Sunday, 19 May 2013

End-of-Year Essentials

I must've blinked.  Seriously, I could've sworn we just got back from Spring Break.  Was that really 7 weeks ago?  Maybe it's a defense mechanism, but I'm in total denial that it's mid-May, time for the mad dash to the end of the school year.  With a few more mini-lessons and assessments mapped out, report card writing looming, and final meetings and farewells filling up my calendar, I wonder how it'll all get done. 

Somehow it will because it always does.  Having said that, last week's department meeting reminded me of the end-of-year essentials that we should consider in our remaining lessons with our students. 

Celebrate growth.  We began our meeting last week sharing major highlights.  Like us, our students have grown so much this year, and we need to acknowledge it.  Have them name their major accomplishments as readers and writers.  Ask them what they can do now that they couldn't do before.  Tell them to pick their most influential mini-lesson, book and piece of writing.  Give time for them to share their achievements with each other.  In doing so, it honors growth and reaffirms learning.

Consider next steps.  After celebrating our accomplishments, we took time last week to consider our next steps. In small groups, we discussed aspects of a digital workshop like blogging and online notebooks.  By clarifying questions, exploring possibilities, and setting potential plans, we're already better prepared.  It's the same with our students.  They should plan their next steps as readers and writers.  Have them create individualized summer reading lists.  Ask them to write down possible goals for next year.  When considering next steps, they commit themselves to continued growth.  After all, learning doesn't have to end just because the school year does.

Cultivate community.  In a community of learners, relationships matter.  Whether we like it or not, we live in a transient community where people come and go far too often.  That's why it's more important than ever to spend time cultivating our communities and recognize the importance of every individual's contributions no matter how long he/she has been here.  Generate a class list of experiences that only a particular class could have created.  Honor students who are moving on by sharing moments that mattered and contributions they made. 

With these three end-of-year C's in mind, I offer a few final reflections on my first year as Literacy Coach:
  • I'm thankful for the 8th grade team's deep dedication to student learning and professional support.  You participated in rich, collegial and personal PLC discussions where you honored every team member's strengths while respecting each other's differences.  Your classrooms were equally engaging as students read and wrote with purpose and vigor.  Their commitment and creativity in the Independent Writing Project is a true testament to your hard work.
  • The 7th grade team inspires me in so many ways.  In the first MS in-house labsite, you thought deeply and critically about student engagement and transference, and you set concrete steps to fine-tune your practice. You created a once-in-a-lifetime experience for your students by inviting Debbie Wiles and her works into their reading and writing lives.  You've lead the charge in implementing technology into your classrooms by embracing Goodreads and other online tools that showcase your readers and writers.  I know that we can continue to rely on you as we all go 1:1 in August. 
  • I applaud the 6th grade team for your flexibility and willingness to open your classrooms.  Through our labsites, planning sessions, and PLC discussions, we created assessments, crafted lessons and calibrated student work like never before.  Our discussions are professional and collaborative, and we always base our decisions on our students' best interests.

In short, this year has been another year of tremendous growth. As I submit my final blog post of the year, I am most grateful for the opportunity to learn alongside each and every one of you. I am a better teacher because of it.  And while I can guarantee that the next couple of weeks will be a whirlwind, I can also guarantee that I wouldn't want to experience them with any other group of colleagues.  

Sunday, 5 May 2013

All Atwitter about Mentor Texts

I never thought 140 characters could be so complicated. For starters, I had to learn to write sparingly.  (After all, I've already written 140 c-- oops!  I've gone over the limit).  And then there are the RTs and bit.lys.  Throw in some #s and @s, and it's as if Twitter has its own language.  Sure I've seen the videos, and I've read the tips, but I know that to learn how to tweet best, I need to analyze great tweets from the Twitterers I follow.  As I use my mentor tweets to find my way in this genre, I'm reminded at how important mentor texts are in our classrooms. 

Mentor texts are nothing new.  With every unit we teach, we seek to find "touchstone" texts that we love as readers which in turn informs our writing.  Over the years though, my thinking has changed about what mentor texts are and how we should use them.

I used to think that there were actual lists out there that good teachers knew about and shared.  I thought we should protect them with all of our might so that our students would see the texts for the first time under our tutelage.  And we would be the ones to unlock each text's secrets.  Not only that, we could rely on these texts year after year without worry that our teaching would fade.

