Thursday, June 27, 2013

Summer Development Immerses in World of Plenty

I love summer for so many reasons, but near the top of the list is the time it offers for me to refuel for the school year. One of the most important ways for me is attending summer workshops and visiting family--both providing me with ample food for my thought table. This summer I went to an Edtechteacher workshop in Chicago on ipads. I knew of edtechteacher from articles I'd read online and various links and mentions on Twitter, but I hadn't yet had a direct interaction with them. What I found was a three-day workshop on technology integration led by two passionate teachers who have adopted the "tread fearlessly" mantra needed for successful tech exploration and integration. How I marvel at the experience their students must be having as these two, Shawn McCusker and Heather Chambers, lead them into creative modes of critical inquiry and production. Consider the impact of making a short film composed of Vines that illustrate autobiography for Chambers' psychology class or McCusker's strategy of having absent students Skype into class and participate in discussion via Today's Meet for his history classes. Brilliant ideas that are sure to engage and stimulate students.
At the end of the workshop, edtechteacher founder, Tom Daccord, shared big picture thinking about meaningful tech integration and the need to consider our use of technology in the context of Ruben Puentadura's work on the SAMR framework for tech integration. I loved Daccord's comment that "the best tech integrationists practice convergence," rather than replacement of technology for other more traditional tools that support higher level thinking. Daccord stressed that teachers need to focus more on the "formative process" more than on the "summative process" in the integration of technology. A critical point here being that the student who masters how to use the flashing transitions or video embedding on a student-made website must be questioned about process and mindful use of tools over how polished or produced a final project might be. What enlightened thinking and so important in our age of flashy highly produced work that may or may not offer examples of critical, original, and creative thinking. Daccord stressed the importance of asking students about the choices rather than marveling at the final product. Consider the implications of this thinking for our current focus on testing rather than on embracing process. We seem to be missing the forest, I think.
Always interesting at tech events are the tools getting the buzz. Prior to the conference, we were asked to load our ipads with a number of apps. Here's a small sampling of some that we worked on that stick out to me as having great application for education and beyond.
Evernote: This tool keeps coming up. At every tech event I have attended in the past few years, techies are talking about the power of this online notebook, filing cabinet, information repository. It's free and offers a powerful way for students to use technology that is not machine dependent. I used this last school year with students primarily as a way to encourage taking notes online. I never had a student who was unable to access her notes as long as some internet device was available. On more than one occasion, students reported how thankful they were to have their notes available online. Perhaps most powerful is the ability users have to email articles, images, and links to their notebooks making them truly a transformative tech tool for information gathering and organization.
Notability: As an English teacher, I am always interested in tools that promote active engagement with reading. This tool allows users to actively mark PDFs. My favorite application of it of this summer? Downloading and signing my completion certificate from the workshop and instantly emailing to record-keeping at my school and signing a tuition form for my kids that I could instantly email back. Awesome. McCusker showed how he used to gauge a student's active reading of a shared article. He had the student email him his actively read article when completed as a homework assignment. McCusker was able to assess the student's generalized information about the reading quite quickly. McCusker prompts students to read materials and mark them them so they don't have to re-read it to get important content in each section.
Today's Meet: Mccusker and Chambers described this tool as compartmentalized Twitter. It allows students to have quick communications within the group. McCusker illustrated how he used it to have a "back channel" of discussion during films that may need a sensitive or guided approach. He used it to allow discourse during a film on 9-11. In another terrific example, Mccusker shared how he'd set up a Today's Meet for students to have discussion during the Presidential debates. He encouraged parents to chime into the shared reflection, urging focus on the strategies used in the debate rather than inviting discourse about politics. Brilliant. In the SAMR framework, this example offers a redefinition of tasks in that the use of technology allowed for the "creation of a task previously inconceivable."
Twitter: It's hard to overstate the importance for teachers to engage with Twitter. Though the sheer volume of material shared can be overwhelming, it's important to commit some time each day to connecting with other professionals. As one moving into a new role this coming school year, I have found Twitter to be critical in helping me set up support networks to help me navigate my own changing landscape from full time classroom teaching to technology integration and helping my school connect students to our local community. The woman sitting next to me in the conference, a tech integrationist from a suburban Chicago school, shared that she commits the first 15 minutes of each day to exploring her Twittersphere. Personally, the richest reward in using Twitter begins when others begin connecting and retweeting each other's findings. What tremendous opportunity for expanding one's professional network! I am increasingly aware of the superstars emerging in the Twitter realm--they are the ones sharing good information and responding to others.
I suspect that the tools I highlighted here are well-known to just about anyone navigating web tools for education. I think, however, that I will continue some discussion of the other perhaps lesser know apps in another post in the hopes of not overwhelming the brim of this cup that is about to runneth over. So more later as I have the luxury of summer to see exactly what I loaded onto my ipad and how I muddled through in the sandbox time of my workshop. What an exciting time to be a teacher.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sharing Writing Assessment Offers Opportunities to Improve Teaching

