Friday, October 29, 2010

Grades, grades, grades

Grades are due this week and I am in the weeds; in restaurant speak that means behind. I have graded all of my students work--in fact the grading part has been going relatively smoothly this year. I stay late a day or two a week and knock out class sets of papers or I grade on the spot, walking the room and working grades at student's elbows where I can quick have a conversation with them about their work. But while I've been able to keep up with putting marks on papers or giving students feedback, I have not been able to keep up with grades into the computer. Two days this week found me up at 4 a.m. trying to do just that. I am working as hard as I can. So what got in the way?

Teaching surely. I mean I can't ignore students during class in order to input grades in the computer right? I have to be with them, guide them, facilitate their experiences--even if students are doing discovery work in groups, I need to be in their midst, not huddled behind my monitor. So grades are behind the scenes work that I do alone.
When can I get them done? On the new 7th period schedule finding time is challenging. I have a 45 minute planning period each day. I use that period twice a week to work with a junior intern from a local university. The remaining 3 planning periods, or 135 minutes I use to grade papers from nearly 150 students. That's not even a minute a paper were I to look at it that way. Of course students generate more than 1 assignment a week that needs feedback and a grade. How can I find the time? Well, teachers also have 40 minutes of common planning time after school each day. Two of those 40 minute slots (Tuesday and Wednesday) are filled with meetings. Poetry Club on Tuesdays and professional development time on each Wednesday. Parent conferences can be scheduled Mon., Tues., or Thurs. though I have only had 4 so far this year.

Students deserve to see their progress as we go from one week to the next. Grades should never be a surprise at the end of the quarter. I'm three weeks out of date. I take responsibility for that and I have apologized to students, but am I the only responsible party? Definitley not. There have been complications. Courses were not coded correctly in the schedule. Courses with reading trained teachers need to be specially coded so that "the state" can see that the school is complying with laws that say students who score low on standardized tests in reading must be with highly qualified teachers. I'm a highly qualified teacher, but my course names in the computer did not reflect that, so the courses names needed to be changed. When did the school make the changes? Six weeks in. So at the 6 week mark, I had to spend time transferring all of my assignments, re-setting up all of my classes with categories and weights and then I had to transfer students 1 by 1 from the old class into the new class. It took about an hour and a half for each class. How many classes do I have ? Six. How many hours is that? How many weeks would 8.5 hours take me? You get the gist.

I am running out of time, paid time anyway. Lately I've been thinking a lot about how education is funded, how teachers are paid. I hear a lot of complaints from teachers at my school about how teachers are asked to do too much or about how teachers should not be expected to work "for free" outside of their contracted work time. As Gary Larsen once capture in a Far Side cartoon, working for the railroad--doesn't it seem like students are being railroaded?-- means working all the live long day after all.

You know, when you sign up to be a teacher, you devote yourself to making a difference in the lives of children. Making a difference means doing what it takes. I belive that. It's in my heart. Sometimes doing what it takes can fit into the school day, most of the time it doesn't. Nearly every profession I've peeked into or experienced vicariously through friends and relatives has some amount of take home work time or extended hours. Doctors do. Lawyers do. Engineers might. Right? Why would teaching being any different?

Okay, back to putting my grades into the computer.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Voice Thread

There is a difference between knowing a tool and knowing how it works with students. I know about Voice Thread but using it with students was new to me. In order to develop background knowledge about topics mentioned in The Great Gatsby, I thought I would adapt Janet Allen's expert groups idea for Voice Thread.

We all know different things and students are included in that all. Sometimes I'm surprised by what they don't know, but we've all had different experiences. Expert groups give students an opportunity to become "experts" on a topic or concept we will encounter in our reading. Usually, students will research their topic, take notes (just for themselves) and report out on the topic when we come to it in the novel during shared reading. Shared reading is not the reading approach I take with my A.P. language students, so we adapted expert groups. Instead of reporting out on our expert topics during shared reading, students posted what they discovered to Voice Thread.

