Category Archives: writing

Ideas for Next Year…Already?

The end of the school year brings a lot of things for teachers: frantic efforts to help students pass, piles of grading, the ritualistic cleansing of the classroom, and of course, a couple of days off before we start preparing for next year.

Of course, for the obsessive among us, we have already begun planning, plotting, and prepping brilliant activities and assessments for next year. I’m no different – I’ve already begun hatching maniacal schemes that I can inflict on students from Day 1 next year.

I thought I’d share a couple of those ideas and, hopefully, get some feedback from more experienced, battle-hardened educators.

1. iGoogle. On day 1, I am planning to introduce students to the world of Google by having them create a Google account and an iGoogle page. I have a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is that students can use Reader to subscribe to their teachers’ websites. Other connected ideas including using Google Docs (and Forms), shared calendars, to-do lists, bookmarks, and a host of other potentially useful and productive tools. My thinking is that, once it’s been created, this is something students should use every day outside of school (and can customize to include some “fun” stuff, as well.

2. Documenting Standards. We have a host of standards we expect students to meet over the course of the year – reading targets, writing targets, district outcomes and indicators, even the NETS. We try to document students meeting those standards by creating good assessments, but the students still feel like they don’t learn anything.

My plan is to give them standards worksheets at the start of the year, and over the course of the school year, they will accumulate “evidence” (read: assignments) that document how they have met each standard over the course of the year. For each standard, they will also write a short reflection, explaining how this proves that they met that standard.

I’m still not sure what standards I’ll be including, but I’ll definitely include reading and writing targets and our outcomes and indicators. In addition, I could include the Habits of Mind, thinking skills, NETS, and who knows what else, but all of that might be too much work. What I really want to do with this is minimize the environmental impact by doing it all digitally. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we have the access for that quite yet.

3. Digital Turn-In / Paperless Grading. I’m thinking about having students submit essays either via email, through Google Docs, or through a wiki. I’m still not sure if this is a good idea. I know Word has some great features for editing and commenting, so that might be the best option. Anyone with experience doing this? I’d love to hear how you set it up. I already use “Track Changes,” and I’ve read some stuff on using macros for common mistakes/comments, as well as some Word add-ons that look pretty cool. I’d love to take it a step further and do this all the time.

These are just a couple of the ideas I’m already getting jazzed about for next school year. How about you? What are you already planning to do differently?

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Obama’s Inauguration Speech: Reflections and Implications for Education

I had the privilege of watching the inauguration this morning with my students. Our school was kind enough to extend our first period so we could finish listening to President Obama’s inauguration speech. First, a couple of thoughts on the process:

  • Since we don’t receive any sort of cable signal, our building tried an interesting idea: stream the video to one computer and send that out over the school video connection. It was somewhat successful, except that the feed was jumpy due to the high volumes of traffic. We eventually resorted to some less tech-savvy methods: internet radio and actual radio. One staff member even quipped, “Anyone have a pair of rabbit ears for my TV?”
  • It was interesting to see how the opportunity to watch this event was received by the students. A good number of them (maybe 75%) were simply entranced – they listened and hung on every word. Others could have cared less and felt it more important to discuss more pressing issues like what so-and-so was wearing.

As soon as the speech was finished, I searched for the full text of the speech. I wanted to look it over and see if it was usable as an example of good writing. Not surprisingly, I found a copy of the speech within seconds of it ending (isn’t the web an amazing thing?). I highlighted a couple of impressive lines and thought I’d reflect on the implication for education in the Obama administration.

  • “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
    In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. “

    • One of the lines from this speech that may be engraved on a statue some day. Again, a rephrasing of another writer (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). I think this line reflects what we want to provide our students: a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
      One of the interesting debates we have with students at the secondary level is whether or not they should go to college. Of course, some students will not attend college. Unfortunately, many that don’t simply stop caring about school. I see my goal as a teacher to encourage those students to work hard to be successful in school, not so they can go to college, but so they can at least have the opportunity to do so if they choose. I believe that choice to do as one pleases captures the ideas President Obama (or his excellent speech-writer) had in mind – that is true liberty and true happiness.
  • “For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
    • How many times have we heard this in education, particularly as it relates to technology? In spite of the almost cliched status of this line, it still rings true. As Microsoft begins to roll out the Surface coffee table, our students will begin learning how to use a new technology. The skills they develop now – risk-taking, flexible thinking, problem-solving, and creativity – will determine how successful they are as the world around them changes. And we continue to test students’ ability to solve quadratic equations or identify possessive pronouns…
  • “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.”
    • I think this idea has huge implications in education – the tools are ever-changing, but the ways in which we use those tools and the goals we strive for continue to be the same. Plato and Socrates advocated wisdom as the primary goal of education – something we have termed “critical thinking” and “habits of mind.” Helping students develop this kind of mentality has always been the primary goal of education. Now we have different tools and strategies to help students reach those goals.