Since then, my thinking has evolved.  While I agree that some texts lend themselves beautifully to specific units, I believe that we should think more openly about the texts we use.  We know that certain texts resonate more with some of us than others.  With that in mind, do we all have to use the same text?  We also know the value of revisiting good texts, so why should we protect them?  And if we stick with a static list, won't we be missing out on some great possibilities?  

Don't get me wrong.  Of course we need to be aware of the common texts we use, and we should be communicating vertically to know what texts are used each year.  Grade level teams may even "call dibs" on certain titles.  Having said that, there are so many standouts available from picture books to short stories to new award winners to articles and speeches, the possibilities are endless.  Not only that, why not consider video clips, movie trailers and other genres to inform ourselves as writers.  For example, some of us use this trailer for Brave to show how authors (and movie makers) slow down an exciting moment and bring it to life.

When it comes to how we use mentor texts, we may want to think flexibly as well.  As Ralph Fletcher notes in Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts, "instead of directing students to pay attention to this strategy or that technique, what if we invite them to look at these texts and enter into them on their own terms.  This would give students more control, more ownership, and it would respect the transactional dynamic that is present whenever  anybody reads anything."
Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts (Fletcher, 2011)

Fletcher goes on to include an interesting graphic to show the range of noticings a reader can make in a given text.  With his more democratic approach to using mentor texts, Fletcher implicitly supports the idea that in any piece of quality writing, there are a number of possible takeaways.  Just consider how you could teach details by focusing on the camera angles or how to use actions to cause your reader to infer character traits in the Brave trailer.  

As far as when to use mentor texts, many of us begin our units with intense reading immersions.  This makes sense as we delve into a given genre and use our mentor texts to clarify characteristics and note nuances when talking about them in groups and as a class.  It becomes a careful balancing act when we begin writing though as some of us may have them close by when drafting while others do not.  What I find more practical is to bring them back out during the revision stage to see what I have done compared to my mentors.  In doing so, it honors my own voice while drafting and gives me further inspiration to revise with an additional trick or two.  In terms of Fletcher's graphic, at the beginning of the unit, we use mentor texts for the lower half of the pyramid, and as we revise and edit, we can revisit them with the top half of the pyramid in mind.

How about you?  What are your thoughts on mentor texts, and how do you use them in your classes?  

In the meantime, in case you're wondering how I'll condense this post into 140 characters, don't worry.  I learned that I can tweet out, 
"Just blogged:"  Thanks, Mentors!

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Remixing 1:1

A week ago I didn't even know what they were called. I had seen one or two before, but I had no idea how big they had become. In fact, many people now consider remixing, or taking an existing work and adding your own take on it, an art form. As I sat there last week discussing the power of a "remix" at the Beyond Laptops Conference at Yokohama International School (YIS), I thought, yeah, they're cool, but how can I use them in the classroom?  Little did I know that my own students had been making one for me for the past month.  

On Wednesday morning, our team of 100 students filed into the grouproom for a "surprise" group homebase.  It was my birthday, so I suspected that something was up.  Ryan and AJ got up and stood in front of the group and said,  "We made this video for Mr. Riley's birthday. We hope you enjoy it."  

I was floored.  It's amazing that they were able to gather all those students and teachers, record the exact phrases they needed, and use nothing but a smartphone and a flip camera.  But that's not the point. The point is these kids spent all that time, energy, and effort to create something totally unique for me.   And while I'm still trying to figure out why those boys picked "Back in Black" by AC/DC, I was truly touched because it was a gift from the heart. 

It got me thinking about what a 1:1 laptop program is really about. We're in the midst of implementing one right now in the Middle School.  The 7th grade roll out is complete, and there's much to celebrate.  Our tech team designed a thoughtful and thorough "boot camp," and core teachers led subject-related modules with their students.  Their collective work and experience will help guide the rest of the school's roll out in August.  

In teams and in classes, it seems that many of our conversations are about the device.  At this point, they should be.  After all, when there are hundreds of laptops around the school, we all need to have common expectations.  Not only that, as teachers, we need to think about how we can use them in the classroom.  

When we get caught up focusing on the device though, we forget that a 1:1 program has to do with so much more.  With my birthday video, for example, it wasn't about Ryan and AJ's phone or camera features.  It was about how they used them to connect with others and tell a story.  It was about how they used them to connect with me.  In the end, "1:1" isn't between an individual and a device, "1:1" is between one individual and another individual.  And when they connect, ideas are shared, and learning grows.

