Friday, November 16, 2012

Shifting the Gresham's Dynamic or Reclaiming our Voices

This post has been eight years in the making. It is the result of one of those crystallizing moments where someone provides the something you didn't know was missing, focusing the chaotic blast of life into a steady, clear beam of light. To truly understand what I mean, I must go back to the beginning of my career.

I switched major programs halfway through college, abandoning the world of oncology I had for so long known as my future. I stopped science classes and math classes, left behind the triple variable calculus of certainty, jerked violently toward the humanities. I went from double majoring in Biology and Chemistry to double majoring in English and Ancient Greek (you tell me, I was 20). I was in uncharted territory, but it felt good.

I couldn’t stand the embarrassing certainty of science anymore. I enjoyed (and still do) studying the nature of life, the ways chemicals worked together, the intricate mechanics of the human body—all of it. The problem was the certainty of findings, the way my professors worshipped things that were set in stone, but were only waiting for time and understanding to wash them away. Scientists thought they had the human body figured out—until Watson and Crick showed up and twisted our understanding on its head. I needed something more human to examine; something so complex in its design that no one had any answers. So, I picked up literature and began plumbing its depths. I was right, no clear answers.

Why had I done this? Why had I given up a career in medicine for whatever I was going to do with English? I had found a science that bridged my love of biology and chemistry with my need to explore literature: cognitive science. I became intrigued with brain physiology and how it helps us learn. Long story short, I figured the best place to study cognition was in a school (we can evaluate the logical fallacy of that at a later date).

The Hippocratic oath of do no harm was not enough anymore; I wanted to do the most good.

So. I became a teacher.

This is my eighth year; I guess that since I've taught seven years, the unease with which I began this year could be considered my seven year itch. The thing that bothers most teachers, and I know I am presuming but bear with me, seems to be the fact that teachers are a fairly educated bunch of people who are often treated like children. What I mean is that the expertise that teachers bring to the educational discussion is so often under or devalued by people from outside of education. Case in point: One of my professors for my Master of Education degree was a policy guy; he is now a higher up with SACS. In his mind, or at least as he presented it in the class, the last people he wanted to ask about a policy decision were teachers. Sadly, I do not always blame him.

If you are paying attention, there are probably some district-wide changes being made to your evaluation system. In every meeting I have attended about these, I have yet to hear a clear problem and solution from any one. Instead, I hear indignation and anger about the changes. By the time five minutes have passed, the atmosphere drips with the blood of lacerated conversation, phrases and explanations from administrators torn asunder and lying about the room like dismembered limbs. All anyone asks about is the percentage of the evaluation that this will count for, eerily echoing the cries of "what's my grade" emanating from our students. There are no questions about what is being evaluated, none about the practices that will make us better teachers. The practice of percentage counting has supplanted the practice of good professional talk; and the advantage is given to the administrators while teachers lose control of more and more of what happens in our classrooms.

My brother-in-law has an MBA so I often find myself asking him about how administrative thinking works. At his job, he meets cost and management bottom lines that keep his company profitable by finding and firing the inefficient managers, executives, and employees that threaten the company's profits; interestingly, this exact point is where the analogy comes alive for most people in the public: they want to compare teachers with low-level employees and not the managers with whom they are more closely aligned. Teachers cannot fire underperforming students. Rather, teaching is the only profession where managers are asked to identify weak performers and redirect their energy from the most effective performers in order to focus almost fanatically on students who may only be struggling because they resent the school system. Resistant or underperforming workers in a business are asked to leave; resistant or underperforming students are elevated at the expense of motivated or high performing students. There is never discussion of when a teacher has performed well but a student refuses to be taught. There is never discussion of when a teacher exceeds expectations. Some administrators even deliberately evaluate teachers as adequate so that their "egos don't grow." Accountability has become a gimmick designed to marginalize teachers and, more importantly, good teaching practices. The practice of humbling other adults has supplanted the practice of discussing effective teaching and learning. In with the bad, out with the good.

