Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bringing Writing to Life

It started this week!  Two sections of English had their first chance to use Kidblog in my class (the other two will next week).  We began by selecting avatars and tweaking our usernames - no last names, correct capitalization, please!  Who would have imagined that choosing an avatar could be such a time-consuming process? Because our first few forays in blogging will be facilitated by me, I introduced the kids to this week's online discussion:  Is it acceptable for teachers to friend students on Facebook or other social media sites (Instagram, Vine, etc.)?  Why or why not?  Of course, many kids had an immediate and strong opinion, but I wanted to them to think.  Before they were allowed to write any responses on the blog, they were expected to formulate their ideas, with at least two strong reasons, and share them with multiple partners.  This sharing activity helped them to think logically and reasonably.  Following the partner discussions, I reviewed my writing expectations: complete sentences; correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar; and no texting dialect.  I also asked them to draft their response to the question in Pages, first.  Once the drafts were ready, kids copied and pasted them in Kidblog and we were rolling.  Students participated in a series of responses and replies as they engaged in a digital conversation.  It may have been one of the quietest 30 minutes in my room this year!

I was thrilled with the day's activities, but I am even more excited about the future of blogging in my classroom.  As kids become more proficient with the process, I plan to release control of the discussion.  I want the students to see themselves as passionate individuals who have something to say to their peers.  It is my hope, that by the end of the semester, kids will be writing their own posts and commenting on one another's ideas without relying on a topic suggestion from me.  It will be even more powerful when the sixth graders start to hear from others around the country.  I can't imagine a more motivating experience than writing for an authentic audience.  Finally, those words will come alive as they inspire discussion and debate!  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Group Projects and Individual Accountability

Before Winter Break, the kids began the study of Greek mythology.  Not only is it a massive undertaking, it is also a complicated one.  The gods have tangled family trees, and the myths are often inconsistent from one source to another.  This year, rather than deluging the kids with copious amounts of information, I was inspired to approach the unit from another angle.  Why not divide the material among small groups and let them teach their classmates?  With that in mind, I split the grade into 20 small groups, charging each with developing the 'criminal profile' of their assigned mythical character.  For those of you familiar with mythology, its cast of characters struggles to make ethically sound decisions.  My feeling was that we could study those choices, learn about the gods, and explore the relevancy of stories that are thousands of years old.

Year after year, I have heard from students who have legitimate concerns when it comes to assessing group work.  Usually the complaint is that one student has done most of the work while another student has done very little.  Obviously, this is a problem because inherent in group work is a group assessment.  So, if the final product is worthy of an 'A', how can I ensure that all members are getting a fair grade?  There are a number of different methods that can be employed to address this issue.  One way is through self-assessment and reflection.  Group members assess themselves, each other, and then write a reflection of their contributions to the project.  I was taught another one this summer during the project-based learning conference here at USM.  Teachers from High Tech High in San Diego demonstrated how they hold individuals accountable within a group.  I have decided to adopt their method.

Here's how it works.  For the mythology project, each group is responsible for a number of deliverables.  These are the various components that make the greater whole.  In this case, groups need to complete a wanted poster, a criminal profile, and a screencast.  Let's consider creating the wanted poster, which involves the requisite research, source comparison, and note taking.  After students were given instruction, an example, and rubrics, they were required to create their own individual drafts of the poster.  Those drafts were brought to class for peer and teacher feedback.  The kids were given time to make revisions to their work, and the finished individual posters were submitted to me for grading.  Once returned, the group is expected create one poster that reflects the best of each of the individual submissions.  In this process, the students will receive two grades.  The first will be for their individual poster, while the second will be for the group product.  In this manner, members from the group will not be earning the same grades, but rather ones that reflect individual accountability. High Tech High teachers have found that this method holds students accountable to the group and tends to distribute responsibility more equitably.  I believe that they may be on to something.  Overall, the individual wanted poster submissions demonstrated thoughtfulness and care.  Now, I am looking forward to seeing if the group effort follows suit.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Are You Living in a Reading Desert or Oasis?

Last week, I finished reading Donalyn Miller and Susan Kelley's latest book, Reading in the Wild.  Largely, the book's audience is teachers and it delivers invaluable strategies, resources, and lesson plans designed to help students develop lifelong reading habits.  There are takeaways for others, too.  In particular, Miller and Kelley dedicate a chapter to finding time to read, and their advice should be heeded by us all.  

I love to read.  In fact, when I think of nouns that describe me, reader is one that comes to mind.  As an avid reader, I have set aside a time and a place for reading - every night before I fall asleep.  This has become habit for me and is as much a part of my nightly routine as brushing my teeth.  No matter how busy my day has been or how late it is, I never go to bed without reading.  Some nights, I make it five minutes before I can no longer keep my eyelids open.  Other nights, I have to put down the book and turn out the light, or I will read until the alarm goes off.  I would love to be able to read at other times, but it seems that life gets in the way.  Playing with the kids, running errands, and general house upkeep whittle away at my free time.  And, to be honest, when I do have a minute, I am on that confounded iPad!  There are messages and emails, status updates on Facebook, and 50,000 new tweets that all require my immediate attention.  Finally, after the kids are in bed, I just want to unwind on the couch with the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory.  

Interestingly, as much as I beg, plead, and implore my students to read outside of school, some just can’t find the time.  Like me, their lives get in the way.  From gymnastics on Mondays and Wednesdays, piano lessons on Tuesdays, basketball practices on Thursdays and Fridays, to games on Saturdays, there seems to be no room for reading.  Plus, there is all of that homework!  For better or worse, when kids get a moment, they do what I do - check their devices or watch TV.  Unlike me, however, few students have established a daily reading habit, and enjoying a good book only happens inconsistently at school.  

Miller and Kelley argue that there is plenty of time left for reading in both the kids’ schedules and in mine.  We need to do two things: take advantage of edge time and prepare for reading emergencies.  According to the authors, edge time is the wasted time between our commitments.  It’s the time that we use to check Instagram or like another cat video on Facebook.  Reading emergencies, on the other hand, occur when we get stuck somewhere waiting longer than we had planned.  In order to take advantage of these missed opportunities, the kids and I need to take inventory of our time.  Is there edge time on the bus on the way to school?  How about at the end of the day in the car circle? Do we sit at our appointments and fiddle mindlessly with our smartphones?  What happens during the time before Mom comes home and asks about tonight’s homework?  Is it necessary to check the Biebs’s Twitter feed right now?  Is it crucial to watch the computer while it downloads that game?   

With the new year comes new opportunity.  I am going to challenge myself to carry a book with me in case of a reading emergency.  Likewise, I plan to be more aware of my edge time and evaluate how I spend it.  For me, it’s time to develop a new, healthy habit.  I challenge you and your children to do the same.  I would venture to say that most of us are surrounded by, or have access to, many, many books.  The question is, are we flourishing in a reading oasis or starving ourselves in a reading desert?