Active vs. passive learning

One of the changes I am trying to incorporate in my narrative-feedback-instead-of grades classes (NFIG) this year is allowing the students to seek knowledge instead of having me serve it up via lecture/slides/notes the way I have in the past. Frankly, I believe that I try to be a good lecturer, using that method as little as possible and keeping it varied, interesting and informative.

Nevertheless, I’m still being the sage on the stage, no matter how entertaining. And, frankly, it’s often exhausting. Even if I’m entertaining, the kids are still on the passive end of the learning. And after reading ROLE Reversal, I saw that that needed to change.

Flipping the learning

Taking an idea from Mark Barnes’s book, I used a lesson for my Intro to Journalism students, one in which we learn about news elements, and I flipped it. I explained briefly what news elements were – elements that make news, news. Not all stories qualify as news. We read newspapers and talked about the stories and what drew us to them. Throwing those words on the board headed us in the right direction. But the set of “news elements” is what we needed to round up and define. I told the classes that depending on which text you read or what slide presentation or PDF document you find online from a journalism class or teacher, this set of news elements will vary. Some say there are seven, some say eight, some say 10. Their task, then, instead of watching my slide presentation and taking notes or taking notes from my very good textbook, Inside Reporting, by Tim Harrower, was to find the news elements themselves. I grouped them into threes and fours and had them use whatever means they wished: phones, computers, those cool textbooks. As a group, they were to discover what the common list of news elements was, and define the terms they had decided upon. I gave each group a sheet of blank 11X17 and access to colored pencils and markers so that they could posterize their list and definitions.

Near the end of the hour, I started with one group, putting their terms on the board and having others from the group define it for the class. I moved to the next group and did the same. In some cases, they had a common term. In some cases, they had a different word, but we decided it was the same as one on the board. For example, first group said “immediacy” and second group said “timeliness”. Same thing. Sometimes another group would come up with a term that the first groups hadn’t. An occasional term was a similar topic but not an element of news, so we discussed how that didn’t fit like the others did, though it was relevant in a different way.

After all the terms were on the board, including the duplicates by another name, we decided as a class which ones would make up our list.

Creating artifacts for portfolios

Unfortunately, we ran out of time and will have to continue this next week. I plan to have students create their finalized list of terms in some form to help them remember. They can create their own slide presentation in Google slides or PowerPoint; they can create a digital poster in Smore or another app, digital flashcards or some other creation. The creation will help in retaining the information, as well as be a resource for later. They can save the artifact in their Google portfolio folder for referencing later on, and it serves for meeting both a vocabulary standard and a technology standard. When they begin reflecting on standards to assess their learning for the quarter, they can reference this to back up what they learned and the request for the grade they believe is reflective of their learning.

Reflecting on what needs improvement

Now, a few things did not go as well as I’d wished. While about half or more of the groups were so anxious to get to the searching that they had a hard time listening for all the instructions (that darn sage on the stage wouldn’t stop talking), and they did just what I had hoped, a couple groups did struggle. I noticed one group not talking to each other. They seemed to be researching independently, as if they were going to compare notes after a brief time, so I let them be for a bit. Another group was crowded around one of the journalism lab’s iMacs, and appeared to be quite focused – and they were, just not on the right thing. When I checked in on them, one said, “we found our story.” Indeed, they’d found an interesting news story, one I’d have filed under “oddity” if I were filing under news elements. But that wasn’t the assignment. The main spokesman hadn’t understood the assignment, but hadn’t sought to clarify. The others didn’t think he was looking for the right thing, but were largely hesitant to bring up that point. I think one girl had said as much, but no one paid attention, so they continued reading the odd story. I restated the assignment, and I discussed how, as a group, each has a responsibility to make sure the work is on track and that each is being held accountable.

Heading back to the independent studies group, I saw that they were still studying independently. One had a laptop and was jotting down the elements she was discovering. But the others were not sure what they were supposed to be doing so were using their phones for a variety of things, some related to the assignment, some not. They were, however, not collaborating at all. So I talked about collaboration, how they needed to talk to each other, compare what they were finding, make decisions together and share tasks. They really struggled with this and the awkwardness was palpable.

I need to figure out how to teach collaboration. I need to differentiate a bit between my two sections because one works well with collaboration, and one does not. I shouldn’t let them off the hook of talking to people; I just need to figure out how to help them ease into it in a way that doesn’t make them too uncomfortable.

Have you considered flipping your teaching so that students are responsible for gathering their info? How would that look in your classroom? And if you have students who are hesitant to work with others, how do you handle it? Comment, and let’s get a conversation started.

Introducing … a class meant to be fun

Barely more than a week before we reported back to school for professional development, I learned that I had had a class added to my varied schedule. I already teach two sections of Intro to Journalism, Digital Communications, advise newspaper and yearbook. But with Oklahoma’s education system in the shambles it’s in, budgets have been cut, which means two things: cutting teachers and cutting electives (OK, probably means reducing supplies, cutting field trips, and a number of other things, as well, but let’s focus on the class thing, here.)