The problem with teachers and the policy decisions being made around them is the Gresham's dynamic. Gresham's Law states that bad "money" pushes good "money" out of the market. This law comes from the days when moneychangers would trade people for their gold and then keep it out of circulation. This hoarding devalued the system of trade by supplanting precious metals with lesser ones. The devaluing of good practice leads to teachers doing what good they can, but not the most that they are capable of doing. Instead of the complexity of working with and serving communities of people, we've reduced our practice to easily measurable data points, pushing realistic and complex measurements to the side. This shift mirrors the task we are asked to do; less qualified teachers are made to fit the mold by turning teaching behaviors into checkboxes and SMART goals. Meanwhile, the more creative and effective teachers are pulled back into the box. The certainty of the science of teaching has replaced the power of its art.

The power is inordinately out of the hands of educational practitioners. Many teachers feel like challenging the status quo leads to targeting by administrators and others in power. They stand by, watch the tide mounting against them, not moving until they have to outrun a tidal wave. Gresham's law holds dominion over all.

I am writing this while I fly towards Las Vegas, home of the 2012 NCTE Annual Convention. Getting ready to attend the conference, I had to fight tooth and nail to get some compensation to afford the tickets. I fight so hard for it because these conventions, and the organizations that host them, are the floating variable in Gresham's dynamic. They provide support and outlets for teachers despairing over the paucity of good practice in their home districts. I half-jokingly call the convention my yearly spiritual retreat, but it really is a place for renewal. While every teacher cannot attend, those that do have a special responsibility to carry back what they learn and share it with whomever will listen.

When I started working on this blog almost four years ago, I did so because I wanted to share the conversations I had at NCTE all year long. I still want to. So, even if all the sharing you do is to tell a colleague about this blog, the secondary section website, the elementary connected community, a Google+ group you find at the convention, some of the sessions you attended, I want to urge you to be the unpredictable variable in the Gresham's dynamic that has come to define our lives in education. Every missed opportunity to talk about best practices is a chance for the bad to push the good to the sidelines. When that happens, the ones who lose are the students; as a teacher, I cannot accept that.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Applicable Apps for Apple's iPad

So, technology in the classroom is one of those big things we always hear about. Tied to differentiation! Tied to student success! Buy our software package! Ancillaries available! On and on the signs cry out for our attention and we, as the savvy 21st century educators we are, flock to the demonstrations and the booths, seeking out that technological tools that will reshape our practice.
Unfortunately, the reality often distances itself from the rose-colored posters of the vendor booths and brochures. In our schools, division or building specialists purchase technology, place it in the hands of some of the faculty, and then expects results. Sometimes the technology sits on a desk in a classroom, holding down papers, keeping the dust all to itself, mutating into a hairy monster that one should not get wet or feed after midnight. The end of the year comes, administrators call for results and examples, people make things up to justify expenses, and technology becomes another term thrown about to justify big bottom lines with very little substance.
One victim of this policy of technological salutary neglect is the iPad from Apple. In case there are people who think that Apple still only means Macintosh computers, the iPad is a friendly little tablet that is about a thin as a class set of quizzes and as broad as a text book. The processing power and display have gone through subsequent improvements; Apple is currently developing its fourth generation iPad. Since the dawning of the iPad day, teachers and administrators have sought ways to incorporate this stylish technology into daily classroom life for a number of reasons, some noble and others not.
The truth of the matter is that this technology presents a fair number of challenges and a fair number of rewards. These vary from subject to subject, class to class, and student to student. As part of my transition this year to the Commonwealth Governor's School, I have had the opportunity to work with one of these pieces of technology all year. My site has even been assigned a cart full of 30 iPads to engage students in classroom activities. As a result, I have been exploring some of the apps available for the iPad in order to make it a seamless part of my daily classroom routine. This is my top app list for this past school year, 2012-2013.
1. ThinkBook: Ever outline or teach others how to outline? How about teaching good note taking strategies? ThinkBook is your app. Intuitive and easy to use, ThinkBook has been one of the most easily adapted apps to my classroom practice. I have used it to teach research outlining and I have used it to outline my own writing. Most helpfully, I have used ThinkBook to organize lesson and unit plans. Beyond this adaptability, ThinkBook is affordable.