It will be interesting to see how these thoughts evolve over the next four years. My only hope is that education will not take a back seat to the economic problems as I fear it will.


Virtual Whiteboards

One of my colleagues got me interested in a fairly new web 2.0 technology: virtual whiteboards. Imagine sitting in a room full of people, all of whom have a marker. Together they all make changes to a plan or illustration, add comments, etc., and all on the big whiteboard at the front of the room. Now give that picture a web 2.0 spin – a site where any group of people can get together and mark up ideas, documents, and/or pictures with insightful comments, helpful pointers, or even just silly little mustaches. This is a virtual whiteboard. Virtual whiteboards combine the best element of wikis (collaboration) and the best element of chat rooms (real time conversations).

Of the several that I’ve tried, probably the best to date is called Twiddla. I found the link via the great people over at ReadWriteWeb. What’s so useful about Twiddla is that, unlike other Whiteboard sites, Twiddla allows you to surf the web within the site and collaboratively mark up websites. Similarly, you can upload images or documents (Word, Excel, and PDF files), insert mathematical formulas, even open your email, and use Twiddla’s features to mark up the medium of your choice.

I can see a lot of great uses for this technology in the classroom:

  • Virtual study sessions for just about any subject area – English, Math, Social Studies, Science, Foreign language, health, you name it
  • Group editing a classmate’s (or teacher’s) writing
  • Getting feedback on the design of a class website or blog
  • Visually demonstrating reading skills, like using context clues to understand vocabulary
  • Visually demonstrating writing skills like paragraphing or editing
  • Visually demonstrating research skills, such as identifying site authors or using topic headers in Wikipedia
  • Playing tic-tac-toe

OK, so maybe the last one isn’t totally “educational,” but you get the idea. Twiddla has the potential to be an impressive classroom tool that I’m already finding ways to use in my classroom. Now if only I had a classroom full of laptops…


Top 5 Lessons I’ve Learned About Blogging

I’ve been blogging for a while now. I had a personal blog in college that a few of my close friends read. Almost a year ago now, I chose to start blogging about my thoughts, experiences, ideas, and questions around education and teaching. I’m proud (and more than a little surprised) to say that there are actually people reading this blog and visiting it regularly. Sometimes I can’t understand why someone like Penny Kittle would comment on what I have to say (but thanks anyway!).

After blogging seriously for about a year, I feel like I’ve learned a couple important lessons about creating a successful education/teaching blog, and I thought it would be good to share those with people who might happen across this one. While there are certainly more tips (like maintaining your own creative voice, making your site look nice, and subscribing to your own blog), I’ll start with number 5 and work my way down to the most important lesson I’ve learned about creating a great blog. So without further adieu,

5. Link to other people’s blogs and posts. By linking to other people’s work, you send traffic their way. Often, this favor is returned in similar fashion. Even if it’s not, though, you are providing people with evidence and/or inspiration for your own thoughts and ideas, and you are engaging in the great conversation about your subject(s).

4. This one is a life lesson that also happens to be a blog lesson: ask questions. I find that I get a lot more responses when I ask questions than I do when I tell the world what I think. One of the best parts about being an active blogger is the Professional Learning Community that develops as a result. When people start visiting and commenting on my blog, I have people that I can rely on for advice and answers that have very different perspectives than me or the people I work with every day. And just as important, I can be part of someone else’s PLC (more on that later).

3. While sharing your thoughts, experiences, and opinions is great, one sure way to draw a crowd is to share materials and resources. I discovered this when looking at my top 5 all time blog posts. Of those 5, 4 of them were geared towards sharing resources with others. And logically, it makes sense: if I’m reading someone’s blog and they post great resources that fit what I’m going to be teaching, I’ll share it with colleagues who are teaching similar units or lessons.

2. Post regularly. One of those simple things you’ll find if you read blogs: you’re more likely to read those that are updated often. What’s the point in continually visiting a blog and finding the same post week after week? Not only does posting regularly keep readers coming back, but it also puts your URL out there in web-land more frequently – something that helps Google and Yahoo! find you more easily.

1. Finally, the most important thing I’ve learned about successful edublogging is that if you want people to read and comment on your blog, you must read and comment on their blogs. It’s a simple give-and-take concept, really – something we might expect our students to intuitively know. Yet somehow, in our frustration and not getting comments, we forget to comment on what others are saying. Sometimes, even something as simple as “Thanks for sharing this great resource,” can help develop great connections between bloggers. I remember being so ecstatic when Dana Huff and Lisa Huff first commented on my blog because I had been reading their blogs for some time. By commenting on their blogs, not only am I promoting my own blog (as mentioned in #5), but I am also becoming part of their PLC and we end up helping each other develop as educators. Really, it’s a win-win situation.

