Getting Ready for Next Year

While we don’t have any official ruling on whether the physical school buildings will be open to hold students and teachers, teachers should start thinking now about how they’ll begin the year in a remote teaching situation.

Start this thinking by reflecting on the final months of your school year. Ask yourself, what went well? What didn’t? As you engage in your reflection, center your thinking on your role as teacher. Take ownership and have agency over what happened during the closure. If the reflection focuses on the problems with your administrators or deficit views of students and families, it will be challenging to grow from this period of reflection.

Coming out the reflection, make a list of the problems and gaps that you’ve identified. Collaborate with your department and grade-level teams on how you’ll go about finding solutions to these issues and how you’ll address problems. If you have access to technology integrators in your building or district, schedule meetings with them to discuss issues, and to get professional development and coaching to help you.

Below, I’ve hyperlinked a series of the best blog posts on characteristics of online learning. I would encourage you to read all of them.

Jennifer Gonzalez’s “9 Ways Online Learning Should Be Different from Face-to-Face.”

Eric Sheninger’s “The Vital Role of Digital Leadership in Transforming Education.”

A.J. Juliani’s “The 9 Dimensions of Online Learning.’

Catlin Tucker’s “The Buildling Blocks of an Online Lesson.”

I’ve started to think about September and how I’ll start the year with my students without the virtue of a classroom for connection. Yes, as I said above, there’s no official decision made, but in my mind, starting to think through this now will make August easier, and if we are back in classrooms, the shift of the materials to a face-to-face model will be fairly easy.

For me, the first weeks of school and the first weeks with a new class involve three key themes: Building Relationships, Routines and Proceedures, and finally baseline Academics. Below, I’ll outline these in some more detail.

Building Relationships

Icebreakers and team building: 80% to 90% of my first class times with students will be spent focused on getting to now them, building relationships, and doing some online icebreakers. Check out this blog post on how to move those first-days icebreakers into online environments.

Finding out what my kids are passionate about. One of my first informal writing prompts is asking students what they are passionate about. They write on this topic for a few minutes and then share out. For me, passions are the big things that drive them, so I hear a lot about sports that are important, how family is central to their lives, or a hobby like horseback riding is motivating.

Finding out what my kids are interested in. I also like to have activities around their interests, which are for me may be smaller than a passion, but none-the-less, still important. I want to know what kinds of games they play, what genres are music they listen to, what they binge on Netflix. My favorite activity is to have them create a playlist of their five favorite songs. I take these lists, create playlists in my Apple Music account and then play them when we have work time.

Routines, Procedures and Protocols

Organization of the Course: I’m going to spend about 5% of the time showing students how I’ll organize each weekly block, or two-week block of course material. Making them literate in how things are set-up will help establish clarity when they need to access materials and lessons. As part of this, I’ll also use this time to develop digital literacy around the tools that I’ll be using most. This means some form of a Flipgrid, Google Slides (shared and as Schoology Google Drive Assignments), Google Drawings.

Lessons: Part of this 5% time in my first few weeks will be on the actual instruction that we’ll be working on. During the closure, most teacher provided, direct instruction was done via video with a series of Zoom office hours to help students connect and ask questions. At some point, there will be a short lesson, on some concept, so that they can get into the procedures for watching videos, taking notes, and doing some form of formative assessment.

Assignments: As I alluded to above, most of my assignments are given via Schoology Google Drive Assignments. I’m fairly adept at this tool; however some students come to my class never having done this kind of assignment. They need a little orientation to how to access the assignment. After the assignment has been given feedback, they need to be directed on how to access the feedback, and what to do with it.

Contacting and Conferencing: I’m thinking through my rules, routines and procedures for how students can contact me, and when they should do so. It means I’m thinking about how often I want them checking-in and what ways we’ll do this both synchronously and asynchronously. One of my other tasks is to figure out conferencing schedules and how this will fit into all of the above.

Baseline Academics: Writing and Discussion

As an English teacher, the development of student thinking through writing is the core part of my academic practice. The overwhelming majority of the writing students are assessed on comes from text-based responses to the literature we’re reading. One of the core ways we come to understand the the texts we’re reading is through written and oral discussion. Above, I laid out a framework of activities that situate academics in the rear seat of the opening weeks of school.

However, I’m thinking about how writing can be a way to get students to share themselves with the community we’re building, and how I might use shorter literary texts as a way of connecting and engaging students in conversations to sense who they are, allow for the sharing of ideas for self-expression, and to be ready to make the turn towards academic work.

