Archives For Education & Technology

If music be the food of love,” as Shakespeare suggests, then the food for the mind is vocabulary.

The term vocabulary is defined as “a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined.” There are a number of reasons to think about these lists of words and phrases as things that are consumable. Consider how often references to words or phrases are framed in metaphors of food:

  • Food for thought;
  • Digesting what was said;
  • Chew on it for a while;
  • Difficult to swallow.

These metaphors continue in today’s digital age, where words and phrases are encoded over “feeds” or electronic transmission of news, as from a broadcaster or an Internet newsgroup. screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-9-06-49-pm

 

All these food metaphors signal how important vocabulary is to a student’s developing academic life. Just as food is metabolized and turned into the building blocks and fuel that the body needs, educators should see vocabulary to be part of the building blocks of critical thinking. Just as any student must internalize food for energy, research shows that for vocabulary to be effective, students must internalize words to use them correctly in both receptive and verbal language. And just as food is necessary every day for physical growth and stamina, vocabulary is necessary every day,  in all subject areas, for a student’s academic growth and stamina.

These food metaphors also support the idea that vocabulary should not be an isolated activity, but a daily requirement that teachers need to incorporate in all lessons. The teaching of vocabulary is too important to be left to workbooks or worksheets; teaching words and word meanings must be part of speaking, listening, reading and writing in every day’s lesson.

While the first step in a successful vocabulary program is explicit instruction, the steps of continued exposure and direct practice are also important. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in teaching vocabulary educators should:

Use repeated exposure to new words in multiple oral and written contexts and allow sufficient practice sessions.”

In their article posted on Adlit.org, Explicit Vocabulary Instruction, researchers have found that “Words are usually learned only after they appear several times.” Words that appear infrequently may not be the words that should be targeted for explicit instruction.

This research is supported by Robert Marzano who outlined a six step process for educators in Education Leadership Magazine, “The Art and Science of Teaching / Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction” (September 2009). These six steps outline how repeated exposure might be accomplished:

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term.
  4. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their vocabulary notebooks.
  5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  6. Involve students periodically in games that enable them to play with terms.

There are many ways that students at every ability level can be independently engaged on digital platforms that support vocabulary activities. There are multiple software programs with “feeds” that can help student practice vocabulary with games or flashcards on different devices. Examples of these platforms include:

Research suggests that it is the repeated exposure to words that is most effective, especially if they appear over an extended period of time. Researchers estimate that it could take as many as 17 exposures for a student to learn a new word.

This kind of repeated exposure echoes the practice of the Pulitzer Prizewinning Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who is featured in the (2015) documentary City of Gold. In the film, Gold explains that before writing a review on its food, he will visit a restaurant sometimes a dozen or more times, often tasting the same dish several times “to make sure I get it right.” Gold’s multiple visits to a restaurant “to be sure to get it right” can serve as an example of how educators need to recognize the need for repeated exposure in vocabulary so that students can “get it right” as they ingest and digest vocabulary words.

Students must regularly read their vocabulary words the same way they eat three meals a day, and a possible snack before bed. They must write their vocabulary words, listen to their vocabulary words, and speak their vocabulary words.  In offering an academic diet that is rich in vocabulary, educators should know “students are what they eat.”

This past week, I listened to a friend describe a SKYPE session with a children’s author that was particularly challenging; audio and video feeds were not running simultaneously. She described how she worked with others to solve the audio issue by stringing up a microphone to a different soundboard to boost sound. I was impressed, and I noted that how their experience with technology glitch in a carefully planned lesson is now a familiar experience for teachers at every grade level. Follow these steps:

STEP ONE: You, the teacher, plan that tomorrow’s lesson will use (NOTEmore than one answer may apply):
a. the SMARTBoard,
b. the Promethean Board,
c. the ENO board,
d. white board with projector,
e. TV Screen display.
STEP TWO: You, the teacher, plan and prepare the lesson using the software or digital platform on your (NOTEmore than one answer may apply):
a.  iPad or Kindle;
b. school or personal laptop;
c. school networked desktop;
d. your mobile phone.
STEP THREE: You, the teacher, get to class early to set up the (NOTE: more than one answer may apply):
a. projector;
b. speaker(s), microphone, and/or sound system;
c. classroom response system “clickers”;
d. computer cart with student laptops;

BUT!

