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Everyday Advocacy 2017

Last year I finished my 25th year as a teacher — all 25 in the same high school. It feels like a landmark and brings with it no small amount of reflection over what I have learned as a career educator. In my early years of teaching, I was not very savvy about the politics of public education. But in my two and a half decades in education, I have learned how to work within the system to support students and families, how to fight for them and give them the tools to fight for themselves. I know how to help students get the academic help they need, how to help them apply to college, how to assist them in identifying scholarships and securing funding, and I can even help them to advocate for their mental health needs. Beyond advocating for students, 25 years in, I know how to advocate for our department as we present our needs to the administration, and, from my involvement in our professional association, I’ve even learned to advocate for our teachers as a bargaining group and for individual teachers in contract matters.

Still, the last few years have proved challenging. The political landscape for teachers has not been friendly, especially in my state. So, I took up political and legislative advocacy — calling my representatives, joining political action groups in my community, and attending town hall meetings. But, quite frankly, this advocacy work has been frustrating. It’s very hard to feel that my voice matters or that anyone is listening on a state or national level. I know I am not alone in feeling this way, and one bright spot of the political advocacy groups I’ve joined is the connection with other like-minded citizens.

It was the combination of my frustration with my own advocacy efforts and my feeling of isolation in that work that led me to search for opportunities to grow as an advocate. I decided I wanted to learn to advocate more effectively for the things that matter in education and, in particular, for the effective teaching of reading and writing. Luckily for me, just as I was ready to hear the message, NWP Radio aired an episode called “NWP Social Practices Part 1 of 6: Advocacy” — clearly, this was a nudge from the universe!

Team-Based Learning and the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique in English Classes

It’s the time of year when discussion about how to effectively teach students to be successful on multiple-choice tests has increased.

Let’s be clear: Like just about every teacher out there, I hate test prep.

I want every day in my classes to be about authentic learning and assessment. There is rarely anything authentic about multiple-choice tests. On the other hand, the reality for my students, whether they are in my AP classes or my regular English 9 classes, is that they will face stressful multiple choice exams in high school. In Michigan, a portion of our state-mandated test is the SAT, so our students take the PSAT as 9th and 10th graders and the SAT as 11th graders. In 11th grade, they also take additional multiple choice tests in science and social studies, and many begin taking AP tests to earn college credit. I want my students to feel prepared for these tests, but I struggled for many years with how to do that in a way that still feels authentic for their learning. Then I discovered Team-Based Learning. I wrote about TBL when I first used it three years ago, but I thought an update was in order.

Writers Write — and So Do Teachers of Writers

My writing/reading spot.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on six different writing projects in my professional life — two blog posts, two chapter proposals with a colleague, and two proposals for presentations for the 2017 NCTE Annual Convention with different collaborators. The process of writing for various audiences, purposes, and situations has reminded me not only that I enjoy writing, but that I am a better teacher of writing when I regularly write — whether for personal or professional circumstances.  I know I am probably preaching to the converts here, but being a reflective writer makes me a better writing teacher in some very concrete ways.

Recognizing the Struggle. Writing is hard. When I am writing myself, I remember what is challenging about the process, and I recognize the places where I want to quit. I am also reminded of the strategies I use to overcome difficult portions or writer’s block. For instance, I remember that I need time for an idea to germinate. Taking breaks, going for walks, and talking with others are essential parts of my process, but often, they get squelched in my classroom. I remember, too, that sometimes I just have to write through the challenges – trying to get what I can down on paper and knowing that I can improve it later. Most importantly, though, I remember that I don’t have to be alone as a writer — that I can reach out to others for collaboration and feedback during the process not just when I complete the first draft. Transferring what I know about my process into my classroom means committing to an environment that values thought, conversation, and collaboration along the way. It also means sharing my strategies more explicitly with students with my own real rough drafts.

