Flipping-Out Teachers

Last year, as part of a School Improvement Planning Team (SIPT) Subcommittee on Online Instruction, we’ve worked on developing a plan to get all teachers practicing online instruction. It was a great experience. Below I discuss some of the things we did and what I might do in the future to improve upon them.

1. Defining a Belief Statement to drive actions of the committee, and eventually faculty. There are lots of good ones on line to use as springboards for your discussion and as models for crafting your own.

2. Working to define what actually constitutes online instruction. Do we mean conducting online research, submitting assignments to a shared folder, using Google forms to give quizzes, using Edmodo or some other LMS or CMS. These are conversations that have to be had. Each community will have their own definition of

3. Invite union representation. We had a such a person early on in our process. It was necessary that we established on-line learning as an enhancement of the classroom experience in which teachers were vital to facilitating learning, and not a replacement of teachers. However, encourage continued union representation. Once the union is sure the goal isn’t to replace teachers, they should continue to be part of the process of developing meetings, PD, and as another conduit of information for the committee.

4. We conducted a survey to gauge teacher comfort, skill-level, and current implementation. It showed what we predicted–teachers at all places and levels. Not so helpful. We found that some people know technology and some don’t. Don’t survey if you think you can reliably predict what people will say.

After we did the above, we wanted to accomplish the following:

  • Flip a facculty meeting.
  • Build faculty skills to bring proficiency in online instruction skills to 100%. We wanted to use a gamfied system to train people in the digital technology skills and hardware they’d need to create on-line coursework. We have laid the foundation for this, but haven’t implemented it yet. It’s sitting in limbo right now.

Here’s what I learned:

Everything will take more time than you think. Planning our flipped faculty meeting took weeks. We had to plan a discussion. Find a topic. Set questions. Establish the rooms and the groups we’d use. We had to train facilitators. We had a dozen people involved.

As part of this, we attempted to use WordPress as a discussion platform. Good idea, but epic fail. Sites crashed and comments didn’t show up fast enough. Our tech-weary faculty gave up quick.

Don’t bite off too much, and keep expecatations low. When I teach, I’m all for plunging in and going for it, and seeing what happens. In doing so, I’ve done a lot with platforms like Edmodo and Canvas. I’ve done great on-line synchronous and a-synchronous discussions. I love the experimentation, adventure and challenge of this stuff. Just because I love it, didn’t mean some of my peers would. The more I talked to people, I found that in terms of online environments, email might be the farthest reaches of someone’s frontier. Online documents, cloud storage…for some this might as well be Greek, to use a well-worn cliche.

Doubt is part of the process and doesn’t mean that it’s bad. While our flipped faculty meeting bit it, I don’t think that it was all bad. We had some exposure to the possibilities of these kinds of meetings= and a kind of platform that we might use for flipped meetings. We also had faculty see how our facilitators worked around tech issues that emerge in the middle of a plan. Tech in the classroom will never be fool proof and there will be problems. Teachers have to figure out how to be flexible and go. Teachers did this before digital technology, they should bring those same skills forward into computer labs.


Simple Ways to Get Kids Writing in the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works cited

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

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

Mad Scientists at Wordprocessors

Last Friday was a good one, indeed. Not because I’m Catholic or because it was the last day of work before spring break started. Instead, I had the opportunity to work with our science department on issues related to their implementation of writing stemming from new Common Core standards.

Over the past year, I’ve developed a workshop I call “Thinking Like an English Teacher” and given that workshop to history teachers at a local Advanced Placement workshop. I’m branching out here into a new subject area, one where the traditional approach to writing is to say, “English teachers teach writing,” or “That’s not my job,” or “My course doesn’t fit with those standards.” At least history teachers perceive themselves to be providing writing instruction, however narrowly done, so with science teachers it was an interesting morning. As you’ll see, I soon found these perceptions about science teachers and writing to be false.

As  statistics and research emerge illustrating the importance of such partnerships between Science teachers and their English counterparts to have any real effect at improving students’ skills, we need to spend more time interdepartmentally in discussion about what we do. Additionally, job studies show that STEM education is essential as STEM jobs are one of the largest growing employment sectors of the economy. If our kids are going to compete, they are going to have to have paired skills in communication and in STEM arenas.

For me, the morning was a learning opportunity. First, I saw a true desire on the part of my science colleagues to do this. There wasn’t any “I’m a science teacher and not a writing teacher.” They really want to have kids become better communicators. However, I really had no idea how little our science teachers knew about teaching writing, and if given the opportunity again I would go about my workshop from a completely different perspective. In terms of my comments on my science colleagues, I mean no disrespect and no criticism. Some of the core issues and decisions that we’ve dealt with as English teachers are brand new to these people. English teachers, staff developers and workshop leaders—we’ve got to take it slow. Here are some of the elements of writing instruction that I attempted to address and that science teachers need to know as a foundation:

  1. Writing instruction doesn’t mean research papers. My science colleagues thought that the way to teach writing was by assigning a big research paper. A very complicated thing to do. And, quite likely, without a serious helping of writing instruction to go along with it, a frustrating experience for teachers because they are most likely going to read a lot of crap. Writing can be taught in discrete chunks. Focus on writing better backgrounds in laboratory write-ups, or framing better hypothesis statements or better conclusions. If you’re doing a series of labs in a unit, afterwards write a synthesis of those as you would for a textbook or an wiki article. Or, in a unit test, have a brief question at the end which students have to respond to an issue that was discussed in class.
  2. Common language with the English department. Our science chair wanted the rubric we use in our department and a list of instructional vocabulary that we use that we could all be on the same page. I told her no. Mostly because we don’t have one. In our department, we’re all over the place, and I hope to continue to be (although, the new New York State learning modules scare me bad, and those that support them scare me, too. That’s a blog post for another day).  It’s nice as teachers to think that we could make our lives better by creating standardized systems. However, I think we do a disservice to our kids in that way. Kids need to work with a variety of audiences and through a variety of different tasks, modalities and levels of engagement. They need to learn how to shift through all of these different, complicated rhetorical maneuvers. That’s what we do as adults on a daily basis as we navigate partners, bosses, children, and neighbors who all require us to employ different styles of communication in order to have meaningful, successful discourse.
  3. Who are you writing towards? Give them audiences. Tests pervert students’ skills and ability to function in the real world. Because the only writing experiences kids are being given is to respond to tests, they struggle with the rules of writing. On top of that, when kids only write for the teacher, they also get a false sense of audience and purpose. So, establish audiences in writing assignments to give them rules to follow in their writing.
  4. Rules. Who sets them? Teachers do. If there’s something that troubles a teacher in a student’s writing, call the student out, instruct, and then make the student accountable. If they’re taught well, they’ll do it. Then, they’ll probably forget and need to be taught it again. That is not the problem with the teacher. That’s the nature of students.
  5. “I was never taught this, but I still figured it out.” Me, too. I was never taught proper research skills, or how to do MLA. My teachers said go do it, and I did. It was an imperfect process for me, but I came through it. However, as teachers we no longer live in an era where kids will do things independently. They need their hands held and to be spoon fed. If something isn’t taught to them, it isn’t their problem, it’s the teachers. We can cry and complain all we want about the failures of our society and the problems with today’s youth. You still have to teach them exactly what it is you want them to know.
  6. Go slow. Teach writing. Yes. But don’t take it all on.

I’m also finishing a another post about integrating writing on a daily basis with some practical, straightforward and simple ways to do it. I’ll have it up soon.