More Than Technically Engaged

We’re at the end of our poetry study and my students have written some amazing poems. I structure the unit so that as we examine each feature of craft, we practice that feature and focus on it, while building each layer. It unlocks the reading process and helps demystify the moves poets make.

In the past, I’ve asked my students to revise a poem based on all the craft features and use it to demonstrate what they have learned about poetry. For some reason, this ability to look closely at their writing and make revisions on creative writing never seemed to gel when the work was on paper. This time I took a different approach and brought in a few digital tools.

The poetry project asks students to revise all five poetry assignments and choose how best to share them with a larger audience. We’re using flipsnack, Google Story Builder, and WeVideo to transform their typed documents into digital books with flipping pages and images, living poems, and photo stories. What’s been exciting for me is that in the process of creating their digital products, revision becomes more attractive to my students. They read, reread, reflect, and consider their poems carefully when choosing which lines to add to a page and which images to include. The digital product options also encourage them to consider how the poem might “speak” to a viewer best and it hones their media literacy eyes.

When we opened our Chromebooks today, my students dove deep into their work. They drafted, revised, reformatted, tried again–and kept experimenting. The room was nearly silent at times as each student focused on her (or his) poetry so intently that there was no temptation to drift away from the work. Every now and then I would hear, “You’ve got to see my sonnet,” or “What do you think of my rhyme scheme here?” As I circulated through the room, student questions allowed me to teach them computer literacy skills like keyboard shortcuts, design tips, eyeflow, and even terms like PDF.

I’m looking forward to their final projects and on Friday we will celebrate their artistry by setting up the Chromebooks to display their poems in a digital gallery, ready for comments, laughter, and appreciation. The best part for me are the many ways their performance on this assessment shows me what they have learned deeply and much more meaningfully than a traditional unit test.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.

Adventures in Paperless Assessment and Feedback

One of the best parts of going paperless on assignments is the ease of giving feedback digitally. Too many times when I would hand-write comments on student papers, I wound up with drained ink pens, writer’s cramp, and zero correlation between my feedback and improvement in student work habits or skills. It got to the point that I tried everything from highlighter schemes to byzantine coding just to make the effort feel worth the time I put in.  (! for a positive, ? for something confusing, * for…I forget…)

Who was I fooling?

Even those methods weren’t enough to put a dent in making feedback part of learning.  I found myself noticing patterns in the errors and wrote and rewrote much of the same advice as I dutifully marched through each individual paper–to no great effect. As I slaved away writing comment after comment, it frustrated me to know their papers were destined for the deepest, darkest, and most neglected corners of their backpacks or lockers. Students merely looked for a grade and promptly tossed their work and mine.

In the last five years, I have made a shift in my philosophy toward assessment, feedback, and measuring student progress. That shift has meant closer alignment to standards-based grading and a greater internal consistency for assigning grades. I hung a laminated poster of the district grade-scale along with the standards-based language I use in order to help students see the link between the grade and their progress.

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Students consult the assessment guide during a self-assessment activity.

 

Enter Paperless Assignments

This year, our school joined the ranks of Google Apps for Education, and with that giant leap forward came another shift in the way I collect, assess, and give feedback on student work. I keep experimenting with different ideas, but my paper-management past caused issues for my digital-management present. With a stack of papers, I could easily attach a rubric or checklist to the front with a stapler. I couldn’t see a way to do that digitally without altering a student’s document and potentially upsetting a carefully formatted document. Philosophically, I don’t want my grading feedback to overwhelm or intrude on a student’s work, nor do I want to bury it at the bottom of the page or otherwise “spoil” a student’s desire to improve their work with the poison of a numerical grade. Students deserve to have the integrity of their writing assignments respected.

Comment bubbles in the margins have been a great compromise for me. I still get to mark the text and call out features that either need work or are outstanding. Students have the ability to confer with me or ask questions without cluttering up their work with any intrusions that might interfere with the coherence of their writing. Students also have the capability to remove my comments from the margins while still having a record to access at any time. A side benefit of these comment bubbles is the invitation for students to engage with me in conversation. Students rarely skip over these comments without either replying, making the suggested correction, or asking a question of their own. They almost can’t help themselves! Comment bubbles in the margin are great for this kind of on-the-spot feedback, but when it comes to a final holistic snapshot or grade, it didn’t feel like enough.

Enter Autocrat, my new favorite Google script.

Autocrat, Where Have You Been All My Digital-Grading Life?