Once the students are in the room, one or more of the following scenarios occurs: (Circle ALL that apply):
a. Internet access slows down as all students are logging on at the same time;
b. computers on the cart are not charged because the cart was left unplugged overnight;
c. Internet access slows because this is the date for the new IOS system download and everyone is upgrading!;
d. the “dongle” for the projector is missing (again!);
e. the program requires Adobe Flash or Java -neither of which is installed on one or more devices;
f. Internet access is not available to a handful of students who have forgotten their access passwords (again!!);
g. Audio cable or coaxial cable or HDMI cable is missing (again!);
h. Internet access is newly blocked to one or more of the websites you provided to students;
i. the speakers crackle and the soundtrack is inaudible;
j. video projection is too dark because of the fading (flickering) projection lamp (too expensive to replace at this time of year).

So….What does a teacher do when a technology glitch prevents delivery of the designed lesson?

loading-1

NOTE: Waiting for the software to load can be an annoying technology glitch in class!

Rather than despair when the lesson you have so carefully planned to deliver does not work because of a technology glitch, you may want to consider what new opportunity has been created. Instead of throwing up your hands, getting frustrated, or giving up, you should think of how to use this opportunity to teach students the lesson of how you deal with a technology glitch.

Model Behavior: Persevere and Problem Solve

Not only is this technology glitch an opportunity to model how to cope with failure an authentic life lesson, this is also an opportunity that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards for any grade level by way of the Mathematical Practice Standard #1 (MPS#1). The MPS#1 requires students to persevere and problem solve. By rewording some of the criteria of this mathematical practice to fit the problem of a technology glitch, a teacher can follow the standard’s objective:

When challenged by technology, teachers can look “for entry points to [a] solution” and also “analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.”   Teachers can use “a different method(s)” and “ask themselves, ‘Does this make sense?'” (MPS#1)

Moreover, teachers who follow MPS#1 are employing a “teachable moment” that is so highly prized in evaluation systems. Students at every grade level are keenly aware of the behaviors that teachers are modeling in class, and researchers, such as Albert Bandura (1977), have documented the importance of modeling as an instructional tool. They refer to social learning theory which notes that behavior is strengthened, weakened, or maintained in social learning by modeling of behavior of others:

“When a person imitates the behavior of another, modeling has taken place. It is a kind of vicarious learning by which direct instruction does not necessarily occur (although it may be a part of the process).”

Watching a teacher model perseverance in order to problem solve a technology glitch can be a positive lesson. Watching a teacher model how to collaborate with others to solve a technology glitch is equally positive, and including students in a collaboration to solve technology problems, particularly at the upper grade levels, is a desired 21st Century skill.

Learning from Failure

Finally, the educational organization The Partnership of 21st Century Learning anticipated problems with technology in the classroom in the following standard:

View failure as an opportunity to learn; understand that creativity and innovation is a long-term, cyclical process of small successes and frequent mistakes.

Technology that malfunctions or fails in the classroom is one such a learning opportunity. So, the next time, teachers, that the projection bulb blows out, the Internet becomes unavailable, or the software is taking too long to load, take a deep breath and use this opportunity to model problem solving. Model the lesson of perseverance as a life lesson….and, just to be safe, remember to have a back-up plan.

What was the back-up plan for the SKYPE session? A read-aloud….decidedly low-tech and still popular.

 

There is always talk about preparing students for college and career readiness (CCR), but the recent simultaneous and collaborative news release of the Panama Papers by newspapers around the globe is an example of how preparing students using technology in the classroom can be taught as an authentic application.

The Panama Papers Collaboration panama-papers-820

Under the headline OFFSHORE LINKS OF MORE THAN 140 POLITICIANS AND OFFICIALS EXPOSED, the The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 other news organizations around the globe, “revealed the offshore links of some of the world’s most prominent people.”

“In terms of size, the Panama Papers is likely the biggest leak of inside information in history – more than 11.5 million documents – and it is equally likely to be one of the most explosive in the nature of its revelations.”

 The article in the NYTimesWorld|Here’s What We Know About the ‘Panama Papers’ explained the significance of the documents that were part of a cooperative global pact of reporting:

“The papers — millions of leaked confidential documents from the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama — identify international politicians, business leaders and celebrities involved in webs of suspicious financial transactions. The revelations have raised questions about secrecy and corruption in the global financial system.”

