Differentiated Instruction: It’s not as hard as you’re making it seem

I just wanted to share a small example of how I’m differentiating instruction in my classroom. But before I do please understand that I am in no way a DIA (differentiated instruction and assessment) guru. I’m working on it though.

So today my grade nine applied/locally developed class was working on the newspaper article. This is a format specified in my province’s curriculum document that I find vaguely perplexing but have decided I can find ways to teach students important and transferable skills through this seemingly random writing format. Why is it that being able to write a newspaper article is the marker of a literate individual? But I digress…

So I have a wonderful student teacher right now who is working on introducing students to this format using the gradual release of responsibility model. Essentially before students are expected to demonstrate a skill independently, he/she should have a chance to see the skill modeled, practice it with peers, and receive coaching or feedback. My students have been introduced to the format of the newspaper article and have created an anchor chart as a class and then added this chart to their amazing foldable which they refer to regularly. So today I wanted them to take a newspaper article that has been cut up and give students a chance to rearrange and discuss the article in terms of the inverted pyramid structure. This is an example of assessment for learning. We didn’t record a grade for this. We just wanted to see if students understood the feature of a newspaper article.

I knew, however that I would get more buy-in if I differentiated the content of the news article. The content didn’t matter here. It was the format that mattered, so I differentiated content according to interest. We had two articles students could choose from: one on the release of the new Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 3, and another on Justin Bieber’s latest scandal. Both of these articles followed the same structure and students completed exactly the same task, but the students’ level of engagement was greatly influenced by the content of the articles.

I think sometimes when teachers hear that they should consider differentiating content they become distressed about credit integrity and think that we’re talking about differentiating expectations. That’s not what this is about.

If as teachers we have a clear idea about what it is that we want students to know and be able to do by the end of the lesson, then differentiation becomes simple. I wanted students to understand the structure of a newspaper article; therefore the content of the article is irrelevant. That allows me to differentiate content.

I become a super hero because I’m letting kids talk about J-Biebs and COD, while I’m secretly (ok it’s no secret–it’s explicit which is the point) I’m teaching the format of the newspaper article. Learning shouldn’t be boring. Let’s have some fun with this.

What do you need to do? What are the different ways you can do it without turning your classroom into a three-ring circus? Done. Deal with it.

Assessment and evaluation conformity woes: a partial solution?

My stance on this subject is about as secret as it is neutral. I do not believe that teachers should have to use the same assessment and evaluation strategies simply because they are teaching different sections of the same course. To say that this practice ensures fairness may be accurate (although probably not) but this practice does not ensure equity. Here’s what often happens with this practice:

  • evaluations are determined well before students’ needs have ever been assessed
  • junior teachers are made to feel that they have to use the assessments of senior teachers because “they know better”
  • little to no differentiated based on student needs, strengths, or interests

In a perfect world, department members would find plenty of time to collaborate and constantly revise evaluations, but we all know how challenging it is to find this time.

So in an effort to please the powers that be who insist on uniformity across sections* I’ve come up with a plan:

Using our computerized grade book program, “Markbook,” we can assign different mark sets. In the past, I created a Term mark set, a Final Exam mark set, and a Course Culminating Activity (ISP, CCA… etc. Choose your acronym) mark set. Each mark set was weighted according to the percentages we use to calculate the final mark.

  • Term: 70%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

(These numbers are determined by our board)

So now, all I’ve done is add one more mark set. Ready for it?

Here we go!

  • Formative: 20%
  • Summative: 50%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

See what I did there? It doesn’t solve all the problems and of course we still need to be striving for at least the “appearance” of uniformity, but… now it doesn’t matter if teacher A records 15 different formative assessments and teacher B records 4 formative assessments; the summative assessments will be worth the same because of their weighting.

See this is where things were getting tricky in our department. We agreed that major assessments would be the same, (well… I didn’t agree but I don’t have a choice in the matter) but we also agreed that formative assessments could differ depending on the class (I did agree with this). But if Teacher A had 15 different formative assessments and Teacher B only had 4, then Teacher B’s summative assessment would be worth proportionately way more than Teacher A. Trying to get all the weightings to line up in Markbook is just ridiculous and doesn’t allow for much freedom in designing formative assessments UNLESS you do what I did.

So is it a perfect fix? No. But at least we can clearly show that regardless of the types and variety of formative assessments (or “rehearsals” if you like), the summative tasks (“performances”) are still worth the same percentage of the overall mark.

The only real challenge with this is that in the very early progress reports, the marks will be skewed (although, the are anyway). So we might have to play around with the weighting of the mark sets in the early stages to give students and parents a more accurate understanding of their progress. By midterm, however, we should be able to use the actual weightings.

