Archives For Education & Technology

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.

15% of the 21st Century is almost over and the headline Before Buying Classroom Technology, Asking ‘Why?’  by Ross Brenneman is in Education Week.

This is one of the most popular stories of the week, July 18, 2014.

Why?

Not why is this story popular, but why is there even a question as to question why schools should buy technology?

Certainly, the headline is never the whole story, but the why in the question posed is misleading or frustrating.

Any educational purchase, capital or operating, should always begin with the question “why?”, yet the impression the article makes is that there are administrators who, in an attempt to personalize learning for students, are purchasing technology without having a plan or vision.

Consider first that the word in question-technology- is defined as:

the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area;  capability given by the practical application of knowledge of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems” (Merriam-Webster).

Ironic, then, that the impression the article makes is that technology is causing administrators more problems than solving them.

The article cites Allison Powell, vice president for new learning models at the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, who recounts that some administrators are saying, ‘I bought all this technology, now what?’:

“They’re buying the technology without thinking through what their specific learning goals and outcomes are, and technology might not be the right tool for that.”(Powell)

Such characterizations do not inspire confidence in leadership for learning in the 21st Century.  A look at the comment section that followed the article echoes similar frustrations :

Good grief!!! I have been involved with instructional technology as a teacher, a librarian, an administrator, and in higher education since the early 1990s – and there STILL has to be an article/debate/controversy how to best integrate technological advances in our nation’s classrooms?!ALlen Educator

“Why?” is a good question. However, there’s also “What?”, “Who?”, and “How?” (Assuming “where” is your school and “when” is ASAP.)-Tad Douce

This general portrayal of hapless administrators is not helpful to education, especially when just a few reasons to incorporate technology are obvious:

-standardized testing is now done, or will be done, digitally;
-data and data analysis to improve instruction uses technology;
-achieving college readiness (research) means students will use technology;
-career readiness (business) means students will use technology;
-communicating (in real time) with all stakeholders is education requires technology.

There are more, but these obvious reasons are just a few that could guide administrators to shape a vision as they invest in technology as they would any other educational purchase to prepare students for the future. The answers to the question “why” therefore, are generally understood.  Instead, the question “how will this technology be used” should be foremost in any administrator’s design for the future.Screenshot 2014-07-23 22.51.36

Furthermore, how will any administrator’s vision or design for the future be shaped and reshaped depends on developments in technology; technology is not a one time purchase. There will be many iterations of technology, hardware and software, used in classrooms tomorrow (…. and tomorrow and tomorrow). Above all, in meeting these iterations, an administrator’s vision or design must include ongoing training for educators.

To be fair, Education Week’s article centered on the use of technology in the delivery of personalized learning. In the end, Brennerman points out that the 21st Century is no different than any other century, that “personalized learning can be implemented without technology.” Yet, the headline says nothing about this message. Rather, the impression left is that there are many visionless administrators asking “why?”as if technology is a fad.

Administrators must work to correct the general impression made by the “why” in this headline.  With 85% of the 21st Century ahead, the question should be  “how will” their vision continue to shape the role of technology in education’s future.

An ad supporting the Common Core State Standards posted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation featured a Missouri Teacher of the Year, Jamie Manker, saying, “I support the Common Core because it’s asking kids to think.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 7.31.27 AM

My immediate reaction was, “Good Heavens! What did Manker’s students do before the implementation of the Common Core? Thinking should have been happening all along!”

Of course her students had been thinking or she would not have been a teacher of the year. Her statement may have been truncated to fit on on the #SupporttheCore poster. Yet, she is not alone in making such statements. There have been a number of teachers of the year who state that their students are doing better work because of the Common Core:

From Nancie Lindblom Arizona 2013 Teacher of the Year, The new standards provide the opportunity to do this by increasing the expectations for all students, allowing me to challenge my students to think analytically.”

From Ms. Sponaugle 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year, “My students are engaged, they’re motivated, and they’re learning, and that’s what the common core standards are all about-preparing our children to be confident and capable in an ever-more competitive world.”