I created the Gatsby thread with the book cover, the first scene from the Gatsby film and our chapter 1 Wordle. Because I had not used Voice Thread with students before my directions need help (I'll post them later they are on my teacher machine at school). While you can create an iconic image as your Voice Thread profile pictures, students can not post entire slide shows as comments. So I'll be reworking these directions for next time based on what I learned. Students worked on Gatsby related topics together in teams of two. We spent 2 class periods in the media center (90 minutes total). The media specialist taught students how to access the databases to which we subscribe and with that students were off gathering information.

I asked students to roughly script what they would like to say in their comment before they recorded it. I'm not sure they need an actual script. The notes they took are probably good enough for commenting purposes, but I may ask the students what they thought of it.  If I were to teach this initial commenting process over I would  do something similar to what Lee Kolbert did to teach students how to be good commenters. She simulated posting a comment to a blog with chart paper and sticky notes. My students need that practice. I haven't used Voice Thread with my freshmen yet, so I will probably start with physical bits they can manipulate and post before we go to the computers.

So what happened?

  • I wasn't sure how to share my thread so that students could post comments to it.
  • We worked together to navigate the page in class and students showed me how to make the thread public.
  • We experimented with commenting types: video, call in, text comments.
  • Students who had followed my directions (using images to illustrate their comments) posted their pieces to the center as they couldn't be posted as comments (so that actually worked out).
  • We took 1 class period to record the comments in class cobbling together access between my 2 laptops, a student's laptop. 4 antiquated student machines and students' cell phones.
  • It worked!

The students' comments worked. They make sense. They are audible. They are inform rich. There is much more for us to learn about how to make the collaboration smoother or more connected, but it was an exciting first step.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teacher and Parent

This morning I started writing about teacher parents. I finished that post with these wonderings:
Do I model learning passion for parents that I hope I live for my students? It also got me thinking about what I do to seek solutions to disappointments with my son's teachers. Do I complain or do I get involved? 
I want to take a minute to jot down my thoughts as a teacher and my thoughts as a parent. I've got to warn you though, my thinking feels messy, so this writing will in part be me processing my ideas.

As a teacher, I feel an incredible obligation to parents. Parents entrust me with their children. The children I teach  are between the ages of 14 and 18, but they are parents' sons and daughters. Children are remarkable, incredible--the future being created before our eyes. I want to treat them that way in my classroom.  I want to see them today as successful, accomplished, learned, thoughtful citizens-- as the best future I can imagine for them.

Do I have rules? Certainly: respect yourself, respect others, respect our school/community. Do I have procedures? Too many to name, but here's a short list: what to do when you're absent, where to turn in papers, where to find lesson plans, where to find extra handouts, how to ask for a bathroom pass, how to question a grade, etc. Sometimes I even make help movies about our procedures. Procedures in class help us maximize instructional time.  What I'd love to do though, is have the students make movies that will help each other learn--how engaging would that be? Like Lee Kolbert, I might not always be who you think I am. Janet Allen used to clarify those stages of learning and knowing-ness. Actually, I think the stages are of skill development  and they go like this:

  • unconsciously incompetent (you don't know what you don't know), 
  • consciously incompetent (you know you're missing something), 
  • unconsciously competent (you can do it, but you can explain it, can't think metacognitively or reflect well), consciously competent (you've mastered the task, you can explain, you can reflect on it--you're there).

As a teacher I am constantly learning and questioning my own practice. I believe I am consciously competent, but that means that I know when I'm not doing what I could be doing. I learn by questioning what I do. Do I always model best practice? Hardly.  A classroom is a  practical place. Students differ. In fact, I think it was Richard Allington who once said at an NCTE conference that "100 years of educational research has taught us one thing: kids are different." What I do each day or each month or each school year depends on the students sitting in front of me. What and how I teach depends on what those students need.

