Developing inquiring minds

What makes one student more inquisitive, more capable of troubleshooting, more confident to pursue learning on his or her own than another?

I first noticed a distinct difference in groups of students during observations in my introduction to teaching class. I was assigned to an 8th grade English teacher and scheduled my visits to catch an honors class and a basic class. The honors class wasn’t just given a heavier load and more difficult work. I saw immediately a difference in receiving instruction.

As the teacher gave assignments to each class, the distinct difference I noticed was that the kids in the basics class asked dozens of questions, “What do you mean?” “How do you want us to do that?” “How do you want us to start?” “How long does it have to be?” You get the drift.

In the honors class, once instruction was given, there was some silence, as the students contemplated and considered what the teacher had said and how they were going to interpret it for their own work. And then they went to work – quietly.

In my own classes, my journalism students, who come to be in those classes by way of application, recommendation and interview, are that type of student. They may have a few questions; after all, this type of writing and working is quite different from any they have encountered in their years of schooling. But once they have developed their plan of action with some guidance, they go to work interviewing, drafting, seeking feedback, revising, editing and helping others do the same. After a few weeks of learning how the news lab works, they are more inquisitive, more capable of troubleshooting and even more confident to pursue learning on their own.

Take for instance our addition of Google Drive this year. In an effort to step up our technology, make it possible to do more writing and editing from more places and save paper and toner, I introduced Google to my editors over the summer. Then I told them to teach each other and explore to see what else they could learn. So they did.

It wasn’t long before the news staff figured out sharing folders, which made sharing drafts so much easier. We shared that knowledge with the yearbook staff, who started using it shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the yearbook staff had delved into spreadsheets for the ad client list and the ladder. In that endeavor, we learned a little more about sharing with commenting versus editing privileges and exactly what that means. We also learned about revision history and how to restore an earlier version – thank troubleshooting skills.

Knowing that my journalism classes have many qualities that seem to develop these skills in students, I have tried to move some of the “project” thinking, peer-to-peer problem solving attributes and freedom of choice over to my more basic classes. My hope is to develop their critical thinking skills and a desire to learn that will replace the “just give me a worksheet I can complete with the answers I get from you or my peers so I can have my points” mentality. If students can become intrigued by participating in their learning, it just might make a difference for them.

Over the past couple of years, I can say it’s worked to a degree. Having a journalism Mac lab in my classroom helps. I’ve had my English classes conduct more research than my other English dept. counterparts can do with their limited computer lab time. I’ve introduced blogging, which has inspired some, but not all of my students. I’ve allowed freedom of choice for projects to accompany literature units – many of which were never completed. The introduction to journalism class did some research into historic journalists last year that incorporated choice in technology tools and good old stand-in-front-of-your-classmates presentation skills, but it also encouraged that peer-to-peer teaching I love so much.

Since every year, in some cases, every semester, gives us the opportunities for do-overs, I seem to be in a reflective mode most of the time. When I take these attributes that work so well for the high-achieving students to my classes that have such a mix of high-achievers and those who just show up, I have to provide more scaffolding. While I provide choice, I cannot leave it open-ended. I have to show some solid options, and examples go a long way in helping students visualize their projects. The peer-to-peer problem solving has to come with specific guidelines, because some problem-solvers take their jobs to heart more than others.

As this semester winds down, I make plans to get it wrapped up with what we have done so far, and I look ahead to making improvements for the work to come.

Loving learning through blogging

I am so much better at preparing lessons than grading work. I’d just rather be teaching than assessing. And I figure kids would rather be learning than being assessed, but it’s become all about the assessment, hasn’t it?

Disclaimer: This post may ramble. It’s the first I can think of that I didn’t plan, draft and edit much before posting.

Going through my Twitter feed this morning, I came upon the latest of Diane Ravitch’s blog posts  in which she commented on a story in the Washington Post about 120 children’s authors and illustrators writing to President Obama to plead with him to “curb policies that promote excessive standardized testing.” The jist being that we are training kids to equate reading with testing, thereby hating literature instead of loving it. I completely agree. I truly feel that if we can teach kids to love learning, whatever testing comes along should take care of itself.

Starting (or restarting) student blogging

So … I’ve promised most of my kids we’d get to blogging soon. I have five different classes, but see no reason why they can’t all be blogging. Blogs are the basis of my digital communications class, as they have been not only blogging with links, images and other tools we are beginning to explore, but the blogs will serve a their digital portfolio once the class is over. I set up a separate blog to post their assignments and link their blogs, and have now added pages for English and Intro to Journalism blog links.

