Reflections on this semester’s love affair with technology

Othello wordle

I could use the extended metaphor of a torrid romance with a sexy bad boy to describe my experience with technology this semester, but that might a bit overblown and, some might argue, a product of my students’ obsession with Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Zombies are also trendy right now, but I don’t think brain is equipped to fashion that metaphor right now.

So, let’s get to it.

As I finish up this semester I’ve had some hits and misses. If you’ve read some of my other posts this year (and I know, they have been few and far between. New school, new challenges, new excuses), you’ll know that I approached my classes with year with a kind of outlook that can only be described as naively optimistic. I saw rainbows and puppy dogs everywhere I looked. I assumed my students would be putty in my hands because they were digital natives and I GOT them. So, in summary:

Stumbling blocks:

  • I didn’t consider that other members of the staff might resent the fact that two English classes were scheduled in a computer lab every day when access to computer labs is already at a premium. Not my fault, but it didn’t really matter.
  • Although my students are digital natives, they were not all tech-savvy
  • Although most of my students use social networking sites and web 2.0 apps on a regular basis, a number of them balked at using these tools for educational purposes
  • Many students were opposed to sharing their work (even though many of them are okay with showing inappropriate pictures on facebook!)
  • Some of my students have adopted anti-technology positions in, what I can only assume is, a desire to please authority figures who condemn technology as frivolous or non-academic.
  • Paper: I still need paper for some things, and for some reason I feel like I’m being judged as a bad teacher if my students don’t have any paper handouts. I’m working on it.
  • Oh, and apparently I adopt every new tool that interests me.

Now, for the good news:

  • Some of my students changed their minds. I had a student tell me that initially, he was “creeped-out” by edmodo, because he didn’t really understand what it was. He is a thoughtful cautious student who has taken to heart all the warnings about the dangers of posting too much information about yourself online. As the student learned that social networking sites can be leveraged for positive purposes, he came to love edmodo because he found that he could access assignments and send me messages using a tool he was already using (um, that’s the internet if you’re wondering. Or the “the infornet” as my mother-in-law calls it).  Edmodo has been a huge success. It’s eliminated a great deal of paper–not to mention excuses.
  • Ning: I used Ning for a number of different purposes. At first I didn’t really know how I’d use it (I’m finishing my action research project on this and I’ll post it soon so I won’t go into great detail here), but eventually the most significant use became blogging. Some of my students were skeptical about the Ning at first, but their work stands for itself. They shared and read ideas they would have never otherwise encountered. They also reached much deeper levels of synthesis and analysis because their posts were not “published pieces” in a traditional sense.
  • My website and class blog. I did a pretty good job of updating my class blogs on a daily basis. Now when I scroll back through my posts, I have a wonderful series of snapshots of my semester. It’s fantastic. I never managed to update my “daybook” or planner the way I’ve kept my blog up to date.

In the immortal words of Joss Whedon, “Where do we go from here?” (Oh, Buffy, how I miss you)

  • I’m going to use Ning even more, and try to do even more with student blogging now that I have evidence that supports its effectiveness.
  • Edmodo: I need to do more training at the beginning of the semester so that students use edmodo properly. (How to submit an assignment vs. how to send a link)
  • Use less paper. I can do it!
  • Bring in Diigo. Love Diigo, but didn’t really get a chance to try it.

I think that’s plenty for now. I’ll keep you posted.

I promise.

No really!

Why the Essay?

Boolean Squared by Kevin Hodgson

So I’ve decided to declare war upon the 5 paragraph essay–which is perhaps bad timing, given the fact that I’m about to head out to a school where some 7/8 teachers are doing teacher moderation of 5 paragraph essays. Nonetheless, war has been declared and alliances have been formed and well, it’s just hard to stop that ball once it gets rolling. Just ask that poor Serbian nationalist who assassinated the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand.

Why have I decided this call to arms is necessary? Please read the following manifesto:

Like a virus, the five-paragraph essay infects almost every student, starting as young as grade 4 with some students and continuing each subsequent year until grade 12, and then if the student has survived the virus, sometimes college and university. 

Why do we hold this writing form aloft as the pinnacle of academic achievement?

It’s formulaic, repetitive, restrictive, and forces students to purport themselves as experts on a topic they can hardly be experts on.

It doesn’t allow for creativity, questioning, divergent thinking, or personal voice (“Never use ‘I’ in an essay!!”). Is that really the kind of thinking we want to encourage among our students who will be one day venturing out into a future we can’t even begin to imagine?

I am all for encouraging students to explore ideas and support those ideas with evidence, but why oh why does that have to be done in an essay? Or at least this kind of essay.

Because it’s in the curriculum expectations you say?

Where? Show me. I dare you.

