Trashing the High School English Classroom

In the traditional High School English classroom, there two ways that essays come to be assigned and written. First, the class is reading of a novel, and at the end of the unit of study, it’s time to write an essay. Second, there is a unit of study–Argument Unit, Persuasive Unit, Research Unit, Personal Narrative Unit, Comparison Contrast Unit–and the students work to produce a product towards one of these modes.

I’m going to suggest 2 different approaches to writing and re-imaginings of these traditional approaches, one I’ve tried, and the other, not.

Re-Imagining #1

My first re-imagining, and one that’s probably not a re-imagining, but just a spin on writing workshop models, is the idea that students generate their own topics and ideas for writing. However, I’m going to go much simpler. Student need just one idea or topic to write about. From there, the teacher asks the student to use that idea again and again in different genres, modes, and media forms.

While I didn’t consciously take such an approach, it happened naturally for many of my students in the second half of my English 101 class in the past semester. We started by writing information-based essays on closely related topics such as industrialized process of food production, what makes food organic, the barriers to local food economies. From there, students revised and re-purposed essays into arguments, blog posts, podcasts, infographics. They moved from information-based essays to persuasive pieces, academic research to personal letters. They took eight-page essays and cut them into 30 second Public Service announcements. They created reflective essays on their processes and used their own work as models and templates for others, students in my future classes, to follow.

A student’s struggle, often with writing, is two-fold. The first struggle is to read and to master the content of what he or she is writing about. A second struggle is then to write about it coherently.

The single topic approach may cut away with the first struggle. After a while, there comes to be an intimacy with a topic, the conversations around it, a fluency with the conversations in progress, a knowledge of the details. They develop familiarity and comfort.

Thus, they can focus on the moves of the coherent communication.

Re-Imagining #2

In this idea, the English teacher has no responsibility to create writing assignments, to figure out what students should write about, or to do any of the other traditional approaches to writing instruction as I’ve described in the introduction above.

Instead, the other High School subject area teachers are required to assign reading, and set writing tasks associated with the reading.

In the English classroom, then, the teacher works with students on these assignments. Time is provided, perhaps, to write these assignments, to process, to conference, to revise and to rewrite and to edit. As a person trained in the writing instruction, something that High School teachers in other subject areas are not and a significant stumbling block to cross-curricular writing instruction and the idea with the Common Core that “All teachers are teachers of writing,”these teachers now provide instruction on writing in particular disciplines, towards different purposes, focuses lessons targeted to student needs.

At the same time, it also solves the “All teachers are teacher of writing” conundrum in High School, because it forces math, science, history, business and art teacher to think of assessment in terms of written products.

Infographics: One Genre with Multiple Uses in the Writing Classroom

A year ago, I wrote a blog on my first foray into having students create infographics in one of my courses, and the benefits of those texts as part of synthesizing sources before writing longer, source-based essays.

A year later, I’m back in and kicking it to the next level. Since then, I’m coming back having done some further reading and work on teaching this text. In terms of research to prepare for this, here’s what I read:

In these sources, the authors put forth a convincing case for the power of using infographics for their malleability to a variety of writing situations and purposes. I would highly recommend them, and I say this as I am quickly shredding my copies from overuse.

Back to English 101:

For several weeks, students are reading and watching sources on food systems in the United States in preparation for writing an essay with the purpose of informing. I use the infographic as one step in a process–it brings students to synthesize their sources around a focused topic.

Returning to this assignment for the second year, I made several upgrades to the assignment. First, students would ultimately produce these digitally. Second, I used our LMS, Schoology, to create a page of resources and suggested process for my students.

On this page, I included a mentor study with accompanying texts, Youtube videos on design principles and using PowerPoint to create these texts, as well as links to other free web tools for designing. The page breaks the creation of the infographic into (suggested) discrete steps, with check-in points at each stage so I could monitor student progress. I made a significant design change to this page, which I’ll discuss later.

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My Schoology page for Infographics

 

We spent a little less than a week working through the creation of these texts. Here are some of the products:

infographics

illegal-immigration-

101obesity-101

Moving on:

I was pretty pleased with the assignment, the process I laid out, the resources students were accessing to help them.

I decided to assign this as a task in my elective, Media Maker, as one part of an unit on the Role of Technology in education. Students had already written blogs on their ideas of the value of on-line classes and coursework, engaged in creating various media texts on this subject. However, I wanted them to keep going, and to have them re-purpose their largely text-based writing into new a new form. The infographic would push them to think about how to convey information visually.

However, in this class, students got quickly lost in the steps laid out on my Schoology page. Quick fix: I turned each step into an assignment in Schoology, with something concrete to submit. I also added one element to the student assignment. Because we’re a class that functions completely digitally, we created survey questions, and used student’s social media to distribute the questions, collect responses, and create drafts of the graphics in Google Slides.

What I’m seeing in working with infographics as a student-produced text is that we can use them at any part of a writing process. They can be a formative tool used to synthesize information before turned to more in-depth, formal essays. Or, we can really see them as a valid summative assessment tool that students produce at the end of research, or a way for students to repurpose or re-genre their work.