2. Essay Grader: As an English teacher, I can appreciate the company that created this app: Gatsby's Light. Essay Grader is the answer to the question: "How many times do I have to write this comment?" I will be posting again soon on this app by itself, but I wanted to include it here since I use it so much. In the app, there are pre-set comments and space for custom comments. After you have set your matrix of comments, all you need do is check the box next to the appropriate category and the app generates a detailed feedback report based on your pre-sets and custom comments. For those who want even more freedom, there are free write sections at the beginning and the end that allow teachers to personally address the student being assessed; these sections are also integrated into the final feedback report. Teachers can instantly send the feedback to the student via e-mail, or they can export them and print them off one-by-one. More on this one soon.

3. Remarks: There are a lot of annotation apps for the iPad, but the most seamlessly integrated one has got to be Remarks. As far as I have tried, remarks offers the best method for pulling digital copies of student papers and, forgive me, remarking on them. There are a variety of options for putting commentary on papers from handwriting to typing. My preference is to use the underlining/highlighting option because I can attach sticky notes to the underline/highlight that students can view by simply hovering over it with a mouse cursor.

4. Storyist: This app, endorsed by the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) program, allows students (and their teachers) to organize, develop, and write a novel. This function is accomplished in a variety of ways. The most exciting are the story sheets - individual "sheets" that allow for the development of setting, character, etc. These sheets are kept in folders within each separately named project file. I have found that this app makes discussing the process of writing very transparent as students can see their own and their teachers' processes at work. Using it in conjunction with the NaNoWriMo curriculum would be a great activity for any class studying the structure of stories.
5. iThoughts HD: iThoughts HD looks like a very familiar educational technology program, Inspiration. Beside the fact that it is much more affordable than its PC counterpart. The interface is clear and easy to use. The maps are uncluttered and easily manipulated. I've used this program to model essay outlining, to analyze characters, to map out plotlines, and to define problems. All of these exercises have been done through either an LCD projector or an Apple TV, making the development and final use of each map a whole class activity, and an opportunity for open class discussions. I've even labeled bubbles in the map with students' names to identify their contributions to the finished map. This both recognizes each student's contribution to class and makes grading whole class discussions easier and more justifiable.

6. Nearpod: Nearpod is a great app for presentations. Remember the last PowerPoint presentations you sat through. They usually drag on, each slide pounding you further into your seat, making you wish for any opportunity to escape. Unfortunately, we are usually forced to watch these in Professional Development sessions; sessions required by our employers. Students have the same frustrations. PowerPoint-based classrooms can be a grind that wear students down. This takes the computer-based presentation and makes them interactive with videos, quizzes, and other feedback mechanisms. For the teacher, there is a student list that instantly provides feedback on how much the students are learning from the presentation. There are even free response sections that allow each student to respond to open-ended questions. The best part of this app? The fact that it is free. The downsides? First, you need a full class set of iPads for this program to work. Second, the Nearpod "Store" (all of the lessons I've seen thus far are free) contains a limited number of lessons at this point; however, many of them are very interesting and engaging (see the one on Shakespearean insults first if you want to try one out). If you have the equipment, Nearpod is a worthwhile investment.

7. Socrative: A great feedback mechanism for any class because it is available through iPads and PCs. The program provides a template for taking tests and quizzes you already give to students and adapting them. The program allows for student- or teacher-paced administrations of the test. The student-paced version of the quiz allows them to move to each question as they complete them; the teacher readout allows for tracking of class progress by individual student, providing assessment data from first question to last. The teacher-paced version of the quiz allows the teacher to determine when each question will be available. This method, though it takes longer, ensures every student finishes at the same time. After the test is over, regardless of which method you've used to administer it, a report is generated which can be e-mailed or (if you are using a PC) downloaded directly from the site. This reports are then saved to the website and can be recalled at any point in the future. I've used this app on each type of assessment from simple reading check to complex free-response test. It is free and well worth the time. As I think about this coming year, I already have a bunch of quizzes and tests stored on the site that I only need to adjust and then administer.