The essay does not appear as an example in the Ontario language curriculum document until grade 9 Academic English. And even then, it doesn’t say “By the end of this course all students will write an essay.” It says “By the end of this course students will identify the topic, purpose, and audience for several different types of writing tasks (e.g., … an expository essay explaining a character’s development in a short story or novel for the teacher)” That doesn’t actually say that the student needs to write the essay, just identify the topic, purpose, and audience for the essay.

Some may argue that the essay should still be taught because it is an important skill that they will need in later grades or in college or university. I’d argue that essay writing itself is not a skill. Critical thinking? Paragraph construction? Supporting ideas with proof? Elaborating? Brainstorming? Making connections? Yes. All skills. And they are all necessary to write a cohesive essay. I argue that these are the things we should focus on. Not the essay. These skills are all necessary for a variety of types of writing.

So, comrades, please take up the banner and join me in my fight to find more engaging and creative writing tasks for our students. Do not submit to the facist authority of the almighty essay.

And while you’re at it, here’s some supplemental reading:

Three reasons why the five-paragraph theme is a bad thing

Alternatives to the Five-Paragraph Essay


Mushroom Risotto Comic Life Style

Tomorrow I will be working with some teachers on using Comic Life with struggling/reluctant writers at the high school level. I wanted to model writing a piece of procedural text . So here is my “mentor text”. Read below to see what we did:Great session today! Here’s what we did:

When teaching a new format of writing, it’s helpful to have student examine a number of samples first. I brought up this article How to Fold a Paper Airplane. Then I modeled using think-aloud to highlight some of the features of procedural writing. We then moved on to look at a second example, a recipe (one of my favourites!). This time I had the “students” (teachers pretending to be students) join me in pointing out the features of the text. We also talked about what the author could add to make it easier to understand.

Based on these texts I had the “students” help me create an anchor chart outlining the features of a good piece of procedural writing. We then discussed whether or not the features were “Gotta Haves” or “Nice to Have”.

(Keep in mind that each of these lessons are meant to be “mini lessons” of about 15 minutes, spread over a number of classes.)

We then moved into modeled and shared writing. I also showed the teachers how I used Comic Life to make the recipe above.

It’s nice to have sessions where you feel like you shared something useful!

Student Engagement and Self Reflection

I’d like to share this video created by a really dynamic York region teacher, Royan Lee.

Royan is working on an action research project along with some other teachers (one from Peel and one from Thames Valley) on digital story-telling. Royan’s portion of the project looks at podcasting and student engagement.

What really impresses me about this video is how well the students are able to articulate not only what they learned, but HOW they learned it. They discuss the process of looking at exemplars and determining criteria and then evaluating their own work. I’m so impressed by the metacognitive skills displayed by these students. This is all a result, I believe, of their level of engagement with the task, and their teacher’s ability to structure the tasks in a meaningful and authentic way.

These students definitely know their content material, but what’s more, I think they’ve learned valuable lessons about how they think, how they create, and how they can set goals and plans to reach those goals.

Well done, Mr. Lee and students!

If a tree falls in the forest…

Photo by john-morgan

While writing in isolation and without an audience may not be quite the same as the old “If a tree falls in the forest does anyone hear it?” adage, but it’s got me thinking.

In preparation for a workshop, I’ve been giving thought to the idea of authentic writing opportunities for students. In Kathleen Blake Yancey, in her article “Writing in the 21st Century” concludes by saying:

Through research documenting these new models [of composing], we can create the theory that has too often been absent from composition historically, and we can define composition not as a part of a test or its primary vehicle, but apart from testing. In creating these new models, we want to include a hitherto neglected dimension: the role of writing for the public. As Doug Hesse has argued, the public is perhaps the most important audience today, and it’s an audience that people have written for throughout history. If this is so, we need to find a place for it both in our models of writing and in our teaching of writing.

We always tell students to consider their audience and purpose when writing, but so often their only audience is the teacher, and then, we are often only seen as judge. Students need authentic opportunities to write which is why I think Web 2.0 presents so many amazing opportunities for students to write for a real audience and receive feedback from peers–not just those peers in their own classroom who may have preconceived notions about who that student is, but for peers around the world. I believe that when students write for an audience and receive real feedback, they see writing not just as a task they have to complete for marks, but as a way to forge connections.

If we want to make writing engaging for our students, we’ve got to make it authentic.

Just as an aside, right now I’m waiting on some input from student bloggers about why they enjoy blogging. Thanks to Jane Smith and Nathan Toft for their help with this. Check out their class blogs by clicking on their names. You should also check out Portable PD for great information (the name says it all). These teachers are amazing and I have so much to learn from them, not to mention a local star-teacher David Carruthers. All three of these teachers are doing great work with podcasting too.