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!

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Rigor -vs- Vigor

I have officially arrived at NCTE. As a first time Vegas guest, I must say it is crazy. My body has not transitioned to the time change and I am up at 5:00 a.m. working on my blog. A nap may be order later, but who knows with so many great sessions.

Speaking of great sessions, yesterday evening Barry Lane gave another one of his spectacular performances for NWP teachers. Though I didn’t attend earlier annual meeting sessions, my NWP peeps convinced me to peek in on what Mr. Lane was doing. If you have ever been to one of Barry Lane’s presentations, you know it is very entertaining and informative.

After laughing continuously and feeling energized as ever, he brought up the term “rigor”, which has been associated with the Common Core Standards since they have been released. Teachers are supposed to have more “rigor” in the classroom with the CCSS. When he asked a woman in a video what her definition of rigor was she stumbled and passed the buck on to her friends that she was standing with. Needless to say, their definition was less than perfect. So Mr. Lane put up the first six definitions of rigor from the dictionary. Here are a few of them!

1. Strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.

2. A sever or harsh act, circumstance, etc.

Does this sound like something we should be infusing into our classrooms? Barry Lane had a few other definitions from the medical dictionary too. One medical definition is, shivering or trembling, as caused by a chill. Again, do we really want to be teaching something like this in our classroom? Tom Romano was even in a video where he said rigor is the sister of mortis. I cracked up on that one.

Instead of “rigor”, Mr. Lane said we should be teaching “vigor” instead. I couldn’t agree more, especially after seeing that definition

Vigor

1. Healthy physical or mental energy or power; vitality.

2. Force of healthy growth in any living matter or living organism.

Perhaps the two are easy to confuse. I know that vigor sounds much more appealing and attainable in my classroom. I also know “rigor” can occur in my classroom too and if I adhere to the definition, my students are going to get turned off as learners. Can there be a balance of both? What are your thoughts?

Cheers!


Grammar, A Debate We Will Have Forever

All summer I have been writing in some capacity. I will be the first to admit, I struggle with grammar from time to time, but who doesn’t?  Grammar has been a perplexing issue for language arts/English teachers for year and years.  Some teachers may argue for a constant drill and kill approach, thinking the more that students do it, the better they will get at grammar.  Other educators let their student’s writing do the talking and examine where their weakness lie in their writing, then they plan and teach accordingly. A balance of both approaches is also used in classrooms.  Despite how you or your district take on the daunting task of hoping your students “get it”, I am here to tell you I don’t believe there is a magic spell out there for the proverbial lightbulb to click on instantly.

My lightbulb burns, at best, about as bright as lamp.  Experts are argue time and time again that we as the writing teachers aren’t doing our job and students are falling further and further behind. Of course, these “experts” are examining standardized test scores as part of their conclusion, and I am not even going to go down that road.  In addition, others believe the use of cell phone and social media is causing students to fall further and further behind because of their “text talk”.  Read this post in Education Week and let me know and others what you think.  I was outraged when I finished reading the post as were others that I have professional relationships with.  It is one more way to blame technology for shortcomings on standardized testing.  Articles such as this gives educators and districts more reason not to embrace technology.  It is bad enough students aren’t getting more of a 21st century education and aren’t connected the way they should be.  I am not saying technology is going to fix the grammar issues that seem to plaque our students.

What I want to say is I can remember all the way back to 8th grade when I had my orange grammar handbook. As a middle schooler, I was clueless from time to time when it came to things such as misplaced modifiers or using a semi-colon correctly.  There were concepts I understood and there were some I did not fully grasp.  I can also remember there were classmates that were way better at grammar than I was.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, the same thing we see with our students today.  Are there better approaches to teaching grammar? My goodness gracious, yes!  I encourage everyone to check out Jeff Anderson’s approach to grammar in his book Mechanically Inclined. I particularly like his express lane checkout approach to the writing his students do in Journals.  There are other methods available too.  Needless to say, our students aren’t going to be grammar experts by a long shot.  Yes, they should be achieving at a certain level, but grammar takes years and years to master in my opinion.  It isn’t going to happen over night and we need to stop whipping a horse that really hasn’t changed much over the years.  Every year I am looking for new ways to engage my students with grammar as should anyone else.  Some ideas work better than others, you just need to find what works for you and your class.  Furthermore, being a writing teacher, means we need to write with our students and only then will our students start taking more of a vested interest in their writing and then maybe they will start listening to those grammar lessons we give.

