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