Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What is Quality (in a Blog Post or Comment)?

Our 5th graders took part in the Student Blogging Challenge this fall. This was a positive way to kick off our blog-folios; it gave students plenty of choice within a structure, as well as providing motivation to comment and be commented upon. Students were also to be assigned a teacher-mentor to comment on their blog regularly. All good, right? Well... sort of...

As is often the case, good intentions and good ideas for teaching/learning don't always result in high quality work.
I observed:
•teacher-mentors (and other adult commenters) whose comments did not model quality in either content or form
•in my role as a teacher-mentor, I visited blogs that had only one or two, poorly-written posts and then seemed to have been abandoned by the student-blogger (which to me says there was no follow through by a teacher or adult mentor/guide who most likely started the "project"
with their students)

I've also observed what I judge to be excellent, thoughtful, high-quality posting and commenting in a developmentally appropriate student voice. I am completely sold on student blog-folio-ing as a practice for many reasons (which I hope to outline in detail in another blog post), but the question is how to identify and inspire excellence.

Blogging is not a "one-off." It's not a worksheet. It's not an assignment. Blogging is a process- one that involves both reading and writing. By definition, a process is a series of actions, changes or functions to achieve a goal or result. If the goal is to run a marathon, would one day of running around the block qualify?Why then do teachers set up student blogs and assign a writing prompt or two- and then abandon the whole thing for other "assignments?" Blogging is game-changing precisely because it is a long-term practice- a blog is a platform for sharing in a variety of formats and can be a chronicle of student development. I'm going to go so far as to say that a non-blogging teacher can not possibly do justice to student blogging. I believe that you can not teach what you do not practice yourself.

And that is just the introduction! The impetus for this post is a meme started by Silvia Tolisano asking teachers to identify quality blog posts and comments. Silvia is working on an incredible series of posts for teachers that breaks down and explains the entire process of blogging. Called "Stepping it Up- Learning About Blogs FOR Your Students" this is a MUST-read for any teacher even remotely interested in student blogging.

In part VII of the series, she tackles the elusive issue of quality- identifying it and evaluating it. As part of that post, Silvia provides multiple examples of student posts and comments with a breakdown of what she feels exemplifies quality and what could be improved. The meme was created to challenge other teachers to do the same:

In order to gather more audit samples from a large variety of age groups and authors, I challenge you to publish a blog post with a post or comment audit.

1. Select a blog post or blog comment to audit (Professional or Student)

2. Take a screenshot or copy and past the post or comment into your blog post (be sensitive whether you want to reveal any names or references)

3. Include or link to the rubric you use to assess the quality of post or comment

4. Audit the post or comment by describing your train of thought regarding the level of quality you would assess your chosen post or comment

5. Suggest how you would coach the author of audited post or comment to improve

6. Tag (at least) three educators and challenge them to audit a post or comment

7. Leave a comment with the link to your audit post on Langwitches

Kathleen Morris has very quickly responded to the meme with a superb audit of student comments.

For my own participation in the meme, I must begin with an admission-- I don't currently use a formal tool for assessment. I have used a number of strategies in the attempt to teach students how to recognize and produce high-quality writing. A rubric is a good idea and one I will explore with my co-teachers.
One other thing that I find so valuable about engaging in this process is that it helps give me a barometer of what I can reasonably expect from a student of a particular age. Of course, all students are on their own path of development. That's another piece of the beauty of blogging- by it's nature it documents the growth of the individual in comparison only to him or herself. However, I've noticed that it's very useful for me to have "touchstones" (especially since I work with students of all grade levels. I think I sometimes tend to expect too much from my own students. When I view their work in the light of a larger sample, I am often very pleasantly surprised at how well they are actually doing :-)

This post was written by a 5th grader in response to the student blogging challenge prompt of "favorites." What I like best about this post is the introduction, where the writer explores the whole idea of what "favorites" are. That intro drew me in and made me interested in what else the writer had to say. I also appreciated that she didn't just list her favorites, but included a bit of additional info telling why she likes the things she likes. I felt that she made an attempt to tie her ideas together with the conclusion, by revisiting ideas from the introduction. Overall, I felt that this was a fairly cohesive piece of writing- with a beginning, middle and end.

There are several ways I could see to coach this writer-
•End sentences with proper punctuation (What are your favorite things?)
•Consider not starting a sentence with "like."
•I see that this student needs some instruction on when to use a comma.
•There is a mistake with matching a singular noun (animal) with a plural (mosquitoes). Those types of grammatical mistakes can often be "heard" by students if you ask them to read the sentence out loud and listen for what doesn't sound right.
•"I will tell you some of my favorite things...." -I could ask the student if she thinks this line is really necessary.
• Overuse of "smart and cool"- what are some synonyms for these words? What is she really trying to describe with use of the word "cool?"

I'm going to stop my audit here. However, this has been a valuable activity, and I thank you, Silvia, for tagging me. It is enlightening to take the the time to bring internal processes (that I have in my head after so many years of teaching) out into the open and think more deeply about them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making Shift Happen- HOW?

It's interesting how things sometimes appear at just the right moment. Grappling with feelings of frustration can be productive. It can prepare the soil of the mind for new seeds to take root and begin to grow. I have been struggling with what sometimes feels like a growing chasm, wondering how to bridge the gap. I am lucky to work in a supportive environment. I have like-mindedpeople to talk to, as well as people to challenge my ideas. When I take time to stop and look back, I see progress. But the road ahead sometimes appears riddled with obstacles and mountains to climb. My expectations, for myself and others, are high and time is of the essence.

I have moved into the role of instructional coach, but the organizational culture that exists doesn't naturally support this role. Not only do I have to learn how to fulfill the responsibilities, I have to figure out how to "sell my services" to those who might use them. I find that, as part of forging a new path, I am often working without a roadmap. So I adapt to what I think is needed or I do what people seem to want. I often find myself falling back into old, familiar roles.

