August 21

Write Along With Them

As I was cleaning out my email inbox recently, I stumbled across some posts from blogs I follow.  Two Writing Teachers had a reflective post about a student conference held at the end of the last school year.  They learned that the most important aspect of the student writers’ confidence as writer stemmed from the fact that their teacher writes with them.  Their justification ranged from the fact that the teacher set the bar high for them to the concept that the teacher provided inspiration, made them feel as if she were part of their community of learning, and validation that the assignment was not just an assignment for the sake of assigning.

Student WritersAs teachers are beginning the year with their students and establishing their classrooms as communities of learners, I want to encourage folks to do the same.  I know that students in my classroom always appreciated the fact that I made the effort to write to the same assignments I posted for them.  They were curious and inspired by things I wrote.  They were pleased to offer suggestions to me for improving my writing.  I heard those very same comments from students as Two Writing Teachers.

I love to write and it helps to clarify my thinking and makes my mindset far more positive when I write.  I began writing with my students as a result of sitting in a workshop facilitated by Kelly Gallagher about 15-20 years ago.  I left the workshop and went to the bookstore and bought his book, Teaching Adolescent Writers.  My copy is dog-eared, highlighted, and annotated in the margins.  It is full of sticky notes marking important concepts to share with students and teachers.  It still is a valuable resource as I work with teachers who are teaching young writers.  I later added many more of his books.

Years later, when attending a conference, I sat in on a workshop facilitated by Penny Kittle.  Again, I headed for the bookstore after the workshop and bought Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing.  Once again, I also added several more of her books to my collection and both sets are some I will never be able to part with so long as I consider myself a teacher!

Even though I already wrote with my students and often used my work to model expectations or as an example when sharing a mini-lesson for grammar or craft, it was reaffirmed that I needed to continue the practice of writing along with them.  Sometimes I even found that my assignment needed a bit of tweaking or revision after attempting it!

So, as you begin your school year, please set aside time and make the effort to write along with your students.  The benefits are multi-fold!

August 16

Taking Steps Toward More Tech-Rich Teaching and Learning

So, you say you would like to expand the use of technology integration in your class but just don’t know where to start…

Well, one of the keys to successful blended learning is to just take the first step.  Waiting for the ideal may put it off forever.  One may never have all the devices desired, the perfect content may not be already posted for your students to access, and your classroom set-up may not be exactly as you want it.  Taking the first step and planning a tech-rich lesson is really all that is required.

Another key concept is to be prepared for failure.  Just like anything new, there will be glitches and hurdles to overcome.  Even traditional lessons have been known to fail at times but planning is the key to success.  Plan with the end in mind – think about what you want students to know or produce  or create; how you want them to prove that they have mastery of the skill or knowledge.  Collaborative planning is encouraged because what one teacher doesn’t think of, a colleague very well might consider.

cardwell picture 1

Remember that blended learning is a balance between digital, classroom, and experiential.  It is nearly impossible to be all digital all the time.  By the same token, without blending, we are short-changing the students and not providing them with the best opportunities.  Teachers might use a combination of self-created and existing online videos to provide introductory or extended instruction for students as well as facilitate face-to-face collaboration.

Just this morning I observed a highly effective blended learning environment in an advanced placement calculus class.  Students came into the classroom and sat in small Cardwell picture 2groups of three or four.  They discussed problems, worked out calculations using pencils, paper, calculators, and collaboration.  They applied the concepts to open-ended questions relating to real-world data usage/application.  The instructor circulated the room asking and answering questions and offering what-ifs and encouragement.  After twenty to thirty minutes, students transitioned to using calculators and Chromebooks for an online, multiple-choice assessment – calculations were still required.   Data was automatically collected and reports will be generated for students to track and improve their performance.  Upon completion of the asessment, students used mobile devices – phones, tablets, and Chromebooks – to preview an online mini-lesson explaining the next day’s assignment.  The teacher as well as the students were successfully blending online and traditional teaching and learning methods.

Students use every resource available to them to learn about something that is pertinent to them – things like new hairstyles or video games or upgrading and installing a chrome-plated exhaust pipe on their car.  They don’t distinguish between traditional learning using a hardbound book, pencil, and paper and using a mobile device.  So, why do we?  There really should be no boundary between traditional learning tools and techniques and digital learning!  Take your first step.

August 2

The Notion of Failure

Building a Community of Learners is essential in any classroom.

The beginning of a new school year is an exciting and busy time, yet, time must be provided to build that Community so that the rest of the school year is effective.  One way to do that as we introduce procedures and protocols is to ask thought-provoking questions where students think, provide justification or examples to support their answers, share their ideas, discuss, and apply their new understanding.

One example that I think would be especially insightful for teachers and students is to follow a recommendation from The New York Times Learning Network.  Why not have your students consider the topic of failure?  Students might be asked to carefully consider their answers, write or post answers to the following questions, and provide documentation or examples to support their answers:

  • What is “failure”? What is “success”? Who defines each?
  • How is failure defined and dealt with in your family?
  • How is failure defined and dealt with in your school?
  • How is failure defined and dealt with in the activities you do outside of school?
  • How is failure defined and dealt with among your friends, and in your community?
  • Which of those definitions and responses to failure seem fairest or best to you? Why?
  • When have you ever failed by your own definition?
  • Can failure be useful? Can you think of examples from your own life or someone else’s when it has led to something positive?  What are at least two or three of those examples?
  • What can be done to avoid failure?  Should people try to avoid failure?
  • How can people recover from failure?
  • How have you been failed by others?
  • Where do you see failure in society around you?

After students have had time (maybe even overnight or after a day or two), facilitate a class discussion where students share their ideas with a partner, then the partners share with another pair.  Groups could collaborate to come up with a consensus of best answers to the questions before sharing with the entire class.  Then, the class could choose to collaborate and contribute to creating a set of class guidelines for learning and behavior within their Community of Learners.  This would lead to understanding that sometimes there is a struggle with learning and at times grappling with failure might be a part of that.

Sowing Failure, Reaping Success: What Failure Can Teach posted on The NYT Learning Network offers multiple ideas for extending the concept of examining failure and what can come from it.  Some ideas that might be a part of the on-going Community of Learners building process for a school year could include: holding a failure debate; performing a case study of people in a field of choice experienced failure; or creating from failure, just to name a few.  A simple checklist or rubric and posts could be a part of formative assessment which guides further teaching.

As a teacher, I firmly believe such assignments would give insight and help get to know one another better by looking at this in the beginning of the school year and then revisiting it periodically throughout the year.  There is no reason such topics and exercises couldn’t be used to address academic standards as well – think about your standards of grammar, usage, and mechanics in ELA, or of documenting sources, or of researching the impact of different historical leaders and events, or for calculating various financial impacts such as supply and demand, or any number of other standards.

I encourage you to take a few moments to look at failure when planning and encouraging students toward a successful school year!