 

 

Take Web Reading to the Next Level with Docentedu

Here’s the scenario, I’m at home reading my favorite Sunday morning newspaper on my Chromebook, and I come across an article that fits perfectly with the unit we’re currently studying. Pretty exciting, right, to find a current event that connects with the novel we’re talking about? Then, I start to consider the workflow. I’ve got to get a hard copy of this, and then I’ll need to make sure that I get into work early to make the copies I need. Hope no one jams the machine before I can get at it. Oh, and I’ll also need to write some questions and get those typed up and make copies of those for everyone.

Too much work!

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But, there’s a solution.

I want to make a plug for a great tool that’s helped integrate technology with my reading instruction. For about a year now, I’ve been using a Chrome extension called Docentedu. (Full discloser, I am an Docentedu ambassador, but not just because I get to put the badge on the bottom of my blog, but because I sincerely love this product.)

docentedu-ambassador-badge

This tool allows me to embed questions into any web-based text. Below, you can see a screenshot of what this looks like both before and after the Docentedu extension is enabled.

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Once students are logged into Chrome, logged into Docentedu and installed the extension, they can easily access the class you’ve created, see the docents, and then get to work reading, and answering questions. It’s great that you can set open-ended questions as well as multiple choice. Like working in Google Docs, Docentedu automatically saves the answers to the questions for the students and aggregates responses for you to mark.

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When the reading and questions have been completed, it’s easy to go into your teacher account and mark in a variety of ways. You can mark responses by student or by question. Because you set the answer to the multiple choice questions, those responses are automatically marked for you.

After the questions are marked, it’s possible to download a CSV file of student scores. I love this feature as it allows me to see a class average and to see how students did with the reading.

Because you can add your own notes to the webpage as well as embed videos from Youtube, using Docentedu creates a one-stop shopping for students. Recently, my IB English 11 students read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and I used Docentedu as the tool for this reading. I found a decent copy of the essay on-line, then embedded the pre-reading activities at the top of the webpage–these included a Youtube video by another English teacher doing a background lecture to Swift and some notes of my own to help establish the socio-cultural context of the essay. I was also able to share this with a member of my department who specialized in Irish literature. He was able to help me craft my questions and add something to the background that helped students with this challenging piece of writing.

I did something similar in my “Media Maker” class with Tony Hawk’s “This I Believe” essay. I was able to embedded videos of him skating, as well as pre-reading questions for the students to hook them and activate personal and prior knowledge.

With the wealthy of great readings in the public domain, and our school going to a 1-to-1 technology integration with Chromebooks, this tool will be essential. Also, I think we’ve moved passed the age where there wasn’t always great content to read on the web and with major media outlets. Certainly, in this day and age, there’s so much great writing and content on the web. In “Media Maker” we’re only looking at web-based texts and writing and creation intended to be read online. When I am reading in print, and find something I might like to read with my students, I jump on the web, find the text and save it in my Docentedu account. 

Similarly, because we’re an enterprise level Schoology school, I can create pages in my class, and use Docentedu on these pages. It’s a great way to leverage the power of two different tools in one package. Also, we use a number of databases through our library for student research, Docentedu has worked great for getting students to interact with the articles there. I’ve done this with model essays that I want my students to grade. 

The one-stop shopping is important to me, because I find that students get confused when they have to go multiple locations on the web as part of an assignment. I would prefer to create a hyperdoc that keep students on one page and interact with all of the content that I put there.

To be honest, I haven’t worked with the annotation tool or the discussion feature. It’s a goal of mine this semester to work with those features. However, for the uninitiated, that those features are there is enough.

Last year, working for the first time with docent, some struggles and learning curves. It’s important to do the first couple of docents with students. Don’t simply assign them. My students have no idea what extensions are and were completely lost. I needed to take them through he process. Also, our network at school has this issue where the extensions, once installed, break when moving from computer to computer. Kids need to know how to install and uninstall connections. And, kids need to work in Chrome. That’s a habit that I have to beat into them as we move forward. Won’t be such a problem when were all working on Chromebooks in the near future.

Skip the Sunday night dread and panic of what you’ll be doing in class on Monday, and check out Docentedu today.

Infographics, Synthesis and Informational Writing

As part of my FYC, English 101 class, my students read a wide range of sources, provided by me, about the industrial food system. We’re reading Pollan, Schlosser, Moss to name a few.

Once we’re through some preliminary discussion, which happens both in writing and as part of full-class discussion, it’s time for some assessment. I want to know what they’re thinking, and how they see these sources in conversation.

This year, as part of a formative assessment in reading and synthesis assignment, I’m having my kids create info-graphics to meet these needs. This is the assignment I came up with:

Infographic Rubric

I took a couple of weeks to design this and it owes a great debt to the work on Kathy Schrock’s webpage. Anyone who is thinking about working with infographics or is currently work with them, should check our her page. There’s almost too much there.

 

Update on the Single Point Rubric

Forty-eight hours away from taking my first writing project in my English 101, fresh college composition class, and those single-point rubrics are coming into play heavily. As my students and I come into the finish line, there are lots of questions:

“Do I need to use dialogue?”

“What should I include in my writing process folder?”