Today, our head of school returned from a conference energized with new ideas about leadership and team-building. He talked excitedly about the need to transform culture. He stated the bold fact that we can't keep calling our team "21st century learning"- that it is, plain and simple, "learning." Changing school culture is complex; it can't be done by just one person, and will not happen in a quick, linear process. But it can and will happen we keep the vision at the forefront of our minds.

"Probably the most important--and most difficult--job of an instructional leader is to change the prevailing culture of a school...A school's culture is a complex pattern of norms, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, values, ceremonies, traditions and myths that are deeply ingrained in the very core of the organization." - from "The Culture Builder" by Roland S. Barth

From that same article was this E.B. White quote:

"A person must have something to cling to. Without that we are as a pea vine sprawling of a trellis."

What I have been seeking-- something external to support the growth of our school and to use as a roadmap formyself--is a structure to cling to.

Some structures are part of the problem- those that are outdated or restrictive, that don't support the vision for a reflective and collaborative culture. It seems important to commit once you've decided on a particular approach so that the structure can become embedded. However, it's also important, in a reflective learning environment, to be free to adapt or abandon what seems not to be working. How do we know when the structure itself needs more time or when to jump ship and change directions? Finally, the structure can't be so difficult or time-consuming to implement that it becomes the focus of the work.

At this point, I am collecting ideas and tools. One thing I have found that I think holds great potential for our school is this rubric, "Evidence of Learning in the 21st Century Classroom,"which I think, once adapted, can be used as a tool for goal-setting and self-evaluation. Is this a viable structure? What can school leadership to to make this structure work? (One thing I have already done is to post the rubric on our faculty Ning and ask for input from everyone as far as re-writing/adapting to make relevant for our school).

Why the need for an external structure? I think the right structures or systems may serve the following goals:
-model and support
-define priorities
-make values and vision explicit
-data collection
-build a common vocabulary
What else? What am I missing?

Are tools structures?
Can tool implementation support growth? I think the answer to that is yes (sometimes and it depends on the tool and the way it is implemented). School wide implementation of Wordpress MU and Google Apps for Education has created an infrastructure that allows us to do many of the things we want to do.

Can changing structures shift culture?
I ask this because I wonder, not because I think I know. I'm curious. If we only have so much time and we spend that time doing certain things because we've always done them, can changing the way that time is used be part of the process of shift?
One example that comes to mind is the process of having teachers turn in lesson plans. This is a common structure that exists in many, many schools. How does this support the school's vision of learning? Is is a meaningful activity or a hoop to jump through? Would teachers still plan lessons if not for this requirement? What is the follow-up? Are teachers given meaningful feedback on the work? Are they offered alternative ways to reflect upon or share their lessons? I wonder how many principals engage, without much thought, in this process of collecting lesson plans simply because the structure is so embedded in the life of the school and the idea of what the job of principal or instructional leader includes. If we would like teachers to think critically about the things they do in the classroom, we have to model this by questioning how things are done and asking if there is a better way.

What structures do teachers use in their classrooms to support the growth of their students? Can those be modified or adapted for use in professional development settings? What structures do other schools use, and more importantly, what structures work well? What old and well-worn structures are choking educational reform and absolutely must be abolished?

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurenipsum/2687279551/

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Crafting Questions

I want to reflect on an "upgrade" I am working on with 4th grade right now. There are a few things that stand out to me as important. We say "it's not about the tools" all the time, but I find that most people still equate "21st century learning" with use of electronic devices. I think this example is a good demonstration of "not about tools". The other thing that amazes me and that I want to verbalize, is the power of the pedagogy of students asking good questions.

4th grade Social Studies-
Collaboration Between Classroom Teacher and "Learning Specialist"
The 4th grade teacher and I, as a result of planning together, decided to join the Virtual USA project to add interest & excitement to the social studies curriculum, while making connections between our students' study of Florida and other 4th graders' studies about their states or regions. As part of this process, we decided to split the class into two groups to facilitate learning about Florida's economy and government. Although I don't normally work with small groups of students in this way, I was excited to be with the government group.

We began with KWL, and the students knew very little about state government. In fact, all they knew was that Tallahassee is the capital of Florida and Rick Scott is the governor. I decided to begin with the textbook. I gave out poster board for taking notes, and we began to read and discuss.

Side note: The other group, working with the classroom teacher to learn about Florida's economy, began using the computers for research right away. My group asked several times if they could "start looking for things on the computer." I think it was surprising to them, since I am usually the "tech teacher," that I told them I thought they needed to develop some background knowledge in order to be able to use the computers in a meaningful way.

As we read and talked about the three branches of government (including, of course, watching the classic Schoolhouse Rock video about how a bill becomes a law) I saw interest in the topic beginning to take shape.

Connecting with Experts
I suggested that we might learn more by talking with someone who works in state government. The students worked together to write a post on their class blog requesting help in finding an expert to Skype with us.

I love what happened next because, to me, this illustrates what happens when you empower the kids instead of the teacher doing all the work. I received an email from one of the 4th graders telling me that her grandmother knew former state representative, Dick Kravitz and would speak to him. This fabulous 4th grader basically set the whole thing up herself (through her grandmother.) All I had to do was finalize a date and time.

After we scheduled the date and time, I received this email from the student who made the connection:
I can't wait!!!!! Is he going to skype or come in because either way is awesome! We keep emailing each other but haven't talked in person since this whole dick Kravitz thing started!
When are we going to start preparing? BTW can't wait till December 1st!
I share this because I feel it serves as evidence that we should, as much as possible, have students do the "work," whatever that may be. I know that in the past, I might have done the connecting and scheduling myself, just telling the students about the "special guest." I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but I believe and have experienced that the more the students are involved, in an age-appropriate way, the more ownership they feel. They discover that they are capable of making things happen, and they learn to use the tools and skills to make meaningful connections.