Cheers!


BYOD: It Can Work!

I recently read an article from Emerging Edtech titled 5 Reasons Why BYOD is a Bad Idea. As an online subscriber, I immediately read the article when it entered my inbox. Not to mention, I am a huge advocate for students using cell phones in the classroom.  After all, I am writing a book about it.  The article outlines 5 areas or reasons why it is a bad idea for students to bring their own device into the classroom.  I want to address each one of these individually and point out why it can work, even in a small rural district where I teach.

First, the article addresses, equipment inequity. Okay, so not everyone is going to have the same phone, tablet, etc.  The article argues there will be many inconsistencies when dealing with many different brands, and types of devices.  There are some easy solutions to this quandry.  For example, my students started to use cell phones in my language arts classroom this year and I had students who had iphones, flip phones, smart phones, “dumb” phones, etc. As a teacher, I had to keep this in mind when it came to incorporating technology into my existing lessons. So, I used a social platform (Celly) that supported both smart phones and “dumb” phones.  I don’t think there is a need to worry about the equipment being brought in by our students. Educators need to find website, social platforms, etc. that can be supported across the board.  Furthermore, doesn’t every teacher have an alternative plan if something doesn’t work?  My students can log onto the classroom wikispace to work and with the amount of students who bring in their own devices, I can get them on a computer in our lab.

Next, tech support is discussed as a downfall.  In comparison to the first issue the article discussed, it basically is echoing the same thing.  Because students will have different devices, there will be different issues with software and configuration.  The article doesn’t give exact specifics.  I suggest as a teacher who is interested in doing this to do your homework.  Research what devices your students have and see which ones could potentially cause you the most headaches.  Also, as mentioned before, choose a digital tool that can be supported on a various devices.  Trust me, they are out there.  The article also said the tech support would pick up more problems.  Why?  It seems to me that if students are bringing in their own device, they should know how the device works.  In addition, I would hope the teacher is comfortable with using technology and perhaps could provide assistance to the students.  Teachers should also know when to draw the line when it comes to how much time is being eaten away due to technological problems.  As mentioned before, having a plan B helps.

The third point the article brings up called bring your own distraction is grasping at straws.  Yes, students do have distractions on their devices.  I had students who had apps, games, or music on their phones and it was never an issue.  First of all, my students and I have a mutual respect about the use of their phones.  I have never given my students a sheet with a set of rules and regulations regarding their phones.  The only rules my students were solidly aware of were the school wide rules.  It was really amazing how my students never had their phones out when they weren’t supposed to and the number of times I had students ask me to get their cell phones out.  I firmly believe the respect given by me to them when it came to their device fed into the respect they gave back to me when it came to the use of their devices.  Oh, and the other point I want to argue is any teacher who has quality classroom management will have very few issues.

Internet Content Filtering is the fourth issue addressed in the post.  I completely understand this point, however, if students are bringing in laptops or tablets, students are going to have to connect to the network being used at the school. Then, the content can be filtered.  On the other hand, I know students who have 3G and 4G on their phones and I also have both on my phone.  There isn’t a big difference between the two.  When using cell phones, there can be an issue about accessing inappropriate sites.  With firm acceptable use policies in place, student expectations aren’t a guessing game. If students aren’t using the device for what is was intended, then they lose the privilage of using it at school.  Teachers can’t just sit at their desk either after giving the student an assignment.  They need to circulate and monitor their students the best they can to make sure the students are on task.

Finally, the mine is better than yours syndrome is not a solid enough reason to not incorporate a BYOD policy into a school. I am around middle schoolers and high schoolers every day and I don’t see this with technology nearly as much as I do with a pair of shoes, or clothing.  Some students are going to have a better or different device and I am sure there are going to be instances where students don’t have anything at all.  Growing up my best friend had the latest Nintendo, Sega, etc. and I never hated him or made fun of him. He never flaunted it to anyone either.  The only grade levels I could potentially see this would be in the elementary levels.  Nevertheless, this argument shouldn’t deter anyone from wanting to use tech devices in their classroom.

