sentences, compound sentences, subordinate clauses, etc.  This will build mentor texts for my students to refer to when they are reading or writing.  In essence I am helping them build their own professional community.  Twitter will also help them build more understanding about being a digital citizen as they follow other classmates and use the community we will build using hash-tags.

Our lessons on Twitter runs about two days.  By the end of the second day I have the students do a paper tweet in their journal practicing the 140 character rule that Twitter has for tweets. Students write about anything from what they did the night before to what they might be doing after school.  Next week, we will start effectively using our hash-tags in class.

Cheers!


Teaching Bad Writing Habits = Bad Writing

It has been almost a month since I have written for my blog. Something had to give with grading papers, writing a book, and trying to spend time with my kids.  So, my blog took a back seat while I tried to keep my nose above water enough to breathe.  I have a lot on my mind to write for my blog, so the next week or two should bring plenty of posts!

I want to begin by addressing a situation I am encountering in the district where I am teaching.  I have been teaching for twelve years and have been with the same district for the past eleven.  I by no means feel I am a know it all when it comes to writing, writing methods, or anything else associated with writing.  However, I did minor in English and have a lot of experience with writing. So, let me get to my point.

Since I have been teaching 7th grade ( two years now), I have been encountering a major problem with my students and their writing.  I spent the better part of three class periods correcting students who started topic sentences with:

  • “I am going to tell you about…”

They followed it with:

  • “Then I will tell you…”

As the students would progress through their writing and bring their paragraphs to a close, they would write a wrap-up sentence that started with:

  • “I just told you about…”

or

  • “Now I have just told you…”

Believe me when I say, I get absolutely livid when I see students writing with the above sentences I have listed. In past years I have learned that the students are being taught this at the elementary level. Before one teacher retired, I approached a teacher who was teaching this to our students and asked them to please try to find a different approach.  The teacher felt it was an attack and basically told me they were not changing how they taught it.

Within the past two years I have seen it more and more and I am at a boiling point.  Our students are not being taught quality writing skills.  At the beginning of the year, I discussed this with the one of the co-chairs of the language arts department to try to find a resolution to the problem. This individual is a writing project consultant and we had a great conversation. The conclusion was made that when the students start their writing careers in the middle school with me, I simply tell the students they are in middle school now and as middle schoolers they do not write that way anymore.  This would eliminate “attacking” any teacher or teachers in the elementary building. Well, I will admit, I was fine with that until this past Friday when I saw an outline given to an elementary student for what appeared to be a position paper about animals.  Within the outline, the students were blatantly told to use those sentences in their paragraphs and told to conclude their writing with the “Now I have just told you” sentence. To top it all off their was a spelling error.  I was beyond furious. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about helping students with structure and giving them guidelines, but that was ridiculous.

I reached this point of frustration because I am spending more time at the beginning of the year with my students trying to fix these  horrible writing habits, instead of moving my students forward with better writing methods. Now, I am trying to turn poor writers into mediocre writers, when I could be going from mediocre to quality writers.  In addition,  I watched my students complete the writing portion of our state assessment and the 7th graders were not that great. Our district has some things to fix.  We have low writing scores and I think I have found part of the problem.

I am not here to bash my colleagues or discredit them, but it is becoming more and more important that we teach our students quality writing habits. Right now I feel I am at a dead end on how to handle this problem other than spending numerous class periods trying to break my middle schoolers of poor writing habits.  I am not sure if I should have a conversation with my principal and see what he has to say about it or do I bring it up at our next K-12 department meeting.    If anyone has any suggestions, it would greatly be appreciated. Hopefully I can make some head way with the situation.

Cheers!