Instinctive practice, with a lack of terminology

Fortunately or unfortunately, I do not have an education degree. I have an English degree but am alternatively certified as a teacher in Oklahoma. I felt really inadequate at first, even though I had teacher after teacher tell me that they don’t really teach you anything in those classes anyway – you learn it by doing it.

I learned it by doing it – and by reading about it. And by networking with other teachers everywhere. And by talking with my students and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

Educational lingo used to make me feel dumb, but I figured out I’m doing most of it, just not labeling it the same.

Collecting and analyzing data:

There was this one time, I stood before my class of intro to journalism students and had just gone over ten different types of feature stories. I had described each and given multiple examples and they could see these for reference in their textbook. They were to be brainstorming ideas – three of each type – AND NO ONE WAS WRITING ANYTHING DOWN. OK, a couple of the students had managed to write down an item or two, but by and large, these kids could not think of, or would not chance coming up with, ideas of their own for this feature story idea brainstorming task. Under 10 types, at three per, a real go-getter would have come up with close to 30 ideas. Some kids had four or five ideas; half had nothing at all. One or two had maybe a dozen.

We ran out of class time as I tried to encourage them to think of more ideas. I made it homework, but even the next day, no one had come up with anything more.

I mentally collected data: Kids cannot/will not create story ideas.

I mentally analyzed data: Kids are so used to bubbling scantrons, they do not know how to create ideas. Or, they are afraid of being shot down for having the “wrong” answer.

Possible solution: Provide more opportunities to practice creating. DO NOT shoot down ideas. Build confidence. Model, model, model.

This collecting and analyzing of data was not done with exams, scantrons, reports or meetings, but it was done.

Providing formative feedback:

OK, so in the beginning of my career, formative feedback was
1. verbal: “Yes! That’s right!” or “Close, it was …” or “Not the answer I was looking for, but you make a good point.” or “Tell me what you mean.”
2. Physical: pat on the back, high five, air knucks, thumbs up, pointy finger to lips in a “shhh..”, subtle shaking of the head in a “no”, standing beside a perpetrator so that my presence was felt.
3. Written: I loved writing notes in the margins! The first assignment for my English 1 freshmen was to tell me about themselves, and I could always find a connection to make note of in the margin. It wasn’t until later I realized most couldn’t read cursive. Ah, well. I did same with their formal paragraphs, essays, even tests, to explain what might have been misunderstood or ask a question of them that might clarify where they went wrong. In news and yearbook, this was the method we used for editing story drafts. After two or three editors had done the peer editing, I took a run through it, using proofreading marks and margin notes, noting things that worked well and ideas for improvement.

Then along came Google docs and our world was changed forever. For some reason, either because I am maturing as a teacher or because the commenting feature makes it easier to do so, I do not usually correct errors so much as point them out. Typing is so much easier than writing in margins, so I explain why it needs to be what it needs to be or why another option might be better. I get nearly as wordy there as I do in blog posts. I can be witty, too. But I can easily comment:
its=possessive; it’s=it is;
or another favorite: everyday=one word as adjective “my everyday shoes”; or every day= two words, as in “every single day”.
I’ve heard kids from across the room go, “Oooh, I get it.” I even go on lengthy descriptions about run-ons, trying to teach the concept in the comment feature.

Guidelines for peer feedback:

I had someone ask me in a chat this week about my guidelines for peer feedback. Guidelines? I’d never thought about it. The kids figure out how to give feedback to each other by how I model giving feedback. In publications classes, drafts must go through a few staffers/editors before I see it. And I tell them that I’m mainly there to keep us from getting sued. I want the editors to take on the responsibility of good editing. Of course, that has to be built, and some years are stronger than others. I start from scratch in my intro to journalism classes. In the intro classes, when they begin peer edits, the comments are inevitably “it’s good,” or “great job,” or “I like it.” It takes a little work from me, a little preaching about how anyone’s work – including mine – can be improved, and we’re all here to help each other get better.

As I provide feedback, “good lead”, “run-on”, “no first- or second-person”, “watch the editorializing – who’s opinion is this?” “read aloud – doesn’t make sense”, they begin to offer similar advice to each other. In Google docs, I can see the comments they’ve given each other, and when I see good edits, I praise the editor. When I see a story go through with a “good job” and it’s full of fragments and uncapitalized “i”, I look to see who commented and I ask her how she let that go. Doesn’t she want to help her classmate get better? Eventually, they catch on, and I hear the kids thanking each other. Thanking each other.