Again, these admissions are puzzling. Why would a teacher whose credentials and instructional practice are exemplary enough to warrant a state award wait for an “opportunity” to challenge students to think analytically? Or how would a teacher of the year not already be engaging students in order to prepare them for an ever-more competitive world? Did they not already use a set of standards before the Common Core in their classrooms?

Without context, these teachers’ statements make them appear less competent. In an ironic twist, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s use of teachers of the year as promotional tools has the unfortunate effect of leaving them open to the following line of criticism: What kind of teachers were they B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) when they admit their students were not being challenged?

Their overstatements on behalf of the Common Core contribute to the unfortunate generalization that B.C.C.(Before the Common Core) students were not engaged. They were not being prepared for a competitive world. They did not think.

Collectively, their statements open up a single tricky question for these teachers of the year…..Why not?

I admit that I am the first to have heart palpitations the moment I hear a problem begin, “Say, a train leaves a station 500 miles east of the city traveling at 60 m.p.h…..”.

Yet, given time, I am confident I can calculate the answer to a word problem, in part because my early teaching career included two years in a grade 8 pre-algebra class. At that time, I feared my expertise in English/Language Arts was not helpful for covering the math curriculum, so I taught as close to the textbook as anyone can imagine. I depended on worksheets. I was inflexible in my methods. I did exactly what the book suggested I do.

Several weeks into the pre-algebra class, I told a fellow faculty member that I was concerned I could be doing more harm then good. Ms. C had graduate degrees in math, and she was responsible for the more advanced math classes.

keep-calm-and-persevere-13“Nonsense,” she advised, “just make sure they know their math facts; students who do not know their multiplication tables will never succeed in higher math.”
I nodded.
Multiplication tables…I could do that.
“That, and never, ever let them give up.” She was firm, “all problems have a solution.” 

Ms. C was right. I could never let them give up, which meant that I could never give up either. Her prescience about the Common Core State Standards, adopted some 20 years later, is reflected in Mathematic Practice Standard #1:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

I now understand that this standard should not be not limited to applications in math classes; I believe this standard should be shared with multiple academic disciplines.  As evidence, I offer a “retranslation” of this standard’s descriptors, explained on the Common Core Website, that I use in every lesson everyday:

Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution.

If you drop the word “mathematically”, this standard measures any student’s ability to comprehend a problem, or question, in any subject area, and encourages students to be self-selective on determining the best way to solve a problem. In the English/Language Arts class, this “entry point for a solution” could be anything from selecting an independent book to read, to choosing a thesis for a research paper, or to picking a presentation software for an oral report to name a few examples.

Mathematically proficient students analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.

In the English Language Arts classrooms, I teach students to analyze literary texts, fiction and non-fiction, for givens and constraints crafted by an author; to analyze the relationships between characters or author and audience; and to evaluate the goals these characters or authors achieve or fail to achieve.

Mathematically proficient students monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary.

In the English/Language Arts classrooms, a student often begins writing with one idea or thesis, but by the end of the paper, the idea has changed; the thesis must be re-written. Students must monitor the progression of their ideas, and when the ideas cannot be supported or expressed, then they must change course in their writing.

Mathematically proficient students can explain correspondences between equations, verbal descriptions, tables, and graphs or draw diagrams of important features and relationships, graph data, and search for regularity or trends.

In the English Language Arts classroom, students should be able to explain the correspondence created with parts of speech in each sentence construction; they should understand the features and relationships created with punctuation; they should look for patterns in rhetoric; and they should be able to recognize the purpose of a selected genre used to communicate.

Mathematically proficient students check their answers to problems using a different method, and they continually ask themselves, “Does this make sense?”

English Language Arts students must read their writing and the writings of others while keeping in mind the question, “Does this make sense?”For the record, I add the question, “So what?” as well.

The particulars in the MP#1 standard are not limited to mathematics as demonstrated in this almost line by line interpretation. All academic disciplines incorporate the ideas in this standard which, when combined, are the tools of perseverance. Teaching students to persevere is the ultimate goal of MP#1, and there are plenty of opportunities to practice perseverance in the classroom. The incorporation of technology in lessons at any grade level and in any subject can be such an opportunity.