How did the ICIJ accomplish this simultaneous and collaborative news scoop? They used collaborative writing platforms.

Collaboration is the Key

In an interview with National Public Radio’s (NPR) Ari Shaprio, titled Panama Papers Leak Is The Result Of Unprecedented Media Collaboration the director of ICIJ, Gerard Ryle explained how the 100 media organizations around the world to were able to read and analyze the 11.5 million files from the Panama Papers leak. Ryle explained,

“We would never be able to do this kind of collaboration even five, six years ago. But technology has advanced so much that we can make all of these documents available over the Internet and pipe them right into all the newsrooms so that, I mean, we can have 10 reporters working in one newsroom. We can have 20 in another. We can have five in another. And they can all see the same documents, and we basically host all of the documents on servers and pipe them down over the Internet.”

The ICIJ was able to use digital platforms where documents could be shared in asynchronous collaborations, where news organizations could partner to connect, to share and to respond across time zones.

These same digital platforms are available in many classrooms today, where students can work in class synchronously or asynchronous with classmates as well.

A key difference between journalists’ practices and students, is that students are trained to be more cooperative and collaborative. Ryle describes how unusual the sharing of information is in the journalism profession:

” I had to unlearn everything I had learned as a journalist to do this kind of work. I mean, most of our careers, we basically don’t even tell our editors what we’re working on.”

In contrast, students today who understand the power of collaboration will not have to “unlearn” to be effective journalists.

Common Core Connections

Educators, especially those at the middle and high school grade levels, have been using these digital platforms to meet the key shifts in College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) as part of the Common Core:

“These standards require students to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and extensive range of print and non-print texts in media forms old and new. The need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded into every aspect of today’s curriculum.”

Screenshot 2016-04-10 08.56.23

Word sift of common words in College and Career Readiness Standards

Within the Frameworks of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) there is also a specific anchor standard for writing for all students:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6
Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Today’s technology allows students to mirror the same approach using same skills-as seen in word sift-(reading, writing, evidence, informational texts, answers ) that the international journalists in the ICIJ did in breaking this important news story. Students who use digital platforms are refining the same skills used by ICIJ -“The World’s Best Cross-Border Investigative Team.”

Multiple Platforms Available

Perhaps the best known platforms used in schools for teacher to student or student to student collaborations are on the sites such as Edmodo, WikispacesWordPress (and its companion Edublogs). A quick search on the Internet, however, will produce a multitude of additional options. For example, posts like 102Free (or Free to Try) Online Collaborative Learning Tools for Teachers (updated 2/2016) list the myriad of choices that educators can use to increase collaborations in the classroom. There are so many that, for example, the behemoth Google Drive is listed at #51:

Once known as Google Docs, Google Drive offers a comprehensive suite of collaborative, online tools: word documents, spreadsheets, presentations, forms or drawing files.

Celebrating Global Collaboration in Education

Moreover, just like the journalists who broke the Panama Papers stories, educators are experimenting with virtual collaborative experiences on a global level. There is a Global Collaboration Day (GCD) (celebrated the 2nd week in September) where the focus is on cooperation and collaboration to enhance global understanding so that students will have practice in both solving problems across borders when they enter the workforce and an appreciation for bringing global ideas to their own local experiences.

The GCD website describes how students can participate in authentic collaborations that are either short-term or long-term using blogs, wikis, or social media tools such as Twitter and Skype.

Next Generation

The next generation of journalists is being groomed in classrooms today, but for now, students and educators are increasing their proficiency with the same methods as the professionals in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The final project known as the Panama Papers has met the Common Core State Standards for College and Career Readiness…they might even get an A+.

All hail.extol.…laud the mighty Roget’s Thesaurus!

Any one struggling with trying to find the right word can attest to the support that he or she may have found in the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus, a reference book that celebrates its birthday every April 29th. Writers pour through its pages in the hunt to find an alternate to “said” (articulated, phonated, viva voce) or establish the kind of “sleep” (catnap, doze, trance) or select the state of being “happy” (elated, joyous, upbeat).

