Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Report Card Comments from a Can?

At my former school, report card writing was an easy task: calculate the grade and check the boxes for the corresponding canned comments. I could write report cards for all 150 of my students in just a few hours, and I thought I loved the system. Not because it was in the best interest of my students, mind you, but because it was easy and required minimal time commitment. Selfish, I know, but not illogical. Coming up with all of those comments from scratch would have been a laborious and time-consuming process.

My first year at USM, I was introduced to writing report card comments from scratch. No template, no prewritten quips to copy and paste, just a blank, ominous computer screen. I sought the advice of my peers, and while they were exceedingly helpful and offered useful advice, I was overwhelmed. Other than my master’s action research project, that first set of comments was the most challenging thing I had ever written. But, I was rewarded when I finished. As a result of the reflective process that was necessary to creating a thoughtful and accurate comment, I knew my students comprehensively. And, while looking at kids individually, group patterns started to emerge as well. It became clear where my instruction had been effective and where it had fallen flat. I had no choice but to reevaluate my methods, and I became a more contemplative teacher because of the process.

Since that first year, I am more intentional in the way I gather data about my students. Each child has a digital folder in which I save notes from our one-on-one meetings, copies of written feedback that I have provided on their writing, and examples of their most recent work. This has improved the efficiency of my comment writing. What’s even more important is a side effect of creating these digital records: As I gather information, I am able to analyze it, meet individual needs, and adjust my instruction on the fly.

While comment writing may never be easy for me, it will always be valuable. It has made me a more reflective and purposeful teacher, not just for two weeks in October and February, but for the whole year. And, though I’m relieved each time I finish another round, I don’t miss the canned comments. Frankly, they don’t do a student justice.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

From the Makerspace to Language Arts

Two weeks ago, I received a much-anticipated package from Amazon - a wireless document camera! I was excited by the possibility of being able to mark-up a book or write in my Writer's Notebook and have it project to my whiteboard. Unfortunately, the camera did not play well with my Apple TV, and I could not get it to project wirelessly. I had to send the device back. Needless to say, I was bummed; until I ran into Mr. Mussoline. Rather than viewing my issue as a setback, he took it as an opportunity to exploit the potential of our makerspace, Nerdvana.

Together, we planned to have students compete in teams to create a document camera stand for my iPad. The makerspace would provide all of the parts and tools, and the kids would supply their ingenuity and know-how. Through a first come, first served process, three students from each advising class signed up to build a device that would allow my iPad to function as a document camera.

Click for photo gallery

During two days of Community Time last week, the teams of students planned, gathered materials, and constructed their document camera stands. Mr. Mussoline and I helped them only when they needed assistance operating a tool, otherwise we let them explore and learn on their own. It was a powerful experience, and the excitement was palpable as kids measured, sawed, and drilled. Over and over again, they tried ideas and made adjustments in order to make their visions a reality. I was astounded by the level of engagement with the project as well as the students' perseverance in making their team's product the best one. In the end, all four document camera stands made it to completion with varying degrees of success. Yet, it wasn't really about the final product, it was the process. Kids were there because they wanted to be there, not because they were forced to comply. They were encouraged to follow their instincts and use their individual strengths in order to meet the expectations of the activity. And, they were allowed to fail with the chance to recover.

I'm not sure who took away more from the experience. In those two days, I learned more about passion, choice, and coaching than I ever expected. Now, it's time to figure out how to bring those insights to my English classroom.