Managing student writing from instruction to feedback to revision is one of the most time intensive aspects of teaching. Typically this instruction is left to English teachers though all classes are expected to be engaging students in writing. The teachers who do assign written work, sometimes express frustration about the quality of the writing and wonder why the work they are receiving is sub par. At our school, we decided to delve into the challenge of improving student writing from a multi-curricular angle. Using an online submission process and assessment tool,, we created a course especially for assignments that would be graded by a team of teachers we dubbed The Writing Board.

The Board was comprised of five tenth grade teachers: two history, one science, two English. Our mission was to share one writing assignment from our classes, discuss grading rubrics, and share the load of assessing the writing. As an English Department, our goal was to begin the process of establishing common criteria for quality writing. Besides establishing standards for formatting such as MLA headings, margins, fonts, and source information, we also hoped the experiment would allow us opportunity to discuss and assess mechanics, organization, and structure in writing. We wanted to model this not only for students, but also to begin the process of establishing standards for all academic writing on campus. Based on discussions with other departments and with students, we found that sometimes students put forth less effort in the quality of their writing when they were writing for classes other than English class. In English classes, some students felt comfortable revealing themselves as unpolished writers for a course they were used to not doing as well in.

These facts came clear as students wondered which teacher would be assigned to grade their essays, a random process, and sometimes expressed that they hoped theirs would not face an English teacher, someone they felt might hold them to a higher standard in writing. For Writing Board assignments, the grader was not revealed to the student, though many were able to assess identities based on depth and perspective offered in feedback. If students had questions about how papers were assessed, the ultimate power of re-assessment was always left to the assigning teacher.

The results of our year of experimenting were mixed. Definitely one benefit was an immediate alleviation of grading burden for the teacher whose work was up on the board. Though even that aspect of the process was problematic for some. We tried to be mindful of not overburdening the other teachers, so every effort was made to give other teachers a manageable load, typically not more than six papers. For teachers who taught several sections of the same class, that fact sometimes meant the hosting teacher was left with as many as thirty papers to grade. Still, that number was far less than what the assigning teacher would have had to grade otherwise.

We found that timeliness became a factor too. We wanted to be mindful that each outside teacher would still have her full load of teaching in her own classes, so we gave two-three weeks for papers to be graded. This long period of time from turn-in to return meant that sometimes the returned papers became stale. While most English teachers will admit that grading a full load of papers takes an incredible amount of time, depending on others meant waiting for a process to be completed without any real sense of when that would be. In one instance, one teacher on the board was unable to complete her six papers and they languished, finally having to be picked up by the original assigning teacher after a long lapse in time. This time delay meant that offering students timely feedback or possibility for revision became very challenging.

We also discovered that establishing very specific rubric was critical. Having a clear rubric meant that other teachers would understand grading criteria very clearly. While the hope is that over time some of the basic expectations of quality student writing will become ingrained into all subjects, initially we found that defining those expectations in an itemized rubric left no room for uncertainty. One teacher expressed frustration at how grading each section of the paper diminished her ability to offer a wholistic impression of the writing, however. She preferred to grade the essay in its entirety rather than restrict herself to a piecemeal assessment of each aspect of the writing. For students, being able to see how a grade broke down into component parts was helpful.