My school has a B.Y.O.D. (Bring Your Own Digital Device) policy for grades 9-12. Our grading system is online, assignments are visible to stakeholders, and almost all of my lessons incorporate some technology during the class period. I have learned first hand, however, that the use of any technology in the classroom requires perseverance because no matter how well a lesson is planned, SOMETHING WILL GO WRONG!

For example: a link on a web page will not work; a platform selected by a student might need Java, which is not available on every device; another student will forget a password; or the network becomes overloaded when 30 students try and access a program at the same time.

I think of the MP#1 when I work on these problems everyday, and I know I am modeling perseverance for my students when I persevere and deal with each problem. I cannot give up and blame technology; I cannot blame the Internet. I must model how to problem solve, how to look for solutions, and show how I regularly ask myself if what I am doing “makes sense.”

“Use a different browser,” I suggest when a link does not work.
“Let’s reset your password,” I advise a student.
“OK, Row 3? You will have to wait a minute before trying to log on…we can’t all access this site at once,” I might recommend.
Sometimes I discover the problem is simply the power supply,
“Wait….is this even plugged in?”

Every day, I consider what Ms. C told me years ago as I model the MP#1 standard in my English/Language Arts classroom. From her words to the Common Core Mathematical Practice Standard #1: “Never, ever let them give up. All problems have a solution.”

In the spirit of all end of the year reviews, I have condensed the year 2013 by offering month by month posts from this blog that illustrated the best student (and subsequently, teacher) learning:

January 2013: A Freshman’s Modern Odyssey in the Style of Homer

"Dawn spread her rosy fingers..."

“Dawn spread her rosy fingers…”

The Freshmen final project after reading The Odyssey is a narrative that students complete called “The Wamogossey: A Day in the Life of a Freshman at Wamogo High School.” Writing narratives are once again favored in  Common Core State Standards, and this post explained how students made their own attempt at an epic adventure.

February 2013:  Spilling Over the Corners of a Six Word Text

Short Story in 6 words

Short Story in 6 words

This exercise proves that keeping students “within the four corners of the text” is impossible, even when the text, attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is only six words long. This post also serves as evidence that that admonitions on best practices should be limited to those with actual classroom experience, not to the “architects of the Common Core.”

March 2013 If You Want to Watch the Cow Give Birth

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Watching the arrival of our latest calf

Yes, “If you want to watch the cow give birth, turn on U-stream now!” was an announcement over the PA system. Normally, I am irritated by interruptions to class time, but this announcement cued students about opportunity watch the birth of a calf in the Agricultural Science wing of our high school. The combination of technology in broadcasting and recording the birth of the newest member of the agricultural program with old-fashioned “hands on” physical labor illustrates 21st Century authentic learning.

April 2013 You Never Forget Your First Hamlet

Members of the senior class were fortunate enough to see Paul Giamatti’s “Hamlet” at Yale Repertory Theatre. I’ll let their words speak for the experience:

The performance was a wonderful experience, especially since it was my first time to see Shakespeare.

I wouldn’t mind going to another because it was so enjoyable that I didn’t even realize the 4 hours passing by.

I like the way that a play has a certain kind of vibe. It’s like a live concert, where there’s a certain kind of energy.

It was like seeing a live performance of a film. I would especially like to see another Shakespeare because it is the way that he intended his works to be portrayed.

After seeing Hamlet so well done, it would definitely be worth going to see another one whether it be Shakespeare or a different kind of performance.

May 2013 Kinesthetic Greek and Latin Roots

Spelling "exo"=outside

Spelling “exo”=outside

Understanding Greek and Latin roots is critical to decoding vocabulary, so when the freshman had a long list of roots to memorize, we tried a kinesthetic approach. The students used their fingers to spell out Greek roots: ant (against), tech (skill), exo (outside).  They twisted their bodies into letters and spread out against the wall spelling out xen (foreign), phob (fear). They also scored very well on the quizzes as a result!

June 2013 Superteachers!

Superteacher!

Superteacher!