We’ll see how this goes! Let me know what you think of the plan, or if you’ve tried something similar.



*… for perfectly understandable reasons, I should add: Students and parents complain when there is a perception that one teacher is “marking differently” than another teacher. The perception is that students in one  class are not receiving the same treatment as students in another class. Now, having students complete the same assessment doesn’t alleviate this problem; it just helps with the perception.

A Lesson From “Cheaters”: Ethics and Standardized Testing



Gosh I love when teachers are in the news, don’t you?

So by now you may have heard of the 10 Ontario schools that are facing allegations of cheating on EQAO tests.

I feel torn about this issue because on the one hand the last thing I want to hear is another story in the news that makes teachers look unprofessional. And I just love how every news agency makes it sound like teachers were all intentionally and maliciously cheating, when in many cases, the teachers may not have been aware that what they were doing was considered “cheating”, especially when doing things like allowing students access to dictionaries is generally just considered good teaching. On the other hand, this story raises an important issue for me and I think it’s an important issue for a lot of teachers:

I am so sick of our province’s love affair with standardized tests that provide a very narrow and artificial snapshot of our students’ success in literacy and numeracy. During my short tenure as a learning coordinator, every school that I worked with had a goal that involved improving EQAO or OSSLT scores–which makes sense in a way because those are goals that are measurable, and I’m sure that there is also pressure from superintendents to make these an integral part of the school goals. We all report to someone.

But why oh why do we put so much stock in a test that gives us such a narrow range of information? Does the grade 10 literacy test or OSSLT (for example) really tell us whether or not a student is literate? There is so much more to being literate than colouring in the correct bubble for a multiple choice reading response question or filling the requisite number of lines for a “series of paragraphs”. The test is not in any way representative of what we are told is an effective method of assessment or evaluation. It is the complete antithesis of differentiated assessment. And because of this, teachers have to spend time teaching students how to respond “correctly” to these types of questions rather than focus on the curriculum–or, god forbid, critical thinking.

Are teachers under pressure? Absolutely. Are kids under pressure? Are you kidding? Is it any great surprise that in some schools, some teachers feel compelled to provide students with dictionaries or give them practice questions from previous years’ tests?

Now I’m not saying I condone the behaviour of the teachers if they did indeed knowingly break the rules, but I can understand it. There’s nothing worse than seeing a student, who you KNOW is capable of answering a question correctly if only you could direct them to re-read the question, bomb an entire question that may mean the difference between passing or failing the OSSLT. But I’ll sit there and suffer in silence because I can only say what’s in the script and I don’t have any interest in appearing in the blue pages of the Ontario College of Teachers magazine.

Maybe what we can learn from these incidents of “cheating” is that EQAO testing is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that this form of testing forces teachers to suppress everything they know about what it means to be a good teacher.

My thoughts on “Growing Success” Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools

Confession time.

I am a nerd. I love talking about assessment and evaluation. I love reading about it, debating about it, writing about it, thinking about it, planning for it, and sometimes doing an interpretive dance about it. My favourite A and E guru is Damian Cooper who I had the pleasure of meeting last year thanks to my good friend Heather Jakobi. I like him because while his philosophy is grounded in all the best research into good assessment and evaluation practices, he is practical enough to recognize the challenges and limitations that teachers and administrators face in their day to day lives.

My basic assessment and evaluation philosophy is this:

  • The primary role of assessment is to promote student learning
  • Assessment should inform and drive instruction
  • You need to begin with an idea of what students must know and determine what sufficient evidence of this achievement will look like.
  • There are many different ways to demonstrate learning and students need to be exposed to a variety of assessment tasks and when possible and appropriate, be given choice.
  • Students need to develop an awareness of how they learn best and should learn how to effectively self-assess.
  • Students should have multiple opportunities to demonstrate they can meet expectations
  • We should not use academic penalties (deducting marks) for behavioural/learning skill issues

I could go on. And I often do. But I think those points cover most of my thoughts about this topic. The last point on that list is a contentious one, and one that I have not always believed. I used to say, as many teachers and parents do, if teachers don’t deduct “late marks” then students won’t be properly prepared for the realities of college/university or the work world. But here’s the problem with that:

The college/university argument: Our students do not all go on to post-secondary education. Also, educational philosophies and mandates of post secondary institutions are not the same as those of elementary and secondary institutions. We shouldn’t emulate practices that we don’t feel are beneficial to students in order to “prepare” them for bad pedagogical practices they might encounter in the future. That’s like saying to a hockey player, “I’m not going to give you pointers for improving your slap shot because in a real hockey game, you’re not going to have me there to coach you.”

