Friday, August 30, 2013

5 Ways I'm Using Apps in the Classroom

As I'm wrapping up week #2 teaching language arts in a 4/5 1:1 iPad environment, I thought I would try a "5 ways..." type of post. One of my many goals this year is to be a better sharer, so I am pushing myself to blog each week and to try different styles of writing. Let me know what you think, please!

1. Apps for Student Blogging

We have experimented, thus far, with three apps for student blogging: WordpressChrome and Safari. All of them have great features, as well as limitations. One thing we've learned the hard way is not to use the camera from within the blog post. It is best to take the photos from outside of the blogging app and then import from camera roll. 

I'm amazed at how quickly the students are beginning to fluently use multiple apps to achieve a task. When 5th graders, for instance, wanted to add "Choose Kind" badgesas sidebar widgets, they quickly discovered that it made sense to use the Wordpress app to upload the image, but it required switching to one of the browser apps to add the code to a text widget. 

Note: Our student bloggers would love to connect with other student bloggers, and we would welcome readers and comments. 

2. Apps for Classroom Management

After carefully reviewing the features of Class Dojo, I decided against using it for behavior management. Many teachers are thrilled with it, though, so it might be worth a try. So what apps am I using? I am enjoying plugging my iPad into speakers (necessary to hear the sound) and using the free app, Tibetan Bowls, as a lovely chime to get students' attention.  I've also been experimenting with using mellow music via Pandora, as thinking music while students are writing. Sometimes the music adds a nice element of calm to the room, although some students find it distracting. 

3. The camera!

The camera is a no-brainer.  Of course, we  use the camera constantly to document and capture. But here is a fun Pinterest-inspired way I've used the camera to practice our "Give Appreciations" norm and to create something for students who are celebrating birthdays. I simply email the photo to the student (and his or her parent) to save and enjoy.

4. Words With Friends

I put Words With Friends on our app list, thinking that we would use it as part of Daily 5 word work. I haven't even started introducing Daily 5 yet, but students have discovered and are loving WWF. In fact, it's become a class wide obsession. 
I quickly made three rules: no using the chat feature during school, no logging in with Facebook (as 4th and 5th graders should not have Facebook anyway) and no choosing "random opponent." I love that they are so focused on playing around with the ways letters combine to form words. Fun stuff.

5. Apps for Creative Assessment

What are students actually learning? How well do they understand the concepts? Assessment will be one of the most central ways I envision using iPad apps this year. When students create, I get excellent feedback on how well they actually understood a concept. This week, as part of our school's implementation of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we learned Habit 1: Be Proactive. After our readings and discussions, I wanted to understand how well students had integrated this concept into their own schemata. 4th graders used Pixie and 5th graders used Comic Maker to demonstrate their understanding of the concept of being proactive. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Essential Question: "What is Language Arts?"

In building the foundation for a year of learning in the language arts classroom I feel it is important to connect students to the big picture.
What is language arts?
In school, language arts often comes in pieces and parts: spelling, grammar, and vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension, memorizing poetry, AR levels and tests.
I am a big picture learner.
I believe in connecting, as much as possible, the pieces and parts to the authentic purpose. I believe that even young students can connect with big ideas.

So I asked my students, "What is language arts?"
A 5th grader responded:
"Language Arts has a bunch of divided into different activities like, reading, writing, and vocabulary.  Writing improves your spelling and punctuation.  Reading improves your grammar.  Vocabulary improves the way you speak.  The type of tests you do are AR, Spelling, and Vocabulary." (emphasis mine)
This answer shows some insight, but it's totally backwards. Does an athlete play soccer to become better at passing the ball? I worry that it is the teaching of skills without connecting them to authentic literacy is what leads to these disjointed ideas. 
Wordle of student responses

We discussed the connections between reading, writing, communicating and thinking. Then students worked together to brainstorm lists of verbs and nouns that pertained to language arts. 

Finally, with the help of our wonderful art teacher, Shana Gutterman, each student chose one special word to decorate. We are going to create a colorful word wall in the classroom which will hopefully serve as an ongoing reminder to all of us of the beauty, purpose and artistry of language arts.

Friday, August 23, 2013

I Said No to Homework...

I've been following the homework debate for years. As an educator, I've read Alfie Kohn's The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (here is a summary of his ideas) as well as numerous articles, blog posts and online discussions of research, theory and practice regarding homework. (For some bloggers whose writing reflects my own thoughts well, check out Dr. Justin Tarte and Pernille Ripp.) I was an avid follower of the now-defunct site Stop Homework and learned a lot from following discussions there.

As a mom of two school-aged children I've tried to present a positive attitude about homework to my kids while letting it be "their thing." 
Image Credit
When I thought about returning to classroom teaching I knew that I could not, in good conscience, assign homework. 
I felt conflicted, not with the rightness of the decision, but with how to best express it to parents.  I wrote several drafts of my "homework policy," referring to research and seeking feedback from those I trusted.

I felt nervous to be starting my brand new role by pushing back against a dominant and deeply ingrained culture where homework = rigor and responsibility. 