The students I currently serve are very different from students in schools where I've worked before. This year I am using a very traditional Sadlier Oxford vocabulary book. The students I have speak many languages, but they need vocabulary practice.  They need more structured practice than they are getting from their independent reading. So we're using vocabulary books for a time. We'll see what happens. Does that mean that I am decontextualizing all of our word study? Certainly not. But the books are definitely a compromise with my teacher-self that knows what the research says. I like the audio support Sadlier Oxford posts online, but I think my students could create better vocabulary podcasts. They are on the horizon.

As a teacher I am passionate in my beliefs about literacy instruction. I  believe I was made to be a public school teacher to help students find their way as readers, writers and thinkers. If our children are to succeed in this ever expanding global marketplace they must read critically and by choice. Reading and writing are priorities in my classroom. We might not get our 10,000 hours in one year's worth of instruction. If Gladwell is correct about the making of expertise, then we have a lot of practice to do.

As a parent? I want my child to be treated fairly,with care and respect. I do not want teachers to use writing as punishment, as one of my child's primary teachers did. When my son came home and described having to write  sentences about not talking or not paying attention, I was furious. When I found myself scanning the page to blog about it I stopped short.  I made an appointment with the principal and brought NCTE's resolution on writing as punishment with me to the meeting. The principal assured me that a belief in Writing Project ideals was paramount, that the teacher would be spoken to. The principal copied my son's paper. Perhaps I shouldn't have allowed that. Perhaps I should have talked to the teacher first. The next week my son pulled 3 discipline cards. He was on the cloud much of the week--his classroom discipline system went from rainbow to sun to cloud (if the student was not following rules or talking out of turn he had to move his numbered card from one spot to another on the chart). Public embarrassment as discipline. Do we just not know better sometimes as teachers. Sure, there's that. Was that retaliation on the teacher's part? Or did an eagle eye suddenly spot prey? Who knows, but Collin hadn't pulled one card in more than a year, so three in a week was quite unusual.

As a parent, I want my child to have a teacher who continues to learn, who reads professional literature, who sets goals for him or herself and strives to reach them. Like Will Richardson mentioned on Ed Tech Talk, I want passion in a teacher. As a parent, I'm finding passion in short supply.  I connect with passionate educators online, in virtual communities, through consulting work or with that rare colleague--I would say only 1 in 4 of my son's teachers has been passionate. The odds aren't good. How can I kindled that flame, that passion for learning and teaching?

As a parent I want my child to be engaged and I want him to have many opportunities or many paths he can take to learning. I want him to learn and develop a love for learning. I want him to be curious. I want his teachers to be able to set up scenarios that lead him to curiosity.I want him to have choices. He often does. Not many of the choices are technologically savvy, but the infrastructure for going high-tech with learning tools is being built at his school. That's encouraging. I want him to discover a curriculum that is not always  worksheet bound. I want him to develop an ability to think and create for himself. Will he be able to do that if he is always filling in blanks on rip-out pages? Or are those rip-out pages part of that practice he needs? Why is he only allowed to read AR books at school?

As a parent I have more questions than answers. There are things that don't sit well with me as a teacher-parent. So what do I do?

I become visible. I participate. I offer to volunteer. Some years I've managed to be in his classroom once a week. Other years, I'm lucky if it's once a quarter. I listen. I learn. I talk to the teacher after I've thought about things a long time. In parent conferences, I question. I ask for teachers' rationales, their assessments. If they don't have them, I build a bridge with conversation.

This year I volunteered to work with the middle grades teachers on writing. We're going to have a monthly study group. We are going to learn together. We met last week for the first time. We talked about the traits of writing and then we wrote. We shared our writing and then talked about what it looks like to teach it. It was a good conversation,  a good beginning to a shared learning journey. Next month we're going to talk about assessment (but the teachers don't know that yet). One of Collin's teachers was using a checklist (with points) and an FCAT style rubric to score narratives. If the students' didn't score a 6 on the FCAT rubric, the teacher took off points and dropped the grade; students also lost points on the checklist. Double whammy. So we're going to sort through the different ways you can assess student writing. I'm going to read a segment from Mark Overmeyer's book What Student Writing Teaches Us. We'll see how it goes. I'm engaged. We talking. The teachers are asking interesting questions. They are participating.

As a parent, I appreciate that. As a teacher, I'm excited. We're learning.

Image credit: This is a picture from my 1st period class. Students are sorting words/concepts by writing trait.

Teacher Parents

I am a teacher. I'm also a parent. I have high expectations of my son's teachers. I live by those expectations in my own classroom, so in early September when Alec Couros tweeted his disappointment in his daughters kindergarten classroom I sympathized.  At the time, I was knee deep in the swamp of the start of a new school year, but his thinking stayed with me.

Edu-bloggers picked up Couros' tweet and conversations ran long into the comments. Lee Kolbert blogged Couros' tweet. Honest and transparent, her post  "I'm Not Who You Think I Am" detailed how practical realities of her own classroom (rules, procedures and even textbooks) have their place. We aren't doing project based learning 100% of the time after all, are we? I've had many "I'm not who you think I am" moments but that's another post. Will Richardson also blogged Couros' tweet with "A Parent 2.0's Back to School Dilemma." Richardson took the parent view. He wrote about his disappointment and how he and his wife mediate it: by introducing themselves,  by co-schooling, by emailing resources (and cc-ing the principal).

Last week I listened to Lee Kolbert, Will Richardson and Penny Lindballe on Parents as Partners, an Ed Tech Talk show. The topic? Teacher parents, the recent blog conversations and how to mediate our disappointments.

Perfectly timed the Sunday night show helped me think about how I wanted to present myself and our classroom to parents at Open House last Tuesday.  Do I model learning passion for parents that I hope I live for my students? It also got me thinking about what I do to seek solutions to disappointments with my son's teachers. Do I complain or do I get involved? Answers to all will be  forthcoming. For now, I'm off to school.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Challenge, Wordle & Fingerprints

"Are you ready for a challenge?" blogged fellow learning addict, Melanie Holtsman,  last week. The challenge for edubloggers?  Blog once a week for 10 weeks.  Want to write with me? I thought I'd catch up on my the books I've read post. I think I have 4-6 books waiting a line a two and a picture, but I must have saved that post at school, so I'll get to it later. That's what happens with so many of my blog posts. I start them on the fly, in those in between moments of lunch or just before I leave school. Then they rarely get posted because I'm on to something else before I remember them. Perhaps if I made blogging a regular part of my classroom things would be different.

Using technology in class is a regular part of my classroom. Unfortunately I am not in a 1 to 1 school, so my students access to computers is limited. I do have 5 computers in my classroom, but they a slow and laborious machines. Teaching in a portable classroom--literally a double-wide trailer--means teaching without the latest computer equipment because computers get stolen from portable classrooms. My updated computers have big box monitors and their insides wheeze. You get the picture.

I demonstrate more than students can do with our older machines. What interests me though is how many students take what I do, and do it at home. Last week, I used a Wordle word cloud in my A.P. language class. I got the idea from Ben Davis on the English Companion Ning . The A.P. students used wordles of the first chapter of The Great Gatsby to analyze Fitzgerald's focus and word choice. It was interesting. But what was more interesting to me was how my freshman students saw the wordles when they came in the next class period.

My freshmen students are reading Bronx Masquerade by Niki Grimes. We had just done poetry rotations the day before and one stop on the carousel was a finger print poem.

Students saw the oval-esque Wordle and said, "Oh! Can we make our fingerprint poems like this?"

I hadn't seen the fingerprint shape in the Wordle until they mentioned it. What a neat idea, I thought. "Of course you can. This is a Wordle.

"A what?"

"Let me show you how to use it." So I did. Don't you know more than half of them went home and tried it themselves? Love it when that happens, but what I love the most is when my students see something I don't  and we get to share the discovery of it.