At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, teachers rose to a “friendship and respect” challenge to make a video. With a little help from a green screen, 27 members of the faculty representing a wide variety of disciplines jumped into the nearby closet wearing the big “W” (for Wamogo). Students in the video production class watched and filmed in amazement as, bearing some artifact from a particular subject area, each teacher donned a flowing red cape.

July 2013 Library Book Sales: Three Bags Full!

The original purpose of this blog was to show how I filled classroom libraries with gently used books. The Friends of the C.H. Booth Library Book Sale in Newtown, Connecticut, is one of the premier books sales in the state: well-organized tables filled with excellent quality used books, lots of attentive check-out staff, and great prices. This year, I added three large bags of books to our classroom libraries for $152.00, a discount of 90% off retail!

August 2013 Picture Books Are not for Kindergarten Any More!Cat in Hat book cover

At used book sales, I am always looking for picture books I can use in high school classrooms. For example, I use The Cat in the Hat to explain Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Superego . Thing #1 and Thing #2 represent Id, and that righteous fish? The Superego. Yes, Dr. Seuss is great for psychological literary criticism, but he is not the only picture book in my repertoire of children’s literature used in high school. This post features a few of my favorite picture books to use and why.

September 2013 Close Reading with Saki and the Sophomores

Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course in which our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS). After a “close reading” the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS:  figurative language, the ironic wish, and multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man versus the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? The ensuing discussion forced the class to consider other positions.

October 2013 Close Reading Art

The Fighting Temeraire

The Fighting Temeraire

After “close reading” short stories, the sophomores were asked to use the same skills to “close read” several paintings that thematically connected to the Industrial Revolution. They studied a Constable pastoral painting, before J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire. While some called attention to the the dirty smoke stack, others saw the energetic paddling as a sign of progress. They noticed the ghost-like ship hovering in the background, the light created by the sunset which gave the painting “warmth”or “light extinguishing”. When they were asked to use these elements as evidence to determine the artist’s message, there were some succinct responses to the painting’s “text.”

November 2013 Thanks for the NCTE Conference

Five members of the English Department attended the conference and selected from over 700 sessions at the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on English Leadership.  District support for such great professional development is truly appreciated. We are also grateful that four of our proposals were chosen to share as presentations for other educators. The explanations of our presentations with links to these presentations are included in this post.

December 2013 Drama Class Holiday Miracle

Cast photo!

Cast photo!

An ice storm two weeks before performance caused a car pile-up, and the drama club teacher was left with a concussion. She could not be in school; the students were on their own, and I was left to supervise their performances of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at three local elementary schools.

Their “dress rehearsal” was a disaster, but, as the adage says, “The show must go on!” and once they arrived at the elementary schools, the students were anxious to do well. They naturally changed their staging moving from gym floor to library floor, the Evil Queen tossed her hair with anger, and the Prince strode onto the stage with more confidence. The dwarves were a source of comic relief, intentionally or not. I watched the holiday miracle of 2013 repeated three times that day. The students in drama class at each school were applauded, with congratulatory e-mails from the principals that offered praise.

End of the year note:

I am grateful to be an educator and to have the privilege to work with students that I learn from everyday. In this retrospective, I can state unequivocally that 2013 was a memorable year… as you can see from many of the reasons listed above.

Welcome to 2014! May this coming year be even more productive!

I teach English in a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) school, and that means that there is  wireless for all kinds of devices: notebooks, Kindles, laptops, and phones. Internet access is also open for social media sites, except Facebook, since many teachers use them for resources or to communicate with students. There is a school policy  requiring a 7″ screen on a device for classroom use, but students access their cell phones throughout the day.

Once class has begun, students can be online for tasks assigned by a teacher. What is not surprising is that, like students of previous generations, they might drift. For example, while their parents may have passed notes on bits of paper, this generation texts their notes. Their phones are a continuous source of temptation, the same way that their phones will be a temptation in the real world when they leave school. Educators recognize that students must be trained in the effective and appropriate use of technology, yet, with the exponential changes in the use of technology in education, educators may not know or practice the best strategies.

Students, however, often develop best practices in the use of technology themselves. Students can surprise us.