Crafting Questions
We began working to prepare for Mr. Kravitz's visit. One of the most important components of preparing was the process of collaboratively writing questions. We started by asking each student to write questions for homework. We then entered all of the students' questions into a Google doc, and that's when the great work really got started.

One student showed us the website he used to learn about Dick Kravitz before writing his questions. This led to a discussion about the importance of "doing your homework" and learning about the person you are planning to interview so that you can ask intelligent questions that draw forth the person's ideas/experiences.
We also talked about:
•open-ended vs. closed ended question
•avoiding asking factual questions- we can find those answers ourselves by researching

We started deleting, combining and reworking questions to make them more open-ended. We used background information we had learned about our speaker to craft excellent questions. For example, the question "Why did you want to be a representative?" became "You majored in education in college and have a master's degree in sports administration. What made you decide to go into politics? Why did you choose to run for House of Representatives?"
Finally, we decided on a logical order for asking the questions and decided which student would ask each question.

I am amazed by how much the students have learned from this process- about government and about the art of interviewing someone. The interview took place yesterday, December 1st, and I hope to write more about that in another post. However, I believe that even if we never had a chance to ask the questions at all, the process of preparation was, in itself, a tremendous learning experience.

Important factors that contributed to success:
Time- We gave the process of working with the questions plenty of time, and we needed it. Often, with so much to "cover" I feel we rush through things instead of giving them the time they deserve. When preparing for a Skype call with students, we always take time to prepare and write questions, but never before have I spent such focused time working on the questions. I have learned a ton- not just about teaching this way, but also about state government!
Collaboration- This was a good synchronicity from every angle- between teacher and teacher, teachers and students and students with each other. Most of the credit goes to a classroom teacher who has worked on building a community where students know how to listen to one another and treat all ideas with respect. The teacher(s) acted as guides, but this was the students' project, and it was evident by their engagement in each stage of preparation.
Building background knowledge- If we had jumped right in by scheduling an interview with someone in state government, I believe that it would have been virtually meaningless to students with so little background knowledge. Because we used basic information in the textbook to learn about the structure of government and the Internet to find out more about Dick Kravitz, the students were able to ask deep, intelligent questions and to understand the answers.

For a student point-of-view, read Jamie's words here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Edublog Award Nominations

Although I read a lot of blogs, I've never attempted to post an Edublog Award nomination before. I feel generally incapable of bestowing the title of "best"....at least for the most part. I'm not sure if that's just a personality thing or if I don't pay enough attention to what I'm reading, but what has moved me to do this in 2011 is a few of the student bloggers I am working with in 5th grade. Out of the class of 15 are 3 who are really putting extra effort into their blogs. I would really like to nominate each of them for "best student blog" because I think that they all deserve recognition. But "best" isn't about recognizing all the good ones, is it? So, I have thought long and hard, and I have decided which student blog is getting my nomination. And while I'm at it, I thought I'd try to sift through the other excellent blogs I read to give a nod to some that really speak to me.

  • Best individual blog- Tech Transformation Maggie Hos-McGrane tackles many of the deeper issues surrounding edtech that I grapple with, and she does it in a style that is concise, to the point and always makes me think.
  • Best individual tweeter- @courosa He shares a lot of good stuff. He seems to make a genuine effort to really connect with a wide range of people. He's helpful and has a good sense of humor. Those are the things I look for in a "best" tweeter.
  • Best student blog- Sarah S Despite having several students who I feel have poured heart and soul into their blogs this year, I had to choose just one to nominate. I chose Sarah S. because her writing is excellent, she covers a wide range of topics, and she illustrates almost every post, creating many of the images herself. Sarah is a very quiet girl, and I have enjoyed getting to know her better through reading her blog. We blog in class twice a week, but Sarah puts in extra effort, working on her blog at home to make it shine, both in written content as well as other items of interest, such as polls, Wordles and widgets. I am proud to nominate this blog for an Edublog award, and I hope to bring attention and visitors to this high-quality example of a student blog.
  • Best ed tech / resource sharing blog- Langwitches What I appreciate about this blog, and what I think distinguishes it from other ed tech/resource sharing blogs is that blogger, Silvia Tolisano, doesn't just share a resource- she documents each and every step she takes in using tech resources with students, including step-by-step how-to's and wonderful photographs. Not only have I learned a ton from reading this blog, I often use it as a working resource, going back to search and re-read, as I'm planning lessons or trying to implement ideas of my own.
  • Best teacher blog- Elementary My Dear, Or Far From It I like this blog because it's real. I appreciate the honest self-reflection from first grade teacher, Jen Orr, who tells it like she experiences it. This year she is writing a series of posts about her students, in an effort to spend time thinking about what makes each student unique and special. That's the kind of teacher she is.
  • Best free web tool Google Apps for Education We couldn't do many of the things we do at our school if not for Google Apps. Just having student emails allows us to access many other web tools.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Plan, Do and Review iPad Exploration

After finally getting the 20 new iPads set up and ready to use (a major undertaking for which I take no credit-- read about it here), I am planning to embark on an explorative journey of how to best use these tools to transform learning in 2nd grade.

Aside from a little fun in Kitah Alef (1st grade) one afternoon, using Doodle Buddy to practice writing Hebrew letters, I have very little experience with the iPad as a school device. I am only a moderately fluent user of my own iPad, which I use mostly to consume information.

So, where to begin?

I will be using iPads in one of the 2nd grade learning centers, twice a week. My initial goals are to learn more about what can reasonably be done by 2nd graders during this period of time and to let the kids do a bit of structured exploration. So far we have only been able to add free apps to our iPads. (Here is our list.)