Paul Mark Roget, Creator of the thesaurus

Paul Mark Roget, Creator of the thesaurus

Like its cousin the dictionary, the synonyms and antonyms of Roget’s Thesaurus are arranged alphabetically. That decision was made by its originator, Peter Mark Roget who published the first thesaurus in 1852, some 100 years after Samuel Johnson published the successful Dictionary of the English Language.

Roget’s objective with the thesaurus was to help the writer or speaker “to find the word, or words, by which [an] idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed.”

In the forward to the first edition, Roget wrote:

“It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system of verbal classification similar to that on which the present work is founded. Conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies, I had, in the year 1805, completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale, but on the same principle, and nearly in the same form, as the Thesaurus now published.”

The word “thesaurus” is derived from the Greek θησαυρός (thēsauros), “treasure, treasury, storehouse”, and the thesaurus is indeed a treasure of language. A word of caution, however, to those who use this treasure trove improperly; fancy words do not guarantee academic writing.

For example, there is a danger of overuse, as demonstrated in this dialogue from a episode of Friends when the character Joey wanted to appear “smart”. He had replaced every ordinary word in an application letter with its synonym from the thesaurus:

Joey: I wrote, “They’re warm nice people with big hearts.”

Chandler: “And that became, ‘They’re humid pre-processing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps’?”

Students often make these same kinds of novice errors. In their attempts to sound “smart”, they include words they do not understand, adding “verdant” to  “green” grasses. They create contradictory combinations such as “nimbly lethargic” or “exigent tolerance.” Then, there is the tale of the student whose creative writing assignment featured a woman eating a delicious chignon, a bun one puts in one’s hair.

Click on any word to create new word blossoms or "daisies"

Click on any word to create new word blossoms or “daisies”

Now, with software available on multiple platforms, students can choose to hunt through pages of a text or try one of several online thesaurus tools that help them find the perfect word.

There is the subscription based VisualThesaurus which is an “interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words.” Clicking on any word allows students to see an abundance of alternatives. A free version of this form of interactive thesaurus is found at Visuwords.

Merriam-Webster also offers a student friendly thesaurus at WordCentral which offers many other interactive features such as word-of-the-day or student-created disctionaries.

Interactive activities for students

Interactive activities for students

Simpler versions can be found at  BigHugeLabs or at Thesaurusland offer stripped down versions  that require only that a student enters a word in the search box to get synonyms or antonyms.

Screenshot 2015-04-27 21.40.53

Simple version of an online thesaurus

 

 Students can jubilate or rejoice or revel or solemnize in marking the 163rd anniversary of the thesaurus.  They can acknowledge or appreciate or enjoy or welcome how the thesaurus has helped their writing.
However, as intently or as meticulously or as scrupulously as they search in texts or search online, students will not be able to answer the question, what’s another word for thesaurus?

Graphic 2It’s snowing again in Connecticut.
It’s February.
No surprise.

In fact, snow days are not a surprise for thousands of school districts across the US.
Snow days interrupt instruction.
Again, no surprise.

It’s a fact that schools have requirements for school instruction days and for instruction hours or seat time. So if snow days and interruptions to instruction time requirements are not a surprise, what can educators do to be ready for the inevitable snow day?

There are some districts that prepare for snow days in advance by organizing assignments before the school day.

In New Hampshire, some districts have used ‘‘Blizzard Bag Days.” On these days, students complete assignments at home, either online or on paper. If 80% of students complete assignments, then the snow day is not added to the end of the school year. Some districts have reported that the number of students who participate in Blizzard Bag Days has risen to 90%.

As technology expands in the classroom, the use of different learning platforms can halt the disruption of learning by allowing students to participate in activities that allow them to practice skills they have been taught in the classroom. For districts that are concerned about the amount of technology in homes, many platforms are easily accessed by digital phones through mobile apps. Phone message apps that deliver assignments do not chew up the data time if the materials have already been sent home in anticipation of a snow day.

One possible argument in designing the use of technology to facilitate learning on a snow day is how to determine the percentage of students who must participate in order for the day to “count” in the school calendar. Previous attendance figures by school could be used to choose such a percentage for credit, and student work turned in or digital work submitted could be used to validate these percentages.