The good example of this sort of surprise is the message of recent holiday ad by Apple. In the ad, a Christmas family reunion begins with the arrival of a family including a teenager preoccupied with his iPhone.  He looks to be missing out on all the festivities: the sled-riding, the cookie-decorating, the dinners, the snowman-building (although he does have the carrot for a snowman’s nose in his pocket). But, on Christmas morning he presents his family with a video he has filmed to celebrate the reunion. In a twist of perception, the video shows that he has not been distracted by the phone; he has recorded and edited all the family events in making the “Harris Family Holiday”. He even makes Grandma cry in gratitude.

The short commercial is brilliantly cast; the teenager looks like any one of a number of my students. His head is constantly bent over the glowing screen; he looks up only briefly to acknowledge a word or gesture thrown in his direction. He could be in my classroom…so is he an example of the distracted  student or is he an example of creativity in my classroom?

The commercial is both an attempt to sell iPhones as well as justify the perception of distraction. “You are mistaken,” Apple is telling the viewer, “the iPhone is not a distraction; the iPhone is a tool.” In an advertising paradox, Apple is telling the truth…the iPhone is both.

I have witnessed students in my class be completely distracted by the cell phone  and other digital tools. I have also witnessed them use these tools to complete assignments beyond my expectations. I have been as surprised as the family in the holiday video. 

Perhaps the most important lesson from Apple is that the “every-teenager” featured in the commercial does the video on his own. There is no assignment. The video is his gift to his family. His choice to use this particular tool for a specific purpose illustrates the goal of a 21st Century education. The commercial also provides teachers with an example of a student practicing 21st Century skills.

The word surprise is derived from the past participle of Old French surprendre meaning “to overtake”. There is no surprise that Apple’s promotion of the iPhone in this commercial overtakes the heart in an attempt to overtake the competitive cell phone market. There should be no surprise that a cell phone is already in most students’ pockets or book bags. Those cell phones need not overtake the classroom if educators encourage their use as a tool and let the students surprise us with what they can do.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 12.50.41 PMThe National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Council on English Leadership (CEL) met for a convention last week (11/21-26/13) at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Thousands of English teachers and educators (happily) put aside their piles of essays and their red pens in order to attend to participate in a nationwide conversation on teaching English/Language Arts at all grade levels. This annual conference runs the weekend before the Thanksgiving holiday, and this year there were many reasons to be thankful that such a great opportunity exists. Here are our specific thanks to all of those who made this conference amazing.

Thanks to our Regional School District #6 in Connecticut for allowing us to attend:

Our first and most important thanks is to the administration, Board of Education, and staff from Regional School District #6 that allowed five members of the English Department at Wamogo Middle/High School to attend the conference and select from over 700 sessions offered from Thursday night-Sunday afternoon.  District support for such great professional development is truly appreciated!

Thanks to the program chairs who selected our proposals:

Members of Wamogo Middle/High School English/Language Arts department submitted a variety of proposals last year to demonstrate how we use technology in our classrooms. We are grateful that four of our proposals were chosen to share as presentations for other educators. The explanations of our presentations with links to these presentations are included below:

The Blog’s the Thing! (NCTE) roundtable discussion

This presentation demonstrated the use of the blog platform for students to engage in thoughtful discussion on characters and themes from Hamlet by having students “stop the action” of the play to offer advice to characters during different scenes.

Reinventing the Writing Workshop with Digital Literacy to Improve Student Engagement (NCTE)

Technology has reinvented the Writing Workshop in meeting the needs of 21st Century learners with the addition of digital literacies. This presentation features open source software platforms appropriate to the different tasks, purposes and audiences for writing instruction along with examples of student work and grading criteria.

How We Mooo-ved Our District from Cows to Computer (CEL)

This presentation illustrated how professional development in our district was organized on the ED Camp model to allow any teacher who would like to share their expertise or simply discuss a problem with fellow staff or faculty members.These technology initiatives have allowed members of the English Department to help teachers assess, organize, deliver context materials and related readings (fiction and non-fiction) that improve students’ digital literacy as well as foster independence in each student’s growth in reading.