I need to do my own experiential learning of how to use the iPads with young children, while continuing to gain fluency in using the iPad for my own productivity. I am willing to allow curricular goals to take a backseat in the early stages of exploration. In my many years of using technology with students (of ALL ages) I have always had big goals, but I have learned that what seems simple to me is not always as simple as it seems. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons many teachers turn off from using technology actively with students in the "messiness" of it. For me, part of embracing the messiness (which I have come to love) is to realize that it's all learning.

In thinking about how to structure the early exploration, I recalled a model called Plan, Do and Review. In researching the method, I see that it is used most frequently in preschool, but is also indicated as developmentally appropriate for use in lower elementary grades.
I like this model because it gives students opportunity to explore and choose but within a guided structure designed by the teacher. I believe that creativity and exploration are often more productive within a structure. I have observed that students, when given too many choices, may have trouble committing to an activity. They become overwhelmed with choices and jump around from one thing to the next, never really "doing" anything.

In the initial meeting with students, after a brief introduction to the iPad and discussion about proper care and handling, I plan to provide students with 3 or 4 choices of apps/activities to freely explore. I will keep demonstration to a bare minimum and let the focus be on problem solving and exploration for the students.
Ideas for choices:
•Listen to a student created podcast, downloaded from the MJGDS podcast channel on iTunes. We have many excellent, student-created podcasts, including one that they made last year in first grade.
•Read an eBook (we have a few free eBooks downloaded, as well as two student-created eBooks.)
•Sock Puppets

The emphasis will be making a choice and then sticking to that choice for the entirety of the "do" period.

Doing is the active engagement. Some choices will offer more exploration and experimentation than others. It's all good. Or even if it's not good, it's ok. That's why there is time to review.

Review can be formal or informal. I am hoping to have time for a formal, written review. I've created a google form for students to use (at this point, I will probably print the form and have them write it. In the future, we plan to download the forms app so students can fill out the form on the iPads).

Although that will complete one Plan, Do, Review session, the cycle will continue with the next session as students become more familiar with the process itself, as well as the things they enjoy doing during their "do" time.

This is my plan for at least the first few sessions of working with the 2nd graders. It should give me opportunity to get a feel for using the iPads with the small groups. From there, the teacher and I will strategize on next steps.

I welcome your ideas and feedback, as well as suggestions for great (especially free) apps to use with young students.

Taking Notes

I was intrigued by the exploration of note-taking styles described in the post "The Official Scribe: It's All About Learning Styles & Collaboration" by Silvia Tolisano. We (the 4th grade teacher and I) decided to try a similar lesson while watching a movie about the Geography, Culture and History of Florida.

What We Did:
We began with a discussion about note-taking. Why and how do students take notes? Some of the students shared their own note-taking strategies; other students had little or no experience with note-taking.

We talked about how different people think in different ways, and took a few moments to think about and share the way each of us thinks we think best (in words, in pictures, a combination of words & images).

We generated a list of ideas of different ways to jot down key ideas, as well as the tools we might use:
• paper and pencil-words
• paper and pencil-doodles and drawings
• computer keyboard using mind-mapping software (Inspiration)
• computer using art software (Pixie)
• iPad using the app Doodle Buddy, and a stylus or iPad keyboard

We also showed a the beginning of the RSA Animate Ken Robinson video as an example of using doodling to take notes.
Each student chose a tool and a style to use to take notes during the video. Most were given paper/pencil as the tool; we had one iPad and two computers. One student was selected to stand by the SMARTboard to pause to the video to use Skitch to take screenshots at important points. Those screenshots were put into an open Word document.

What I Noticed:
The students seemed highly engaged in the video and in their note-taking. They were vocal about where the video should be paused for screen shots. The student doing the screen shots was slow at first with the tools and process but very quickly became proficient.

I wonder:
I wonder if the emphasis on the different styles of note-taking impacted the way the students watched the video and, if so was the impact positive.

What's Next?
This afternoon, we will finish watching the video. We plan to compile the notes and reflect with the students on the pros and cons of the different strategies. It will be interesting to hear their thoughts on taking notes. Did taking notes help them pay attention to the video? Will their notes help them review and process what they learned?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Re-Thinking Faculty Meetings

In 20 years of teaching, I have attended my fair share of faculty meetings. I remember sitting in the meetings at my first job, listening to impassioned debates over whether or not to have a water cooler in the staff lounge and wondering, "Is this what adults do at work?"
I found out that the answer to that was, disappointingly, yes. This is how a lot of adults spend time in meetings. I have viewed faculty meetings, for the most part, as something to be endured, a necessary part of a teaching job, but not something exciting, enlightening or particularly useful or relevant to my work.

We Don't Need Reform, We Need New Forms
Our new (as of last year) head-of-school, Jon Mitzmacher is committed to new forms for the traditional faculty meeting. The first innovation he introduced was to begin & end every meeting on time. This is no small feat and brings into focus the question of how to best use that once-monthly hour when the whole staff is together in one place. Do we really want to spend that time discussing the proper way to staple papers to a bulletin board?

Even more importantly, Jon did away with the typical "administrivia." An agenda is shared with items of note listed at the bottom, and we are trusted to read these ourselves and clarify, if necessary, on our own.

This stems from a core value that I feel is game-changing, although it seems obvious and simple. Staff meetings should be devoted to the practices of teaching and learning. The goal is to model the type of learning culture we envision for all members of our community: reflective, differentiated, participatory, collaborative. Last year teachers took turns "hosting" the meeting. We had the opportunity to visit each other's classrooms and learn from one another.

New School Year~New Ideas
I was thrilled when, this year, I was invited (or maybe I invited myself) to brainstorm and participate in re-thinking the faculty meeting. My role at the school is evolving as we grow into a 21st century learning community, and I am working more in the capacity of a provider of professional development and coaching for teachers, so I think it makes sense.