The work world argument: The previous analogy that I used works for this too. But also consider this: While it’s true that you may get fired for not submitting a project to your boss on time, it’s a faulty analogy to compare this to school. In the work world, you perform a service, and in return you receive money. In school, completing assignments is not providing a service, and grades are not money. The purpose behind completing assignments is to learn and demonstrate your achievement of specific curriculum expectations. Grades are not rewards, but an evaluation of how well you’ve achieved those curriculum expectations.

So here’s the problem: many students and their parents view grades as rewards for hard work. Parents praise students for high grades. Grades are requirements for admission to colleges and universities. Until we have a society that values descriptive feedback over percentages, I really don’t see how this can change. So, in many cases, the only penalty that is meaningful to students is the deduction of grades for what is in reality a behavioural problem.

Now some might argue that we need to have meaningful behavioural consequences then for failing to submit assignments on time (or at all!). The aim of these consequences would be to help students learn the importance of meeting deadlines. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with disruptive behaviour and other types of classroom management issues, it might be a tough sell to tell teachers that they also have to assign lunch hour detentions to the students who didn’t submit their homework assignments. Don’t get me wrong. It makes perfect sense to me to say the consequence of not doing your work is that you will sit with me until you have done your work, but it’s just not always practical. That being said, I am considering assigning a lunch hour detention early on in a given course to students who fail to complete a homework assignment or other small formative task to see if it sends the message that “not doing the work” is not an option.

All right, so now that you know where I’m coming from, let’s get to the point.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has just released a document called,“Growing Success” Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools. The policy document is meant to guide school boards in developing their own A and E policies. The biggest thing that I think teachers are going to jump on and perhaps do a happy dance about is page 43. On page 43 at the end of a long list of suggested interventions for late and missing assignments it suggests:

deducting marks for late assignments, up to and including the full value of the assignment.

This calls for a dramatic chipmunk moment

Now let’s move on.

That strategy is at the bottom of the list for a good reason, and since many teachers will laugh gleefully at that final strategy and ignore the next page, I would like to add that the document has a very interesting bit of text after the list, where the ministry seems to try to justify the change of heart. Here’s what it says:

There are strong and often divergent opinions on the issue of how to deal with late and missed assignments. Many stakeholders, including many parents and students, believe that marks should be deducted when assignments are late and that a zero should be assigned when a student does not submit an assignment…. Proponents of this view believe that unless students face academic consequences for non-performance in school, they will not learn to be accountable to themselves and others and will not be prepared to meet the requirements of employers or of postsecondary educational institutions.

But wait! There’s more!

On the other hand…

See. You had to know that was coming.

…many experts in the field of assessment and evaluation discourage deducting marks or giving zeros for late and missed assignments, arguing that such measures do not make students change their behaviour or help them succeed in the long run…

You get the picture. So here I am reading between the lines: “People who argue that we should deduct late marks don’t really know know what they’re talking about because they’re not experts, but they are taxpayers so we need to listen to them.”

Hmph. I’m not so sure how I feel about that wording.

Here’s what I think:

Until we have a system that does not require teachers to report within strict time frames, and until post-secondary institutions value learning skills as much as grades, we will have an imperfect assessment and evaluation system and teachers will have to do the best they can and use their best professional judgement when it comes to determining grades. I think sometimes that will mean doing things that don’t always jive with what the best educational experts promote as best practice.

What is most important is that we remember that as teachers our primary goal should be to promote student learning. We’re teachers, not evaluators.

One more time!

Canon Fodder


I considered giving this post the title “So like…why do we have to read this anyway?” but I’ve been waiting to use the title “canon fodder” for a while because I heart puns. I get it from my dad. I also heart my dad.

At this time of year, we start discussing changes we want to make to next year’s courses, which I love. I had a great conversation with a colleague about the role of literature in the secondary English classroom. How do we decide which texts we use to teach with? (Texts with which we teach…. ack! This is informal writing)

When I first started teaching I would have said “Well I teach Hamlet and Life of Pi in grade 12.” I would never say that now.

Well I might, but I wouldn’t mean it.

Look at the curriculum documents that form the foundation of what we teach in Ontario. There is nothing in the document that says “Thou shalt study the English Canon.” It also never says “Thou shalt study Shakespeare.” It does mention Shakespeare as an example, but that doesn’t mean a teacher is obligated to teach Shakespeare. Still I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an English teacher who says that (at least at the academic level) students should never study Shakespeare.

