Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Students Learning the True Value of Literacy

As educators, we know learners sometimes fail to see the connection between their work inside classroom walls and their lives beyond classroom walls. A question that often arises in many of our students’ heads is, why do we need to learn this?
As their teacher, I wonder how I can help my students see that their time within our classroom is valuable, not just for the few months we are together, but for a lifetime.
One practice I employ is asking students, “Why do you think we need to master this?” Once they get beyond the idea of “We need to know it for the test” or “We need this for next year,” my students begin to discover some interesting ideas about how their learning affects them now and in the future.
This winter, our sixth grade had our annual Innovation Day. This day is built on the 20% principle where students can choose any topic, wondering, or problem that interests them. Students get to spend an entire day becoming experts and creating something to use to teach their peers about their area of expertise on the following day during our Gallery Walk, where they get to share their findings.
This year, we challenged students to make something that would be interactive for their peers (and the others guests we invited). We had an incredible day filled with excitement, passion, and creativity as each project was as unique as the student behind it.
I spent more than two weeks working with each of my students in the planning stages. One task they were expected to do was explain what skills or strategies they had taken from their academic classes that would support their learning on Innovation Day. Seeing that “eureka” moment when students realized how much they would rely upon their literacy abilities to discover answers, solve problems, and create something to share with their peers was exciting.
Because of our Innovation Day, I had the opportunity to see some of my students in a new light. I saw enthusiasm I had not seen before. Students who had been hard to reach or difficult to connect with through our usual classroom activities were now strong, confident, and excited to share their learning with others.
Several students used Lego Mindstorm kits to build and program robots. Another student created authentic, interactive games teaching peers how to make financial investments. Other students built motors, created inventions, or learned the chemistry behind dyeing hair. Some wanted to create a children’s book using tools like StoryJumper or LINTOR Publishing. Others wanted to create videos using WeVideo, PowToon, or iMovie. Some students wanted to create a how-to guide on a Wiki, Tackk, or a Weebly.
As I took time to visit them during their Gallery Walk, I asked each of the students, “What can we do to bring this type of learning into our ELA classroom?”
Even though each student created something unique, students’ answers to my probing question were very similar. They each expressed an interest in composing something that could teach others what they had learned. They all wanted to pay forward their learning.
Using their newly gained experience, my students clearly saw how their mastering of ELA standards supported them in anything they wanted to accomplish. They truly have gained an understanding of the importance of literacy in their lives, not just for a grade or a test, but as a vehicle for taking them anywhere they may want to go—now and in the future.
And their answers to my question, well, that opened the door to a whole new adventure...



Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Growing Empathy in Today's Tumultuous Society

In light of recent events, I know that many of us are wondering what has happened to bring about these horrific acts upon fellow humans. While at ILA, many of the informal chats face-to-face and on the conference hashtag revolved around What can we, as educators, do to equip our students for the world in which they live? ILA saw this pressing need and scheduled an impromptu conversation facilitated by Cornelius Minor. The room was filled to over capacity with literacy leaders and advocates from all over the world. Mr. Minor did an outstanding job modeling and guiding us through some of these difficult conversations. There was a lot of fear, worry, and tears during this conversation. We all have one purpose: leading our students to making this a better world. And that requires bravery. It involves speaking up and speaking out for all of our students. As I continue to marinate on all of this, I have determined that there are some thoughts that I need to express to my fellow "in-the-trenches" teachers.  If I want for my students to be open and honest, I must be willing to do the same.

One comment that was made during this discussion that has continued to ring in my head is:

Our students leave our classrooms and live different realities.

For the last couple of years, I have striven to bring in literature, historical events, and change-makers who are from different ethnicities and backgrounds so that my students can see themselves in their reading. They need to know that literacy is not just for one part of society. It is a key cog for every person, everywhere. And while I've spent two years reading research and growing my practice into one that is much more culturally responsive, I can't help but ask myself if this is enough. After this difficult conversation at ILA and discussions with respected colleagues and friends I can determine that NO, it is not enough.

Our world is greatly lacking in kindness and empathy for others. As literacy educators, we have the opportunity to use powerful stories to help our students experience the difficult realities that the peer sitting next to them may be living. Many of our students are able to turn off the heinous acts happening worldwide and their lives don't change. For other communities, it turns them on end; turmoil, fear, worry and anxiety blankets their neighborhoods and communities. Distrust builds between communities. And our students are ill-equipped to have the language or ability to have difficult conversations.