Another argument is choosing a method to determine how many hours or how much seat time is necessary to complete an assignment  in order to “count” for credit. The seat time argument may be less of a concern given that there are districts with students, particularly in the upper grades, who are receiving credit for core coursework on platforms with flexible seat time requirements. For example, instead of using Carnegie units (120 hours per unit) for course credit, some online platforms, such as platforms like Odysseyware, provide fewer coursework hours in grade level subject areas. Many of these online course platforms require the use of seat time waivers, with sometimes as little as 70-80 hours, to complete coursework.

Another concern may be raised by teachers who might initially interpret snow day assignments as “extra work” to prepare, review, or grade. As a former teacher, I would argue that while snow days gave me an opportunity to catch up on grading or lesson plans, I was in effect, working twice. I would work during the snow day, and then work again on the date tacked onto the school year. How many times in June, in a particularly warm and steamy classroom, did I wish that we could have kept to the original school closing date?

The Common Core’s focus on increasing non-fiction materials into all grade level curriculum means that every subject area, including “specials” or electives (art, music, physical education, computer technology, etc.) could contribute in preparing materials for snow days; core subject areas need not be the only requirements for snow day lesson preparation. Rotating responsibilities for assigning work (Snow Day #1: English, Art, Science; Snow Day #2: Math, Social Studies, Music) might be a way to ensure that students do not lose practice in the same subject area with each cancellation.

Finally, in support of snow day assignments, is the argument that practice for standardized testing, now required by the Common Core in the form of SBAC or PARCC, needs to happen before early spring test dates. Any interruption in skills practice caused by snow days, particularly in the later winter months, could have an adverse impact on student and school test results. Even at the upper grade levels, snow day interruptions pose problems for delivering Advanced Placement content, already in overstuffed syllabi, in order to prepare students for annual AP exams held in early May.

graphic 1The result is that days added in late June to meet state requirements become educationally superfluous and may place students into another meteorological challenging situation: overheated classrooms when outside temperatures climb into the 90s.

When school calendars are decided a year in advance in any of the Snow Belt States, Mid-Atlantic States, or New England, it is common practice  to add snow days to the school year. The same practice could be extended by having teachers prepare materials for snow cancellations either at the beginning of the school year or soon after the first quarter.

It’s no surprise that it will snow again next year.

Here in New England, when that first snow day comes next year, there should no surprises.

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

This four-year-old blog has had a slight makeover in appearance. I removed the header photo
montage of used books on the classroom shelves and in the back of my car:Light background_edited-3

 

Used books istuffed n the back of my car

Used books stuffed into the back of my car

This purpose of this blog, however, will not change. There still will be posts dedicated to how I am putting books in the hands of students. There will be posts about instructional strategies that work in classrooms. There will be posts about issues in education.

In other words, this blog will continue offering the same old messages in a new wrapping.

Of course, educators regularly refurbish old ideas with new wrappings.  Take for example, the literature circle. The literature circle has been in education since 1982 when, according to Wikipedia, fifth grade students in Karen Smith’s class, organized themselves loosely into groups, and started to discuss individual novels.

 Smith was surprised at the degree of their engagement with the books and the complexity of their discussions, they had no outside help or instruction from their teacher (Daniels, 1994). From here literature circles evolved into reading, study and discussion groups based around different groupings of students reading a variety of different novels.

In contrast to the the classroom where a whole class novel is taught by the teacher,literature circles have provided students the chance to participate in self-directed discussions in by taking on different roles and responsibilities.

I am a big fan of literature circles as a way to encourage critical thinking, student choice, and independence in students. I have been promoting the incorporation of literature circles at multiple grade levels. Most recently, several of the 7th and 8th grade classes in my district have been using the literature circles in their new block schedule with some success. The teachers in these classes began by using the traditional roles for students: discussion director, connector, illustrator, vocabulary enricher, text locator, and researcher. The transition was smooth since students were already familiar with these roles from literature circles in elementary school.

Last month, I began offering teachers suggestions on how to offer some “new wrappings” for these old roles. Using a list of writing genres, I suggested that the teachers could offer roles for students in the literature circles and also include authentic writing prompts.circle green

In these new wrappings, each student’s role could center on one of the following writing genres:

  • Write a Personal Letter from one character to another;
  • Prepare a Greeting Card to or from a character;
  • Develop a Things to Do List for a character;
  • Write Classified or Personal Ads that connect to a chapter;
  • Prepare a mix tape for a character and explain the choices;
  • Draft a resume for a character;
  • Compose a TV script from a chapter with notes for stage directions;
  • Script a Talk Show Interview or Panel with characters;
  • Record a recipe that is associated with the book;
  • Organize an Infographic using facts from the story;
  • Create and organize Receipts, Applications, Deeds, Budgets from the story
  • Obituary, Eulogy or Tribute for a character 

These roles could rotate the way the traditional roles rotate in a literature circle, or the roles could be added as special collaborative writing activities.