Just by chance, on the very same day, I "met" Jabiz Raisdana, a colleague at UWC via Twitter.  Here's his take on technology and 1:1 that he posted on his must-read blog, Intrepid Teacher:

Technology shouldn’t be a gimmicky lure we use to “engage” kids.  We use it when we can, when we must, when it makes sense. Otherwise we talk about writing. We write. We explore. Engagement is about passion and love for what we do. It is about getting on the floor and talking to kids about their ideas and giving them immediate feedback. 1-1 means that we try to spend time with each student discussing their work, not speaking at a class about what they all should be doing. No amount of technology will motivate kids, if the pedagogy and the content and the teachers love for the material is not there.

Ryan, AJ, and their friends were motivated to create their video not because of technology.  It was because of story, a way to tell it, and an audience to share it with.  With the remixed 1:1, we'll have many more opportunities to communicate through a wider range of formats with a much greater audience.  Here's how my students and I were motivated to communicate this week through 1:1:
Confessions of a Nincomtweet

  • My students wrote introductory "cover letters" to their 21st century pen pals at YIS, inviting them to read their blogs.  They have since exchanged back and forth emails and commented on each others' blogs.
  • I tweeted out a picture of them blogging along with a thanks to the tech coaches for connecting our classes. Hours later, I heard back from all of the coaches thanking us instead.
  • Grade 8 teachers responded to a Google survey providing critical questions and inspiring ideas for our upcoming labsites.
  • I continued building my virtual PLC on Twitter by following colleagues near and far.
  • Grade 6 teachers started crafting a sample persuasive essay on why bottled water is all washed up on a shared Google doc.
Sure, with each of these interactions, there are devices involved and software to learn.  As we learn them, I'm sure we'll stumble along the way, or we may even end up learning them from our students.   That's okay, because when we do, we'll be connecting with others, sharing ideas, and learning every step of the way.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

If Students Designed Their Own Unit

Co-authored with Rebecca Clark

Throughout conversations we’ve had with colleagues, friends, and family, the one thing that everyone says they wish they had more of is time.  Whether in the classroom or at home, the time we have just never seems enough.  We do our best to structure it to reach the goals we set, but sometimes we get caught up in the frenzy of it all, and we lose focus on what really matters.  Here's a good reminder of how important time is:

When we’re so busy leading structured lives and moving on from activity to activity, we forget that freedom, playfulness and fun is not a waste of time.  In fact, it’s exactly what we need to be more creative and innovative.  Google knows this; they’ve got their 20% rule.  Michael Thompson agrees with it and advocates for more unstructured time for kids, as he shared with parents and teachers a few weeks ago on campus.  

Some teachers are now getting into the mix.  Schools in the UK are trying out the 20% rule in their classes.   Students at the Korean International School design their own clubs around passions or interests they have instead of joining teacher-directed ones.  

Some schools have even "broken down the bells" and implemented a more structure-free approach to enhance learning.  The Istanbul International Community School allows seniors to spend two periods a day pursuing student-directed projects.  And there’s even a high school in Great Barrington, Massachusetts that offers students to “design their own school” for a semester (see video).

While we may not be quite there with implementing ideas such as these,  it’s certainly worth thinking about how this relates to our RLA classrooms. I’m sure you’ll agree, when it comes to the workshop model, it’s challenging to find time for freedom to play, explore and have fun.  We need to ask ourselves:

  • Do we allow enough time for generating creative ideas within our units?
  • What is an effective pace for fostering creativity as we move from unit to unit?
  • How many units are feasible over the course of a year?
  • When do our students get to "play" or "breathe" as readers and writers? How do they do it?
  • Should we consider a 20% rule in RLA? If so, how? If not, why not?

It just so happens, our Grade 8 teachers have thought a lot about this, and they’ve come up with something exciting.  Building on the success of last year's pilot, all Grade 8 students will follow their passions, interests and wonders within a genre of their choice during an independent writing unit this month.

Applying everything they have learned in the workshop model, they will choose genres that enable them to capture their ideas in purposeful ways. Some will choose genres that have never been part of an RLA unit of study while others will go back to a genre they loved but were never able to explore further. Even still, some writers may "tell their story" in a multimedia genre. While the choosing of the topic and genre are important, the emphasis of this unit is on the process as the skills that writers use to generate, draft, revise, edit, and publish are the same.

Along the way, they will work within a team of writers who will support, challenge and hold them accountable. Like the team of students in the "If Students Designed Their Own Schools" video, these teams will also serve as a first authentic audience, and the feeling of "not wanting to let them down" will motivate each writer further. 