I was first introduced to Autocrat in a side conversation during a Google Cloud Camp held in our district last November. I was already using gClass Folders, Doctopus, and Goobric (three other tools that have made the switch to paperless much more painless), but I was unfamiliar with the merge tool and couldn’t picture how I might use it other than to correspond.

With a little creative thinking and a post on rubric assessments in spreadsheets by Alice Keeler, inspiration struck.

I began with a spreadsheet populated with my students’ names, email addresses, and the direct link to their documents. I then added columns for feedback scores (based on a 3-2-1 rubric for exceeds expectations, meets expectations, and approaching expectations). After collecting student work and recording their scores and feedback in the spreadsheet, I designed a separate document that would act as my feedback template.

The magic of Autocrat lies in the merge ability. I can design one feedback sheet in a document, insert tags for student names, scores, and customized feedback, and then run the script to merge the grading input from my spreadsheet with the template. Each student receives a personalized email, a pdf attachment to the assessment, and a link to their document with further comments.

Each student.

Timely, appropriate, personalized feedback.

Respect for the integrity of student work.

Efficient use of time, attention, and energy.

Assessment bliss!

This process takes less time and produces a superior output to anything I might have done by hand. I’m looking forward to hearing from my students to see if they like their personal feedback reports and see how they use the feedback to improve.

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Screen Glow

The first message came at 11:09pm.

Then 11:21pm.

The last message, at 11:32pm, was the one that caught my eye. The glow of my cellphone’s screen in the darkness as the “alert ” screen slowly faded to black.

What was so urgent that I was woken from my sleep? A student was replying to feedback I left for him on an assignment in Google Drive.

It’s Sunday night, way past bedtime for this teacher, and truth be told–for my young students as well–but I can’t help but feel bemused.

I’ve been giving feedback on student writing for years. Hours of time. Gallons of ink. (Hyperbole? Perhaps.) So often, once the grade was on the page, the feedback and comments were tossed aside or even straight into the recycling bin.

This late-night, unasked for revision? This was not a reaction I’m used to getting to my feedback. Its mere existence on the document invites action! It’s half of a conversation, waiting for a response. The immediacy and ease of communication, the personal, one-to-one coaching: all of it is so powerful.

Still…to my kiddos…it CAN wait until daylight, ok?

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Comments ‘Round the Web, June

June 19

“Why must the use of social media boil down to a false dilemma? If an educator embraces the tools of social media and uses those tools effectively, that does not mean she must also shun relationships or personal real world experiences. Social media is a tool one can engage on many levels, so why does the “all or nothing” myth persist? Is it because the words themselves (social and media) are saturated with connotative baggage that conjures up images of popularity-seekers and shallow consumerism?”

via What are educators’ professional obligations to learn from social media channels? | Dangerously Irrelevant | Big Think.

How I Became a Twit(ter-er)

As little as six months ago, that’s how I referred to people on Twitter: twits.

When Lindsay Lohan, Snooki, and Lady Gaga have Twitter accounts and their every move is big news on Access Hollywood, that’s not something that gets me too excited. I don’t want to keep up with celebrity gossip and Facebook already kept me in touch with family, friends, and coworkers. I didn’t see the need for one more digital plate to spin, another digital identity or virtual self I’d have to maintain like a self-cloning Neopet.  But here I am, an enthusiastic proponent of social media in education. I consider myself to be open minded about technology and social media, but I am a late-bloomer when it comes to blogging and Twitter.

During an Edutopia tweetup while I was in San Francisco for the annual ASCD conference, I met Steve Anderson (aka @web20classroom) whom I had first “met” through #edchat. I’m definitely a newcomer (about 3 months) and he asked me point blank: Why? What was it that enticed me to start tweeting? What happened between month 4 and month 3? His questions made me pause. The change had happened so gradually, I hadn’t really paid attention. Around the same time, another educator I follow on Twitter, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a link from his blog, “Why Educators Should be Using Twitter.” Somewhere down in the comments, a person wrote a scathing post condemning social media and calling into question the motives one might have for participating in social media. After both of these experiences, I decided to give some serious thought to my transition, to share my reasons for joining the Twitter bandwagon, and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that may play a role in shaping the attitudes of educators, administrators, and parents who haven’t been drawn in to the social media community just yet. This isn’t a “you-should-join-’cause-Twitter-is-so-awesome” blog post. There are plenty of those around.

This is my story and I think others may see themselves in my experience.