Digital Writing with Collaboration (CEL)

This presentation showed how preparing students to write for the real world  (21st Century skills) must include the collaborative experience, from the initial creation to the final product. The use of digital platforms allows students to be college and career ready through the production and distribution of collaborative writing.

Thanks to the many teachers and educators who presented:

We are also thankful that so many other classroom teachers and educators from all over the USA shared their best classrooms practices. Our collective regret is that we could not attend every session that appealed to us; the jam-packed schedule defied our best attempts at strategic selection. We agreed, however, that quality of the presentations we did get to attend was amazing and relevant to what we do every day. The conference reinforced the importance of teacher-to-teacher professional development.

Thanks to the book publishers who made books available for classroom libraries:

The NCTE Convention offers book publishers opportunity to put advanced reader copies of fiction and non-fiction into the hands of teachers at every grade level. While publishers hope to catch the attention of teachers who will recommend the book to students, teachers look for books to add to their classroom library collection. Many publishers also make books available at a reduced cost  for the same reason. For example, I picked up several copies of books in the “After the Dust Settled” series (apocalyptic young adult literature) by Jonathan Mary-Todd for $2/copy, a purchase made necessary because these books keep disappearing off our classroom library shelves.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 12.51.29 PM

Our “haul” from the NCTE Convention from book publishers and authors…headed for our classroom libraries.

 

Thanks to the authors who gave away signed copies of their books:

The tote bags distributed free to all registrants bore popular author Nicholas Spark’s imprimatur, a visual testament to the celebrity draw of authors at this convention. Authors are the rock stars at this convention: the children’s book authors rock, the young adult authors rock, and the educator trade book authors rock. Attendees stood in lines snaking around booths on the convention floor waiting to meet authors and have books signed. In the past, my request to an author is to have the book signed with the phrase “READ ME!” on the inside cover. I had the same done this year, so when a student asks what to read, I will point that the author has already made a suggestion to read the book.

There were also a number of authors representing a variety of genres who served as keynote speakers including: Neal ShustermanTeri Lesesne, Laurie Halse AndersonKelly Gallagher, Walter Dean MyersIshmael Beah, and Robert Pinsky. 

We are so thankful to have the opportunity to personally meet and mingle with the rock stars of the convention!

Thanks for the Tweeters:

Finally, the fingers of dedicated Tweeters attending the convention kept us abreast of all the events at the conference. There was a steady stream of information from sessions we could not attend, summaries of keynotes addresses, and updates as to upcoming book signings. The hashtags #NCTE13 and #CEL13 were invaluable sources for notes and quotes during the convention and for well after we left Boston.  For example, some Friday session tweets were archived onto the Storify platform for later use.

Next year, the NCTE Convention is scheduled for Washington, D.C., which gives me one more reason to be thankful…the convention is within driving distance!

Open House: OMG!

September 15, 2013 — 1 Comment

September is Open House Month, and the welcoming speech from a teacher could sound like this:

“Welcome, Parents! Let me show you how to access my website on the SMARTboard where you can see how the CCSS are aligned with our curriculum. You can monitor your child’s AYP by accessing our SIS system, Powerschool. In addition, all of our assignments are on the class wiki that you can access 24/7.  As we are a BYOD school, your child will need a digital device with a 7″ screen to use in class.”

OMG!

How parents may feel during Open House listening to education acronyms

The result of such a speech is that parents may feel like students all over again. The same people who sat in desks, perhaps only a few years ago, now are on another side of the classroom experience, and the rapid changes caused by the use of technology in education necessitate a need for education primer, a list of important terms to know. While attending the Open House, parents can observe that there are still bulletin boards showcasing student work. They can note how small the desks appear now, if there are desks. Perhaps the lunch lady is the same individual who doled out applesauce and tater tots onto their school lunch trays.  Yet, listening to how instruction is delivered, monitored, and accessed may make parents feel that they are in some alien experience with instructors and administrators spouting a foreign language. Just what is a wiki? they may wonder, and what does BYOD stand for?

