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.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Igniting the Love of Reading

Not too long ago, I got to participate in some fantastic conversations at ILA15. One of these conversations was how we can ignite the love of reading in even our most resistant students. As Lester Laminak said, " We want students to fall into a story and wallow in it because that is how one discovers a love of reading."

At an Edcamp later, I joined a conversation about sparking a love a reading in middle school readers. At the end of this dialogue, someone asked me if I had these ideas in one place. So here are a few of the ways that my learners and I have found to break down even the last resister to ignite that love of reading...

1- Each Friday, we dedicate time for silent, independent reading. Students can read ANY literature that interests them. We have a large library of comic books, picture books, novels, and nonfiction books. Also, my students can choose to read their classmates' blog posts or articles online. They can read about ANYthing that interests them.

We approach this day as an exciting event. It's true that if you are enthusiastic about something, the students will mirror that excitement. Many students have had that flame stomped out by reading logs, scripted programs, and mandatory AR points. So, we gradually build up their endurance. No pressure. We are reading because it is FUN. It's perfectly acceptable for students to read part of a book and decide not to finish it. Then we have informal book chats. Students take 90 seconds to sell their book to their audience. A peer's endorsement of a book results in a long waiting list for that book in our classroom library and the school library (To be totally transparent, a majority my favorite reads this year have been a direct result of these informal book chats.).

Consequently, our classroom became a place where book chats spontaneously sprouted and dialogues blossomed. When students finished a book, they would go to one another for recommendations. My students reaped so much from this simple practice and eagerly anticipated our time each week.

2- The weekly independent reading and book chats opened students up to conversations about reading and writing. Several of my students even formed their own book clubs during lunch. It quickly became a popular thing to join these student led book discussions. It wasn't long before these groups included students who didn't see themselves as readers.  Therefore, it was no surprise that these lunch time book clubs organically developed into student-run book clubs within our classroom. Students chose books, set group norms, timelines and facilitated their own discussions. (You can read more about that here: Once Upon a Time Student Run-Book Groups.) The students had an authenticity to their reading and their writing.  The results were amazing as students had the opportunity to connect with peers who were in different classes, gaining different perspectives, strengthening their literacy skills, and having...dare I say

3- Since today's students crave immediate feedback from their audience (usually judged by how many likes they've received on Insta posts), each year, we usually engage in several synchronous book chats using a variety of digital tools. What we've discovered is that it really doesn't matter the tool; what matters is that they have the opportunity to talk, in real time, to others about the books that they are reading. They love forming connections with their global peers over their favorite books. Gaining that perspective often pushes them to think beyond themselves to see and gain a respect for others' opinions and ideas. It stretches them to see beyond themselves and their community, discovering their place within a global community of readers and learners. My students have used tools like Twitter, TodaysMeet, Skype, and Google Hangout.

The question that I often get is "How do you find these classes to connect with your learners?" Over the years, I've been able to find connections through various social media outlets. Many of these connections have been through our participation in the Global Read Aloud (You can read more about this program here: One Book to Connect the World.) As a teacher, there is an entire community of fellow educators who are interested in connecting their students through literature. Many of the connections that we've built through the Global Read Aloud become long term connections. My students love the opportunity to build relationships with their global peers in order to share their reading, writing, and ideas.

4- Another way my students connect with one another to share books is through a Book Tasting. Often students will find a book series or an author that they love and they will read every book in that series or by that author and they are stumped for what to read next. Even though we do the informal book chats every week, there are so many book recommendations that go unshared due to time. A book tasting is an activity where students bring in their favorite "unsung hero" book in any genre. They write a recipe teasing that book for their peers. During a book tasting, learners have a blank menu where they can select books that appeal them. Appetizers, for a little taste of something different. Entrees, for something meaty to dig into. Desserts, for a frivolous light-hearted read. 

Our classroom was decorated like a diner. Set on each table was a platter of books. Students would read the recipe, pieces of each book and discuss them with the "dining companions." As the diners were wrapping up their tasting, a new platter of books was delivered to their table. Learners filled their menus with books recommended from their peers. Even my most reticent readers enjoy themselves, finding great reads recommended by their classmates. (You can read about the details of this day here: It's Time for a Book Tasting and Build a Book Buffet.)