This is but one example of what we can do in our classrooms to foster creativity through extended time. And with that creativity comes ownership and authentic learning. The irony is we don't take enough time to sit down as a group and think about questions, ideas, and possibilities like these. So why not consider this the beginning of our conversation. Leave a comment on what you're thinking, add an idea that has worked in your classroom, or consider what the future of RLA might look like if students designed their own units.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Listening's Down So Listen Up!

There's a huge problem in the world today.  No, it's not the sequestration, gun control, or equal rights marriage, but it's something that has to do with each one of these issues and more.  The problem is that people aren't listening like they used to.

Don't just take my word for it.  This past week, President Obama noted this problem himself when referring to the gun control debate.  "Part of the reason it's so hard to get this done is because both sides of the debate don't listen to each other," he stated.  "Sometimes we're so divided...the two sides talk past each other."

This problem isn't solely confined within the halls of Congress. Further evidence can be found right in your own pocket.  With the advent of smartphones and iPads, the practice of plugging in and tuning out has skyrocketed.  Just look around the next time you're walking downtown.  You'll probably see a number of those ubiquitous white earbuds.

Some could argue that this leads to better listening, but it doesn't.  Here's why.  Back when I was a kid, listening was a communal activity.  Whether it was the news on television or the record on the turntable, we often listened with others and reacted together in real time.  Now, when we're plugged in, we shut others out and rely solely on our own interpretation of what we hear.  

Not only that, with more choices right at our fingertips, what we listen to is tailor made.  Sure, we have greater access to listen to a variety of things more than ever before, and this is a good thing.  However, with so much choice and a competitive 24 hour news cycle, news outlets are pressured to sensationalize or even editorialize their content.  As a result, we may gravitate only to outlets that support our views thereby limiting our exposure to differing opinions.  

And because of Youtube, iTunes, on demand TV and more, we can listen to whatever we want whenever we want.  If it doesn't interest us, we can stop it and move on to something else.  No longer do we have to weigh whether it's worth getting up to change the channel.  With one swipe of a finger, we easily move on to something that may interest us more.

None of this bodes well for our students and their ability to develop effective listen skills.  It's no wonder that when I give a set of instructions in class, a student invariably raises his hand and asks a question that I just explained.  With all of these societal factors at play, who can blame him?

Instead of pulling out all of our hair, maybe we should remind ourselves why this is the case and think of how we can help our students develop active listening skills.

For starters, check out this Ted talk about listening by sound expert, Julian Treasure who reiterates these points and offers valuable listening exercises:

With Treasure's challenge to teach listening in mind, here are some possibilities to consider in our classrooms:

  • Focus on listening in Homebase:  Why not try out some of Treasure's exercises in homebase.  Here they are once again:
    • Listen for Silence:
      • Take three minutes to sit in silence as a group to "recalibrate our ears."
    • The Mixer:
      • Notice all of the "channels of sound" in a given setting.
    • Savoring Sounds:
      • Listen to mundane sounds and develop an appreciation for them.  Let them become your "hidden choir."
    • Listening Positions:
      • Become aware of your listening position or "filters" by determining how you listen differently based on what you are listening to.
    • RASA:  
      • Practice this active listening process:  Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, and Ask.
Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards for Grade 8
  • Teach a listening mini-lesson:  By referring to the Common Core standards for speaking and listening, we can develop meaningful lessons for our classrooms.  One example that some teachers use is teaching students to piggybacking (spelled piggybacqing) for discussions:
    • Beg to differ
    • Agree
    • Connect
    • Question
  • Make time for debate:  Good debaters know how to listen to all sides of an argument before debating.  Not only that, while debating, they need to listen carefully to what their opponents say so they can respond with a rebuttal.  Lastly, debating also reinforces other essential skills such as making claims, citing from a source, and speaking clearly and confidently.  Possible debate topics include:
    • Is a particular character ___________ or ___________? (ex. strong or weak)
    • What's the most important theme of a book?
    • Is the book or movie better?
  • Teach a mini-lesson about perspective:  Listening enables us to hear different perspectives.  By teaching a mini-lesson about perspective and giving time to explore a variety of them, this thinking will help students understand the importance of listening and be able to take on other points of view.  Ideas may include:
    • Writing from a character's point of view.
    • Analyzing why authors write 1st person or 3rd person.
    • Exploring the role of secondary characters.
    • Comparing the voices that are heard in a text with the voices that are not heard.
  • Read sources from differing points of view:  This is perfect for informational text reading.  Currently, Grade 6 students are reading through a series of sources on a given issue (ex. teaching cursive, banning dodgeball, using cell phones at school, etc.).  An added bonus is that some of these sources are digital, so students have to listen carefully to hear both sides.  As they are learning to analyze the sources (who wrote it and why) and determine the author's point of view.  At the same time, they're learning to let go of their own preconceived notions about the issue until they've read through all of the sources.
In the end, teaching listening may be one way we can help solve a huge problem in today's world.  And while I'm not naive enough to believe that listening will automatically build consensus, I do believe that it will lead people to talk with (instead of past) one another.  It will also help develop a society full of people who understand and appreciate their differences as well as the similarities.