Unfortunately, what I hear too often from teachers and parents is that it is not for the schools to discuss. I respectfully disagree. Last year, I had students dealing with mental illness, homelessness, the loss of a parent, attempted suicide, abusive home lives, foster care, addiction, and questioning their sexuality. This is in addition to the usual, middle school drama of being "different," whether it's due to ethnicity, language, religion, appearance, or ability level. Those are very heavy topics for 11 and 12-year-olds to process and deal with in healthy avenues.

Cynthia Lord, author of Rules, said,

"Great stories are about being human."

If our students can walk for a mile in someone else's shoes, experience what lives are like for those who are different from them, they are gaining insight into a reality different from their own. Those characters become our "friends." And when readers meet a new peer, the experience gained through walking around for a time with those in different realities will evoke kindness and empathy for others, even if they are very different.

As teachers, it is crucial that we get these powerful stories into the hands of our students. I am not advocating that every book is for every student. We must know our students and their parents. Have conversations with them about difficult topics. Make sure that they are ready to wear another reality for a time. We no longer can afford to brush difficult conversations under the rug and ignore them.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for lives outside the classroom walls. So let's dig into these great stories and nurture empathy in each of our learners. Because our students deserve a better present and future than what we have now.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Teaching Writing: What do you do with all the other students?

In my last post, Teaching Writing: Is it a race against time?, I shared some ways that I have found to give my students the benefit of quality writing instruction within our limited class time. The most common question I hear is, "What do you do with all of the other students while you are conferring and doing small group lessons?" This has been quite a journey for me; I have found a lot of things that didn't work. Like you, I want my students to be engaged in meaningful work, but they also have to stay focused so that I can dedicate my time to the student(s) with which I am working. I am still working at fine tuning my practice, but I have found that literacy centers have been the key to meeting my goals.

I spend over 90% of my time with students either in small group lessons or in one-on-one conferring. Much of the success of using literacy centers comes from having my students set the expectations for themselves while they are either working independently, in pairs, or in a small group. They become the monitors of their own (and their peer's) choices. It puts them in control of the choices that they are making. By letting them have that ownership, I discovered that engagement increases and off-task disruptions are kept to a minimum.

Also, because this is a new for most of my students, we have a gradual release into centers. They need the time to build the endurance to self-monitor and stay engaged for longer periods of time. At the beginning of the school year, we may only devote 10-15 minutes to Lit Centers. As students show that they have an understanding of what the expectations are and they learn how to self-monitor and engage themselves in their work, we slowly increase the time until they are able to devote an entire ELA block to staying focused and on task. To be transparent, my middle schoolers become very adept at this quickly. However, they are middle schoolers. On occasion, I will stop and remind them to evaluate their choices: Are you actively engaged in your work? Are you being as productive as possible? What will change/increase your growth? 

Another crucial cog in this process is for students to be engaged in meaningful work. Learners want to know that their work is worthwhile; it's helping them reach their individual goals. As classroom teachers, I'm sure we've all given students work that is a time filler. Students know when an activity, assignment, or project is basically a glorified babysitting tool. The danger in that is we are sending a message to our students that they aren't the most important entity in our classrooms. They need to know that we all have very important work to complete. Our time is valuable. When designing Literacy Centers, each center needs to provide students with choice. They need to push student's learning and growth wherever they are on the learning continuum. Lit Centers should be a time where students can practice, fail, reflect, and retry. Learners should know not just the "what" but the "why" behind each of the centers in which they are engaged.

To design my Lit Centers, I have combined many different schools of thought (The Daily 5, Writer's Workshop, etc.) to make them work for my middle level learners. Typically, we have six centers that students rotate through each week. Some of the centers may last for several weeks, but most of them can be completed within a week. The centers are: Read to Self, Liberating Lexis (meaningful, individualized vocabulary development), Read with Others, Reflection (typically done on KidBlog), Grammar Grabber (using mentor texts with authentic practice), Publishing Studio (as a project based classroom, we always have a working project). Some centers are independent, some are for student pairs, and some are for a small group.

The learning activities change each week based on the standards learners are working on mastering. Because our 6th grade team plans cross-curricular units, sometimes they are working on the ELA piece of a cross-curricular plan. These centers include the freedom of choice while allowing students the creativity to pursue interests, capitalize on strengths, and grow in areas of weakness. Students know that they are accountable for completing all centers within a given time frame. They understand that the work in which they are engaging is practice to push them towards mastering content standards and reaching their personal goals.