The first meeting of this year featured a guest speaker, Dr. Elliott Rosenbaum of The American School of Professional Life Coaching. He did a wonderful presentation about "Active Listening" and then guided a role-playing activity. Everyone agreed that it was an excellent use of our faculty meeting.

For our next meeting, we decided to introduce the idea of "Ignite" presentations. In talks that are exactly five minutes long, Ignite presenters share their personal and professional passions, using 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. I wanted to show Jen Orr's "Encienda EduCon"presentation "What do you teach?" but I couldn't find a video online. Jen very generously agreed to Skype into our faculty meeting and recreate her presentation for us.

Next we showed Chris Lehmann's "Ignite Philly" presentation "The Schools We Need."
We have invited faculty members to present their own 5 minute talks at הצתה
(Hebrew for "Ignition"), which will be
the opening to future faculty meetings.

In the remaining time, each teacher was given a KWH (What do we KNOW, WANT to know, and HOW will we find out?) graphic organizer to begin preparing an implementation timeline for his or her professional development plan for the year.

What Else?
Here are some other ideas I'm thinking about--
•using TED talks (have a different teacher select the TED talk of the month to be shown at the meeting. Have teachers give their own TED talks (very similar to the Ignite model).
•I was very moved by the movie, Temple Grandin. There are some important messages in this movie for educators, and I would love to use parts of the movie as a catalyst for discussion about how we deal with different types of children. How do we, as teachers, either help them feel valued for who they are or misunderstood? An additional resource might be Temple Grandin's TED Talk, "The World Needs All Kinds of Minds."
•Watch a video of someone teaching then ask participants to "rate" the teaching or similar discussion starter of what constitutes "good" teaching.
• A "smack-down" where anyone shares a favorite resource. This is a really low-pressure way to introduce a shift in the culture toward one of sharing and openness.
•Guest speakers either in-person or via skype.
•Time for collaboration and reflection.

What are other schools doing during faculty meetings? What are your ideas for the best use of this time?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Last year I began working with students in grades K, 5 and 8 to create digital portfolios. We used Wordpress blogs as the platform. Portfolios are a digital collection of a student's best work with a reflective component. This type of reflective practice is new for most of our students and is a process, which will take time. As we began the process, we realized that it was almost a tease giving students a versatile, customizable, blogging platform and then not allowing them to freely blog. So the "blog-folio" was created-- part blog, part reflective portfolio.

Portfolios give students a chance to develop metacognition, set goals and internalize what "good work" looks like. Blogs offer a platform for creativity, communication, connection and the practice of digital citizenship. "Blog-folios" are the best of both worlds- using a blogging platform to develop writing skills, provide opportunities to connect with an authentic audience and increase reflective practices. Instead of using the entire site as a portfolio, students will use the category "portfolio" to designate those selections that represent high-quality work and reflection.

Blogs are Transformative:
As educators, we are in the business of helping each child bloom into the flower that he or she is meant to be. The goal is to help students reach high academic standards while developing their unique selves, growing at their own rates and discovering their personal passions. Blogs are a space for sharing ideas in almost any format, a place for self-expression, connection, and reflection- literally a platform to explore, document and record the growth of the learner. The tool (blog) is transformative in that it allows instant publishing and the possibility of an authentic audience, as well as bringing in multimedia communication and creation. It is also transformative in that, unlike many school assignments or projects, blogging is a long-term "project" that incorporates many different "subjects" and skills.

Student Blogging Challenge:
We have started this year by introducing the blog-folios to our 5th graders through participation in the Student Blogging Challenge. This activity has approximately 300 participants from around the world. Students are enjoying the opportunity to customize the look of their blogs, write about areas of interest and interact with other student bloggers. As teachers, the blogs enable us to get to know our students better, to model good writing through our comments and to target instruction. Blogging is, by definition, differentiated instruction.

Part of the joy of blogging is knowing that someone is reading what you've written. All of our student blogs are open to receive comments, and all comments will be moderated (by the students) before being published on the blog. We invite you to read and comment on any of the 5th grade blogs listed here. The big idea is to engage students in the act of writing as communication. Please encourage students by responding to their content, not correcting their mistakes. By leaving a comment, you can model good writing skills. Know that the blog-folios are a work in progress and a long-term record of a student's growth. Each child's writing and thinking will show growth over the year(s).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

1st Day of School Thoughts

This was one of the slides in my "Next Steps" presentation. The original source of the quote was this post from Paul Bogush, which I love.

We may spend a lot of time planning lessons, managing the classroom, communicating with parents, all important components of the craft of teaching. But when it comes down to it, who we are in every moment is the greatest teacher of all.

Am I a learner?
Do I do what I expect my students to do?
Am I a reader?
A writer?
Do I own my mistakes and try to do better the next time?
Do I take risks?
Do I listen well?
Am I a critical thinker?
Do I treat others the way I want to be treated?

With that slide, I read the following, from the book Reflective Practice to Improve Schools
"You can genuinely teach only who you are. In these demanding times, it is easy to slide to a place of feeling as if you are never enough. But who you are every day, how you create meaningful learning experiences for students, the positive energy you choose to bring to your work is enough. It is more than enough: It is an enormous gift to the world around you. By maintaining a focus on reflective capacities that expand and improve your personal practices, your influence on others expands as well. Just remember to place your own oxygen mask securely in place before assisting others."

