Friday, December 17, 2010

How Google Has Enhanced My Practice - An Homage to My Fellow Blogger

I have dedicated this blog post to Tara Seale because I owe everything I know about using Google to teach to her wise counsel.

Here's what I was able to do with my AP English Language and Composition class. The assignment combines a lot of exciting elements from student self-assessment to guided process writing.

First, the basic assignment: I've been doing Mentor Text writing assignments since I started teaching, I just didn't have a name for it until after this past NCTE conference. This assignment asks students to read a professionally written text and then try and mimic it in style. This mimicry helps the student practice writing like the experts, helping them integrate professional skills into their amateur styles. The result is a more finely tuned compositional style, one with greater maturity and clarity.

I asked them to write a holidays-are-crazy style essay based on a "Shouts & Murmurs" column written by Larry Doyle titled "Is There a Problem Here?" The original can be found here.

Students read the piece (once in class, once at home), analyzing for Doyle's use of rhetoric; students were asked to also pay special attention to the elements of voice (diction, detail, syntax, imagery, figurative language, and tone) and the four basic elements of satire (irony, hyperbole, …, …). We read, they highlighted, we discussed, they took it home to reread.

Then, students had to draft their rough drafts. They needed to mimic Doyle's satirical style while focusing on some aspect of the holidays. Here is where the technology really came into play.

Before I go into how I used the technology, let me explain each component. All of these programs are located in Google Docs. The first is the Google document. This program is just like Microsoft Word (with some isn't Microsoft after all). The Google document features collaborative typing and pop-out chat, great tools to help guide students with their writing - in real time!

The second program is the Google form. These are great. Seriously. Imagine a world where you can create any information gathering form you want/need and then have that form generate a spreadsheet with the responses. I created a student survey earlier in the month and now I have actual telephone numbers for all of my students' parents.

For the assignment, students drafted their holiday craziness essay on a Google document. Then, they evaluated themselves based on a rubric I created on a Google form (you can see the rubric/form here). The idea was to have the students assess their own writing based on effort and perceived achievement (based on an A - D scale). Then, students wrote reflections justifying the choices they made in their writing and their assessment. Finally, students revised based on their assessment of their work. I will conference with them once we return to school on Monday (or, snow-willing, after the holiday break). The resulting Google document flowed from a draft, to a reflection, to a revision, showing thoughtful, process-oriented writing from beginning to end.

So, what did I get out of it as teacher?

First, I got instant feedback. The responses from my survey/rubric form dumped into a spreadsheet. I could see where students thought they stood in terms of their writing at a glance. I could also see what they liked about the assignment and their writing (a voluntary, extra box that nearly every student filled out).

Second, I got the ability to have writing conferences with my students without giving up class time. Using the real-time editing and pop-out chat features, I could have individual writing conferences without having each student come to my desk while the others worked on whatever. Additionally, I didn't have to make one stroke with a red pen.

I am sure that there will be many more advantages to using these programs. I really didn't expect to discover the versatility and utility I've already experienced.

As a side note, Google has a program called Knol. It is a collection of people's knowledge on different topics. I searched the Knol database for Huckleberry Finn and found a four minute synopsis video of the novel done in Legos. It...was….awesome.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why High School Matters

by Tara Seale

I recently returned from NCTE 2010 in Orlando. As always, High School Matters was my favorite session, packed with the best presenters and the best teachers sitting shoulder to shoulder. If only the whole room could work at the same school. What a school that would be.

First, Carol Jago related her favorite books for the year, and she provided a complimentary bookmark for each attendee. If you were unable to attend, and you would like to see Carol Jago's recommended reads, please click on this link: Carol Jago Recommended Books for 2010
As a bonus, she shared a book that was not on her bookmark. It was called The Room by Emma Donoghue. I also heard another recommendation for The Room by a fellow attendee at the NCTE, so it will be a Kindle download and a holiday read for me. Carol Jago's recommended reads are not only interesting, but inspiring. If someone as busy as Carol Jago can come up with 8 incredible reads for the year, what is my excuse? What is your excuse? We should all be reading and sharing in 2011.
On a more humorous note, Carold Jago also shared the YouTube video, "It's a Book" by Lane Smith. It is funny, but scary at the same time. Did you see Wired Magazine's cover from November titled "The Web is Dead." Will we have a magazine cover in the near future that announces "Books are Dead?"

Carol's talk was followed by one of my favorite ice breakers. Everyone at the round-table shares their favorite book of the year, and in the process, we get to meet everyone at our table. Never enough time, but it doesn't really matter because we all enjoy sharing, interjecting, and enjoying one another. It is a time to discover that English teachers attend NCTE from all over the country, and they are interesting, intelligent, and fun people to know (we did not make it around my table, but it was okay because we all bonded and connected).

