How a silent discussion opened the door for my students

I sat with the group, silently observing their small group discussion. Although normally she finds ways around it, on this day,  my student who struggles with stuttering had an almost impossible time getting her ideas out. When she is nervous, the words seem to break apart in her mouth. I know she has amazing things to say, because her blog is thoughtful, sweet, and expresses the thoughts of a deep thinker, but speaking to others while being watched was making that ability to dig deep into a text and pull out the heart of an idea invisible to the others. I knew I had to do something.

Backchannel chat and Twitter to the rescue.

In preparation of a student led, Socratic discussion, students had read almost half of Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup. They had close read passages, analyzed them for ethos and pathos, and written countless short answer responses. I had asked them to come up with open ended questions in anticipation of this discussion, but I didn’t think putting this student on display was fair to her. So I proposed a silent, Twitter style, chat instead.

First, I created a free backchannel chat at http://backchannelchat.com/. Then I created an assignment in Google Classroom with the link to the chatroom. I explained the format of a Twitter chat, with Q1 representing the first question and A1 its answer. I reviewed the norms of a good discussion, with interaction between its members, and let them appoint a student discussion leader. Students typed their favorite open ended question into the public comments on the assignment, and the discussion leader added the appropriate Q1 etc. to the question and pasted it in the chat. She monitored when student comments seemed to die down and added the next Q when it seemed to fit.

The chat was a success. Not only did the student who struggles with stuttering have success, but several of my more introverted students shone as well. In fact, if you look at the exchange they had in the above screenshot, you can just see the connections building. It was epic. I will definitely do this again.

Going far together: social annotation

I recently read a tweet from one of my favorite social media gurus: Alice Keeler. She is adamant that annotating a pdf document is not a worthwhile assignment.

I beg to differ.

Even for the students I teach, high school juniors who take my class for college credit, can struggle with how to interpret complex texts. Take “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example. Written in the 1850s, it is full of archaic language and culture alien to my suburban population. But the conflict central to the text, the struggle to decide between following an evil path or a righteous one, suspicion that those around us are not as they seem, the ambiguity and potential misinterpretation of first person witnesses, all these are interesting questions for a modern audience. It’s a college level discussion, and how do we scaffold our students to be prepared to tackle it, using text dependent evidence? The same way we teach any other skill: modeling. And it’s so much easier to model deeper thinking with digital annotations.

This year, I have stressed Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s techniques  covered in Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. (Interested in hearing more? See this link to the book.) Although my sophomores have worked with these techniques all year, my juniors have just started, and due to a variety of snow days, two hour delays, and days off of school so far this semester, I needed something to jump start the conversation on close reading techniques. Luckily for me, I found this awesome site called Kami.

Kami allows you to annotate pdf files online. Since I knew we wouldn’t have class time for me to model annotation, I created a series of videos that modeled how to read and understand “Young Goodman Brown.” Below is an example:

Now whereas I could have used an old fashioned overhead to accomplish a similar task, it would have taken much more than the class time a two hour delay schedule provides. And here’s where things get interesting and more 21st century: when you have students share the task of annotating a story together.

The first time we tried this, all 61 of my students read the same story and shared the task of annotating. Here’s a sample of their thoughts about one part of “Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin:

whole-class

Note that the students commenting all come from different class periods. Together, they ask intriguing questions, notice how the time it was written affects the language, and come up with a plausible explanation, all without me, the teacher, having to explain. We agreed that all 61 students at the same time was awfully confusing, so for our next go around, we decided that it would be less confusing if they chose small groups and read a story of their choice. Then students shared their annotations with me in Google Classroom. The below students are discussing Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” Note that the students are discussing the very end of the story.

1-class

As these students think through what happened in the story, they are beginning to see the complexity of language, to wonder WHY authors choose to write as they do. This is beyond merely recalling what happened in a story. I would argue we reached DOK 3 for reading standards with this task. And as we practice how to interpret and read complex tasks by sharing the task of annotating a pdf, we are traveling far, together.

Update

When I tweeted this blog link to Alice Keeler, this was her response:

Since 140 characters just won’t do this question justice, here is a more precise explanation:

The simplest answer is that quite often, converting a pdf changes the text. Sometimes it’s characters within the story that change (when letters are misinterpreted as other letters,) sometimes it’s the white space on the page that’s converted. Since a writer uses space and character deliberately, these changes can alter the very meaning of the text. Until pdf to doc becomes more accurate, I persist in saying that annotating a pdf is not a worthless exercise.

OTES and ISTE: Acronyms for the win!