In the Beginning

If I’m honest, my Twitter journey started about two years ago. I’d already created a Facebook account and made peace with the privacy/oversharing demons. I liked sharing interesting articles I read with my Facebook friends, but my posts usually didn’t generate any conversation or feedback. I wondered if maybe I was just annoying people. I read something in one of the blogs in my RSS feed that linked to a tweet. I wanted to read more.  Being an adventurous person, I thought I’d see what Twitter was all about. I made an account, looked for a few famous people, read disjointed conversations, and felt utterly bored and confused.

You could say I found Twitter to be confusing and overwhelming at first.

WTH was up w/@thisandthat #Blahblahblah RT #BeiberFever? What’s a bit.ly? So many acronyms and symbols! What did it all mean?

For once I felt out of my element with technology. These “twits” were speaking a different language and I didn’t belong with the cool kids speaking their secret code. I had no followers, except for AT&T who assigned someone to follow me after I complained about cell phone reception in my neighborhood. (Gee, didn’t I feel special.) I’m a huge fan of jazz musician Jamie Cullum so it was a natural choice to follow his tweets and get information about upcoming tour dates. I didn’t know anyone personally who used Twitter, so friends and family were off my list. I didn’t really want to use Twitter with friends and family, though. I had Facebook for that and I felt safer using Facebook to limit my contacts and guard my identity. After a day or two, I put a privacy fence around my tweets and promptly forgot my password.

Looking for a Place to Belong

In the second half of 2010, I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, severing myself from the only professional community I had known. I missed the teacher-leader and agent-of-change conversations I’d had in graduate school and my school’s program to develop teacher-coaches. I knew there had to be others out there who felt the way I did and could challenge me or teach me and help me stay sharp. I polished up my digital resume and joined Linked In. I wanted more professional conversation and hoped Linked In would be the place where I would find it. I attempted to contribute to professional conversations in the many available groups, but often days or weeks would go by without anyone saying anything–or I would simply be redirected to a magic-bullet educational product for sale. ASCDEdge proved equally limiting, but at least there were plenty of thought-provoking blog posts for me to browse.

NaNoWriMo and Blogging: Getting Warmer

In November I participated in my first NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The moderator encouraged participants like me to follow NaNoWriMo’s word sprints on Twitter. It felt nice to be connected to a group of writers who were all working hard on their writing like me, but the word sprints were broadcast posts. They didn’t invite conversation, they were commands. At this point, my impression of Twitter was like a platform in the mall where anyone could step up on a box and shout an announcement into the room. I read the tweets but didn’t post any replies.

At the same time I was working on my book, I started thinking about writing a blog. There had been so much conversation in the news about education and reform. I was sick to death of teacher cliches and misinformation and wanted to do something about it. I decided to start a blog (now defunct) based on a daily Google search using the term “teachers should.” I used a pseudonym and posted three times before I gave up. Who was I to write such self-serving fluff? Who would want to read it? Why did I care so much? I’d already tried (and failed) to have these types of conversations on Facebook and Linked In, so what was left?

I shifted tactics and started creating a personal website that would be a companion to my Linked In profile. I was dabbling more, playing with technology and Web 2.0 tools. I started looking for advice and test-driving different options for blogs. Before long I had “discovered” social bookmarking and was working up quite a list of useful classroom tools. That’s when I came across Edublogger, Richard Byrne (@rmbyrne), and Pernille Ripp (@4thGrdTeach). I subscribed to their blogs and started down the rabbit hole. The more I read, the more links I followed, the more blogs I added to the RSS reader. It was exactly what I had been looking for–smart people, great ideas, and a chance for me to learn something new. I dusted off my Twitter account, changed my handle, and added a picture.

I started seeing tips for educators to “follow” and before long I stumbled across Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) and my first #edchat. Before adding the hashtag, I had been tweeting into the ether. I knew what I was thinking, but I wasn’t part of the conversation. I watched the #edchat tweets roll in, saw the same names and faces sharing, questioning, linking, RT-ing (whatever THAT was). The mystifying code began to give way and I started following the conversation. I lurked for a while and decided to formally attend the next scheduled discussion. I stopped broadcasting and started engaging others in conversation. That decision has made all the difference.

In the last three months, because of the men and women I have met through Twitter I have:

  1. Started this blog.
  2. Commented on blogs to extend conversation.
  3. Challenged my philosophy of education.
  4. Participated in a webcast.
  5. Attended an #ntcamp as a virtual participant. Many thanks to Burlington High School’s principal, Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) for the Ustream window into learning. (Who knew backchannel tweeting and collaborating on a Google Doc would rank as one of the most valuable professional development moments in my career thus far?)
  6. Attempted Voicethread, Voki, Diigo, Evernote, Skype, and Prezi (among others).
  7. Engaged thoughtful people in conversation across disciplines, age groups, and backgrounds. (@lookforsun and @delta_dc)
  8. Been humbled to have my ideas shared and discussed.
  9. Connected to thinkers and writers I admire.
  10. Actively participated in shaping my professional footprint.