There are usually three speakers. Last year, a poet performed in the middle, but at this year's High School Matters, a local Shakespeare group performed. I loved how the theater group utilized gestures created by the audience members who volunteered to paraphrase Shakespearean language. It had my head spinning as to how I could incorporate this into my classroom. I will, but I need to contemplate the best method.
As always, NCTE throws so many ideas at me that I need Christmas break to recover and incorporate.

High School Matters incorporates two round-table discussions. This year, I found myself at two tables titled To Hell with Romeo and Juliet and Exploring Zines. If you have not attended High School Matters at NCTE before, I suggest you attend this session because not only will you meet round-table leaders in secondary English, but you will connect with everyday high school teachers who just happen to sit next to you, like me! When you walk into High School Matters, you will see a number on each table. This number is important. If you look on the paper printout on each table, it will describe each table's discussion focus. Who wouldn't want to attend To Hell with Romeo and Juliet? If nothing else, could I use this as ammunition not to teach the next month or so? Alas, it was not a session to throw out Romeo and Juliet, but to accurately place the characters in their proper place in Dante's Inferno. What a great idea! My second table discussion involved creating small publications for passion, not profit. That is the definition of a Zine. I was unfamiliar with Zines, so I am glad I attended this round-table discussion.

The last speaker at High School Matters was Jim Burke. He has impacted many English teachers as the creator of the English Companion Ning which has almost 24,000 members. Jim Burke is funny, witty, and real. His senior moment talk was almost too real for me. We both have children who left home this year which is a scary realization involving not only our own life, but our control or lack of control over our children. Jim pointed out how literature reaches not only the kids we teach, but the kids we raise, and also the lives we live. Jim Burke made the audience re-live books we are all familiar with, but in a different light because every time we read them, it is a different point in our lives, and that is significant.
He created an heroic journey chart that rivals Joseph Campbell. I hope he will post it online. I have too many arrows, notations, and annotations in my composition book as I tried to keep up with him, but fortunately, he also provided an incredible visual for students and teachers alike by taking his students to the football field.

Although I scribbled many notes before this, I have very little here. I think it is because it was so poignant. Burke had his students sit on the yard line of their age. Most sat on 17 or 18. Then he sat (on his age) more than double the yards away from his students; later, he said this was a bad idea and doesn't suggest it. But fortunately, this is the best part, he had his students look back and walk the few short yards to their 9th grade year, not many steps. Look at how far you have come (but on a big football field, it isn't much). Now, let's hypothetically say that you live 100 years. Look down the field. That is how much you have to learn. That is how much you don't know. What a significant visual to the know-it-all teenagers. Maybe they don't know much after all.

Now do you see why High School Matters?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Business-Based Reforms and Foucault's Pendulum

Back and forth, back and forth. In the middle of the city of Paris, a pendulum swings back and forth over a table. Foucault's pendulum, named for physicist Leon Foucault, works with the rotation of the earth; in fact, the pendulum is one of the first experiments that visibly showed that the Earth rotated on an axis. So now, there it sits, strung up in the Pantheon in Paris, swinging back and forth, ad nauseum. That is the way with cycles: seasons, calendars, water, business-based reforms in schools.

Efficiency has long been a by-word in our profession (and several other human service professions), but efficiency is not the way of schools. There is no efficient way to teach students because they are people with flaws and faults that are all their own. Larry Cuban's book, The Blackboard and the Bottom Line, includes the story of an executive who found his assumptions of business-based educational reforms challenged. This executive, the owner of an ice cream company, was addressing a group of teachers about their learning. During the question and answer session at the end, a veteran teacher asked him what his most famous favor is. "Blueberry," the exec replied. "What do you do with the blueberries that aren't up to your standards?" "We toss them out." "We can't toss out our bad blueberries," she replied.

At this year's NCTE convention, this story came charging back into my mind. I was sitting in a room at the Yacht and Beach club convention center and I began to remember why I got into the classroom. But, that happened a lot at this year's convention. I think that is why I get so excited in November; NCTE is my oasis of educational nirvana, my moment of zen in a year of otherwise tenuous situations at work.

The business-based reform crowd does have something to contribute to education, but more often than not the focus on efficiency grinds educators down. Why would something that should be beneficial be so destructive? The reason is the focus. The focus for efficiency is time, not people.

According to Cuban (2004), the things that teachers are looking for in a reform are "effectiveness, fidelity [to original goals], popularity, and adaptability." These four are not unreasonable requests. I think people have the conversations about the first and third of the traits listed, but the second and fourth really deserve closer inspection.