Images from:


Sunday, 7 April 2013

Taking Off the Training Wheels

The time has come.  I know it's not going to be pretty.  It certainly wasn't the last time.  There were tears.  There were bruises.  I even wondered if we'd make it.  In the end we did, and it was totally worth it.  But now, it's my 5 year old daughter's turn.  She's decided it's time to take off the training wheels.

As I get ready to run alongside her with a pocketful of band-aids, I know that it's going to get worse before it gets better.  That's just the nature of learning something new.  I also know that I need be able to explain each step of riding a bike like how to push start, balance, turn, and stop.  A key part of my success will be drawing from not only my biking experience, but every biker around me.  It's our collective experiences that will inform her best.  And finally, when it doesn't work out at first, I'll need to just listen without any immediate answer so that she can reflect, regroup, and refocus.

I can't help but think that this experience is a lot like implementing the workshop model in our classes.  When we first got on our metaphorical bike, it felt clunky and unnatural.  We were teaching maxi-lessons instead of mini-lessons, and when it was time to confer, we didn't know what to say.  That was okay, because with each attempt, we were getting better.  

In many respects, our training wheels have already come off since then.  We're now more comfortable with the routines of the workshop.  We strive for succinct mini-lessons that engage students and build upon transferable skills.  During conferring time, we draw upon teaching points, personal goals, and real time research.  

After bikers' training wheels are long gone, they push themselves towards longer rides and off-road trails by looking for ways to ride more efficiently and effectively.  It's the same with us, and recently, I've been collecting ideas from all of our classrooms and collaborations that may help when it comes to crafting mini-lessons.

Where do mini-lessons come from?

There are a number of resources we refer to when crafting mini-lessons:  
  • We ground our teaching points within the Common Core Standards.
  • We consider what we have taught in the past.
  • We analyze student pre-assessments ("on demands").
  • We consult a range of professional resources including Teachers College units (see video to find online versions on Atlas).
Unfortunately, at times we stop there, but this list is missing something big.  Don't get me wrong, as with anything we learn, it makes sense that we look to the "experts" for their ideas when we're just starting out.  The thing is we often forget about our most valuable resource, ourselves.  When we reflect on our own work as readers and writers, we open ourselves to a wealth of information.

We did exactly this in our recent department meeting where we read two articles on chocolate milk.  By doing the work ourselves, we were aware of our own process as readers.  At the same time, we collected a list of strategies authors use to support their arguments in informational texts.  When it comes time to teach this, we can design a lesson based directly on our own experience as a reader, and this makes us teach with authority.  

We're beginning to incorporate this work into our PLC meetings.  Whether it's reading through a mentor text together or sharing teacher samples as well as student samples, more and more of our training wheels are coming off.

How can we craft powerful mini-lessons efficiently?