It’s not a stretch to say that Twitter has been my “gateway drug” to new educational technologies and ideas. It has forced me to define my professional beliefs and encouraged me to be part of a community of thinkers, writers, and innovators. (I’m glad they let me hang out–and I’m proud to be a Twit.)

Thanks again to Steve Anderson (@web20classroom) for challenging me to reflect and to Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) who encouraged me to write.

Why Gymnasts and Flipped-Class Teachers Need a Spotter

The flipped-class method, sometimes referred to as the “Fisch flip” (or reverse instruction), is a way to reorder the elements involved in teaching class material. In theory, students view a vodcast lecture or presentation screencast at home and the next day in class the student will practice or apply what was taught the night before. The flip refers to the swap between traditional uses of class time (lecture) and homework.

"Jake" image courtesy of xac on Flickr.

There are many reasons why this flip works for students and teachers among them:

  1. Unlike live lecture, students can pause, rewind, or review the recorded content any time in class or on their own.
  2. Teachers can ensure all sections of all courses hear the same explanations. No more worries about class interruptions for fire drills, assemblies cutting class short, teacher or student sick days–the content remains the same.
  3. In a mastery environment, students can work ahead or take more time. Learning becomes self-paced instead of teacher-paced.
  4. Teachers and students take advantage of class time for experimentation, exploration, practice, and clarification.

I don’t doubt the benefits for many teachers and students, but I am concerned about how reversed instruction may be applied. Planning for and creating vodcasts or screencasts requires a certain amount of technical skill along with presentation skills. Enthusiasm for the flip is not enough without understanding what makes it work well.

Gymnasts and Their Spotters

In order to learn and develop the strength, flexibility and muscle memory necessary to execute backflips, handsprings, and other tumbling, a gymnast requires dedicated, focused practice. In order to learn effectively, gymnasts begin with a spotter who can help them develop their skill as they learn a new technique. Spotters are experienced guides who don’t take control away from the gymnast, but provide the support necessary to ensure the gymnast’s safety, encourage proper form, and prevent injury. Just because a child is naturally athletic and taught herself how to do a back handspring in the backyard doesn’t mean she’s ready to complete a series of back handsprings down a balance beam in competition.

Spotting the Flipped Class Teacher

In education, we’re fond of throwing around terms for educational practices and we expect when we use these terms that everyone knows what we mean by them: formative assessment, differentiated instruction, project-based learning, the flipped classroom. In practice, misunderstandings and misapplication of methods that work well in the cutting-edge classrooms lead some late adopters and critics to decry these methods because they’ve missed what’s under the hood. It’s easy to read blog posts and Twitter testimonials and get excited (or critical) about a new method but without understanding how it ought to be applied. For example, my first flipped class experience was for an online Masters degree course. The lecture consisted of a cram-packed PowerPoint presentation and a muffled audio recording of the professor reading the slide information while occasionally interjecting additional points that weren’t already on the slides. It was difficult to pay attention to the recording because I could read the content faster than it could be read to me. Just because the lecture and notes were pre-recorded didn’t mean this was a successful flip. It was an attempt, and like a gymnast who falls and fails to complete a tumbling pass, my instructor needed coaching and practice. In other words: what if my professor had a spotter to help him refine his presentation or give him feedback?

Innovation and trying something new are key elements to keeping education vital and helping students meet 21st Century Learning outcomes. In the process, though, it’s important to remember we don’t have to do it alone–and we’re better for it. Before I embark on a flipped-class venture, I plan to seek out my own spotters and coaches to help me avoid making mistakes that will impair learning in my classroom. What are some of these mistakes that need spotting?

  1. Creating presentations that allow students to merely watch passively.
  2. Replicating textbook content and replacing reading with viewing.
  3. Ignoring issues of recording quality and clarity.
  4. Conflating pizazz and technical showmanship with instruction.
  5. Expecting too little of my students.

QCK Coaches Code of Conduct image courtesy of Rick McCharles on Flickr

For more information and examples of a flipped classroom in action, visit the Flipped Class Blog by flipped class innovators Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron  Sams or ask questions using the #flipclass hashtag on Twitter.