I have found that by combining Lit Centers with writing conferences and small group differentiated instruction, my students grow tremendously. They are happy, enthusiastic, engaged, and self-motivated. They are not only growing to demonstrate mastery of ELA standards, but they are also developing crucial life skills: time management, accountability, collaboration, communication, perseverance, problem solving, and creative thinking.

That is what all of my others students are doing while I'm conferring and conducting mini-lessons. I'm working on making a few tweaks for next year. I'd love to hear how you keep your students actively engaged while you work with small groups of students.

Further reading:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Teaching Writing: Is it a race against time?

As a classroom teacher, the biggest struggle I face is feeling like I have enough time. Time to get to know my students, time to help them reach their personal goals, time to guide them in mastering standards, time to provide them with the learning opportunities they deserve. But never do I feel like I fight that time battle more than when it comes to growing great writers. And based on a conversation from EdcampNBCT, I am not alone. Time was the number one frustration listed when we engaged in a conversation about challenges we face when teaching writing and/or using the writer's workshop model.

I wish I had the answers to finding the time we need to not just rush through every student's writing, but truly devote the time that is needed for students to develop their own voices, experience (and learn from) the struggles of a writer, overcome those struggles, and fine tune their writing prowess. Since none of us have Hermione's time turner, I thought I would share some of the ways that I have found to save time without sacrificing the quality of the instruction and support each individual student needs to grow into a great writer.

One of the biggest commitments that we have is to provide our students with timely, personalized feedback. Like most of you, I would spend hours editing papers, writing feedback, often to have students ignore my suggestions when they went through a revision process. This is amplified when you have multiple classes of students. We want to give our students personalized and timely feedback so as to push their growth and keep the momentum of the writing project progressing, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Through trial and error, I have discovered that if each of my students creates and shares a Google document where they compose/curate all of their writing from brainstorming, planning, drafting, revisions, and editing, I can type feedback comments into their document much faster than if I am writing them with pen and paper. An added bonus is that both the writer and I know what feedback has been left. When leaving feedback, I am focusing only on the standards that my writers are working on proving mastery of in that project. However, as I am reading and leaving feedback, I am making notes of patterns of error within their writing. If I see that a student is struggling with subject verb agreement, I will plan a special small group lesson and additional practice for that student until he/she demonstrates mastery of that skill.

When I shifted to using Google Docs, I found I had more time to contribute meaningful feedback to my students more frequently. It also afforded students the opportunity to receive feedback from their peers. Because it is in Google Docs, students can easily refer to the feedback when making revisions, weighing the ideas and making deliberate choices in their next draft. They can see the evolution of their growth throughout the project.

A second way, I've discovered for saving time while not sacrificing the quality of instruction was I stopped editing their writing. Now I know that there are a lot of English teachers (including an earlier me) who may be shocked by this idea. Here is my rationale: if we are changing, editing and rewriting their work, we impose our voice, ideas and opinions upon them. We steal the ownership of their writing. We take away crucial learning opportunities. As educators, we know that students learn by doing, failing, and retrying. Yet, as writing instructors, we tend to take that away. There is no wonder why so many students hate writing; we tell them we want them to have a voice and then we contradict ourselves by superseding our voice, opinions, and ideas onto their work.

For learning to be meaningful, students need to have that ownership. They need to have the creative license to write and create. Learners need to experience the struggles that come from meaningful work and feel the triumphs of hard work, perseverance and dedication. By providing them feedback on the side of Google Doc, conferring with them one-on-one, supporting them with small group mini-lessons, we are facilitating that type of environment for our students. We are providing them with the tools to master writing, while encouraging them to hone their voices.

Do these strategies and tools give us unlimited time with our writers? Unfortunately, no. But, they present us with more time to spend growing great writers while still focusing on best writing practices. And ultimately, isn't that what we want for our learners?

I'm always looking for new way to sharpen my teaching practice. I'd love to hear any time saving tip you have discovered that still affords you the ability to provide accomplished writing instruction to your students. Thanks in advance!

Further reading on related topics:

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Feedback: Taking it to Heart

Feedback. It's a topic about which I have written quite a bit, especially in the realm of its integral role with student learning. However earlier this week, I got to experience the role that feedback should have upon the instruction provided to the learners. I know that all of us have dutifully completed surveys at the end of a day of professional learning only to see that no changes are made to subsequent events. As a participant, it implies that your voice isn't important; others know better than you. You become a victim to what others want for you rather than having that control over the learning process.