The incorporation of technology to literature circles expands the opportunity to “wrap” the old roles in new digital covers. In a literature circle of four or five students, the major platforms for social media can be used as a way to have students interact with a text. With (or without) technology, students can rotate roles where they could:circle blue

  1. Tweet a summary
  2. Design a Facebook Page for a character or event;
  3. Suggest “pins” for a character as on Pinterest;
  4. Write e-mail correspondences between characters;
  5. Plan Instagram messages.

I also encouraged  teachers to number the seats in the literature circles, and then assign roles based on the number of the seat a student selected. Another strategy would be to offer a “surprise” role that rotates to a different numbered chair every meeting.

Like so much in education, old strategies can be made new.
Old literature circle roles can be made new with genre writing and/or with social media.

2015 New Year means a new wrapping for this old blog, but there will always be used books for classrooms in the back of my car!

I just completed attending the ICT Language Learning Conference for Learning Language where ICT stands for “information communication technologies,” a term that encompasses both methods and technology resources. Here in the United States, the most appropriate synonym would be what we refer to as”IT” or information technology. (So, if you are in the US and see “ICT”, please read “IT”)

Florence side 3

The winding streets of Florence, Italy

This international conference was held in Florence, Italy, a city of amazing architecture, museums crammed with magnificent art, winding streets and incredibly narrow sidewalks. Finding the right path through the city maze was challenging.

While I was at the conference, I had an opportunity to compare my understanding of the education systems in the United States with several educational systems in other 54 countries. I was fortunate to share a presentation created with fellow educator Amy Nocton, a world language teacher at RHAM High School in Hebron, Connecticut. Our session (Blogging to Share, Exchange, and Collaborate)  highlighted how we use blogging in our instruction in grades 6-12.

Because of my own interests, I attended sessions that featured integrating technology in instruction. After a dozen sessions, I came to three important takeaways:

1. Students at every grade level are more motivated when content is integrated with ICTs;

2. Measuring the effectiveness of ICTs poses a challenge for all stakeholders;

3. Educators have limitations in integrating ICTs.

The issues in these three takeaways are the same issues that I see in the education systems in the United States. We educators know that the students enjoy using technology as a learning tool, but we are not sure which of these tools are the most effective in meeting the needs of students while delivering instruction. The concern of educators worldwide in accessing or “grading” students when they use ICTs is a major roadblock, a concern aggravated by individual comfort levels for educators using ICT. An individual educator’s aggravation may increase exponentially  against a rapidly changing technology landscape where platforms and devices change but educational systems and their filters and limitations appear to crawl towards the end of the 20th Century.

In short, we educators are never going to learn all this stuff.

I suppose it is comforting to see the same problems that American educators experience are playing out on a global scale. At the least, we are not alone.

On the other hand, it is frustrating to see that there are educators from other countries perseverating on the same problems. Everyone seems to recognize the excitement generated when ICTs are used in class, but there are choruses (and in many different languages at this conference), of “We still do not have access!” or “Are these ICTs really working?” or even “Many teachers do not know how to use the ICTs!”

Florence 4

When on this narrow path….

After several presentations, I also grew concerned that ICTs perceived as limited to assessment measurement.  A few presenters offered their research with highly scripted programs where students could be “interactive” by answering predictably scripted responses. While these scripted programs are a step more engaging than a curriculum prescribed textbook, they are only a small digital step above the pencil and (scantron) form type of response. Such controlled platforms are on the same path as the testing programs (SBAC, PARCC) being developed back in the United States to address the need, or the mandates, in measuring student understanding. Even at this conference, the message about the ability of ICTs to assess and grade may be drowning out the more creative possibilities that ICTs offer.