So, let’s begin with some of the acronyms.  At Open House, educators may casually throw around some of the following terms to explain what they teach or how they measure what they teach:

  • PBL (Project Based Learning) a hands-on lesson;
  • SIS (Student Information System);
  • Bloom’s Taxonomy: a sequence of learning based on complication of task and level of critical thinking which is being replaced by the DOK;
  • DOK (Depths of Knowledge) complication of task and level of critical thinking required
  • ESL (English as a Second Language);
  • AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress);
  • WIKI: a web application which allows people to add, modify, or delete content in a collaboration with others; and
  • SMARTboard: interactive white board

Subject area names may also seem unfamiliar since they now reflect a different focus on areas in education. English is now ELA (English/Language Arts) while science and math have merged like the Transformers into the mighty STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). The old PE class may now bear the moniker Physical Activity and Health (PAH), but  History has already dealt with the shift to the more inclusive term Social Studies coined in the 1970s.

Assessment (testing) brings about another page in the list of education acronyms that parents may hear on Open House, including these few examples:

DRP (Degrees of Reading Power) reading engagement, oral reading fluency, and comprehension younger elementary students;
DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) reading engagement, oral reading fluency, and comprehension in elementary and middle grade students;
STAR: new skills-based test items, and new in-depth reports for screening, instructional planning, progress monitoring;
PSAT/SAT/ACT:designed to assess student academic readiness for college 

Parents, however, should be aware that they are not alone in their confusion. Educators often deal with acronym duplication, and  state by state the abbreviations may change. In Connecticut, some students have IEPs (Individual Education Plans), but all students have SSP (Student Success Profiles) which shares the same acronym with the SSP (Strategic School Profile). Connecticut introduced the teacher evaluation program SEED known as the System for Educator Evaluation and Development, which is an acronym not to be confused with SEED, a partnership with urban communities to provide educational opportunities that prepare underserved students for success in college and career.

Federal programs only add to the list of abbreviations. Since 1975, students have been taught while IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) has been implemented. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) has been the dominating force in education for the length of the Class of 14’s time in school, along with its partner SSA (Student Success Act) which is similar to, but not exactly like, the SSP mentioned earlier. The latest initiative to enter the list of reform movements that parents should know  is known as the CCSS the Common Core State Standards.

The CCSS are academic standards developed in 2009 and adopted by 45 states in order to provide “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” Many of the concepts in the CCSS will be familiar to parents, however, the grade level at which they are introduced may be a surprise. Just as their parents may have been surprised to find the periodic tables in their 5th grade science textbooks, there are many concepts in math (algebra) and English (schema) that are being introduced as early as Kindergarten.

So when a student leaves in the morning with a digital device for school, BYOD or BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) and sends a “text” that they will be staying late for extra help or extra-curricular activities, parents should embrace the enhanced communication that this Brave New World of technology in education is using. If at Open House a parent needs a quick explanation of the terms being used by a teacher, he should raise his hand;  in spite of all these newfangled terms and devices, that action still signals a question.

Above all, parents should get to know the most important people in the building: the school secretary (sorry, the Office Coordinator) and the school custodian (sorry, FMP: Facility Maintenance Personnel). They know where your child left her backpack.

This past week, I wrote a blog post that critiqued the results of The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2013 test. There was a 2% growth in reading scores over the past 41 years for students at age 17.
A 2% increase.
That’s all.
Billions of dollars, paper piles of legislation, incalculable time…..and the result has been an abysmal 2% increase.

In a subsequent post, I wrote how NAEP also provided data to prove independent reading was the key to improving test scores. NAEP reported that students who claimed to read for fun scored higher on standardized tests with the obvious conclusion that the more time a student spent reading, the higher the student’s score. This information, included in a report that demonstrated a failure of reading programs, offered a possible solution for increasing reading scores: adopt a no-cost, read for fun initiative in order to improve results.

I tweeted out the the link to my post:

2013 NAEP Tests show only 2% growth in reading by age 17 UNLESS students “read for fun”

I received this tweet in response:

 http://www.reading-rewards.com is a lovely site to use when you want to encourage kids to read for fun

So, I went to the Reading Rewards website, but I had some concerns. The headline banner read:“The Reward is in the Reading”, certainly a noble sentiment. However, below this banner was the text that read:

Parents & Teachers:
We know all about the rewards that reading offers, but sometimes our more reluctant readers need a little extra incentive. The Reading Rewards online reading log and reading incentive program helps make reading fun and satisfying. Find more about Reading Rewards’s benefits for parents and teachers.