Some of the electives that students pre-enrolled in in the spring simply no longer existed after lots of careful consideration this summer, classes like driver education and family and consumer sciences. Others, like psychology and sociology, were merely reduced in section offerings. But kids had to be put somewhere. We needed an elective that could be added to existing teachers schedules.

Reading for Fun. Yep. Reading for Fun. Sounds like I’m making fun, but I’m not. I’d actually already run across the concept from a fellow adviser across the state who’s been teaching Reading for Pleasure. But my principal found the idea from yet another district, so I guess it’s a thing. I think it has the potential to be a good thing.

Three of us are teaching a section or three, and we’re pretty much free to interpret the way we want as long as there is reading, some accountability and fewer demands so that reading has the potential to be fun.

It didn’t take me long to come up with ideas for a class like this. Students will have freedom to choose their reading material, but they are expected to spend the majority of the time, you know, reading. There needs to be accountability, so they will use a reading journal without too many demands. Note something about your book a couple times a week that helps me see that you are advancing through it. I’m a tech teacher and happen to think tech is fun and adds variety and another skill, so the journals are in Google Drive. For more accountability, more tech, continued choice, and the addition of fun, students will prepare some sort of “response” upon completion of each book. I’m putting together quite a list of options.

My Twitter PLN community was very helpful during a recent #sunchat (8 a.m. CT, Sunday). Besides my own ideas of reviews or reflections posted to personal blogs, or mini-reviews tweeted out or posted on Instagram with shoutouts to the authors, book trailers, and a few other ideas, my tweeps shared with me links to long lists of options like writing alternate endings, scenes from another character’s point of view, character analyses, drawings or posters that can be scanned and posted to the blogs, and more. I will create a post for the lists on my class reading blog this weekend.

Here at the end of the first full week, out of my 17 students, three have already finished a book and are well on their way to finishing another. I want to provide that resource for them to choose what they want to do to celebrate that book.

I spent most of this week having individual conferences with each of them to learn their genre preferences, what they were reading currently, what goals they had for the 9-week period and so forth. I was able to make good connections with almost everyone. If I hadn’t read a book they mentioned, I’d seen the movie, or I knew the author, or if I didn’t, I was interested in having them tell me about it. One showed me some very skilled drawings on his phone that he had done as he told me he’d probably draw a scene or two for the book he’d just finished. A couple of them rolled with me in our rolling chairs to the collection of books I’d brought in from home to see if there was something there they might like. One asked to use Photoshop to work on his project for the book one day out of the week while he read for four, since he reads at home, too. You wanna learn a newer version of Photoshop AND read? And put them together? And this makes reading this book more exciting for you? You bet. Do it. (Lucky me, having a journalism lab). Since I’d mentioned blogs the first day, two asked if I’d show them how next week. Yep. We’ll find time for that.

With everyone doing something different (it’s this way in all my classes – kids are different, right?), how do I grade this? I don’t. They’ve each chosen something to focus on for growth in some area: build vocabulary, increase reading speed or comprehension of increasingly more difficult material, try another genre, or classics of favorite genre, or even try to like reading. They will choose from the set of standards we are using, reflect on their work, referring to specific areas that show their learning, and they will assess themselves. We will conference and come to an agreement.

With no one standing over them judging them and collecting points, with them having control of what they read and how they respond to it, the environment is relaxed and conducive to, well, fun with reading.

Together, we can provide a strong, educated workforce

Say Professional Development and watch teachers’ eyes glaze over. But February 17 wasn’t your average sit-in-a-crowded-room-and-feign-interest-in-speaker-while-scanning-social-media-on-your-phone professional development.

Monday was a collaboration between Duncan Area Economic Development Foundation, owners, directors and managers from several local manufacturing plants and high school faculty. It was their show and tell for us.

They proudly took groups of teachers on tours of their facilities as employees worked, and they explained what their companies produced and how they did so. More importantly, they explained what skill sets those employees needed coming out of school. That’s where we came in.


Duncan schools has taken on piloting a program in Oklahoma called Career Pathways under the Southwest Oklahoma Impact Coalition (SOIC). The development program is funded by a U.S. Department of Labor Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) grant and covers two economic development planning districts and 20 Oklahoma counties, of which Stephens is one.

Much of education’s focus has been on college preparedness. Indeed, it seems all the standardized testing and push to offer more AP classes is all directed at getting students to college, which, in turn, boosts our school grade A-F, keeps our doors open and teachers employed.

The leaders we spoke with, however, maintain that college is not the best path for everyone. Many of the jobs we saw on our tour required vocational/technical training. That training can be formal at schools like our local Red River Technology Center, or at Oklahoma State University’s School of Technology with campuses in Okmulgee and Oklahoma City. Some high school graduates with the correct aptitude and attitude are trained by the company.