Over the next several blog posts, I’ll be sharing reading that’s helped me prepare for the coming year, how I’ll organize this time, and what activities I’ll be using. Please follow along, and feel free to reach out to me for further discussion and problem solving.

So, You’ve Been Asked to Write a 4,000 Word Research Paper: Where to Begin

As an IB Coordinator and long-time IB kool aid drinker, the Extended Essay (EE) poses an important, appropriate and formidable challenge for Diploma students. The EE is supposed to be the central experience of this program. In my mind, it’s meant to encapsulate everything about the IB experience: Inquiry-based teaching and learning, source-based writing, in-depth study, time management, collaboration with others and reflection. It’s an experience that all students should have a brush with, not just DP students.

This year, not only am I an IB Coordinator, but I’m also the parent of a rising year-one diploma student. Last night, as my family was sitting down for a dinner of enchiladas, rice and beans, and a salad, my daughter brought up the first hurdle in taking on the Extended Essay: “I’m not really sure how to get started.”

The first step in the EE process is settling on a subject area and broad topic that can start to narrow the sources to be consumed. For example, the IB EE website lists some examples of broad topics for Literature:

  • Marriage in the novels of Charlotte Bronte 
  • Comedy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Twelfth Night
  • Autobiographical details in the novels of Cesar Aira.
  • A comparison of the main characters in Huckleberry Finn and Candide.

These are by no means final topics, but for me as a coordinator, they are a starting point that allow a student to create a preliminary bibliography and begin the process of research (and by this I mean reading). By June, I’d like my students to have settled into a specific topic. For example (and again from the IB EE website): 

  • The portrayal of marriages as imperfect in Sarah Water’s Fingersmith and The Little Child.
  • The use of the Clown archetype in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream and Twelfth Night
  • Satirical techniques and travel in Huckleberry Finn and Candide. 

In response, I thought I would share somethings that I would do if I had to write a 4,000 word research essay. Don’t see the list below as steps in a process. You could do them in any order!

  1. Start by thinking about subjects at school that I’m passionate about and that I might be thinking about studying in college. Then, I would go to the Extended Essay site and read the “Subject-specific guidance” and particularly “Choice of Topic” sections. These will give examples of the kinds of topics that are appropriate.
  2. Make an appointment to see AP and IB teachers of subjects you are passionate about. Talk to them about potential EE topics. Don’t know who in the building might know about something you are interested in researching, see your IB Coordinator or Librarian.
  3. Brainstorm lists of ideas your interested in. Use these as jumping off points to further reading and exploration.
  4. Surf Twitter, find blogs, podcasts and content aggregators who post interesting material and content. Read this stuff and add to your brainstorming.
  5. Read the Sunday New York Times. All of it. Take topics and stories from the issue that are intriguing to you, add them to your brainstorming.
  6. What are your hobbies? How might what you do outside of class lead to topics and research? I’ve seen great essays come out of a love of Ultimate Frisbee, or Violin playing, or War Movies, or Harry Potter.
  7. Talk to family. Have mom or dad or aunt or uncle help you brainstorm about your passions and interests. Talk to them about how their experiences with research and their passions. Maybe this will spark topics.
  8. Go to a museum or historical society. In our area, the George Eastman house, Strong Museum of Play, Art Gallery, Women’s Rights Hall of Fame could all lead to you thinking about interesting ideas.
  9. My English students write “Passion Blogs.” If you write in any way about stuff that interests you, go back and look at other writing and add to your brainstorming, Not only should you add it to your brainstorming, you should “content spin it” or “topic spin it.” What does that mean? Look at my example below.

Recently, I had a student write a mock “How-to” blog post on surviving a zombie apocalypse. To content spin it, with an aim of developing topics, I take the central topic and consider how different IB subject areas or disciplines would explore that topic.

English:  The presentation of the zombie in post-millennium YA literature.

History: The history of zombies in American culture.

Sciences: Necrotizing Bacteria.

Film: The presentation of the zombie in film.

World Studies: Beliefs about zombies in religion and the treatment of the AIDS virus in Africa and the Caribbean.

My last thought is schedule some time over Christmas break to meet with your IB Coordinator for coffee or a burger and have a chat about the EE. Get his or her perspective on this project and talk about your ideas.  

