What We Did? First Full Week

Here’s some of the cool stuff we did in the first full week.

One of my favorite lessons of the year comes when I introduce the writing process to my English 101 students by creating with Playdoh. Here are some pics from the pencil holders they create with the stuff.

I first came across this lesson almost 20 years ago, and I did it for a while. When I started teaching freshman composition to high school upper classmen, I knew that I had to bring it back. In a over-tested culture where students learn to write for examinations, I knew I needed a way to have students engage in the steps to the writing process, and pull in diverse learners while doing it. This is a lesson that works.

Taking a quick tangent here, I have a tentative plan to do a 1/2 day design thinking workshop for all of my students in the fall to teach them the design thinking process over the course of the afternoon and then to build aspects of the process into the course content.

In Media Maker, students have begun to create their blogs and are starting to write about topics that they’ll be following in the first five weeks of the semester. A few students have already started to write beyond the requirements of the class and are starting review of favorite games and systems. Using help from Eric Bateman, the librarian, we took pictures of students and are getting ready to use the pictures to create a school wide bulletin board of our work, and QR codes to link pictures with the work were doing. Tomorrow, we’re learning some photoshop basics to get those pictures ready for publication.

As I’ve written about in the past, IB is going to be focused on satire in the first five weeks. I’ve flipped a satire lesson–around the techniques of satire. This was paired with Margaret Atwood’s short story “Rape Fantasies,” and were starting their own blogs to share developing thinking on the Atwood’s novel A Handmaid’s Tale.

Given that it was the first full week of school, the Friday after a late night at Open House, I was dreading the last two periods of the day. However, with the IB students having blogged before class, and having read each other’s blogs, students came fired-up for discussion.

Moving to online writing with two class, and approximately 30 students, I’ve been challenged to see how to follow student work. Certainly Edublogs is a great platform to use to have students publish writing and media to the web, but it is also a cumbersome tool for use as a teacher in attempting to follow, moderate, comment, and look at what students are producing. When we were analog, it was picking up a notebook and turning to the right page. Now we have to find the content, follow links. I’d love suggestions from fellow educators on work flow management when students are blogging.



Innovation for Innovation’s Sake

It was a great summer for writing, blogging, remaking course materials, getting ready to adopt new paradigms. I felt like I couldn’t fully let go of summer without acknowledging that, and trying to put a cap on it with a final blog post. I felt like maybe I needed to put down some goals, but then, I’m realizing that I really hate sharing goals publically. More on this below.

I left the school year, like many teachers, ready for a break. But there was something more to it than that. I had been feeling a bored, unchallenged, and not really sure what I wanted to do professionally. I’m sitting on the doorstep of twenty years of teaching, and I was asking myself questions like, What should I do for the second half of my career? Is it time to go back to school? Time to consider pursuing administrative certification? Do I need to go teach Middle School for a while? What am I really doing here? How can I keep going, perhaps for 10 or 15 more years?

And, I asked many of these questions with a great deal of trepidation. I was asking what I needed to change about myself. Change, evolution and personal growth all get good lip service particularly in the educational world. People say, What are your goals this year? How are you going to grow? Yet, we don’t have any systems in place to really enact this. I imagine that like myself, many of you keep files of old lessons, unit plans, binders of course materials. Many teachers started their years by opening files to access that first unit of the school year. Deep inside, there’s that caution: Why change what isn’t broken? Why change for the sake of change? Or, if you’re going to change something you better have a good reason!

Some of these fears, questions and doubts were reflected in Starr Sackstein’s blog for Education Weekly, “Twitter Chats Can Build Collaboration for Systemic Change.” In her blog, she draws on results of mid-career educators and their fears and doubts about their career. Please go read it here.

There are even more deeply embedded aspects of our culture and institutions that prevent change. Last week during a curriculum writing session, I suggested several ideas about changing the school day, teacher assignments, and compensation of teacher time. At each one, I heard, “The union won’t like that.”

So, inside, while I wanted to find a new direction, I was fearing change.

Even as I asked myself these questions, I still felt like I had a lot I wanted to accomplish. I knew there was more I could do for others and for myself as a person.

Still, all of this was a bit vague and shadowy. So, I was having a Dante, beginning of the Divine Comedy kind of moments.

One of the things I spent time watching this summer on Netflix (next to Stranger Things) was the second season of their show Chef’s Table, and the new iteration of the show, which focuses on France. The most powerful episode for me comes in episode 1 of season 2, focusing on Grant Achatz. In this episode, Achatz describes his need for creativity as an important part of his work, and especially for sustaining himself over the years. He’s continually reinventing recipes, his restaurant, his food, and his delivery. It’s through these changes that he finds energy and passion for his work. This theme of change and creativity is very much present in the French Chef’s Table. Go watch!