School started, and I had no choice but to post my homework policy on the classroom blog. I referred to it as "do it yourself homework" and wrote the following:

Language Arts Homework

This year, we will implement the Daily 5, as our structure for the language arts classroom. The five daily activities for building strong basic literacy skills:
  • Read to Self
  • Read to Someone
  • Listen to Reading
  • Work on Writing
  • Word Work
Any of these activities are excellent practice for home, as well as school, and students are strongly encouraged to read and write regularly at home.Our language arts classroom this year will be holistic and personalized. Each student has different needs, interests and aptitudes. Each family also has different needs and rhythms.
Parent involvement in the development of literacy is invaluable. This can take many forms- from reading stories aloud to playing word games and puzzles to conversations about what each family member is reading. Students can work on blog posts at home, as well as taking time to read and comment on classmates’ blogs. After school might also be a good time to practice cursive writing or keyboarding skills.
Regular daily/weekly homework will not be assigned or collected. There will be times when, in order to meet class requirements or finish projects, students will have to continue working at home. In these instances, I will be happy to notify parents via email.
My fear, it seems, was largely unfounded. From the feedback I've received so far, our "do it yourself homework" is working out just fine. Maybe better than fine. I've actually been hugged in the hallways by more than one grateful parent! Students are excitedly talking about the books they're reading at home and several of them have become addicted to Words With Friends
And as an overwhelmed "new" classroom teacher, collecting and keeping up with everyone's homework is one thing I won't miss at all!

Building a Community of Readers, Writers & Thinkers

My mission as a 4th/5th grade language arts teacher this year is:
  • to motivate students to do and be their best
  • to build a safe, accepting and inclusive classroom community
  • to inspire each student’s love of reading, writing and words in a creative, student-centered learning environment
  • to be a role-model for lifelong-learning and an ethic of excellence 
Right now, after 13 years out of the classroom and a mind jammed with 13 years worth of ideas, that is proving to be a tall order. But every journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. 
My first step toward building the community of readers, writers, thinkers and creators that I envision starts with building community.

So I have spent the first week of school trying to do just that. We have begun each day with a community circle where we share, listen to one another and review our classroom norms. The norms are the foundation, and they must be reviewed, modeled, lived and breathed.
An important part of our community is going to be having students do meaningful work in terms of documenting, creating and sharing our learning, our ideas and our 1:1 iPad pilot with the world.

The first "job" I introduced was "documentarian." The plan is for everyone to do the job the first time, and eventually, once all the roles are introduced and practiced, there will be some kind of rotation so that everyone gets a chance to try their hand at different ways of participating in and contributing to the community.

We used the Pic Collage app this week as our tool for documenting, and I gave the students free reign. I love their creative interpretations and the feedback it provided for me.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My "Classroom Theme" is Learning!

Earlier I shared my thoughts about conscious classroom design and the kind of learning environment I hoped to create in my classroom. Guided by our school's learning target, I have started off the school year with bare walls, no desks, as many books as I could gather, and different areas for different activities. The walls will be used to document collective knowledge and processes as well as to showcase student creations. 

Except for a few small challenges with space (I regularly move the tables back and forth away from the rug where we gather for community circle and direct instruction) and storage, I am pretty pleased with the results. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Our Choice of Words

This is my review of the book Choice Words by Peter Johnston. Each teacher at our school was given a choice of books for summer reading as part of our ongoing professional development. I chose to read this book, as I had heard a lot about it and am always (obsessively?) interested in the development of literacy in all its dimensions.

Although Choice Words, by Peter Johnston, is ostensibly about basic (reading and writing) literacy, its message, about the language teachers use and how it shapes what students learn, is relevant for all teachers. We all use language as a primary shaper of classroom activities, environments and direct instruction. Some of the implications are subtle, but powerful.

For example, he talks about teachers' use of  the word "good" to describe readers and writers. This is something I've regularly done, trying to clarify for students what "good" readers and writers do as a means of giving direction (i.e.: these are the things we should all be doing when reading or writing). According to Johnston, use of the word "good" implies that some of the students in the class are those "good readers and writers," and, therefore, others in the class are not. He asks us to think about the subtle shift in intent that occurs by simply removing the word "good."
Here's an example. I like this poster that outlines the work of writing.

But after reading Choice Words, I would probably, if I were to use such a poster in my classroom, cover the word "good." We are all writers. These are the steps of writing. Do you see the difference? 

Ultimately, it comes down to a lot of thought about "who we are and what we are doing" because those thoughts that ground us and impact the way we teach and the language we use. We can't plan every linguistic interaction in advance, so we must have a pervasive sense of the work we're doing with students and the kinds of communities we hope to create. 

I thought the book was a worthwhile read. It validated my overall approach and  goals. If you are interested, but don't want to read the whole book, I would recommend reading the appendices at the end. In those, Johnston shares interviews with students from different classrooms talking about themselves and others as readers and writers. It is so telling to hear what they absorb  from subtle classroom messages, and it will really make you think (I think it could easily be applied to other subjects as well).