Take care of yourself so that you have something to give. Be mindful of your own practice of learning and reflecting, communicating, collaborating, creating and, most importantly, being a human being relating to other human beings. Because, at the end of the day, that is what matters most.

image credit: Silvia Tolisano

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Next Steps

This past week was pre-planning for teachers, and in my new, moving-into-the-future-that-is-now role of "21st century learning specialist" I was given 2 hours on Tuesday to present "Next Steps." My presentation followed Silvia's one hour, "Curriculum 21- A Deeper Cut."
View more presentations from edtechworkshop
I really like presenting. Although it is a ton of work to think through what I want to share, organize it and create the slides, I find it really satisfying. I also think I'm kind of good at it, and it comes somewhat naturally (after the tons of work and preparation). I'm a talker, a storyteller.
My audience seemed, for the most part, engaged, interested, respectful. I really appreciated their attentiveness. Afterwards, I got a lot of positive feedback, which felt gratifying. My favorite comment was from our MS social studies teacher who said that my presentation was like 21st century therapy. I took that as a compliment.

What I would like to do better (my own "next steps") is to work toward being more of a conversation facilitator and less of a presenter.
Who really likes to sit and listen for 3 hours? My presentation was supposed to be shorter, with time afterwards for teachers to reflect on the prompt in the final slide, "What is your next step?" or another topic from either of the presentations, but both of us went a little long, and we ended up taking the whole three hours to present (with a little break in between).

When I present, I feel like there is so much to say. I definitely do my homework, in terms of preparation (including pre-presentation insomnia where I lie in bed while my mind races and reviews my slides, thinking of all the things I might say). However, if I learned anything at all from Educon, it is that active learning is better than passively listening to a presenter, no matter how entertaining and engaging. I remember in Chris Lehmann's really inspiring session about leadership, 2 Educon's ago, how he threw out ideas, had everyone discuss, and then brought it all back together so that the group could move to the next idea. Like a magician. In reviewing my notes from that session, I wrote " The ability to have these conversations and come to common ground requires a good leader. Get to common ground and then move on."
"Conversation leadership" - it sounds a lot like teaching...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

We Are Not Alone...The Power of the Network

In my role as one of our school's two 21st century learning specialists, I am tasked with presenting a 2- hour professional development session for teachers on the 2nd day of our pre-planning week. If you know teachers during back-to-school time, you know that they can be a bit of a tough crowd during this week when they have so much to do setting up classrooms and preparing for students.

I really want to make those 2 hours meaningful, inspiring and totally worth the time spent away from the work that needs to be done in the classrooms. I love the idea of opening up with a TED Talk to get people feeling inspired. At our PD day in January, I opened with Adora Svitak's fabulous TED Talk "What Adults Can Learn from Kids." It was well-received and generated some excitement and fun discussion.

But this post isn't about which TED Talk I'm going to choose. Nope. This post is about what happened when I did what I usually do when planning any type of instruction these days. I ask my trusted network.

I have truly, completely, totally embraced the "together we are smarter" idea to the point where I don't even try to think alone anymore. When it comes to TED, even if I watched one TED talk every single day, it would take several years to watch them all! (When I got my ipad and downloaded the TED app, I did intend to watch one talk a day, but you know how those things go...) So, naturally I turned to my network on Twitter.

The tweet was re-tweeted by Rachel Abrahams and between my tweet and her re-tweet, I received a handful of responses (newest on top).

Since I've already seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED talks "Schools Kill Creativity" and "Bring on the Learning Revolution", as well as Alan November's TEDxNYED talk, I started by watching Itay Talgam's brilliant, "Lead Like the Great Conductors." My husband and I both really enjoyed it. Next I watched Julian Treasure's "5 Ways to Listen Better."

This was on Sunday morning, and just watching those two talks took almost 30 minutes. That was all the time I had to indulge in the pleasure of watching TED Talks (although it WAS for work!). A little later in the day, I looked at Facebook and saw that TED had posted my question on their Facebook page.

It was amazing....and at the same time overwhelming! I could barely watch two TED Talks. I skimmed the FB comments (LOTS of votes for Sir Ken Robinson), but I couldn't even read all those comments!!

Then tonight, Tuesday, I saw this tweet:

There is so much to this. First of all, I now have the opinions of over 1000 TEDTalk watchers. TED writer/editor Ben Lillie went through the freeform comments and tallied the results. Seems that Sir Ken is the favorite by a mile, but I have a great list of the top 14 vote-getters to watch, many of which I haven't yet seen. And that is doable.
Besides that, I have a good story to share! This is a terrific example of the power of networking- what we're working to bring to our school.
Collaboration. Social learning. Content curation. Filtering. Connecting.
Ideas worth spreading.
Thanks for the help everyone.

PS- After speaking with my partner, Silvia Tolisano this morning, and connecting what I'm doing with what she's bringing, we have decided to open with the Alan November talk. It really speaks to what we are going to be doing this year with our 21st century learning program.... which involves, among other things, having our students write and present their own TED Talks. There are so many incredible thinkers; it's really an uplifting change from watching the network news shows' tales of gloom and doom. I challenge myself to revisit my intention to watch one TED talk a day!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"I Am" Poetry

I love these poems our 6th graders wrote the other day using PicLits. We used "freestyle" mode. The directions were to find an image and finish the sentence starters to complete the poem. It was sort of a "one-off," meaning that I don't usually work with this class and only had the one class with them, so we didn't have time to revise or even for them to share their poems with each other. Keeping that in mind, I think they are pretty expressive.

by Aaron

by Avichai

by Joey

by Julia

by Rachel

by Ryan

Monday, April 11, 2011

Brand, Un-brand, Re-brand

Companies do it all the time. They change their logo, their website, the look of their packaging. Sometimes we, the "audience," respond positively. Sometimes (think New Coke vs. Coke Classic) we do not. I have always been of the "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" mindset, but I am questioning the 21st-century-ness of that attitude. To go mucking about, changing things just for the sake of trying something that might or might not "work out" when status quo was, well...comfortable enough... is a risky proposition.
Changing something that is not really "broken" could be:
(a) a waste of time and energy
(b) a complete and total failure
(c) a fabulous success
(d) a learning experience

What if we reframed our ideas about concepts like "waste of time," "failure," and "success?" What if we decided that (d) a learning experience = (d) all of the above?
How would that impact the way we work? How would it impact the way we teach?