I normally don’t look to be argumentative with what I read online when it comes to professional publications, but this particular post/article struck a few nerves.  I had a very successful year with students bringing their own cell phones. Like with any lesson or unit in the classroom, I did have hurdles from time to time, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t overcome. I had a wide array of phones brought in and I had students who didn’t have them.  As a teacher you make adjustments and have alternative methods to meet the needs of all of your students.

Cheers!


Measuring Growth in a Language Arts Student

As my second week of summer vacation comes to an end, I find myself scratching my head and wondering where the summer is going so quickly. Ahhh, such is life. Right now I can’t help thinking about measuring the growth of students in a Language Arts classroom. The Michigan Department of Education and our beloved state government (Sense the sarcasm there?) wants to measure our ability as effective teachers based on the growth in our students. The measurement for this growth will come from a combination of things. One of them being standardized testing. Now, what that test will be is still yet to be determined. In addition, I am confident saying that part of the growth needs to be proven by the teachers as well. Currently a major portion of the teachers at my school give a pre-test at the beginning of the year and then a post test at the end of the year. To be honest with you, I don’t have a real issue with this process. A pre and post test can be beneficial for a math teacher. I have always argued that quantitative data can be used more for math and science. However, it doesn’t work necessarily for a Language Arts classroom. As a language arts teacher I am looking for the qualitative data that can only be found in my student’s writing. Giving students grammar sheet homework daily and the mundane drill and kill exercises only turns them off and I don’t feel it clearly measures their abilities or their growth. When it comes to reading nothing turns me off more than seeing a worksheet packet given with a novel. No wonder our students don’t want to read. Would you want to read knowing every time you did, the worksheet packet was looming over your head? Kelly Gallagher talks about this in his book Readacide.

The argument that I have had in the past with colleagues is I can’t input data into a data collecting system when it doesn’t measure what my students can really do or what they have learned over a school year. It is impossible for me to do that with a student and their writing. On the other hand, I know I can give my students a typical comprehension test over what they read; that is easy. But does it really give me accurate feedback on how my students have grown? I think not. Though I could debate about a student’s growth in reading and find some tools to help me, I am more interested in the writing portion.

Recently, before the school year ended, I met with two of our high school English teachers to discuss Google docs and Schoology. As the meeting progressed we discussed how to measure growth in our students and what is the best way to achieve our goal. We all agreed that writing portfolios are the best way to show the growth in our student writers. We are going to take it one step further and next year we are all going to have the students do digital portfolios. We will use Google docs seeing how our school is going to Google apps. Students can simply make a folder in Google Docs and then take the portfolio with them each year. Obviously you can get more complex with the idea of a digital portfolios. Visit http://www.michiganportfolios.org to see examples, resources, etc. It is a super site for getting started with this idea. I am attending my second workshop in 2 years in August on the idea and I hope I can get it fully implemented next school year. This past year I only began the process and didn’t fully execute it. My principal is in full support of us doing this from middle school to high school and I believe it will be a true reflection on how the students grow as writers. I will publish some blog posts on the subject as I go through the process.

Cheers!


Writing Across the Curriculum with the Common Core

I don’t teach writing because I have to, I teach writing because it is a passion. It is a passion that was reignited in me after attending the Chippewa River Writing Project’s summer institute in 2010. Now, I can’t stop writing or talking about writing.  To a language arts teacher and someone who has that passion for writing, the Common Core Standards are great! Okay, so that is my opinion. I know others don’t share the same feeling. To be honest, the few that do like it, are on an island.  Nevertheless, the CCSS calls for there to be more writing across the curriculum.  In all reality, this idea should not come as any sort of surprise, but it in some arenas it is a game changer.  Our principal made sure writing was occurring across the spectrum this year.  Some teachers were already doing this, others had to be nudged on board.  With those that had to be nudged, I now have a clearer picture as to why they were essentially against this idea. Two factors are evident. 