In contrast, I did hear a reference to student choice where a presenter, Feyza Nur Ekizer of Giza University, offered her students a chance to develop “knowledge envelopes” or portfolios to gather as much information on a topic so they would be prepared to answer with a written response on that topic. She gave her students choice in what they found on a broad topic (ex: love), and reported (not surprisingly) that the students wrote longer and more detailed responses than they ever had before in a response weeks later. Her use of technology was minimal, but the students had control over their paths of inquiry in gathering information for their “knowledge envelopes.”

Florence side 2

…or on this narrow path…

At this time in digital history, there are many platforms available for student to choose how and what to gather for information in authentic inquiry research.The presenters at this conference had done a great deal of work, and they shared their learning on the platforms they had chosen for their own inquiry. We were, as are our students, the passive recipients of information; we were on each presenter’s narrowed path.

Worldwide, our students (K-12) are far more comfortable working across platforms in gathering information (from websites, social media, blogs, and other visual/audio media) than their educators. Why would we want them to step backwards and use only what we require to prove their understanding? We should not limit the use of ICTs to assessment delivery systems when students can use ICT to create their own multi-media texts individually and collaboratively if they are given the opportunity.

...there may be little choice.

…there may be little choice.

In addition, students (worldwide!) should not have to wait for educators to become experts with ICTs when platforms are growing exponentially. Instead of trying to master the expanding field of ICTs, educators must see how the expertise they already have in a content area should be used to guide students through choice.

The role of teacher should shift to guiding students in developing content and understanding. Teachers who are skilled in a discipline’s content can help students determine the accuracy, relevancy, and legitimacy of information in developing student inquiry on topics.

ICTs must not be the exclusive means of measuring understanding, instead ICTs should be included in how students develop their understanding of content.

For students, there are many different paths (or platforms) to choose in learning content and there are certainly more paths to come. ICT should not be used exclusively to restrict students to the narrow paths of measurement alone. Based on my discussions with other attendees, there may be other educators from the conference who recognize how much this ICT path of student choice and inquiry may be narrowing unless we act to change it.

The amazing city of Florence, Italy!

The amazing city of Florence, Italy!

Students will encounter challenges in choosing ways to use ICTs as I did walking the narrow pathways on city streets of Florence witnessing amazing and magnificent sites. Through student choice in ICTs coupled with teacher guidance, students will also gain the freedom to explore those amazing and magnificent topics that interest them.

Not sure how November became so loaded with conventions, but Thanksgiving holiday plans have taken a side seat to presentations. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to present at International Conference ICT for Language Learning in Florence, Italy, (11/9-14) and the Council on English Leadership (CEL) section (11/23-25) of the National Conference of English Teachers in Washington, D.C.

These opportunities to present nationally and internationally have come as a result of this blog and connections I have made with other educators who use social media to connect and to collaborate. So, it is not surprising that the first session I will be presenting in Florence with world languages teacher Amy Nocton is titled “Blogging to Share, Exchange and Collaborate”. I met Amy through her husband, Jason Courtmanche Director of Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut. She is a world language teacher (Spanish and Italian) at RHAM High School in Hebron, Connecticut, and she needed help setting up her classroom blog, Perdidos en sus pensamientos. Her success with this technology in offering students an opportunity to choose topics as part of  is best summed up by the sentiments of one of her students who began posting more than a year ago. Her student Annie Maclachlan noted:

Screenshot 2014-11-12 04.44.15

Presenting on 11/13/14 “Blogging to Share, Exchange, and Collaborate”; student quote from the  on the right

“Instead of writing to a rubric, I wrote what I wanted, how I wanted. I wrote about what interested me, because I firmly believed that whoever took the time to go on the blog would love hearing what I had to say. And this was a good feeling. It was a feeling of complete intellectual freedom, a feeling that I believe everyone should experience at least once.”

Like Amy’s student, my students also enjoyed the freedom to explore a topic and publish for a world audience. Sharing how our students can connect with readers from all over the globe at a conference with teachers from all over the globe has an internal reverberation. We have the chance to see how others are guiding students so we can better prepare them to share their ideas and understandings with local and global audiences.

This opportunity has also given me the chance to visit the city of Florence with its amazing architecture and even more wonderful art collections.  To say that my jaw has dropped on more than one occasion is an understatement.

After this cultural saturation, I return home only to head out to the National Conference of English Teachers Conference in D.C. There I will be presenting “It’s Not the Math in the Literacy Standards; It’s the Literacy in the Math Standards” at the Council for English Leadership section of the program. I will be presenting with my former colleague Stephanie Pixley, from Wamogo High School in Litchfield, Connecticut.