I think this is one of the core values of what we often refer to as "21st century learning." In an ideas and innovation-based economy, we don't thrive on "it's not broke." This is a big shift for me. Change makes me nervous. I feel most comfortable when things seem stable. People like me don't invent wonderful, crazy new things; we make do with what we have.

These thoughts are arising as I ponder the future of my personal brand. Believe me, I am aware that "edtechworkshop" isn't anything earth-shatteringly interesting as far as teacher-brands go. However, I have been blogging for over three years now. I have subscribers, and I fear "losing" them were I to move my site. (Yes, even as I write it, I realize how silly this is.) This feeling of wanting to "hold on" to something, even as I realize the total pointlessness of it (like holding onto life itself) is what keeps me from feeling free to experiment, reinvent myself and play around. In other words, it limits my ability to learn and grow.

According to personal-branding guru, Dan Schawbel, your online presence will replace your resume in 10 years. I disagree with his assessment that it will take ten more years. I think that for the best jobs, the most sought-after positions, a strong online presence is already more important than a resume. Think about it. Where do we go to find things? Where do we go, more and more, to find people? We go to google. And if you're not google-able, you won't be found.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Garden of Tweetin'

I was asked to "intro twitter" for my cousin and her friend. I've been meaning to write a twitter blog post for a while now, so I thought I would gather some favorite resources and share a few thoughts.

Here is a helpful intro for educators from Langwitches Blog: So, What About This Twitter Thing?

Beyond the most basic intro, to really "do twitter" you have to just go ahead and do it. Twitter is a garden of sorts. To plant a garden, at some point, you have to get in there and get your hands dirty. There's no "right way/wrong way"...there is just your way which you can only figure out by figuring it out. You can read guidebooks, ask an expert, learn from your mistakes... eventually you come to realize that, with attention and care, you have gardened your way to a decent little patch that makes YOU happy.

But that doesn't mean that MY garden- with it's marigolds and tomatoes, usually in need of weeding- would be the right garden for YOU. For example, if you were planting a vegetable garden, you would be likely to choose vegetables that would be useful and valuable to you and your family. It's the same with your twitter garden. The power of twitter lies in the opportunity to build a useful and valuable network, of like-minded (or different-minded) interesting people. My twitter network consists mainly of educators. Many educators on twitter use the term PLN- personal learning network and use twitter for their own lifelong learning.

I'll happily share with you how I manage twitter today (which might change tomorrow or next week). I currently like Tweetdeck for these reasons:

-I like to be able to view multiple columns showing different streams. It's easy to add and change them, too.

-I like the "edit then retweet" capability which the web RT doesn't offer.

-I tweet from multiple accounts, and that is very easy to do in Tweetdeck where I can be logged-in as more than one tweeter. (I have also tripped myself up this way by tweeting from the wrong account. Oops!)

Just in case you were wondering, what I don't like about Tweetdeck is the newer "deck.ly" feature which lets you go over 140 characters. It just doesn't sit right with me- the whole genre of twitter is 140 characters or less. I have disabled it on my Tweetdeck. Go to "settings" and uncheck "Use Deck.ly for sending long updates."

A few more thoughts:

•Filtering the mad, mad world of too-much-information is a high art. Again, everyone does it differently BUT (since you asked my opinion)- don't habitually re-tweet articles you haven't read or at least skimmed. Being a good filter, and only sharing what you think is truly worthwhile and relevant builds your credibility.

•Follow celebrities if it makes you happy and adds something to your twitter stream, but that's not really the "twitter thing." Twitter is about having lots of different interesting people to talk to and listen to. Choose who you follow thoughtfully, just as you would decide what to plant in your garden. For more on this idea, read this great post, "Curating People" by self-proclaimed "mayor of the internet" ijohnpederson.

Because I know you really want to know, these are the celebrities I follow (at least right now)-

Dr. Wayne Dyer

Sir Ken Robinson

The Dalai Lama

Dan Millman (author of The Way of the Peaceful Warrior)

None of them follow me back. They also don't tweet much and, most likely, someone else tweets for them anyway.

•Be yourself. If it's interesting to you, share it. Follow real people who interest you, and add something to the conversation. Give and take.

One last analogy :) -- Think of twitter as a giant cocktail party. Who do you choose to talk to? The spammer who is just there to sell something or get you to join an MLM scheme? The self-promoter who talks incessantly about herself? The person who has nothing original to say and only repeats what he has just heard someone else say? Or the interesting person who listens and adds something intelligent to the mix? Be that person.

Great minds must think alike. Just after I wrote this, Silvia Tolisano shared with me a new presentation she created on personal learning networks, also using the idea of the garden as a point of reference.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Portfolios-- A "Digital Can of Worms?"

I love home improvement shows. The homeowners decide on a fabulous renovation to turn their house into the house of their dreams. They work with a contractor and make a plan. But once they actually begin the process of tearing down walls they discover a problem- mold, termites, whatever. The problems are such that there can be no continuing with the planned renovation until the newly-uncovered dilemma is solved.

This is the perfect analogy for my experience this year piloting digital portfolios in grades K, 5 and 8. There is no possible way that I, or anyone, could have foreseen all of the questions and conundrums that would arise. Some were easily solved; others have required more research and development. Some were straight out of left field. I've taken to referring to the whole thing as a digital can of worms.

It's been an interesting journey so far, and I have been remiss in taking the time to reflect and share. How ironic that I can't seem to find the time to reflect on this process of becoming more reflective with students.