I can honestly say that my experience with the Network to Transform Teaching Hub team was the complete opposite. Never in my experience, have I observed a group of organizers take the feedback left at the end of one day, to immediately turn around and spend hours making alterations and adjustments to the following day's agenda based on what the learners needed or wanted from the experience. I want to point out that all the participants received an agenda (a plan) that I can only imagine took days to create in advance of the learning session. Yet, the Hub team valued what everyone said and were willing to make adaptations to meet our needs.

For me, this served as a perfect model for how accomplished teachers would approach their classrooms. We all collect information and data from our students, but the real question is what do we actually do with it? Do we listen to what our students are actually saying and make changes to our plans based on what we hear? Are we valuing what our students need, what they want out of their learning experiences?

For several years, I have asked my students to provide me feedback on our classroom throughout the school year: What went well? What didn't go well? What goals do you have? What changes can we make to better support your learning? As the recipient of that feedback, you have to be willing to hear some things that may be very hard to hear. I've had some learners provide feedback that has brought me to tears, but when I honestly looked at the choices that I made, I could see the disparity between what I thought I was doing to support learning and what the student perceived.  Even though we may spend hours planning to meet the needs of our diverse learners, the truth is we don't know how our intentions translate to each one of them unless we take the time to ask, truly listen, and put their ideas into action. Because the reality is that this learning is about them, not us. They deserve the best learning opportunities possible. We just have to provide the tools, guidance and pathways to get them where they want to go.

Want to read more about feedback in our classroom?





Thursday, February 25, 2016

Learning is Hard

This week, I have been immersed in a four day learning session. While the work is extremely valuable and exciting for student learning, it is completely out of my day-to-day realm. I possess very little foundation in this type of work (in spite of completing my homework in advance). As I reflected at the end of the day yesterday, I realized that much of what I was experiencing can be very similar to what some of our students may experience within our classrooms everyday. As someone who strives to learn and grow every single day, it was an eye-opening experience to sit in this role.

This lead me to question the choices I make with and for my students. Am I providing them the supports that they need to make sense of the content with which we are working? Do I give them some context upon which to hang new ideas and then the time to process and discuss these ideas? Am I stopping throughout the learning process to check for understanding or am I trudging forward full speed ahead oblivious to the fact that a student is sitting there completely lost and frustrated?

Furthermore, what are my students experiencing? Are they so overwhelmed that they complete shut down? Do they feel like they are the only one in the room who doesn't get it? Are we giving them an opportunity to vent their frustration? (Thank you, Emma) Are they getting the encouragement and one-on-one support that they need to keep moving forward instead of completely giving up? (Again, thank you, Emma)

Learning is hard. Sometimes it's scary. As the lead learner in our classroom it our obligation to look out for every single student put into our charge. Sometimes it's important to put ourselves into their shoes and feel how overwhelming, messy, and ultimately, exhilarating learning can be.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What do you value?

This past weekend was the University of Montevallo's annual homecoming, College Night.  For College Night, students break into two teams, gold and purple. Each side spends three to four weeks writing and producing an original musical. Everything is done by students: costuming, musical compositions, choreography, set design/building, lighting. The two sides perform, amidst each side's chanting and cheering and it's scored by a panel of judges. A tradition like none other in the United States, it began in 1919 and is a considered a local legacy by the Library of Congress.

As we were ensconced with all the different College Night celebrations, it occurred to me that many of the attributes that we value in our classroom are also valued at Montevallo: creativity, collaboration, community, voice, hard work and acceptance.

It's obvious, to even a casual observer, that the University of Montevallo values those traits. As a teacher I couldn't help but wonder how we demonstrate what we value within our classrooms? What does a casual observer see when he/she walks into our learning space? Are students sitting in quiet rows working on test-prep? Are learners sitting all over the space, collaborating in face-to-face and digital formats? Are they building and making things? Are they applying their learning in meaningful ways? Is everything focused towards a score on a standardized test, or are students pushed to demonstrate mastery on authentic problems? Where we invest our time and energy shows what we value.

I think whether we make conscious decisions or not, what we value as an educator can be seen with our students in our learning spaces. Sometimes, we need to take a look in as an outsider to see if what we value is truly what is being manifested in our classrooms. If someone who didn't know you came into your classroom, what would they see?

Let's take these ideas and build the best learning experiences possible for our students.