The big issue that comes up over and over when I meet with colleagues and teams is time.  Believe me, I get it.  After all, mini-lessons are meant to be less than 15 minutes, shouldn't planning for one take the same amount of time?  Here are some tips that may help us plan more efficiently:
  • Walk through the framework of a mini-lesson with these questions/tips in mind.
    • Connection (Choose one of the following.):
      • What work have students done previously (this unit, this year, previous years) that relates to this teaching point?
      • What is a good metaphor from the real world that relates to this teaching point?
      • What have I noticed lately from the students' work that relates to this teaching point?
    • Teaching Point:
      • Craft a clear sentence that articulates the teaching point in student language.
      • Begin with "Good readers..." or "Good writers..."  
    • Active Engagement:
      • Use a text that students are familiar with to show this teaching point in action.
      • Try to narrow down your process to three easy steps.
      • Plan where students will have a chance to practice the skill in the same text.
    • Link/Share: (No need to do this ahead of time, just keep these in mind.)
      • Have partners go share what they have worked on and how they have improved in reading and writing today.
      • Highlight one student example that you came across during the conferring time.
      • Rephrase the teaching point.
      • Have students complete an exit sticky note with a major take away from the day's lesson.
  • Set a timer when planning a lesson.
    • Sometimes planning gets unwieldy.  Set a timer for 15 minutes to write a mini-lesson and see if you can stick to it. 
  • Use a template.
    • Fill out a mini-lesson template as you plan.  This helps reinforce the parts of a mini-lesson while ensuring consistency with others as  you divide and conquer.
  • Divide and conquer.
    • Instead of dividing up entire units, work on the same unit by doing the first mini-lesson together then dividing up subsequent mini-lessons.  Do this work during a PLC time instead of assigning it for later on. Together, you will have collective ownership over a unit while using each other as valuable resources.
  • Use Google Docs.
    • House mini-lessons in shared Google Docs folders.  One person could be designated to upload the work into Atlas at the end of a unit.
One final thing I keep in mind as I help my daughter put on her helmet is that trying out something new takes courage lots of practice.  When it gets tough because it inevitably will, we both need to reflect, regroup and refocus.  Once we do, I know she'll get better and better until one day she'll be riding with her own pack.  

It's the same with us.  And as we each pedal away fine-tuning our own craft, we'll continue to improve, but when we hit a pot-hole, let's reflect, regroup and refocus.

Photos from:

  • Google Drive Image Search

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Designing a Complete Curriculum

The crowd hushed while the orchestra pit came to life this past Thursday at Radio City Music Hall.  In no time at all, actors and dancers hit the stage to perform their vignettes.  It seemed like another typical day in the life of this iconic theatre, but this time the song and dance wasn't the most recent interpretation of an old musical.  Instead it was the launch of Samsung's new answer to the iPhone, the Galaxy 4S.

It's odd that a company would go to such lengths to announce a product to the world, but why shouldn't it?  After all, it has designed something amazing worth celebrating.  Tired of swiping your smartphone with your finger?  Well now you can use your eye.

You're probably wondering how this is relevant to teaching RLA.  Here's the thing. We're so busy teaching and assessing academic, discipline-based standards, we're forgetting one key component that enables the people at Samsung or any other innovative company to work their magic.  Design.  

There are lots of reasons why we should add design standards to our curriculum and teach to them more directly in our classes.  Here are just a few:

    "Design" and "Create" are at Level Four on the DOK
  • There's a lot more to design than meets the eye.  Steve Jobs, one of the most famous designers of all time, said, "Design is a not just what it looks like and feels like.  Design is how it works." His definition isn't just limited to the IKEA desk or iPhone.  It applies to meaning and understanding as well.  When we teach design and offer our students to use it when expressing their ideas, their learning is much deeper as a result.
  • To design is to create.  When we create, we think across disciplines and take all of the learning into consideration before we put paint to canvas.
  • By engaging in design, we practice and enhance other essential skills.  According to Frank Nuovo, former Vice President and Chief of Design at Nokia, design is about solving problems and creating solutions.  Not only that, good designers don't work in isolation.  Relying on sound interpersonal skills, designers collaborate with others which leads them to even better ideas.  
Quiz:  Match the Font
  • Design is more crucial now than ever before.  As Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, puts it, there has been a "democratization of design." What was once reserved only for the financial elite or the highly skilled, design tools are now readily used by a larger population.  Just take a look at laptops, digital SLRs, smartphones, and the growing list of software and applications that run them.  Still not convinced?  Try out the quiz that Pink put out to his readers.  He claims that twenty-five years ago only the experts would've been right.  Now, most of us are (scroll down for the answers). As a result, the marketplace is increasingly more competitive, and design elements have become a game changer.
  • Design elements enable us to communicate in ways that go well beyond words alone.  Sure, as RLA teachers, we focus on words as our medium, but in today's world, we understand the power of images.  But there are additional elements in design tools that enhance communication such as color, fonts, music, and layout.   