Authentic Research, Authentic Writing

My Chippewa River Writing Project colleague, Sharon Murchie, and I are presenting this weekend in the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing (#4TDW). We wrote this piece together as a preview of our session and a brief explanation of our journey toward more authentic research and writing in the classroom.


We met in 2015 at the Chippewa River Writing Project’s Summer Institute. Janet was a returning CRWP Teacher Consultant and Sharon was a Red Cedar Writing Project Teacher Consultant joining the CRWP for the summer.  When given the opportunity in the institute to fashion our own inquiry project on writing, we both identified the research process as an area that intrigued us. As teachers we have always loved research — even back to the days of card catalogs, index cards, and microfiche.

Yeah, we’re geeks like that.

In all seriousness, though, the process by which students select topics of interest to them, dig deep into sources, fashion their own opinions through their critical reading, and then synthesize their thinking and sources into an original piece is one of the most cognitively complex processes we undertake in the English Language Arts curriculum.  Yet it is also one that hasn’t experienced widespread change to match the connected world in which our students live. That summer, we found ourselves researching the research process, asking such questions as, How do we authentically teach students to be discerning researchers? and How do they write about what they have learned in a way that will have implications and applications long after they graduate from high school?

We learned that we had been taking parallel routes in our high schools in exploring ideas like blogging, website creation, wikis, and Genius Hour to encourage broader audiences for our young writers. We were pretty sure we were not alone in thinking that it was past time for the research process and product to undergo a significant revision, and our conversations with our colleagues that summer — and our larger conversations since then — have confirmed that for us.

Teaching students how to be critical researchers has to be more than just an assignment or a unit. There has to be a shift in how we teach and in how students approach “doing research.”

Vulnerable Learning

Reposted from the Three Teachers Talk blog.

My Writing Project colleague, Sharon Murchie, wrote about taking a risk in sharing her writing with her students on the CRWP Teachers as Writers Blog. Her post got me thinking about how I do the same in my own classroom.

I am feeling nervous, insecure, and uncertain as my ninth graders start to file into class today. We just started the new trimester a week ago, and about half of my students are still new to me — having come from a different English teacher first term. I remind myself that I am the adult; I am the teacher. Nothing to worry about, right? What’s the worst that can happen?

You see, I am about to give a book talk and admit to my students that I have no clue what the book I am reading is about. Truly. I just don’t get it. The book is a title I was eager to read — The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro — but I am 30 pages from the end of the novel and I don’t know what the real story is. In fact, all I really know is that an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, have undertaken a journey to reunite with their son. As Axl and Beatrice travel across the countryside, they meet knights, Saxons, river boatmen, and frightened citizens, but all have one thing in common: they cannot seem to remember much. Axl and Beatrice worry that the loss of their memories will be their undoing: “But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if, without our memories, there’s nothing for it but our love to fade and die.” The mist of this memory loss has the effect on me as a reader of clouding the truth in the story. In short, I find myself uncertain about what is real for the characters and what is fantasy.

I am about to reveal to these students that I don’t understand this book.

I don’t have the answers.

I don’t have a profound interpretation.

I am lost.

How will they respond?

The room settles in as I grab the book from my desk and turn to face them.

“I want to tell you about this book I’m reading…” 

Classroom Tools That Work: Research Tools

The apps and extensions that help power our Google Apps for Education paperless classroom

This is the third in a five-part series about favorite apps and extensions for Google Chrome and Google Drive.

In the first post in this series, I covered some essential tools for managing the new apps and extensions that you’ll want to add to your Chrome browser. In the second, I shared tools that help writers be better writers.  Fair warning up front, though, it’s the research add-ons, apps and extensions that I really love! I am old enough to remember research pre-Internet. I recall sitting in the stacks with the Reader’s Guide, thumbing through microfiche to find articles, writing out copious notes on index cards and legal pads.  Not anymore! Since research is such an important part of the ELA curriculum, this third post will be dedicated to those game-changers that help students conduct research, capture source information, organize ideas, and cite within a research paper or project.