First, what are the core assumptions of these "efficiency," or business-based, reforms? They are:
  • Schools are inherently and malignantly flawed
  • Teachers, administrators, and support staff are glorified blue collar babysitters who only bungle our big business reforms
  • Schools should be run like businesses, idols of perfection in the American landscape
  • The strong economic growth, high productivity, long-term prosperity, and increased competitiveness in global markets depend upon a highly-skilled workforce
  • Public schools are responsible for churning out these highly skilled workers
  • All public schools are failing to create highly-skilled workers with urban schools failing the most
  • Business-modeled reforms can be applied to schools to match workers with their jobs, increasing public confidence in schools (does anyone have Ayn Rand's number in the after-life?)
  • Higher tests scores automatically forecast better performance in the workplace (All core assumptions from Cuban, 2004; sarcasm added by the author)
These assumptions resulted in a standard reform model, adopted along Bipartisan lines (now we need to call Gary Sheytengart), that eventually allowed for the national government's hijacking of state and local responsibilities in the public schools. Systemic reform - establishment of curricular standards, imposition of standard texts, merit pay, expanded parental choice, and hostile takeovers of failing schools and districts - was born, leaping unwisely from the brow of a group of business "leaders," politicians, educators, and parents.

Imagine my dismay when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a new non-governmental agency, "cutely" titled StudentFirst, created and helmed by the belle of the business-based ball, Michelle Rhee. That was when I had it.

I have had it, and so should you. I am in a fortunate position (which is unusual) in Virginia. we are obstinately holding out against the Common Core. The more I read of it, the more I am glad we are. The reforms of the Common Core appear to be doing more to fragment and micro-manage our teaching than any set of standards I have seen before. Reading an opinion piece published online at EdWeek's website on November 12th, I began to hear some of my own frustrations and realizations given life in the much more eloquent voice of Kelly Gallagher.

Gallagher, one of those teachers on my people-I-need-to-thank-for-sustaining-me-in-my-first-five-years list, has come to a realization about the proliferation of standards that I thought I was crazy for thinking. Let me syllogize (alright neologisms). Sprinting-and-covering material, while really efficient, does not build learners. Multitudinous and specific content standards create a sea of material that must be covered quickly to ensure students are prepared by the time state tests arrive in January (Semester Terms) or May (Year-Long Terms). Therefore, having a lot of content-specific standards assessed on the multiple-choice end-of-course assessment does not allow for the development of deep thinking we expect from students.

So, driving uniform, efficiency-style reform down the collective throats of educators and students alike is not the answer. What is the effect of fidelity and adaptability to reform movements? Let's consider the fidelity to original goals first.

The original goal of the NCLB reforms was to increase educational parity across every line, but especially the gap between the "rich" students in the suburbs and the "poor" students in the inner city. Yet, from international comparisons of our students with those from other countries to the Condition of Education reports published by the National Center for Educational Statistics, our students results have stayed significantly stagnant. If we were true to our goals, we would not cling to a reform that has had almost nine years of time and no significant difference.

The same applies to adaptability. Reforms focused purely on outcomes run the risk of repeating the same errors because they do not ask about how they got involved. There is no talk of adapting reforms to geographical areas and certain populations in the service of meeting educational goals, there simply is a meeting or not. If you miss the goal, you have not reached adequate yearly progress. You are not adequate. In uninformed hands, the notion of schools literally classified as "inadequate" becomes a dangerous political weapon.

So, what now shall we do? I think Virginia has taken step in the right direction this year. Our state standards have been revised, more unified, and more focused on the academic skills necessary for success in the English Language Arts classroom. What's more, all of the key elements of the Common Core are present in the condensed Virginia standards.

The START treaty has been in the news lately and I think it is time we learned the lessons nuclear war has to teach: keep the infrastructure small and specific and verification can be easily achieved. Just as the START treaties seek to reduce the number of nuclear weapons so that they can be tracked more easily, so we should streamline our standards, reflect and remind ourselves of the goals we have for our students, consider that perhaps the most popular reforms are not those that are the most effective, and keep searching for those reforms which we can adapt to our classrooms to create greater success for students. If we don't get involved and take back what we can of our schools from the business-based reformers now, we cannot be surprised when, as in Max Berry's novel, schools become named for corporate sponsors like Nike, McDonald's, and Office Depot (I wouldn't want to play against the team from Nike High if I went to McDonald's High). And, lest we forget, maybe we should ask Christopher Whittle how those Edison schools have done in the for-profit public school business (think the popular song "Breakeven" by the Script).