The concept of an incentive program or reading for “rewards” is not reading for fun. Reading for pleasure should be the only incentive, and offering incentive programs can be counter-productive. Consider education advocate Alfie Kohn‘s explanation of his research that illustrates why incentivized reading programs are not successful:

The experience of children in an elementary school class whose teacher introduced an in-class reading-for-reward program can be multiplied hundreds of thousands of times:

The rate of book reading increased astronomically . . . [but the use of rewards also] changed the pattern of book selection (short books with large print became ideal). It also seemed to change the way children read. They were often unable to answer straight-forward questions about a book, even one they had just finished reading. Finally, it decreased the amount of reading children did outside of school.

Notice what is going on here. The problem is not just that the effects of rewards don’t last. No, the more significant problem is precisely that the effects of rewards do last, but these effects are the opposite of what we were hoping to produce. What rewards do, and what they do with devastating effectiveness, is to smother people’s enthusiasm for activities they might otherwise enjoy.

Kohn’s explanation in his A Closer Look at Reading Incentive Programs (Excerpt from Punished by Rewards 1993/1999) illustrates the problems that develop for late middle school and high school teachers (gr 7-12) experience once elementary students have experienced a reward program with their reading. Students who are conditioned to read for any kind of reward develop a Pavlovian response. They learn to expect a reward; once the reward is removed, however, they lose interest.

Sadly, most students are already in a “quid pro quo” educational experience. Even in elementary school, students are conditioned to want a grade for every activity. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons poked fun of this conditioned response for constant feedback in one episode when Springfield’s teachers went out on strike, and a distraught Lisa begged her mother, Marge, to “grade her”:

“Grade me! Look at me! Evaluate and rank me!
I’m good, good, good and oh so smart!
GRADE ME!”

LISA: "Grade me! Look at me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good and oh so smart! GRADE ME!"

LISA: “Grade me! Look at me! Evaluate and rank me! I’m good, good, good and oh so smart! GRADE ME!”

While grades are not the currency for this website, Reading Rewards is perfectly positioned to be a commercial enterprise with language on the site promoting the RR “store” and “e-commerce”.  This initial shopping experience may be for some trinket in a teacher’s box, a homework pass, or a pizza party, but the potential for “shopping” on this site is certainly a possibility.

Here is the promotional text for teachers:

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 10.43.43 AM

The website advises teachers what items to have for students to “purchase”, and even suggests major retailers i-Tunes and Amazon:

Reward Ideas
Teachers and parents can create any reward they want and define how many RR miles are required to “purchase” each reward. Here are some ideas of Rewards selected by many of our users:

  • Movie night at home
  • Movie in the theater
  • Family game night
  • Sleepover with friends
  • Trip to the dollar store
  • Prize draw from a treasure box
  • Extra tickets for a classroom raffle
  • The right to choose the dessert after dinner
  • Make/decorate/eat cupcake session
  • Amazon credit
  • iTunes credit
  • Game console time

Again, Kohn believes that in teaching students to read, incentives should not be used. Instead he notes:

But what matters more than the fact that children read is why they read and how they read.  With incentive-based programs, the answer to “why” is “To get rewards,” and this, as the data make painfully clear, is often at the expense of interest in reading itself.

So while the key to independent reading is the key to raising reading scores, students should not be raising profits for software companies as well. There are other features on this software that are admirable. The site includes places for reading logs, creating reading wish lists, and peer sharing reviews, but those features could be accomplished on a (free) blog or wiki without the distractions of prizes or rewards.

I do not fault the teacher who was well-intended when she tweeted out this website. She wants students to read for fun. The NAEP report proves that independent reading can effectively raise scores when the reading is self-motivated reading for pleasure. Teachers should question, however, when reading for fun is linked to reading with “funds”.