Another challenge of the Board was determining what was most important about each assignment. While English teachers felt quality of written expression to be top on the list, the science teacher in the group felt that the Board was unable to assess accuracy of scientific information for her data-specific assignment. This teacher's rubric, in fact, (one of the first we assessed for the board) was focused entirely on representation of data instead of writing. While the data was central to her teaching goals, as a Writing Board, we did not find the rubric helpful for writing instruction, our central objective in creating the board. From our perspective, more attention to the mechanics of the writing, presentation of facts, and layout of the assignment were more in keeping with what we felt prepared to assess.

At the end of the year, we had some great opportunities to reflect both as the full Writing Board and later as English teachers. We came to a few conclusions that we will implement next year.

1. Writing should be assessed for both content and mechanics. These grades should be separate. This fact will allow for teachers such as our science teacher to maintain the integrity of fact representation while still holding students accountable for the writing.

2. We need to meet more frequently and be more timely with returning papers. While few full time teachers ever feel they have time to spare during the school year, communication is vital. We are hoping to have a group grading activity to set the bar for each assignment before teachers go their separate ways to assess the work. We think we'll be able to do this fairly painlessly through a lunch period or two at the start of each assignment. Ideally, we would like to meet at the end of each assignment as well to share notes about common problems in the content or mechanics of each piece to give the assigning teacher clear feedback about instruction that needs to occur as follow up for the students.

3. Students definitely need time to revise and revisit their work. In response to this fact, we decided that we will use the Writing Board next year as the foundation of research projects in 9th and 10th grade. The English Department divided up research paper tasks into four quarter chunks that will correspond with a completed, revised, polished piece of research to be submitted at year's end. Students will have the opportunity to conduct research in a topic that corresponds to a course they are taking. Topic approval for each course will be left up to subject area teachers.

4. Assignments for the Board will be shorter (grade an intro, grade a body paragraph, offer a revised section)and more manageable to grade and return in a timely manner.

5. We will include our school librarian in the process and invite her to present research skills and citation responsibilities so that we maintain consistency in expectations for all papers in this regard. The assignment will also give our librarian several opportunities for research instruction, something she's set as a goal for her own teaching engagement with students. We will also use her to give instruction about using images responsibly in one's writing. In our desire to drive forth the point that writing is formal presenting, we will require that students proffer a polished and visually appealing final paper. This goal will include the use of at least one image embedded into the writing or as part of the title page.

Though some teachers felt the experiment was not successful, the information we gathered, the experience of collaborating on student writing, and the opportunity to reflect meaningfully and specifically about our work with students and with each other was invaluable. We will continue with our efforts to improve student writing through this shared experiment. As we modify expectations both for ourselves and for our students, we model the ever-important process of learning, adapting, and coming back for more.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Art Project Reaches Kids and Cancer Patients

Student Artist Presents Artwork to her Partner 
My colleague's art project concluded yesterday. What an amazing way to engage art students in a creative process that had meaning and reached beyond them to a world that needs as much light and goodness as it can get. Check out the article that a student wrote for our school paper, The Bolt, about the process, "Artists Paint a Picture of Cancer" by Cassandra Ratzlaf. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect was seeing the patients pick out which piece they thought had been created for them. The joy in their faces radiated.

 To summarize, our upper school art teacher, Paula Kozak, used her personal experiences battling cancer to reach out to others to educate, enlighten, and inspire. Students were invited to interview patients receiving chemotherapy about their experiences fighting the disease. Students then returned to the art studio to work for the next few weeks to create a piece that represented the experience. Those pieces were then presented the chemotherapy center to hang for a permanent installation. Each of the patients were given card prints of their image along with a short write-up about what inspired each image. Several journalists beside our own ODA Bolt reporter have covered the story. One article came out on the day of the presentation in one of our local papers, The Observer. That article, "Creative Healing" by Josh Siegel is linked here. Beautiful project!

Other Write-Ups about the Project
Sarasota Herald-Tribune's article by Jessi Smith "Teacher's Cancer Inspires Artwork"