8. ShowMe: I am going to end this rather lengthy post with this app. I will probably add to this list throughout this year as I find new apps that help, but for now this list should keep the curious engaged. ShowMe is a site on the internet accessed through either PC or iPad. The iPad helps with the writing functionality, especially if you have a stylus, but it is not necessary. A ShowMe is a recorded whiteboard presentation where anyone can listen to you speak as you write on the whiteboard. The benefit of the program is that this app allows for the generation of quick instructional videos that can be used to flip your classroom (see post from 5 December 2011 or 12 May 2012 for more on flipping). I have used this program to provide additional tutoring to students and to share strategies from my classroom with colleagues. ShowMe also contains a large community of people who have developed and shared their work for use in any classroom. Sign up and check it out.

If you have any apps you want to tell other members of the NCTE secondary community about, feel free to respond to this post. There are many apps out there, this conversation could help us identify some of the best.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Time to Flip Out

by Tara Seale
Dan Bruno, who also publishes on the High School Matters blog, wrote a post about flipped classrooms in December.  Although I didn't explore this instructional method at the time (re-doing two National Board entries, taking a graduate class, teaching 90 AP Lang students, and trying to be a mom and wife - as teachers - you, best of all, understand why I didn't get around to it:) I recently found the time to explore the flipped classroom concept, and Tech & Learning has a great post explaining the positive effects of flipped classrooms.
Simply, a flipped classroom is one in which students watch a video lecture at home and complete classroom activities, or what would normally be considered homework, in class. This set up allows teachers to act as both a lecturer and a facilitator.  I watched the Flipping the Classroom Tech & Learning video, and one comment made by a student really stuck with me.
He said that he didn't have to stop the whole class if he didn't understand.  He could pause the video and re-watch what he didn't get the first time.  We all know that we have students who will not raise their hand, and unfortunately, they miss out on important information.
A teacher comment in the video also stuck with me.  When students come to class ready to complete classroom activities, the teacher is not the only one helping students.  Students who watched the video and easily understood the lesson serve as peer tutors.  Students who have additional questions can ask not only the teacher but also a classmate, and the students who understood the lesson reinforce the concepts of the lesson as they assist other students.

If you did not read Dan's post, he provides a basic outline to organize flipped instruction in an English classroom.  I encourage you to read Flipping Out.

Several websites support teachers implementing the flipped classroom model:
  1. Sign up for the online community The Flipped Class Network
  2. TechSmith has printable tutorials
  3. Best of all, TEDTalks has signed on to support teachers in facilitating a flipped classroom.  Check out TED's Beta TED-Ed site.  Read the press release here: TED-Ed Launches Groundbreaking Website with New Tools for Customized Learning.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Poetry Across the Curriculum

They are just not getting it, he says
Head shaking, heart sagging.
The seniors were struggling, grappling
With the grave forces of gravity, inertia, momentum.
The subtle combination of math and movement
Buried them under mounds of complex theory.
"Maybe I can help," I intoned in a voice
far from the Superman crowd,
"Maybe I can unlock their interest with poetry."
His look more than withered.
If his eyes could have spoken, they might have said,
"What's wrong with you boy, are you out of your head?
There is no way that your verse and your line,
Can help my students to get and define
The topics of physics, you must be quite wrong,
What could a science student learn from a song."
So, I paused and I waited, while his eyes said their peace
And, thankfully, he didn't voice these thoughts.
Instead he said "Sure, that might be fun,
I will try anything to bring these students back
To the topics and ideas of this great science."
So, I assigned three different topics
Based on the physics teacher's
Suggestions. The students were to choose
One of these topics and craft a poem,
Formal or not,
To describe the physics concepts embodied by each.
And lo and behold what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a sleigh full of verse about forces and motion.
In the end, the physics teacher allowed that
Poetic adaptation is not the worst of all tricks
To get students to learn the science of physics.

So, bad poetry aside, what the heck am I talking about? How can we possibly ask science, math, and history teachers to judge poetry? How can we ask the teachers to assign poetry? Should we?