I began student blogging last year with my Intro to Journalism students and meant to get around to it with the newspaper staff. It’s just that they are always so busy. Add to their usual busyness the fact that we are trying to add an online edition to our print edition, and we’re doubling their chores. But the blogging kind of goes hand-in-hand with developing an online presence for our news media.

I’ve also gotten at least some of my freshman English class excited about publishing online in the form of blogs. We took a shot at paper blogging a few weeks ago, but all did not go as I had intended when during the commenting portion of the exercises, many did not take it seriously. I made it voluntary at the time and had a few tell me they were interested, but when it came down to coming in on their own time for instruction then following up from their home computers, well, it just never happened.

I feel it’s important enough to get back on the horse, however. Common Core Standards, which I’m a fan of (not so much on the testing aspect), stipulate  some form of writing and publishing online as early as fourth grade. I’m doing a disservice to my students not to introduce this to them.

Deciding on the right platform

As I began working on the logistics, however, I came upon the problem of which platform to use. I had chosen WordPress for my digicomm students, who are all seniors. I figure when they graduate, they can continue to use their blogs if they choose to without having to export to something more grownup. They’re already there.

Last year, with my I2J kids, who are mostly freshmen, I used Kidblog. It was fairly limited, but looked at as a sort of “training wheels” vehicle, it worked for us. There were 10-12 themes to choose from, all posts and comments were filtered through me for moderation and all linked to my Kidblog page. Nice and neat. Last week, though, as the English kids were setting up blogs, there seemed to be no choice for theme. The only option they had matched the teacher’s page. On investigation, I found that I would now have to upgrade for my kids to get to choose from those 10-12 themes. I already pay for whiteboard markers, tissues, germ-X and keep a supply of peanut butter crackers for those who missed breakfast. I resented having to pay even $6 a month so these kids can individualize their pages. Back to the drawing board.

Last Sunday, I hooked up with some tweeps on #sunchat and got some good feedback and discussion on my dilemma. After some exploration – and meeting Andy McIlwain of WPUniversity through my Google search for information – I finally developed a plan. This morning I produced the document I will give to my students to help them set up their blogs this week. I share that here if it will help anyone else:

Start Blogging

Basically, I will have them all use WordPress, but as administrators of their own blogs, they will list me as a user with editing privileges. This will allow me to edit or delete posts and moderate commentary. This gives me a little more security in being able to watch over them and guide them in what they post. I don’t want to control, but I do want to keep them and their peers safe.

So to all of you tweeps I’ve followed who have promoted student blogging and helped me to develop the system I’m slowly pulling together, I thank you. I think giving these kids a voice and the tools to do more will go a long way in developing them into students who could love learning.

A little help from my friends

I get by with a little help from my friends.

Lately I do more than get by with a little help from my tweeps.

Today was like that. Though I knew I had tons to do – a teacher’s work is never, ever, remotely near completion – I gave myself permission for that chocolate treat of social media: a tweet chat. A switch from daylight savings to standard time found me waking an hour earlier than I needed to, but just in time for #sunchat.

Since there was no specific topic this morning, lots of side chats were going on. Something about student blogging popped up and I remembered I had been frustrated last week by the fact that a student blogging platform I had used with success last year, @kidblog, was now charging for the modest attributes it offered its young bloggers, especially the theme variety. Oh, I could stick with the basic, free version, but that limited everyone’s blog to looking exactly the same. So I tweeted about it and tagged @kidblog. They actually responded, which I appreciate, but the response was’t helpful. They want me to upgrade. I already pay for Germ-X, tissues, Expo markers and extra mechanical pencils out of my own pocket, not to mention occasionally giving away cracker packages and granola bars to kids who somehow missed breakfast. Even $5 a month is just one more expense I cannot afford and I shouldn’t have to.

So I posted the issue in #sunchat and got several responses for alternative ways to help my students blog. In fact, the conversation went on for several minutes.

A little while later I found myself in another side convo about whether or not points should be deducted for late work, which was really a smaller issue of student motivation. That turned into a chat that lasted an hour beyond the #sunchat. One tweep suggested we should have had our own hashtag.

We disagreed with each other on a couple of points, but kept it civil and kept on discussing, sharing points of view and an occasional link to one authoritative article or another. Though we were not in agreement with each other, I found it to be one of the most stimulating conversations I’ve been in for a while. Seeing other points of view helped me to think through how I manage some of my classroom situations.

I can’t say enough about the value I find in communicating through social media with others who do what I do. I get inspiration, I get ideas, I get actual lesson plans and other materials, I get questions answered, I get laughs. It’s just a beautiful thing, and though I continue to preach it to my co-workers, I do not see them taking advantage the way that I do. I know they are missing out.

If I just keep sharing what I’m learning, how I’m learning and from whom I’m learning, if I just model the behavior that I know would work for others, maybe, just maybe some of them will pick up on it. Once they realize the vast network of helpful educators out there, they can’t help but join in.