Watching this show set a path for my summer. Listening to these chefs spoke directly to me. Their thinking about their craft echoed my own. I heard my own needs to create, to innovate, to be original. When they spoke about changing, I heard a permission to do away with the old and change, not simply for the sake of change, but to change because for many people, creative, inventive revolution is necessary to feel inspired and to keep moving.

These two vocations have much in common. I can see this across so much of my practice. When I have three sections of a class and have to teach the third section the same lesson that I’ve already taught two times, I would always change it. I couldn’t do it the same way. My files, both paper and electronic, are cluttered with variations of lessons from year to year, or add-ons to units where I had a new and different idea (see my post on blowing up my IB class). Without realizing it, I’ve been reinventing and creating throughout my career, but perhaps not always cognizant of why.

Much of my summer since that late June watching of that episode of Chef’s Table has been focused on creating for myself and getting ready to help my students create in the coming months. Helping students to do this isn’t so much a goal as I new way I hope to move through the classroom spaces I want to make.

Let’s have the best year of innovation ever!

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.


Here’s What I’ll Be Up to at NYSCATE 

This year’s conference will be a combination of looking at some of the practicalities of adopting LMS systems and creating flipped learning environments paired with thinking about using technology to assist with learning.Our staff development coordinator is having all district participants meet to coordinate conference schedules so that we take on a divide and conquer approach to the conference. For me, I’ll be looking to attend anything that might approach the following threads:

1. A premium on all this having to do with LMS and CMS. We are putting a hard look at adoption of both Google Classroom along with potentially adoption of Canvas or other such tools in order to be able to differentiate to diverse community of teachers and learners.

2. Flipping and the hardware for flipping. 

3. Tools for learning. Tools that will help me learn better and helping me to teach learning better. I’m reading From Master Teacher to Master Learner by Will Richardson right now and he’s helping my paradigms shift. 

I read this book last night and I’ve been thinking about it all day. I just don’t want to go to NYSCATE and find the latest app. I’m looking to be inspired to help my students to learn with technology.!

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.

Single Point Rubrics May Be On Point

A colleague recently sent me a link to an article by Jennifer Gonzalez from a year ago entitled, “Your Rubric is a Hot Mess; Here’s How to Fix It.” In this piece, Gonzalez makes the case for a single-column rubric focusing on the criteria that lead students to reach the standard a teacher is looking to assess.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been hot and cold on rubrics. When I came into teaching almost 20 years ago, rubrics were the rage. Good rubrics give good teachers a direction and a focus to instruction. Presented to students in the right way they may help guide students to what they need to do to hit particular performance targets.

At one point in my early teaching, an experienced teacher said to me, “You’d be a fool not to use a rubric.” Here, the philosophy seemed less, “It’s good for students,” and more, “How do you justify grades without one? You’re opening yourself to lots of problems from students and parents.”

I’ve read Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment, which provides strong argument for moving away from rubrics. After reading her book, I don’t think I used rubrics for a year. I don’t remember having problems with parents about justifying grades, and much of my writing instruction went on the same, and with similar results from my students.

I’m back to using rubrics. Using online tools like Canvas or Turnitin make rubrics easier because you can build an electronic rubric and use it in a drop-down menu format.

After reading Gonzalez’ piece, I decided to put together two single-point rubrics for my English 101 class, which I teach to juniors and seniors at the high school level. One of the rubrics is for the process work submitted for a writing project, and the other is for the writing project itself. Here’s what they look like:

Single column rubrics

While certainly still in beta, I hope that when I roll these out next week to my students, I can help them to focus on the key skills and standards I’m looking for in this first project.

Opening Revolutions

For the past several years, I’ve started my first day of classes with a simple focused, free writing exercise: What are you passionate about?

This year, I made a switch.

For the first week of school, I’ve decided to focus solely on academics. In my freshman composition class, we’re looking at concepts of rhetorical situation, inquiry and writing process. In my IB English class, we’re looking at the evolution of the depicition of war and soliders in films from WWII onward.

I was worried about this change. I certainly don’t feel like I learned anything personal about my students. Instead, I privileged their intellectual and academic selves, and perhaps, learned more about what they would actually bring to our class: their ability to speak lucidly about a subject, their ability to talk to one another and not just the teacher. Also, I wanted to respect the introvert, those students who would be threatened by personal sharing on the first day.

My move, I thought, was a kind of heresy. For almost twenty years, I did some kind of get to know you activity. Most English teachers I know, or have read about, do something similar. It seems common pedagogical practice in the ELA classroom. Yesterday, walking around the building, I heard people starting Faulkner, teaching parts of speech, getting going on readings that would lead to synthesis essays. Heresy? I wasn’t being burned at the stake.

I’ll get back to my personal free-writes next week, for sure. Don’t despair that student, student interest, student passion needto find other rooms. They’ll be back next week with a secure academic disclurse in place.