Simply put, if we choose not to include design in our teaching, we're missing the boat.  And when we miss the boat, our students are stranded as well.  With that in mind, here are some possibilities for our classrooms:

  • Teach a design mini-lesson:  Take a design element and see how it might fit as a teaching point for a mini-lesson.  For example, as a reading response students can use color and shapes instead of words to capture the mood of a chapter.  They may also sketch objects from the text to represent symbols. 
  • Evaluate real world design samples:  Have students become design critics when viewing a youtube clip, a trailer, a visual ad, Blog themes,  etc.  Students can explain what works and what doesn't work in terms of design elements.
  • Use design-based tools with fixed templates:  Many tools offer preset templates that include effective design elements such as iMovie trailers, Prezis, Blogs, Pic Collage, Glogster, Keynote, even Microsoft Word and Powerpoint.  When students select templates have them explain their choices based on how the design elements enhance the meaning they are trying to convey.
  • Teach toward design-based extension projects:  When students complete a Literature Circle book, extend their learning with projects that require purposefully-chosen design elements.  It could be a bumper sticker, a commemorative stamp, a monument, a theme quilt patch, you name (click here for a list of great ones).  Again have students explain their choices in terms of design as well as literary analysis.

Before you get started though, I have to warn you.  Many of our students have lost their innate willingness to design.  Gordon MacKenzie, a former creative director at Hallmark Cards, tells of his countless school visits where he asks students, "How many artists are there in the room?"  The responses are nearly always the same.  The kindergartners all raise their hands while by sixth grade, not a single student raises his hand.  

Here's why.  To design means to risk, and along with risk comes failure.  Many students are more concerned with "getting it right" than "trying it out."  It's not entirely their fault.  That's the way we've taught them. 

So why don't we model it by taking a risk and trying out some of these design ideas in our classrooms?  Who knows, we may be surprised with what we and our students create.  Whatever it'll be, it'll certainly be cause for celebration.  In the meantime, I'll check for availability at Radio City Music Hall.

Answers to the quiz:  1. b, 2. c, 3. a

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Checking the Pulse--A Vital Practice

You know those doctor shows that take place in a hospital's emergency room with doors bursting open and paramedics shouting out vital signs? I'm always amazed at how quickly they give the information and how seamlessly doctors take it all in before even reaching the operating table.  Nothing is overlooked, the patient's weight, ethnic background, blood pressure, or even how he was found.  With all of that information in hand, the doctor then makes the best decision she can to help that patient.

Teaching is no different.  Before we act, we need to consider our students' vitals in terms of reading and writing.  We need to understand where they've come from, what their strengths are and what they struggle with.  
Sure, our situation may not be as dire as in an emergency room, but it still begs the question, "What are we doing to check the pulse of our readers and writers?"

Like emergency room doctors, we need efficient techniques to find out this vital information.  Here are some possibilities that I've witnessed in our RLA classrooms.

  • On Demands:  At the beginning of a reading or writing unit, students produce a sample writing piece or demonstrate reading skills before any lessons are taught.  The teacher can then confirm and/or adjust a logical set of mini-lessons based on the results.
  • Partner Talk:  By talking with their reading or writing partner, students explain their prior knowledge for a given lesson or try out a new technique during a read-aloud.  The teacher, circulating around and listening in, gauges where students are and what they are thinking.
  • Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down:   With this less verbal technique, students answer a question with a thumb up or a thumb down (i.e. yes or no), and the teacher can adjust her plan based on the results.
  • Fist of Five:  Students answer a question by voting with their fingers (i.e. five fingers is the most and one finger is the least).  This option allows students to process the question deeper by having to rank their feelings or experience across a range.
  • End of the Lesson Share:  To wrap up a mini-lesson, the teacher can call on a student or two to share the work they have done. Hopefully it will show progress towards the lesson's teaching point.  If not, the teacher knows she'll have to readjust her plan. 
    Google Form Results
  • Exit Tickets:  At the end of a lesson or small group conference, students write down their take-aways or lingering questions about the teaching point.  The teacher can then sift through them and make groups for follow up teaching.
  • Google Forms:  Students answer a Google Form survey.  Their answers are generated in a spreadsheet that is easy to read and rearrange.

Of course by implementing these and other vital techniques, we can make better informed decisions for our next teaching moves, but there are additional benefits as well.  By using these strategies, we are engaging our students more by accessing prior learning, working as readers and writers in real time, and synthesizing and reflecting on meaningful learning.

Not only that, as teachers we can focus on what our students are taking away from our lessons instead of what we're doing in the classroom.  I don't know about you, but when I share how lessons went with my colleagues or ask them about theirs, I often just talk about the moves I made as a teacher.  Many times, I'm assuming that my students learned better as a result of them.  With these techniques though, I can ground my assumptions in actual tell-tale signs that my teaching was effective.

So the next time you're heading into your classroom, be sure you've got a tool or two ready to check your students' vitals. In the meantime, if you have another great strategy for checking the pulse on your students, leave a comment.