I hope that one of these ideas may spark some ideas for you and your readers. I'd love to know what you have found that works for your students. Please share any of the ideas you have found to be successful with your readers.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why We Need Each Other

I have a student; for this post, we'll call her Lisbeth. She is in one of my honors ELA classes this year. In our district, placement in this class can be overridden my a parent request in spite of teacher recommendation. Now, I am not here to debate this practice, because as their teacher, it is my responsibility to educate every child that is in my classroom. Lisbeth is one of those students whose parent placed her in honors classes.

As I got to know my students, I observed that Lisbeth often took a great deal of time in completing any classroom assignment or project. In spite of the extended time in class and at home, she was actively engaged in her work and she demonstrated mastery in content area standards. She provided her peers with deep and insightful feedback. When she read aloud (yes, she volunteers), she struggles to decode words and lacks fluency. She demonstrates great reading and word strategies as well as endurance when tackling new words or text. Doing some one-on-one work with her, I discovered that although she lacked fluency, her comprehension far exceeded many of her peers.

From my experience, I wanted to conclude that her lack of fluency and the extra time that she needed to complete tasks was not something to focus on. Also, I did not want to make any decisions regarding her obstacles that could potentially damage her self-confidence.

As an educator of middle level students, I don't often need to work with students who lack fluency (unless it's also tied to other reading deficiencies).  Although my instinct told me that since Lisbeth was still finding success, I didn't need to go into rigorous lessons on fluency, I lacked that data to substantiate that decision. That's when I turned to two highly accomplished K-3 educators. Dr. Gay Barnes and Kim Bowen both who have years of experience in positively impacting student learning, especially in reading.  They are vocal advocates for doing what is best for students regardless of whatever trend is blowing through education. I knew they would really listen to all of my observations and the conclusions that I have drawn regarding Lisbeth and give me honest feedback and recommendations.

As we spoke, they came to the same conclusions that I did, but they recommended that I conduct a Qualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) in order to evaluate if I was missing something in diagnosing Lisbeth and designing the appropriate support for her learning. I hadn't thought of a QRI in thirteen years. Although time consuming, those assessments provide the data I had been lacking regarding the conclusions I had drawn.

Without my conversation with Gay and Kim, I could have easily misdiagnosed what Lisbeth needed. It could have had a negative impact upon her growth professionally and personally. We all need Gays and Kims in our lives who can provide us with honest insight, feedback, and expertise so that we can provide our learners with the best learning opportunities possible.

As we begin a new week, let's all be mindful of the  breadth and depth of experience we have around us, both face-to face and digitally. Let's harness that collective and channel it into empowering our students with the best support system possible.

Photo credit

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Where can student voice lead?

I know that I write about, speak about, and advocate for student voice....often. I truly believe that is a key to reaching our students. They need to have control over their learning, not just in the now, but for a lifetime. Then on Friday,  real-life example of how far student voice and choice can take an individual walked into my classroom.

I have a full-time intern this semester. She prepared a brief activity to introduce herself to my learners. As she began sharing a few things, one item opened a door to a lot of questions for me and my students. She explained that when she completes her internship with us and graduates, she already as a teaching job....for two years....with the Peace Madagascar. I'm sure you can imagine the questions that tidbit sparked. She transparently shared her story and it starts in one of her high school English classes.

In high school, she had a teacher who told the students that they could choose any topic to research. In searching for a topic, she came across the Peace Corps and her interest was peaked. As she dug into her research, she began to see this as an opportunity for her to grow as a person and give back to others.

Upon entering her teacher preparation classes at the University of Alabama, this idea of serving in the Peace Corps resurfaced and she began the journey of making this a reality. She isn't traveling with friends and she knows no one who is or has been in the Peace Corps. Yet, this is something about which she is passionate....thanks to a teacher who gave her an opportunity to choose. And where did that passion take her? All the way to Madagascar (come June 20th).

Her story reinforced why it's truly worth all the planning, conferring, and time involved in giving students a voice in their learning. In so doing, we are investing in our students and their future...and we have no idea how far that will take them. It could take them to the other side of the planet, out into space, or into the great unknown. But we'll never know until we give them that opportunity. Let's give them a voice and let them start their own journey.

Madagascar Image

Want to read more? Here are a few other posts I've written on student voice and choice: