Engaged Online Reading

It was spring, and my family was faced with a dilemma. If my husband kept working at his current job, he was going to lose his mind, but we couldn’t make it on my income alone.

He had been working for the same private school for three years, tasked with teaching science to students from third to twelfth grade, many with special needs or severe autism. Small class sizes but with difficult kids and almost impossible curricular demands had started to compound his stress this last year.  He had to make a change, and he wanted a chance to actually use that Masters in Geology.

As he applied to everywhere he could to find a new job, I started looking to supplement our income in the meantime, too. I didn’t want to give up my high school teaching job, but maybe I could find a summer job until an opportunity came up for my husband.

Enter Curriculet. It is a free reading platform that provides engaging and interactive reading experiences for students and provides teachers a powerful tool for creating, managing, and tracking literacy curriculum. I had first heard of them via Twitter, from Kate Baker, an awesome, tech-savvy English teacher in my Professional Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter. Curriculet has two awesome features for teachers who want to use technology to support independent student learning.

The first feature I tried was importing my own pdf. In the past, I had photocopied a chapter of Stephen King’s On Writing (less than 10% of the entire novel, and so okay for educational use) to show students the difference between revision and editing. I really love this chapter excerpt, but students sometimes struggled with going back and forth between the printed reading and the worksheet.  That year, I decided to try the assignment on Curriculet.

Wonderful success! Students could find the information more easily since it was embedded directly into the digital text! Also, I could tell from a teacher dashboard who had completed the assignment and how long they had spent on it. I could identify which questions gave students trouble and address those specifically.

The second feature I loved was using Curriculet’s precreated questions, quizzes and annotations. We always read Julius Caesar in my Advanced English 10 class, and in the past I had tried using an online version of the text, with a separate worksheet that asked questions about different lines of the play. Well, students struggled, because depending on the versions, the line count can be slightly different. Curriculet not only had the play for free, there was an entire  Common Core State Standards aligned layer of questions, quizzes, and annotations already developed by a master teacher.

Using Curriculet’s Julius Caesar,  I got data on which standards were hard for my students, as well as how long students were on the platform and whether or not they got the answers right, all without much grading on my part. The majority of the questions were multiple choice, with several short answer sprinkled within. I modified the “curriculet” to suit what I wanted my students to focus on.  Feedback from my students suggested that it was easier to read the play on Curriculet then it was using the paper annotations.

Back to my family’s potential financial woes. On Twitter, I saw that Curriculet was hiring Curriculet writers. A job that I could do on my couch, at my own pace, that I already sort of knew how to do? Awesome!

In addition to the application, I had to write a detailed, Common Core aligned curriculet for a short story. I agonized over it, seeing it as a way to free my husband from having to work at the private school. Imagine my pleasure when I got hired! That summer, Upward Bound also hired me to work for six weeks, providing a grammar and writing class and a Spanish class for local students.

It was a long summer. During the day, I taught classes. In the afternoon and the evening, I basically ignored my family, grading papers and writing curriculets. Along the way, I wrote curriculets for books I have long loved, like The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman, as well as books I have always wanted to read, like 1001 Arabian Nights.

Curriculet provided us with some awesome Common Core aligned videos, which were short but well done, and suggestions as to how to implement the standards. Editors previewed my work, giving valuable feedback to help me improve my writing. And I got paid for reading books–best job ever!

If you’re curious, I still work part time for Curriculet. And my husband? He’s working part time at a local community college, finally using his degree.

And they finally worked as a team

Yesterday was a beautiful thing. The class that had been at each other’s throats somehow transformed before my eyes into a functioning learning community. And I owe it all to zombies.

If you’ve read earlier posts, you’ll know that I spent several weeks trying to build a sense of community in my classes this year, using a Zombie unit. We focused on being prepared, working together, and staying focused. Really, regardless of the disaster, these three community builders will help. And last year’s classes had felt a lot like a disaster. And it worked–for the most part, people settled down to work together and stay focused, with occasional lapses of being prepared.

Except for 7th period. Gentle reader, if you want to read only good news, skip to the subheading below. Otherwise, read on. Just as a for instance, it is one of my policies that if we are in the library, students can excuse themselves to go to restroom, which is right around the corner. On Monday, we renewed our silent reading books in the library. While we waited for everyone to renew their books, I watched one girl (let’s call her T) stand around and talk to her friend. Not a problem, I thought, she must have renewed her book earlier. After about ten minutes, we headed back to my room. As I am settling them back down in their seats and trying to begin that day’s lesson, T suddenly shouts, “I have to pee!”

“Where is your planner?” I wearily ask her, knowing the answer already, as we have talked about her planner for several days in a row.

“It’s right here, but you know I don’t have any hall passes.”

“I’m sorry, T, but we’ve talked about this before. I can’t let you leave my room without a pass.” Note that my room is half way across the school from the bathroom.

And so it went, for at least another five minutes of class time. She knows, because I and others have told her, that she could get another planner from the office. She knows the school’s policy of passes in the hallway. She knows she’s not supposed to use anyone else’s passes in anyone else’s planner.

So I ask her, “Why didn’t you go while we were in the library?”

“I didn’t have to go then,” she claims. As this inane conversation goes on and on, students are opining how mean I am, how other teachers would let T go, or how they would lend her their planner. One or two kids remind her that she could always get a planner, but really, the main problem here is we wasted instructional time on one student’s lack of preparation. Also, that student spent the rest of the period disrupting instruction (with the occasional comments about how much she had to pee)and not getting anything done herself.

Granted, it was nothing like last year’ students, although it might sound as bad.

The Miracle

And then on Wednesday something miraculous happened. We were working on looking up articles in a database, so students could have a Socratic Seminar about their topic and follow up with a research paper. In addition, we worked on the technology skills of using keyboard shortcuts for copying and pasting, permalinking, and adding links into a shared Google document. All part of my 21st Century classroom, but all skills they really haven’t mastered yet. One student had spent time in study hall getting the last of his articles before class. So I said, “Well, McF, you can start reading articles and deciding which ones from your group’s list will best support your argument, or you can help the other students.”

And McF got up and started walking around the room, helping. Although earlier in the day, my other classes had easily followed my directions and went to town, this class was full of folks who had “misplaced” their directions. They couldn’t figure out why nothing copied, or why their links didn’t look like my example. Quietly, without a fuss, McF helped them all. As other students finished, they took a page from his book and helped the others.

All week, I had a cart of Chromebooks to supplement the 14 that stay in my room permanently. At the end of the day, I have had to sort the computers into two groups: the ones that get plugged into my cabinet and the ones that go back downstairs. Well, that day I had student helpers. After asking me how I could tell the difference between the two, students quietly put back all the computers.

I truly think that if I had not spent time in the beginning of the year working on how they needed to be a team, we wouldn’t have had a successful period. No one deliberately deleted anyone else’s work from the computer. No one mocked the computer skills of anyone else. No one threw a fit about their planner. It was a beautiful thing.