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Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Art of a Duct Tape Tutorial

When Isabelle proclaimed that her 10th birthday party was going to be a duct tape party, I thought, What in the world? The last time I used duct tape was to put together cardboard boxes.  And with images of 4th grade girls taping together box after box in my head, I sat there shaking my head until Isabelle told me about all of the things you can make like wallets, belts, purses, and more just by using duct tape.

With time ticking away, and the party looming,  I had to go right to the experts to learn how to make duct tape essentials for Isabelle's party.   I went to YouTube.  My teacher was Ducttapecreations808, a girl whom I've never met nor ever will.  I don't even know her real name.  But with nearly 1 million hits and over 5,000 subscribers for her 78 videos, Ducttapecreations808 clearly knows what she's doing.  

Pressing play and pause over and over, I picked up each sticky step and tricky move in making a duct tape purse.  I replayed parts that I didn't understand, and in no time at all, I finished my first creation.  So that's how it went.  Purse after purse, I relied on Ducttapecreations808's reliable guidance.  My eventual success was a direct result of the upclose video, personal instruction, and ability to work at my own pace.

Video tutorials are nothing new for learning. They've been around for years, and they're my go to genre when trying to figure something out from how to use a Google function to choosing the right kind of kitchen knife.  Video tutorials have also made an impact on our profession as the idea of the flipped classroom has transformed some classes, albeit with mixed results.

This whole experience got me thinking.  Why don't we add the video tutorial to our list of 21st century genres to teach?  One obvious possibility is to have students choose something they're good at or something they love and have them make a tutorial on it.  This would replace the old "How to" presentation and raise it to a new level as students apply effective tutorial techniques (camera angles, introductions, conclusions, etc.) to make it stand out.

This idea is okay, but I think there's something even better.  At the end of a unit, students could pick their one technique "take away" to focus on in a tutorial.  They could show a before and after of their work and explain practical steps on how to incorporate the technique into the viewer's craft.   Not only would this reinforce their learning, they would also be sharing it out in a much more meaningful way than answering a question on a reflection sheet that only their teacher or parents end up reading.  Eventually, with a running list of tutorials, we can use them with students who are still struggling with concepts and techniques.  

Maybe I'm an idealist, but who knows, teaching students how to make video tutorials could lead them to having their own YouTube channels with loads of reading and writing tutorials and hundreds of subscribers just like Ducttapecreations808.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

An Email a Day...

Remember the old adage, "An apple a day keeps the doctor  away?"  I've often wondered what the adage should be for education.  Well, it's that time of year that I'm reminded of one possibility, an email a day keeps the problems at bay.

It's February.  You can tell just by walking through the halls and stepping into the classrooms. The students' noise levels have increased as have their forgetfulness to bring things to class and propensity to blurt things out.  It's not all bad.  Part of the February Blahs is due to the fact that students are more comfortable with us and with their peers.  They've fallen into the routine of the school year, chugging along like a reliable steam engine.

The problem with steam engines is that sometimes they end up derailing.  And yes, that's my classroom these days.  Unfortunately, my knee-jerk reaction is to stop the presses and lecture to them about the importance of listening, achieving one's potential, and not succumbing to a primal version of their beautiful selves.  It works, for about eight minutes.

That's why in recent years I've come up with another idea to turn the February Blahs into the February Hurrahs:  an email a day keeps the problems at bay.  

Basically, I am on the constant lookout for one of my students doing something good.  It's not hard.  In a span of 80+ minutes across two blocks, I've got loads to choose from.  That afternoon, I spend three minutes writing home, sharing something great about that student.   And while it doesn't totally fix all of the blah-ish issues, it does a world of good.  Here's how:

  • It gets me to focus on the positive instead of the negative.
  • It allows me to notice those students who don't derail the class and continue to work hard each day.  With this approach, they don't get lost in the mix.
  • It enables me to reinforce the positive in some of the derailers when they do something good, thereby building on a moment of strength instead of highlighting a weakness.
  • It provides positive feedback for parents who are so appreciative of receiving it.
  • It only takes three minutes.  Really, that's all.
  • It puts positivity at the forefront of my mind each day.  I often begin class thinking, alright, who's going to get that email today.
  • When I end up focusing on positivity, it invariably sneaks into other parts of my life (colleagues, family, myself).  
So with four weeks until Spring Break, consider trying this out.  Who knows, your students might just stay on track better as a result.  

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