Every teacher I’ve ever known is busy. There are always six things I could be doing right now, and I have to decide which of a laundry list of things is the most urgent. Am I giving meaningful feedback to my 99+ students? Planning lessons based on formative data that’s aligned to state standards? Collaborating with baby teachers new to the profession? Helping my six year old practice his spelling, or coaxing my ten year old to practice her flute? Bedtime stories? Twitter? The occasional face time with my spouse? Laundry or dishes? Play with the dog, or pet the cat? None of these choices is new, to me or any other adult that I know.

What is new to me is the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES). Because we took a pay cut and then a pay freeze, we maintained our old contract well beyond the start of this new “better” system for evaluating teachers. I won’t go into the specifics of the system, sufficed to say that it is more time intensive, and sometimes I feel like writing up what I do on a daily basis just takes away from the little time I have.

In a lot of ways, I am a doer, and I’m too busy doing to reflect on the job that I do. So when both my principal and my community college partner came in to see me on the same day, while I was (and am, BTW) sick, I refused to “pretty up” my lesson for them. The most I had time to do was the extensive, 35+ question “pre-assessment” that OTES required.  It was gratifying to have the community college partner, who was checking to see how well I compare to other college adjuncts, say that I was meeting or exceeding their expectations. I still don’t know what my principal thinks. Sigh.

So here comes the International Technology Society for Technology Education (ISTE) for the reflective win. Last summer, I was invited to reflect on how well my teaching meets their standards, as part of a pilot program. I agreed, because I know how much I hate reflecting, and I knew that the summer was a great time to begin this reflective process. It was a long, drawn out process for me, but I felt confident that in reflecting I would improve my teaching skills. And it worked: I successfully completed the requested two parts of a four part portfolio for the project.

Now the school year is in full swing, and I still have the opportunity to finish the other two parts of the portfolio reflection for ISTE. Here’s where OTES comes in: I have to write two goals for this school year that are “SMART” goals. Why not combine the rest of an ISTE portfolio with OTES? If I have to reflect, why not find a way to achieve something meaningful?

If you made it to the bottom of this post and didn’t TL;DR, are you a doer or a reflector?

Image attributed to https://www.flickr.com/photos/twenty_questions/

Ch ch ch changes

Have you ever wanted a change? To drink deep at the well of Dionysus and run free and wild into the night? Well, the siren call of change is beckoning, tempting me to dive into the deep and dangerous waters of a district position, leaving the safety of my classroom behind.

First, some details to help set the scene. I’ve been teaching for fifteen years, nine primarily as a Spanish teacher and six as primarily an English teacher. Along the way, I’ve acquired a husband, two kids, three cats, one dog and a Masters in Instructional Technology from Kent State. In addition to these years in the classroom, I spent one glorious year as a Technology Integration Support Specialist in Athens, Georgia. (Smack dab in the middle of the Spanish and English gigs.) I loved that job, and in some ways, I wish I’d stayed there, but we were twelve hours from family. When we knew we were having our second child, I felt compelled to move a little closer.

Last summer, the district offered up a new position, that of “Digital Teacher.” I had just finished a horrific year, one where I went home every night asking “Is it me? Is it me?” Our district had rolled out an “online learning” division of our school, one that I had participated in that year as a credit recovery teacher, in addition to my regular English position. I had all kinds of ideas to improve the program. When I interviewed for the position, they said they were more interested in supporting teachers to integrate technology in their teaching. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s helping adults with technology, in a way that does not belittle them as learners. So many people good with technology don’t know how to explain it to others. Well, that’s not me.

I got the job! I contacted all my references, letting them know how much I appreciated their help. The job offer was contingent on the district finding a replacement for me, but I wasn’t worried. How many people out there have an English degree? And then it happened. Because we had lost two English teachers that summer, and because it was three weeks before school started, they couldn’t find a replacement. I started the year, determined to enjoy what might be my last year as an English teacher. The district informed me I’d have to reapply for the digital teacher job next summer.

So here’s my dilemma: this has been my best year yet. There’s lots of reasons why, but the point is, it is great. And the kids are talking up my electives, the ones that I’d never taught before this year, telling their friends to sign up. If I leave now, who will build a community of learners by starting with zombies? Who will demand that they work together, stay focused, and be prepared? Who will care for those lowest levels students, abandoned by all the rest?

Well, even if I stay, it might not be me. My principal is tempting me with the option of maybe, just maybe, teaching the college bound juniors, in a “dual enrollment/college plus” scenario next year. A different type of kid than what I deal with on a daily basis, to be sure.

So, should I leave my high school for a district technology position? I could help so many teachers this way. Or do I stay at my high school, to champion the downtrodden? Or do I teach the “smart kids” so they can receive college credit?