Once they are on yearbook or newspaper staff, I hear editors telling new staffers that they need more sources or asking where they got certain information. I see an editor leaning over the shoulder of someone laying out a page and explaining headline hierarchy and how he needs to align with the rails and my heart pitter-patters.

Guidelines for peer editing? Nah. I just model what I’d like them to be able to do. I praise when I hear it done right, and I talk to them privately if it’s not going right and offer suggestions for improvement.

Projected Outcomes:

Um, OK, again with the modeling. Even in the early days, I instinctively knew I needed to provide a model if I wanted students to produce something. I like models so I know what’s expected of me. Why wouldn’t they need the same? “This thing here? This is what I project you will come up with – or something similar …” If I want creativity, I show them several that are vastly different, so they know they have room to explore.

This year, though, experimenting with Standards Based Grading and then leaning toward Feedback Instead of Grading (known by some as TOG, or Throwing Out Grades), I developed what I’m calling Target Sheets. One thing that seems handy is for the kids to know, not only the product they are to come up with (feature story or seven photos that exemplify rules of composition), but the standards they are trying to meet or exceed. Whether I “grade” them or have them assess themselves, it’s fair to show them what we are all shooting for. So I developed these target sheets that describe the project, indicate essential questions the assignment should address and show the standards, with a 4-0 rubric, that the assignment will be assessed on. I provide the target sheet at the beginning of the assignment so kids can see what the requirements are. They are to hang on to that so they can refer to it throughout the project (doesn’t happen much yet), then turn it in with the finished product (rarely happened, and I found myself having to print additional copies). In some cases, we assessed some of the standard(s) together in a mini-conference. In some cases, due to time or the project, I assessed, but provided written feedback and the opportunity to rework the project. Some did; some didn’t. I do realize most didn’t because there was already a grade on it. I blame time constraints and the fact that I was under some pressure to put in so many grades within a certain time frame.

My main point here is that I worked to make the students aware of what the project outcome was as well as what their skill/standard outcome was. I believe that was an improvement over what I used to do.

Reflection:

I’ve always instinctively dwelt upon absolutely everything. Little did I know that we call this reflection, and that it’s good for you, like spinach. I’m always rethinking and reinventing wheels. Now I try to do it a bit more formally, and I encourage my students to reflect as well. In fact, I require it to the extent possible. In an effort to avoid the subjective and punitive nature of grading, but still meet most of the demands of my job, I had my publication students weekly 1. project outcomes (make goals on a daily log) 2. note on that log what they did daily. 3. reflect (did he do all he set out to do? what could have gone better? what was he proud of?) and assess (based on guidelines we set earlier in the year, what grade does she give herself for the week in productivity?).

Some really did reflect, and I was proud of what they discovered about themselves when they did that. They often set new goals or adjusted how they approached certain tasks. Some just jumped through the hoops and wrote something that might satisfy the teacher. I’m hoping they get it at some point. In my network of lead learners, I have resources for teaching reflecting that I will lean heavily upon for the coming year. It’s not instinctive for everyone. It must be taught, and I will spend more time teaching it, which will be worthwhile.

In my constant quest to get better at my job, I’ve lined up a good reading list for my summer, and I offer it to you:

Role Reversal by Mark Barnes

Assessment 3.0 by Mark Barnes

Digital Student Portfolios: A whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment by Matt Renwick

I also recommend a couple of Twitter Chats and a Facebook page:

#sunchat, Sundays at 8 a.m. CT

#TTOG, Teachers Throwing Out Grades, ongoing slow chat (also Facebook page)

#DI4all, Differentiated Instruction for all, next chat July 6, 7 p.m. CT

Follow these Tweeps:

@mssackstein

@markbarnes19

@differNtiated4u

@JMcCarthyEdS

What are some of the wheels you would like to reinvent? What are some conversations you would like to join or start? Feel free to start here.

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To blog with abandon or purpose?

My teaching strategies have changed so much in the past year. I credit my Twitter PLN for so much of that. I find myself teaching more critical thinking than ever, giving student choice wherever possible and inviting technology where it would enhance the lesson,  further engage my students or help prepare them for college and the work world.

Enter blogging for almost all of my students. Have I taken on too much? Maybe. Have I discovered things I’ll do differently next time around? Definitely.