Kingdom Come: A Short Pilgrimage to Kingdom Trails

On the first full day of my recent mountain biking trip to Kingdom Trails, in East Burke, Vermont, I was taking a moment to rest on Darling Hill Road, a main thoroughfare to the trail network, when a truck came along lazily, pulled up along side me. Inside was a grizzled sheep dog and his equally grizzled person with a dirty Budweiser trucker, holding down a mop of brown hair.

From inside the cab of the truck, the driver croaked something at me both inaudible and indecipherable.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Want some marijuana?” and with that he extended his arm and at the end of it was a small glass pipe.

“No. No, thanks,” I said.

“Your loss.” And, with that, the truck pulled away.

Quintessential Vermont. A place of stark contrasts in it’s people, landscapes and possibilities.


Kingdom Trails & East Burke, Vermont

Every summer, we pack our daughter off to camp in mid-August. As soon as she’s gone, I’m freed from summer Dad-duties. I pack my car, and take off on my own adventure. Some summers it’s the Whites or the Adirondacks or the Gunks. But, as a new mountain bike rider, I wanted to go explore a place that I’d been reading a lot about.

Kingdom Trails is a network of 80 miles of mountain bike trails in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Located in East Burke, about 7 hours from Rochester, New York (my home base), Kingdom offers a playground for all sorts of riders.

I’m fairly new to mountain biking, and I’m a very conservative rider. I’m not into bombing down hills or shredding technical trails. What I’m looking for is a chance to be on my bike, outside, and to be able to experience a lot of nature in a day.

Kingdom accommodates. I’ve rode there about four days, covered much of the green and blue trails without repeating anything. But, for those looking for more challenge, there’s plenty of black trails for steep downhills or technical riding. I saw plenty of riders, like myself, rocking their dad bods. I saw groups of families with dads on full-suspension rigs with their kids on Walmart Huffies. I saw retiree couples getting rides in.  All are welcome.

East Burke also provides an excellent hub for travelers. I stay in a lean-to in the Burke Mountain campground, which was perfect for my budget and plans, as well as providing a central place for riding from. The first day, I drove down to the main parking lot in town (a 2 mile trip), but the second day I rode directly onto the trails from the campground. The campground is on a mountain directly above a ski resort. So, if you are looking for upgraded accommodations, this might be the place for you.

The campground the the resort are owned by the same people, so campers have access to the pool and hot tub at the resort, as well as the pub, which offered great food, and more importantly, a dozen taps of excellent Vermont craft beer.

In town, there are rentals, hostels, motels. And, for a small town, there’s several gastro-pubs, ice cream shops, and delis. Everything is very low-key and friendly. It’s a great mountain town.

In town a popular spot is the Tiki Bar, great for post-ride beverages. Atop Darling Hill, I found a bike shop-Espresso Bar-Beer Garden. To dip into my cliche bucket–a little heaven on Earth. Talk about contrasts–one minute you can be riding in what feels like the back country, but a few minutes later you can be indulging in the finer points of civilization: an espresso, or a cold double IPA, or a plate of house made sausages over piles of mashed potatoes. Or all perhaps all three.


The Riding

Pretty much anyone going to Kingdom is going to find themselves stopping in the Trail Network Office, where you buy a $15 pass to ride for the day and get a trail map. My first time, I told the person I was a first-timer and that I was fairly new to mountain biking. I got suggestions for a 20 mile ride on manageable trails, and with that, I felt pretty oriented to the area.

Some of my favorite rides from this trip took me to what felt like remote places. While I had to take the steep River Walk, a black-square route to get down to River Run, it was worth the risk. River Run is several miles of either old logging-road or groomed single track. There are several places to access the adjacent stream.

I started the blog post talking about the contrasts that seem everywhere for me in a place like Kingdom and in particular the riding here. Sometimes in open fields and others through tight forests. Sometimes down steady declines and others off the bike pushing up big slopes.

For me, the seven hour trip from home is too far for a weekend, so I’ll have to content myself with planning a trip back to Kingdom and East Burke next summer.

What Am I Doing Now?

Inspired this morning by A.J. Juliani’s new blog and newsletter, I decided to create a “What Am I Doing Now?” post and eventual page. It’s a great way to start the week, getting focused to be productive.

While I’ve been busy with planning and managing IB exams, I’m excited by a culture-changing opportunity to create a professional development session for Regents exam week. A draft of what we’re going to try to do can be seen below:

Working with other tech integrators in the district, we’re preparing end of year technology integration documents. One of these is a curation of tech tools and activities teachers can use for creating student-centered review or for cleaning up their Schoology classes and Google Drive in anticipation of summer vacation.