“What’s in the cover letter?”

The easiest thing for me to do is to point students back to the project’s single column rubrics for either process or paper. It’s a quick reminder for students of the qualities that the work should show to be “At Standard.”

For ambitious students, such a rubric provides a clear starting point for how to excel and go beyond the basics to achieve mastery. Furthermore, it prompts students to figure out for themselves independently how to achieve this level.

For struggling and reluctant writers, a teacher no longer needs to enter a debate about the levels necessary to “pass.” Nor do teachers need to enter into a pseudo-debate in an attempt to goad students into writing more.

In both cases, a teacher has a clear, direct rubric to form the foundations of a conversation for improvement.

The last several days before a writing project comes due are given over to “workshop” days. I turn the classroom space and time over to students to finalize projects, collect process materials, reflect on their writing in a cover letter. I don’t teach anything new, and I may only review certain concepts as I move around the class and look over shoulders and see what patterns I see in work. At this stage, it’s more important to just be there as a resource to students.

On a final note, the use of Canvas has been invaluable. While I’ve used the tool the past two years, making use of the “module” function has been essential in keeping this writing project super organized with all of it’s materials, pages, files–and giving students continued access to all of this media. Awesome.

Simple Ways to Get Kids Writing in the Classroom

Stressed science, math and technology teachers, no fear writing help.

Writing is thinking on paper. We don’t know what we think until we write it down.

These maxims and premises are essential if we want to turn learning and inquiry over to our students and stop being the sole knowledge-holders, then the quickest, easiest way to do this is to have kids write.

I’m not talking about whole-class write-a-thons, quarter-long research projects, but instead short, purposeful exercises that can get kids thinking. The upside: a very simple technology. No smart boards, laptops, computer lab required. Paper and pen are all that is necessary.

Here are five simple ways that teachers could integrate writing on a daily basis.

  1. Knowledge Inventory. Teachers begin by having students thinking about what they might know about a particular topic. Instead of simply asking them to think about it, have the students write down what they know. If students write these on index cards, they can be collected at the end of class, then written on poster paper and place at front of the room. As students move through the unit, these first writings can be used see growth. I actually buy the chart paper with the sticky edge for easy adherence to the wall and stacks of 4×4 lined Post-it notes. These two supplies make this kind of writing easy to do.
  2. Private write. My ideas on this form of writing are shaped by Shannon Marshall’s essay, “A Case for Private Freewriting in the Classroom.” I would strongly encourage it to those who willing begin to make this part of their routine; beyond this, one of my favorite bits of it is when she writes about how it helped her students, “ground out the ‘static,’ for sure, and it gave them a way to subdue their anxieties by encouraging to express what they felt.” As a teacher in our school’s International Baccalaureate program, my students are overloaded with work, stressed about performance, so I love to do this activity when my kids enter my room and they’re looking beat up. I give them ten minutes to write in their notebooks by just telling them to dump out all of what’s bothering them on the page. This is my version of in-class therapy. In those ten minutes, the students acknowledge what’s bothering them. Doing so, clears the air, and then, allows them to focus on the learning ahead. They don’t ever have to share this.
  3. Dedicated journals. I got this idea from reading Writing at the Threshold by Larry Weinstein. I used this the first time in my English 103 Research course. My students use their notebooks throughout the course for assignments and note taking, I have them set aside a section of their notebooks, called the Dedicated Journal, for their work on their research. If your instruction is inquiry driven or you use essential questions to drive your instruction, then a dedicated journal can be the place where students can write, perhaps daily, about how their knowledge evolved towards understanding of these questions. In my 103 class, students have five weeks to read and research. However, each week, a day is set aside to allow them to simply reflect on what they’ve learned towards their research question. They are actively developing mew knowledge. This would be an easy enough activity to develop while in any unit.
  4. Reflections. Lessons can quite often be broken down into discrete moments, steps towards the objectives. To see where kids are, stop for a moment and have them write and call on several students to respond. Benefits beyond writing are two-fold: you check a check for understanding, and students can check themselves against others in the room. Pair this kind of writing with what’s above in the knowledge inventory activity.
  5. Inquiry dialogues and the dialogic notebook. To begin class discussion, I have my students take their notebooks and break the double-page spread into four columns. The first column is for questions, interesting bits of text, important details. After everyone has had a chance to fill the first column, we rotate the notebooks to a new person, who comments on the first column and then we repeat. The final column is for a writer to synthesis the discussion. The activity takes maybe 25 to 30 minutes, but then leads to great discussion as everyone has had a chance to think and to generate ideas.

If under the Common Core, everyone is expected to teach writing, then that conception of what writing is needs to be defined. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to assign papers and research. Instead, writing can become a practice in the service of learning and thinking. This means small, purposeful writing activities that help facilitate student learning.

Works cited

Marshall, Sharon, “A Case for Private  Freewriting in the Classroom.” Writing-Based Teaching: Essential Practices and Enduring Questions. Ed. Teresa Vilardi and Mary Chang. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 7-23. Print.

Weinstein, Larry. Writing at the Threshold: Featuring 56 Ways to Prepare High Schooland College Students to Think at the College Level. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. Print.