So that’s it – 5 suggestions from a developing blogger. I hope these help you out, whether you’re a seasoned vet or a baby-faced rookie.


Goals for This Year

I just had my annual goals meeting with our administrator and thought it would be worth sharing the three goals I’ve set for myself this year. They’re each fairly specific and I’ll probably be inquiring about other teachers’ solutions to these in the near future.

1. Develop a stronger understanding of how to teach the writing process (rather than just the  product); specifically, methods for conferencing with students while keeping the class engaged in meaningful learning.

2. Find creative and purposeful ways to model thinking (including reading and writing strategies) in front of students. Part of this is being willing to make embarrassing mistakes in front of students.

3. Become innovative in creating and assigning papers, projects and other assignments by employing role playing strategies to raise real-world problems for students to solve.

One of the things I appreciate about these goal meetings is the opportunity to lay out my vision for my own development as a teacher, and for my students’ development as readers, writers, thinkers, and most importantly, people. I am forced to reflect on my own teaching critically and find areas that need to improve if my students are going to get the best possible education in my class – something I enjoy thoroughly.

I should note that both goals 2 and 3 are in part inspired by the book our administration has us reading: Teaching for Tomorrow: Teaching Content and Problem-Solving Skills (a link to the book’s Shelfari page – something I’m going to be doing when I mention book titles). I was pleasantly surprised to find myself marking pages with sticky notes and plowing through some of these big ideas and little strategies.


A Quick Review

Still trying to force myself to make time to post more regularly during my planning period. I think once I get into a routine during plan periods, it will help: update website, respond to parent emails, post, plan. Seems simple enough…

That said, here’s a quick summary of the first couple weeks of the 2008-2009 school year:

1. So far, we’ve read two stories: “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, and “Gaston,” by William Saroyan. The first story we read as a sort of warm-up in marking and annotating a text. “Gaston” we read with the end goal of having our first Shared Inquiry discussion (putting that summer training to use). After about a 20-25 minute discussion in each class, I was moderately pleased with the results. I felt like the discussions were pretty good, even with a couple of my very quiet classes. I really like being able to focus on a good story and draw out some ideas and themes that are applicable to students’ lives. The students generally seemed to like the discussions as well. Was it a life-changing experience? Not really, but it went better than any literature discussions we had last year. Next up: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” and Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education.”

2. Our current writing unit (I’ve been splitting our block periods in half to get more writing instruction into my classes), is borrowed directly from Write Beside Them – we’re using her “snapshot moment” assignment. To get students going quickly, I asked them to write about their scariest moment. Our main focus with this particular assignment is to work on getting a lot of detail and elaboration into the writing – hopefully leading to better elaboration in the narrative essays they’ll write next. So far so good – most students seem to like the assignment (as much as they like writing, anyway). As mentioned in the previous post, however, my biggest challenge is trying to keep students engaged in something purposeful while I’m conferencing with students. Suggestions for this are, as always, most welcome.

3. Our technology teacher leader team has been busy already. Many of us have been helping other teachers with their technology problems and have helped some teachers find new ways to use technology in the classroom. As a building, we are also moving forward, slowly moving away from the old desktop computers and overhead projectors and making sure we’re all using the tools (ELMOs and laptops) the taxpayers blessed us with. Obviously there are always user issues with that sort of change – learning how to use new technology and a fear of change only a couple of examples – but I’ve been impressed with the willingness of our teachers (and administrators) to see this change as a challenge and as an opportunity to continue learning.

4. Football is a time-consuming sport to coach. Along with daily practices and weekly games, we’ve spent some serious time discussing personnel, watching game film, putting together scouting reports and game plans, and scouting games for the varsity. And that’s just at the 9th grade level. But coaching football has already been an incredibly rewarding experience. I’ve learned a lot, not only about football, but about coaching and teaching in general.

All in all, a nice start to the year. Now if only I could get posting about other stuff more regularly…


Speech recognition software

This is my first post using Microsoft speech recognition software.  Using a laptop, Windows Vista, and the installed software, I can dictate anything I want a type.  This is an interesting technology.  While I’m not sure what uses I would have for it, it seems to accurately dictate anything I say and if it doesn’t, I can easily change what it wrote.  Of course as soon as I said that, the program crashed.

I can see a lot of benefits in using this for accommodations to meet the needs of students who have trouble typing.  It offers a viable alternative to typing a paper, even if it is a little slower than a seasoned keyboardist.  It sure beats using the one finger poke method.

Speech recognition software can also be used to control basic functions on the computer, including the start menu, quick launch buttons, the Internet, and other software.  This makes using the computer the special easy for those who do not have the motor skills to type or use a mouse.

By the way, this post took about 10 minutes using the microphone and speech recognition software.  The key difficulty was getting WordPress to insert tags and categories using voice commands.