This is making me think about other such documents and resources we could start creating for the beginning of the school year: open-house & tech.

I’m also writing a presentation on blogging and personalized learning for a conference next week at Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES, final units and projects for IB 12 and English 103, I’ve managed to squeeze in a few new books that I thought I’d share, so check out this recent post.

Cilantro & a Reading Round-up

Several books have come across my desk that I’d like to write about briefly.

The first is Beyond Literary Analysis by Allision Marchetti (@allisonmarchett) and Rebekah O’Dell (@RebekahODell1).

As I’ve written about these writers and what I’ve learned from them in the past on this blog, particularly around infographics. I’m a huge fan of their work and the Moving Writers blog. When I learned that they were writing a book about literary analysis, I flipped.

After over twenty-one years as an English teacher, most of the them teaching courses like AP Literature, English 102, and IB English Literature HL, I’m starting to feel pretty spent teaching literary analysis and explication.

Knowing that their book was coming, I had a feeling that I’d be rewarded in the reading, and be given ways to breath new life into analysis for students and for myself. That feeling proved true when the book arrived and I dove in. Full disclosure, I started the book on the beaches of Playa Mujeres, just north of Cancun in Mexico during winter break. I wasn’t going to work over break, but I just had to read this book. In writing my review I might be experiencing  a strange synthesisia of white pages, good writing, sunscreen and cilantro.

If you are familiar with Marchetti and O’Dell’s work you know that they preach the gospel of the mentor text. Not familiar? Well, the concept is simple enough. Have students read the work of professional writers, identify the moves made by these writers, and work to replicate it in their own work. Makes sense, no?

Beyond Literary Analysis is broken into three main sections, making for clear reading when reading from cover to cover, but if you are looking to surf the book, each section provides distinct information.

First, Marchetti and O’Dell redefine analysis into 4 simple parts.

Second, this book is practical. They focus on the common issues found when working with the four parts of analyssi in student writing, provide a chart of these issues, and then activities for each of these issues.

Here is an example of such a chart:

IMG_2027

Each of the exercises or protocols to improve writing is described on a later page.

In the third part of the book, there’s a close look at specific analysis assignment with different kinds of texts.

Throughout the book, these writers give lots of examples of student work and the moves that writers can make. Excellent models to use when working with students.

I’ll be honest. This is a book that I’ll reread over the summer, and put into action next year. While certainly, the strategies provided can be a savior when you are looking for dealing with a problem tomorrow, what I love about these writers is that they approach the concept of mentor texts as an entire driving philosophy that makes for good writing program. My IB kids are 5 weeks away from examining. We’re engaging in full on-slaught exam prep, so looking at analysis in NPR blogs or Radio lab podcasts isn’t where I’m going to focus my energy. Still, these teachers give us a way of approaching a curriculum and working with students over months.

Plus, I’m thinking about bringing back reading-logs. I want kids reading and reflecting and engaging in mentor text work on a regular basis. The sustained change in the practice of teaching analysis and getting kids to produce it, i’m not looking for the Friday bandaid. I want to practice in sustainable change. While I hated reading-logs when I first started teaching, and quickly abandoned them, I want students consuming input on a regular basis and reflecting on what they are learning about these texts as writers. Some form of reading-log combined with blog post may be a way to do this.

I also got to read Angela Stockman’s (@AngelaStockmanHacking the Writing Workshop. I’ve been into Stockman’s work for a couple of years now since I read her first book. Stockman is very accessible on Twitter and friendly at Edcamps.

Like other books in the Hack Learning series, Stockman’s new book offers concrete suggestions both in the book as well as with QR codes, which take the reader to shared Google Drive folders with additional resources. Reading this book was a multimedia extravaganza where I read and highlighted the book, and zapped QR codes on my Chromebook.

If you are looking to start a workshop, or looking to reinvent what you do currently, this is the book for you. Here at Canandaigua Academy, we are slowly working to redesign one of our classrooms to be a project-based, learning space with flexible seating. Stockman’s book will help us elevate that space into a room that works to foster productive work for students.

These books are made by writers who get the teaching profession. I believe they know the needs and temperament of the weary, March-drained teacher, much because I suspect that they live these lives themselves. As such, these books are straight-forward, practical, and give you stuff to work with immediately, if that’s your need.