I have already written about the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standards (English/Language Arts Can Persevere with Math Practice Standard #1and Author’s Craft Revealed Through Mathematical Practice Standard #7 ) on this blog, and this presentation will feature many of the ideas I outlined in these posts.

Screenshot 2014-11-13 01.57.03The NCTE Conference is usually so jammed packed full of sessions that my heads spins. I do not think I will be afforded any museum time there as I want to see many of the sessions. I especially want to see sessions offered by other bloggers who I have met socially and virtually, including one offered by Fran McVeigh, Vicki Vinton, and Mary Lee Hahn“It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading.”

Needless to say, I have not thought about turkey, stuffing, or any other side dish, but I am confident after these next two weeks that I will have plenty of photos to share and things to talk about and add to the conversation at the holiday table.

“So….what problems do your students have in writing?” I ask middle school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”

“So….what problems do your students have writing?” I ask high school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”

One might conclude that students in grades 7-12 have a thesis statement problem…or maybe not.

Maybe the problem of writing a thesis statement is that so many teachers in middle and high school expect that students must have a well-written thesis statement before they can write an essay.

Maybe the emphasis on a well-developed thesis as the start to the essay is misplaced.

After all, according to Webster’s Online Dictionary, an essay (noun) has another meaning beyond “a short piece of writing that tells a person’s thoughts or opinions about a subject”. The word essay also means a “trial, test; an effort, attempt.” An essay is literally “an initial tentative effort; the result or product of an attempt” and a thesis statement is a student’s position in such an effort or attempt….a “test drive” of sorts.

Instead of expecting well-developed thesis statements, teachers could have student test drive a thesis statement by using one of several online tools known as “thesis generators.” These online tools are free and allow students the opportunity to practice with different ideas as they prepare to write an essay.

My favorite, and easiest to use, is the Tom March Thesis Builder 

Screenshot 2014-09-23 21.12.56This site asks students to respond to a series of questions:

  • What’s the topic you want to write about?
  • What’s your main opinion on this topic?
  • What’s the strongest argument supporting your opinion?
  • What’s a second good argument that supports your opinion?
  • What’s the main argument against your opinion?

As they use this thesis generator, students are instructed to:

  1. Answer questions in short phrases (not full sentences).
  2. Do not use periods / full stops (.) at the end or capital letters at the beginning of the phrases you write.
  3. Click the “Build a Thesis” button when you’re finished.
  4. A window will pop open with your Built Thesis.
  5. Go back and adjust your answers to smooth out the thesis until it makes sense and expresses your beliefs. Clicking on the “Build a Thesis” button again will update your thesis to show your changes.
  6. Once you’ve got a thesis statement, use the Make an Online Outline button to generate the framework for your essay.

Once students use a generator, such as the Tom March thesis generator,  they may recognize a sentence “pattern” used in creating a thesis that acknowledges a counter argument. These sentence patterns might start with a qualifier such as “even though”, “because”, “despite”.

Acknowledging the counter arguments is specifically addressed in the thesis builder on John Garvey’s Thesis Builder site. The generator on this site asks students:

  • Is what you say always true always?
  • Are there exceptions?
  • Are there good reasons why your position may have a down side?
  • How can you make your position have a reality check?
  • What general reasons why your position may have problems can you admit up front? To make absolute statements usually causes your essay’s thesis to seem foolishly simplistic.  Get real!.
  • Here’s a trick: begin your qualification with a word like “although” or “It is true that. . .” Don’t worry if it’s not a complete sentence.

Finally, the thesis builder on the Ashford University website  provides different levels of complexity as a student creates a thesis. Once a student enters information into this generator, a series of different thesis statement models on the same idea is offered for students to choose:
Model #1: Thesis Statement
Model #2: Thesis with Concession
Model #3: Thesis with Reasons
Model #4: Thesis with Concession and Reasons

There is also an outline generated on this site that can be used by students in writing the essay.

If teachers and students use these thesis generators, the emphasis on the thesis statement as a starting point might be shifted to another, often overlooked, important part of the essay…the conclusion. The conclusion is where the student’s “test drive” ends, and where the student ends up should matter even more than where the student started.