It all started last year, my first with the intro to journalism class I requested. Previously I had been teaching newspaper, yearbook and English I. I did lots of research before I started the blogging project, and I had been blogging myself for a while. I found Pernille Ripp‘s post about paper blogging with all of its links to other resources. Though she blogs with elementary kids, I still thought the idea had merit for my mostly 9th graders. It went over well, and soon we transferred what we learned over to Kidblog. On that platform, the students’ posts automatically came to me for approval before going live, something my principal appreciated.

This year, I asked for and got permission to create another class: Digital Communications. I pitched this for students, not necessarily journalism students, to develop their online communication skills, preparing them for college and the real world. We would look at Internet protocol, safety, privacy, and ethics as well as plagiarism and learning about copyright law and how fair use works. Most of their work would be based on blogs that would serve as portfolios. After learning basics of posting, linking, inserting images and sharpening their writing skills with an audience in mind, we would learn some research skills using social media. Then would come curation apps and learning some audio and video skills and web-based presentation software. We’ve stalled out a bit as their motivation has caused the earlier lessons to take much longer than I had planned. I had this largely senior class using WordPress, feeling Kidblog was a little too limiting. After all, most were near or already 18.

The more I read online and heard from my tweeps, the more excited I got about everybody blogging, so I made plans to get my English class blogging this year as well. That’s when I discovered that Kidblog had changed how they do things and in order for students to have more than one option of theme, I’d have to pay. In Oklahoma, schools are receiving less per student than they were in 2008. I’m not even going to ask for money. I already pay for pencils, paper, Germ-X and tissues from my own pocket. I am not going to shell out a monthly amount so my students can have different themes like they did last year. I compromised by using WordPress for these youngsters as well, the caveat being that they give me editor user privileges and the password in case I need to intervene for any real reason.

I got the new intro to journalism class started blogging on this same system as soon as we’d gone through an opinion writing unit.

My real dilemma, and the reason for this post is that though I’ve explained over and over that much of their credibility depends on correctness of their writing, I still have some students for whom spelling, correct capitalization and punctuation, sentence structure and usage are less than secondary to their content. I’ve tried to tell them that their readers will not stick around if they have to work at understanding what they are trying to read – to no avail. Their process is supposed to be drafting in GoogleDocs, sharing for editing, which works great in my newspaper and yearbook classes, even sharing with me for feedback – maybe they don’t like my feedback? I think it’s pretty darn helpful – before they post.

Do I grade those posts on correctness of writing? I don’t want to decrease their excitement for blogging, but they have to know that in real life, these kinds of errors may cost them jobs. Did I just answer my own question? I love how writing helps me work through processes and develop ideas, and yet hate that I cannot convince many students that this magic exists. I would love to hear suggestions on how to assess correctness of writing in their posts when I had truly planned on only giving credit for completion, leaving them to explore the process and their own ideas for the joy it should bring.

In DigiComm, assignments might be a post with a link to another page, or a post with a copyright-free image, etc., so completion was all I had planned, until I realized that some posts were only a few sentences long with no craft and several writing errors, as compared to another student, passionate about his topic who wrote on about something with great sentence structure, good vocabulary, etc. They shouldn’t both get the same grade. Learning as I go …

The English class is doing group blogs, with groups ranging from 2-4 people in each. They will rotate with each assignment, which I tie to whatever we are doing. They’ve chosen topics for their blogs, so they will tie my assignment in with their topic. For instance, after reading two short stories that both dealt with suspense, my assignment was to write a post that deals somehow with suspense, but tied to their own topic. For a pair of students writing about music, they could talk about scoring a movie based on either story and what type of music would best create the suspenseful mood. Within their group they are to discuss the assignment, so everyone has some input, but one of them writes in Gdocs, shares with others who get to comment/edit, then it goes live. Next assignment, someone else is in charge.

The intro class each has their own blog and most of them have been great. Consider though, that these kids chose a journalism elective. They knew there was writing involved, so for the most part, these have no problems. However, there are a few who have issues as mentioned above: lots of grammatical and mechanical mistakes and no desire for making the posts better. In one case, the student doesn’t see the point, thinking it won’t matter to the reader like it doesn’t matter to him. In another case, the student is disappointed that I’m making something fun, like a blog, into something like an assignment. His two posts have been one sentence each, nothing that would make anyone come back for more, as I explained to him.

While I feel I’m doing dozens of things right, like I tell my students, there are always ways to improve. I’m looking for methods to improve my students’ online writing through my teaching and assessment, and I welcome suggestions.