Trust, 20 reps, twice a day

I sustained injuries to my self-image this week. The damage has affected my outlook and the vision I have for my students, for my classes. The injuries were inflicted by students, though I take responsibility for allowing them to cause the amount of damage they did. I let certain things get to me that had I had more long-range vision, stronger fortitude, more wisdom, I might have faced it better. The unrelated events happened largely over the course of two days, and I allowed the resulting anger to steal an evening from me as I went over and over the scenarios, complaining to people close to me and trying to figure out appropriate consequences for the offenders. I was really rattled.

I’m not a big pray-every-time-I-get-a-hangnail type of person, but I have at times found strength asking for guidance in handling situations for which I am at a loss. I fell asleep one night asking for such guidance and holding up individual students who I know struggle with a multitude of issues.

Too frustrated this Saturday morning to be very productive, I found myself giving up on the optimism pervading #satchat, while I’m still feeling that ‘you give them an inch, they rub your face in it,’ (not my norm at all), and swinging over to Pinterest, the epitome of losing yourself in what seems productive, but probably isn’t.

But it was.

A couple of mood-lifting quotes got me started, and actually made me smile.

Those were warm-ups to what I really needed to read, which was Todd Finley’s post on Edutopia, “How to Trust Your Students.” That was the prescription I needed.

I’ve already gone deeper into the post than I should have without explaining at least topically the transgressions that occurred. You see, I’ve worked to open up what students at our school are allowed to do through technology and being online. I have taught English and journalism for six years. I have fewer sections of English than my department counterparts because of the newspaper, yearbook and intro to journalism classes, but one of the major advantages my freshman English students have is the use of my Mac lab.

Knowing that the CCSS promote publishing writing online, I’ve been cheerleading for getting our students blogging and teaching other tools of online communication.  I asked for and received permission to have my intro to J students blog last year, with a few stipulations. Feeling my oats, I went forward and asked to teach a class in digital communications. This class would consist of learning how to properly use social media, including online safety and digital citizenship, and would include blogging, curation and presentation web tools, and Internet research methods. The principal liked and approved the idea, and our IT guy was behind me completely. In fact, knowing I would be addressing issues with students, he loosened up some of the long-standing blocking. Things were looking good. Students would obviously appreciate this freedom and understand the responsibility that goes along with it.

Not so fast.

Within the space of two days, one student took advantage of another who hadn’t logged out of her gmail account, very inappropriately; a yearbook student’s entire server folder of photos disappeared (I love time machine); and another student used someone else’s photo as his Edmodo profile picture. Why am I giving them these opportunities? On top of that, I have two or three students who simply don’t want to be at school for anything more than to draw attention to themselves and try to make people laugh or cringe. I get pulled into a daily battle with these kids that keeps others from being able to enjoy what could be a good experience. The whole week made me feel dumb, used up and frustrated.

So I see this post on trusting students. What? Haven’t several of mine just proven themselves untrustworthy? Close to the beginning of the article, I read the line, “students witness their peers ramp up their antisocial behaviors,” and easily visualized several of my kids as they roll their eyes in exasperation at the antics of the two or three. Finley goes on to say that this behavior results from authoritarian punishments. I had to think back but recalled that yes, I’d been authoritarian in reaction to the misbehavior. Was that so wrong? He says we can break the cycle with trust, but we have to be willing to risk that they may betray that trust. Later on, he points out that trust is developed gradually, “Don’t believe in trust at first sight.”

The post includes a how-to for those of us holding our hands out to our sides, palms-up.  Give it to receive it. GET TO KNOW YOUR STUDENTS. I think he means not just the easy to get to know, the likeable ones. He quotes teacher Michelle Connors as she compares her students to oysters. She recognizes that her students have had hard lives and have built up shells to protect themselves. As a teacher, she must use perseverance to get them to open up to her so that she can find the “pearl” that is within them all, and show them that they can be successful.

Finley suggests sharing power, getting student input about what and how to learn. I’m happy to note that I have done this. I was also pleased to read that he would approve of my putting my tables in clusters rather than rows because it demonstrates trust.

Throughout the post there was the common thread that it won’t be easy, it won’t happen overnight. You have to build the trust, provide second chances, be willing to have bad experiences along with the good, but that you must be consistent, you must be willing to work it every day.