I never realized we had that many manufacturing companies in our area, nor that they employed so many. As three groups, we toured Halliburton Services, Cameron Measurement Systems, Southern Machine, MIC Group and Wilco Machine and Fab. It’s important to note that these companies, their owners and directors, didn’t just step up for tours for the day, they stepped up to be a part of this entire program. They are in it for the education of the students in our area, because those students become the local workforce. It’s good for everybody.


Each tour guide was proud of his company, spending some time on what they produced and how it all worked. But they also let us know that they not only employed people in manufacturing with welding, machine and fabrication skills, they also needed people in sales and marketing, in information technology, in accounting and finance, in human resources. In short, these “home-grown” businesses can and need to employ people with a range of skills, and the better they are educated for these real-world jobs, the better off we all are. The pay for a many of these positions was quite competitive with their college-educated counterparts, oh, say, teachers or journalists for example. Ouch.

They shared some of the skills they need to see, which they find with increasing frequency new employees do not have, at least at the necessary levels. They all mentioned communications skills, both verbal and written as very important. You can be a great idea person, but until you can convey those ideas so that they are clearly understood, it doesn’t really matter.  One guide mentioned that basic math skills are decreasing with students’ growing dependency on calculators. We were told some can’t read a tape measure.

It was on my group’s second tour, at Cameron Measurements, that I really started applying what I was hearing to how we would each – the math teacher, the science teacher, the English teacher, even the art teacher – apply the different skills needed in those jobs to the education of our students. Of course at a company that develops flow meters, measurement is everything, so the math and physical science are no-brainers. When our guide mentioned that new ideas had to be presented for additional funding and the go-ahead to proceed with the project, my English teacher brain kicked in. Maybe my students won’t get much out of writing about themes present in “Romeo and Juliet,” but writing proposals for a skate park? That could be helpful. And new ideas for flow meters? It probably helps if you can sketch the thing, art teacher. These ideas began forming before I took out my reporter’s notebook.

That happened at Wilco.

Yes, I always carry one. I teach journalism.

We gathered in the relatively small reception area to get ready for the Wilco tour, and President Brad Boles addressed the group. It was clear in a short time that Boles was passionate about his business, the Pathways program and about education. Having recently taken a position on the Marlow school board, he spoke to us from a familiar place. He seemed to get much of what educators in Oklahoma are up against.

The gentleman leading our smaller group, Brent Cole, pointed out work being done and fielded questions from teachers in our group about hiring and skills needed. Science teacher Katy Melton asked about metric versus standard measurements. What do the students need instruction in? Both, Cole told us. They need to be able to convert. Interestingly, Melton explained, Oklahoma standards mandate metric only. This was one isolated example of several conflicts between legislators, educators and the real-world workforce and is a valid reason for such important collaboration.

Cole, like Boles, gets it. He reiterated what we all know, what legislators seem not to understand.

“We need to accommodate the needs of local employers, rather than state mandates,” he told the group.

That, right there, that’s when I pulled out the notebook and pencil. That’s when I began my struggle for reading glasses under safety glasses.


After the tours, we met back at Halliburton for lunch and a panel discussion. The owners, directors and other company reps addressed their educator audience about how the state’s push for college readiness for all students might be misdirected, about how critical thinking, idea generation and troubleshooting are important yet are not areas that can be tested. They talked about soft skills necessary to be a good employee, dressing appropriately, communicating effectively, following directions, and being punctual. At one point a teacher accused them of preaching to the choir, everyone laughed and we got on with more discussion about what we could do: emphasize analytical thinking, presentation skills, and showing initiative. We talked about what they could do when math teacher Sharon Edwards suggested they had a captive audience in their own employees. Talk to them about the importance of their children’s’ education, about showing up, about reacting positively regarding math and other subjects rather than negatively. That was an “aha” moment for many.

There was also agreement all around that the one group missing was legislators – the decision makers. I was surprised to learn that most of the panelists had already extended invitations to different politicians for facility tours, had already contacted different governmental entities on behalf of this and similar programs. They’re already trying to make a difference in their workforce and they know it starts with education.


DAEDF staff members, President Lyle Roggow and Jeannie Bowden, each stressed that others in the state are looking to Duncan to pilot this program. They’re watching to see how we make this work so they can consider how they may replicate its success. After meeting with the leaders I watched and listened to on Monday, I cannot imagine that this won’t be a successful program. I was amazed at the passion, the knowledge and the degree of intelligence and drive I witnessed when they all spoke to us. It was validating and uplifting.

Imagine such a program in your area. Manufacturing may not be the “thing” in your neck of the woods. In fact, the program here in Duncan will soon have educators interacting with the healthcare industry in a similar fashion. How could you make such a program work for your area economy and school system? What could such a program do for your local workforce?

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.