My friend and colleague, Chris Spencer, does something he calls Friday poems. The basic idea is not necessarily original or innovative (students write poems and present them in class at the end of the week), but I think Chris has managed to make it his own. In Chris's class, students write poems every week. About what ever they want. They spend time at the beginning of the week generating three topics for the week. Chris does not generate these, but he mediates the process. And surprise...they love it. Seriously. When I taught at Chris's school, all of the students in his class would find him at lunch, after school, on e-mail over the weekend, seeking his expertise as the most knowledgable writer in the room.

Writing in class does not have to be just journals and essays. Poetry is a tool that can be used to unlock those stubborn barriers to understanding in other disciplines. I recently had sophomores writing poems based on the ideas about genetics they were discussing in Biology class. I had freshmen writing poems about mathematical topics like point-slope equations. Each time, my colleagues said they noticed a positive change in the students' understanding of the topics. Poetry, like all writing, is inherently generative; therefore, in writing these poems, these students generated new understandings of subjects they struggled with before.

Is it foolproof? Most certainly not. Not every topic works this way for every student; but, ask yourself this: how often do you get your mind blown by a poem about physics?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Teaching Vocabulary, Successfully

by Tara Seale
The best advice I received this year came from my students, and it related to vocabulary instruction. I struggle with the best way to teach vocabulary; and unfortunately, like most English teachers, I do not have the time I need to devote to vocabulary instruction (maybe it should be its own class, I thought, grammar too, but that is another blog post). I also recognize that a strong vocabulary is essential for effective reading comprehension. Looking for contextual clues only works if students understand the other words in the sentence.

Frustrated, I tried guilting my students into learning words because they just need to know them to succeed in life. That doesn’t work. I related a story about how my husband, at twenty-four, attended his first board meeting. He realized that it was imperative that he increase his knowledge of words and bought 30 days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. We still have this book with all of his annotations. They liked the story and realized that they might end up in this same situation one day, but they also decided that they would rather play video games, text, work, go to band practice, football practice, or any number of teenage life distractions that make additional learning outside of class something to put off until absolutely necessary.
After nine weeks of frustration, I asked my students, “What can I do to help you learn the words you need to know?” They told me that Paula Barker, their pre-AP 10th grade teacher, helped them learn words through vocabulary bingo, and they also received the added bonus of candy. I told them that if I was going to buy candy, I needed proof. I was amazed as my 11th grade students recited words they could still remember because of vocabulary bingo in 10th grade English. Of course, I immediately contacted Paula and asked her to explain her visionary bingo game.

This is it:
  • 20 - 3 x 5 index cards will fit on a desk uncut, but you can cut the index cards to fit more.
  • Students write the vocabulary word on one side and the definition on the other.
  • The teacher also has her own index cards.
  • The class plays bingo during the last 10 minutes of class.
  • Students place all bingo cards word-side-up on their desk.
  • The teacher reads the definition, and based on the definition, students turn over their card.
  • The teacher goes slow at first letting students look through all of the cards, but the longer the game is played the more the teacher speeds up.
  • The first student to bingo receives a piece of candy.
  • Another version is to allow students to pick one card and stand up next to their desk. The teacher reads the definition, and students sit down as the definition to their word is read. The last one standing receives a piece of candy.
  • After two weeks, the teacher quizzes the students on the vocabulary words.
This idea is great for several reasons. First, it takes care of the last moments in class when some students would rather pack up than listen or participate. Second, competitive students want to win and just doing well on a quiz is not really winning, but blurting out bingo or surviving as the last one standing is winning. Third, it doesn’t take much planning or time out of class, so teachers can implement vocabulary bingo and not feel like they are sacrificing precious time.
The last reason involves a different implementation. I recently used vocabulary bingo for rhetorical devices instead of vocabulary words. It worked well; students wrote the definition and an example on their index cards.
Regardless of how a teacher decides to use this idea, students will be engaged because of the competition and the chance to win an inexpensive piece of candy. Learning vocabulary through vocabulary bingo is a win win situation for both the teacher and the students.