Even though I’ve never gone through physical therapy, I’ve been with those who have, and because my middle son will soon graduate with a degree in athletic training, I’ve listened to many stories over the past three years about recovery, exercises, repetition, commitment, consistency. So it follows for me that as I feel I have been injured, trust has been presented to me as the prescribed therapy. And as anyone who has ever had to endure physical therapy following surgery knows, it will be tough – tougher on some days than others, and there is no doubt that I will want to give up on some of those tough days. But those dedicated athletes struggling through recovery have to keep the end goal in mind – playing at optimal health again. For me, I have to remember that within each of these kids is that pearl, and some of their shells will just be tougher to get through than others.

I’m feeling a framed photograph of an opened oyster just below the clock would be in order.

Transparency

I must be honest: the main reason I started this blog is so that I would have a way of keeping track of the time and energy I put toward teaching classes and advising my publications staffs. I love that I’m also learning some new (to me) technology that I will be passing on to my journalism students and that I have a justifiable creative outlet as well – although, I have to question why I have to justify a creative outlet for myself. Oh, yeah, because I have too much to do as a teacher and adviser to spend time selfishly being creative.

Now that my secret is out, I have to confess and apologize for what is now obvious: it’s been two weeks since my last post. I am sorry. But to address my initial need to document time put toward, I must bog us down with information. I’ll try to do this quickly and painlessly (which should be easy, since I’m old and forgetful).

The week of September 12 was memorable for several things. I spent Monday and Tuesday after school following the new protocol before referring students to the office by calling multiple parents about such infractions as disturbing other students, not focusing on work, not turning in work, truancy for Encore. So far this year I have had more of those conversations with parents than I have had in my previous four years of teaching combined.

Tuesday was remarkable for the promise that it held and the disappointment that was revealed at the end of the day. For months, citizens have worked to create an acceptable compromise to the bond issue that was voted down last April. This one, it seemed, was what the people wanted and would agree to. The result would have been vast improvements to our 50-year-old campus, making it much more suitable on a basic, day-to-day basis as well upgrading the technological possibilities to help our students be more competitive technologically both as students now and as productive citizens later. The bond, however, did not carry a large enough majority, so it’s back to the drawing board again.

Wednesday wasn’t any longer than usual, but I had less time when I donated my plan period to cover a math class for a teacher gone to a workshop. Took some work with me, but when I realized his kids wouldn’t work unless I was strolling among them, I put my work away.

Thursday afternoon and Friday morning were open for Parent/Teacher conferences. I think I had seven parents or sets of parents come by. Guess I could add in all the phone conversations I had earlier in the week.

I did Friday on very little sleep. Dog barked at 1:24 a.m. I never went back to sleep. Did those few Friday morning conferences, a lot of grading, and some yearbook work. Dashed home for a late lunch then caught a ride with my teacher friend the webmaster, and, cameras in the trunk, we headed to the evening’s football game destination an hour and a half away. Of course, we built in time for a brief shopping trip and dining before the game.

My sophomore-in-college son and is girlfriend met us there (a halfway point for all of us), so we had some visiting in between photographing the game, pom, cheer and the band. And I actually stayed awake all the way home – midnight. Long day.

Saturday morning came early as I rose, grabbed the camera again, met a yearbooker at the classroom for more photographic equipment, and we headed for the park to catch some cross country pics. Those turned out much better than the football pics. I have so much to learn about photography. Daylight is my friend, and I am lost without my friend.

Last week I pushed hard to get the grading caught up.  This was aided by the fact that I stayed home sick on Monday. It was one of those illnesses that largely requires that you simply have a bathroom very close by. Other than that, you can actually get some work done.

Good thing I felt better on Tuesday. It was my turn to play freshman sponsor and watch dance practice from 7 to 8:30 p.m. I always get a kick out of the class dance pep rally. The students who are involved work hard to get their choreography just right and throw in enough originality to be competitive – although everyone knows that the seniors always win, even if they suck. It’s interesting, though, to watch some of the freshmen, who don’t really know what they’re up against, fool around and not take it seriously enough. Kudos to the choreographers, the leaders, who put up with a lot to try and pull off a good performance from a cross section of their entire class. My kid’s a senior, but I secretly root for the freshmen to impress the masses.

Finally heard from my yearbook rep on Wednesday, nearly a week after he said he’d figured out the index bug in the program and managed to get my index finished. Since attempts to email the file to me had failed, he was going to up load it to Dropbox and send me instructions, but I hadn’t heard from him in a week. Got the file, but the PDF plug-in wouldn’t work. Waiting game again while he works with tech support to try to figure out this new problem. Kids will be lucky to have the 2011 book for Christmas. They may be lucky to have the 2011 book before the 2012 book. I stayed late editing the file that wouldn’t go, because eventually it will.

The rest of the week went smoothly enough, though when I think of all I need to do to get this 2012 book off the ground, while still worrying about the old one, and production week is coming up for the first real issue of the paper, and, oh, there’s that English class to teach . . . it worries me, and I’m blogging.