First of all, I feel like a pioneer. Maybe I am just not looking in the right places or asking the right people, but I am not finding a lot of teachers who are actually using digital portfolios with students. I have had a google alert set up for both "digital portfolios" and "eportfolios." My hope was to find examples of student portfolios and get ideas. While these alerts fill my reader, very few of them yield anything helpful. The examples I find are, by and large, created by adults. The few portfolios from younger students often look like they were started and then quickly abandoned. And I am starting to understand why.
I have also found several examples of "digital portfolios" that seem to be just exercises in using a blog or wiki for students to post work. There is no reflection on the work itself nor does there seem to be any attempt to select the student's best work. The space is more of a repository, and I wonder a bit about the thought behind the assignment of the portfolio. Even in these cases, it is usually high school and college age students.

Several times I have participated in #edchat on twitter. I figure that is a good place to find fellow educators who are also dipping their toes into the portfolio pool. Nada. When I ask about portfolios on twitter, I generally hear crickets....occasionally I get a retweet of my question or a teacher who says they are interested in using portfolios "next year." I started a digital portfolios group on the Curriculum 21 ning, again thinking that would be a relatively fertile place to mine for those who had information to share. The group has 39 members, which is very encouraging, but little hard data, portfolio samples or even detailed conversations. Again, it seems to be a case of people who are interested in getting started in the near future.

I hear a lot of talk about portfolios. I can only assume that there are people using them with students, but I haven't hit upon the right group. I am going to draw the conclusion, for now, that I am one of relatively few at these grade levels who is actively working with portfolios, and that I have quite a bit of helpful information to share for all those interested teachers. Maybe I can save them some of the difficulties for which I was unprepared.
I am not sure how best to share though....do I simply state my conclusions, and skip over the "can of worms" or do I detail the whole messy path that led me to this point? I know that, personally, I like to know the reasons behind decisions, but I don't know if it's superfluous.
Consider this the introduction with more information to follow. If you are interested in seeing some sample portfolios from my students, here is a link to a kindergarten portfolio. Here are links to some 8th grade portfolios (any of these students would be very excited to receive a comment on their portfolio):

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Life as a Reader

A few years ago, my father presented me with a very special gift. He had searched painstakingly, calling a number of used bookstores, to find a copy of The Big Tidy Up, the first book I ever "read" all by myself.
I still remember the opening lines:
"Jennifer knew as well as you
that everything has its place.
But she just didn't care a whit, a bit
So her room was a real disgrace."

I memorized the entire book at age 3 and from that moment on, was an incredibly avid reader.

My favorite outing as a child was to the public library. I could have spent all day, every day, wandering amongst the shelves. I would pick out a book, open it, and get lost. I would take home huge stacks of books and immediately dive in. I loved the Bobbsey Twins and the Nancy Drew series. My parents made rules. For example, I was not allowed to read at the dinner table. I was not supposed to read while walking.

Now, many years later, I am a teacher and mother. There were several reasons I chose to become a teacher; one of them was based in my love of reading. I love to share books and reading with children. As a 4th/5th grade classroom teacher, I read aloud to my students almost every day. As a mother of a 10-year old daughter and a 7 year-old son, I read aloud to my children almost every night before bed. I have even started reading aloud to my husband. The bookstore and the library are still two of my favorite places.
I attribute most of my academic success to reading. It was through reading that I really learned to write, spell, and love stories. Through reading I have improved my vocabulary and increased my knowledge about the world. Through reading I have learned about history, psychology and myself. Through reading I traveled to places and times, inhabited the minds of characters I might never get to meet.
I once had the pleasure of hearing Kurt Vonnegut speak. One thing he said that really made an impression was "Reading is meditating with someone else's mind."
I guess I really like getting into the minds and thoughts, imaginations and ideas of others.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bats from A to Z

Note: This blog post was written by the 2nd graders. One of my goals for working with classes this year is to have the students reflect and share after completion of a project. They posted it on their class blog, however, that blog does not allow for comments from non-registered users. They would really love to receive comments, so please share with other teachers and students and let our 2nd graders know what you think of their work.

by Mrs. B's 2nd grade

It all started with a story. We read "Fast Food on the Fly," a story about bats, in our Wordly Wise book. We were so interested that we decided to write reports about different kinds of bats. We each chose our own bat, and they were all from Australia. We used the computers to research our bats, and we made a bat cave in the hallway where we displayed our reports.

We decided to create an ABC video to give people information about bats. Mrs. B and Ms. H showed us an example. Then we took a bat quiz. Next, we worked with a partner to brainstorm ideas using the alphabet organizer. We printed out the organizers with all of our ideas. Some letters were easier than others so we had to do more research to come up with a fact for each letter.

Once we decided the best fact for each letter and assigned the letters we used Pixie to write and illustrate our ideas. We went over them and checked to make sure they were correct and looked good. Then we recorded ourselves reading our facts. Finally, we published our video, and we are so excited to share it with you!

Some Reflections:

Reflection pyramid from Peter Pappas

Ayden: We met our goal by finishing the video and teaching everyone about bats. I learned facts about bats that a lot of grown-ups don't know.
Elad: I did this before when we did the values report because I had to look in a book. I can use this again when I do another report or project.
Eliana: It was important that we taught people new information about bats. I learned to work together without arguing.
Griff: I see a relationship with this project and the president reports because we had to research on the computer for both. In both of them we were teaching people. I feel that I learned a lot about bats. I see that there is so much I didn't know about bats.
Jona: Our class did really well. We edited and revised it. We had to take our time in order to make it really good. We used the computer and used typing skills. I learned more about bats and I liked using technology.
Natan: We worked well together.
Mrs. B: I was very pleased to see the growth from our very first project, the fire safety and prevention video, to this project. I think you are going to be very prepared for 3rd grade.