Classroom Tools That Work: Helping Writers Be Better Writers

The apps and extensions that help power our Google Apps for Education paperless classroom

This is the second in a five-part series about favorite apps and extensions for Google Chrome and Google Drive.

In the first post in this series, I covered some essential tools for managing the new apps and extensions that you’ll want to add to your Chrome browser. In this post, I’ll share the tools that my students and I have found to help writers be better writers.  

Four tools that help writers be better writers

Read&Write for Google

What is it?

Read&Write for Google is a Chrome Extension that is used within a Google document. Teachers can sign up for premium features free; students start with a 30-day trial; some features disappear after the trial, but many remain.

Classroom Tools That Work

 

A look at apps and extensions that help power our Google Apps for Education paperless classroom

This is the first in a five-part series about favorite apps and extensions for Google Chrome and Google Drive.

I have been using Google Drive for four years now to power our paperless classroom.  In previous posts, I talked about how the comment tools in Google have improved student writing and thinking, and about how I have used Doctopus to manage a paperless classroom.  This post features add-ons, extensions, and apps for Google that have enhanced writing, digital creation, research, and feedback in my classes.  

In experimenting with our paperless classroom, my students and I have tried out a great many tools with mixed results.  Initially, I liked every app and extension I saw and filled up my Chrome browser and Google Drive accordingly, but in the process of testing apps and extensions with students, I have better defined my criteria for a useful tool.  By my definition, to be useful for students, an app or extension must enhance their learning, as opposed to simply completing a task for them.  To be useful for me as a teacher, an app or extension must truly enhance my instruction, not simply add bells and whistles.  And for all of us, the app or extension has to work seamlessly.  Here are the apps and extensions we’ve found most useful arranged by purpose.  Incidentally, we only used apps and extensions that were free or that had free versions at the time.  This may have changed since our testing of them.  

Read, Write, Repeat

After a summer off, I am returning to blogging with a new, and I hope, lasting, enthusiasm.  This summer when I wasn’t adding anything to my blog, I dedicated time to reading the blogs of other educators and thinkers whom I admire.  I guess I would say that I went looking for other mentor texts to explore a greater variety of topics, styles and techniques.  Here’s what I learned.  

Reflecting on Reading in the High School Classroom

You know that feeling when you keep hearing the same message from every corner of the universe? That’s been my experience lately, and the message has been about reading.

I knew some reflection would be in order – as it always is at the end of a school year – and that this year my reflections would center on the way I changed my reading instruction and practices after our department participated in intensive professional development last summer through the Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE) program.  What I had not counted on, however, was the degree to which the conversation about reading and best practices has amped up in the past couple of months. My favorite bloggers, my favorite authors, my colleagues, and even my students are all talking about reading, which means I have the opportunity to reflect on my own practices with the research-backed, innovative practices of my favorite people.  Here are pieces of the conversation that have resonated most with me as I reflect on my own year.

Grant Wiggins has been really digging into the research behind literacy, asking the question, “What does the research on literacy really tell us about how kids learn to read and comprehend?”  His initial post outlines what we know and what we don’t know about comprehension:

What we know... What we don’t know…
Students who comprehend well use metacognitive strategies. How do students internalize the skills and strategies to be  good comprehenders?
Students who do not comprehend well make fewer inferences. What unique learning capacities and challenges do middle and high school readers face?
Readers at the secondary level identify their struggles at the sentence or paragraph level rather than the word level. How does direct instruction in comprehension strategies affect older students?
Slowing down reading as material becomes more challenging predicts better comprehension. What is the impact of these strategies over the long term?
Instructional frameworks such as questioning, reciprocal teaching, and collaborative strategic teaching show great promise for improving reading comprehension. Why is there not more current and longitudinal research of the impact of strategy instruction at the secondary level?
Key concepts like gradual release of learning and transfer of learning are central to solid intentional teaching of reading comprehension strategies. Does strategy instruction transfer to new class, texts, and experiences?

to be continued…