First, the teachers who are against having their students write in their class are not quality writers.  I say this with all the respect in the world, but it is true.  For instance, you can not have confidence implementing more writing into your Science curriculum if you yourself are not comfortable writing or confident in showing students how a piece of writing should be set-up or written. I can comprehend this and it makes sense to me.  If I don’t know how to play golf correctly, I am not going to be comfortable or confident teaching someone how to do it.  As language arts teachers, perhaps it is our responsibility to mentor our colleagues instead of getting frustrated with them. Just a thought.

Although I take confidence into consideration, the second factor I have seen constantly and consistently is poor attitude.  In other words, poor attitudes by teachers.  Teachers who feel that writing belongs in the English classroom. An individual I once came into contact with every day, who was a teacher, told me writing was not their responsibility.  They didn’t take college courses to teach writing.  At the moment, when this conversation took place, I wanted to scream.  I’ll admit, at the time, I was sulking about the paper load I had and with good reason, but I probably shouldn’t have complained about it. However, one educator telling another educator it’s not their fault I chose to become a language arts teacher is rather unprofessional.  This type of attitude is only going to hurt our students when it comes to increasing rigor in their daily school lives, especially when the Common Core Standards call for this type of rigor as I mentioned in my last blog post.

As I head into the month of May I am having more conversations about making connections across the curriculum.  As a matter of fact, the math teacher and myself had a great conversation about the students writing a research report connected to the statistics unit that she will doing in class.  It won’t happen this year, but we will try to continue the conversation and definitely put something in place for next year. In addition, the language arts standards can easily work with the social studies state standards that we have.  The social studies teacher and I are going to be creating some cross curricular units where the students can write about a social studies topic and also read more authentic texts, such as the primary documents. 

Those teacher who do not teach language arts are no longer going to be able to hide in the corner and forget about implementing writing.  They will need to change their attitude, and be willing to accept the idea of writing in their classroom.

Cheers!

 


Celly and the Common Core Standards

This post has been long overdue.  I wanted to outline the connections I can make to the Common Core Standards (CCSS) with Celly.  Below I have chosen three strands from the CCSS that I use with Celly.  Each strand is followed by what I do in my classroom and what I hope my students take away from it.  Though these aren’t the only strands I can connect to, this is where I started at the beginning of the year.

1.)  8.W.6 – Production and Distribution of Writing: Use technology, including the internet to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.

With the Common Core calling for teachers to use technology in their classroom, this is an easy connection to make.  Celly is internet based and requires students to use technology (a.k.a. – cell phones).  One of the greatest benefits of this digital tool is the fact students can interact and collaborate about ideas presented either by the teacher or other students.  One of the ways my 8th graders are going to collaborate is to discuss their ideas about alternate endings for The Giver by Louis Lowry.  Then, after discussing their ideas, they will extend their ideas by working on an alternate ending using Google Docs.

2.)  8.W.2 – Text Types and Purposes: Write informative/explanatory text to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
This strand is the most common strand I use when connecting Celly to the CCSS.  A simple example can be using Celly one day a week in your classroom in place of an every day journal writing in a composition notebook.  The big difference between the students using their cell phones instead of their journals is they can collaborate a lot easier and respond to multiple students who are using Celly.  Many times I might give students a topic to think about and to just write down their ideas about it.  Celly has helped generate some great classroom discussions and has helped create that safe writing community where students can share and feel like their ideas are valued and accepted.
3.) 8.L.2 – Conventions of Standard English: Demonstrate the command of the conventions of standard English, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
     This is an easy one, at least for me.  Today there is a lot of debate over how texting has influenced students and the way they write.  Teachers complain about how they find text “lingo” in the papers their students are turning in for a grade.  For example, students might write “u” instead of “you” or they might not capitalize “i”.  Regardless of what the students might do, the overall lesson goes back to teaching our students how to be digital citizens and modeling for them when it is acceptable to use their “lingo”.
     I make it very clear to my students there is nothing wrong with using a text language, they just need to know the difference between formal and non-formal writing.  It could be argued that using cell phones and a platform such as Celly is non-formal.  I disagree because I believe it is up to the teacher how they want to use Celly.  To help my students define the differences, I require my students to use formal writing when we use Celly.  I often give them a grade for their written responses and if they are not following the conventions of Standard English, they lose points.
Cheers!