Over the years I’ve learned to rethink the way I approach my teaching and I’ve come to realize that there are multiple entry points for getting at the curriculum expectations. This is especially important when it comes to thinking about how we can provide more opportunities to include differentiated instruction and assessment. I think sometimes as English teachers, we get it in our heads that we MUST teach________, without stopping to ask ourselves why. What is it that text A allows us to get at that text B doesn’t?

In my ENG4U class, one of the core texts is Life of Pi. In the past, The Stone Angel has also been an option but both my colleague and I agreed that we prefer Life of Pi (our department head wants us to use the same texts, and we weren’t ready for literature circles yet). That being said, I’m not a big fan of Pi. To me it feels like a great concept for a short story. I’ll leave it at that. But I don’t need to love the book to use it to teach with. Now we’re talking about bringing in Three Day Road, The Stone Carvers, and Yann Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil so that we can have literature circles and provide more choice. I think this is fabulous in so many ways (don’t get me started on my Joseph Boyden crush). josephboyden

My teaching partner is totally on board but initially we talked about the possibility of getting rid of Pi in the 4U course and she was very concerned because she felt that Pi allowed us to teach tolerance for world religions and appreciation of other cultures. Now I would argue, and I did, that Three Day Road certainly allows us to do the same thing. On the other hand, is that the right criteria to use when selecting texts?

I refuse to be some sort of authority on “literahtchah…” (say it out loud… again… there you go, see what I did there?), even though some may argue that that’s part of my job as an English teacher. And I don’t think I should force my students to adopt my taste in books. I think we should expose them to as many different texts (and TYPES OF TEXTS…. we’re getting there) as possible. So I think this is a step in the right direction. Expose the students to new ideas, give them some guidance,  and let them decide.

Now what?


Photo credit

After TED and Saturday’s workshops, I asked myself the above question and then quickly remembered– Oh yeah! I’m bringing two students to the Board Office (insert angelic chorus and shaft of light beaming down from the heavens–just kidding. I’ve worked there. I know.) to share their experiences with Ning and bookclubs with some intermediate teachers.

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of class lately so I was feeling a little guilty but now as I sit at home at 3:30(!) sipping a caramel machiatto and eating some cookies and reflecting on the day–guilt be gone! I did–or rather–we did good today!

My super smart and talented friend Heather who I abandoned last year to return to the classroom asked me if I’d be willing to come and speak at the final sessions of a series of Creating Strategic Readers workshops. Now while I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom there are a number of things I really miss about being a learning coordinator:

  • having time to direct my own professional learning
  • being a part of important board initiatives
  • being in the loop
  • the salad bar in the cafeteria
  • being able to go to the washroom whenever I want (!)
  • But mostly — I miss working with all the cool people (particularly Heather–or H-Dawg as I like to call her. It’s her street name. It’s a thing. … never mind)

So when Heather asked me to come in I was really excited–also because I got to share things that I’d actually tried with students–unlike last year where I had to speak in theoretical terms which was often frustrating. Heather also asked me if I could bring some students.

I chose two girls from my 4C class last semester. They weren’t the highest achievers in my class and they weren’t the stereotypical “good students”, but they were really great kids–one very outgoing and confident, and one a little shy and quiet. We drove down to the board office and I explained to the girls that I would talk for a bit, but that the teachers would be way more interested in what they had to say.

The girls rocked! It was so awesome when a teacher asked me a question and I was able to redirect to the girls. eg/ Teacher: So did you find that the boys in the class were more engaged when using your class Ning?

Me: Girls?

Superstar student #1: Oh yeah!

Superstar student #2: Totally!

Superstar student #1: Like Andrew–he’d never read a book before!

Teacher: But what about bullying? How did you find the other students were when it came to saying inappropriate things?

Me: Girls?

Superstar Student #1: Well, like Ms. Barker was monitoring everything so we know we couldn’t say bad stuff–not that we would–

Superstar Student #2: Yeah, and actually I felt like the opposite happened. Like even if you didn’t really like someone, you were still writing positive comments. It’s like were a big team and we all want to help each other out.

Me: I paid them to say that.

So cool. The girls were great. I think the coolest part was what we talked about when on the way home. The girls talked about how teachers needed to be open-minded and try new things and they liked it when teachers tried to value the things they did outside of class. I know they were only two of my students, but it was so nice to feel like all of my hunches about what made good teaching were true at least for them. Plus they were so much more credible as experts than I ever could be.

No, the coolest part was when I overheard a teacher say to another teacher “They’re awesome!”

And sure, some of the teachers were resistant, or they felt like they couldn’t do this with their students, or that it must take way too much time, but now that I’m a classroom teacher, my response is simple: Yes it takes time. Yes there are challenges. But it’s worth it to me because I see the difference it makes in my students’ learning. If you feel like you’ve got enough challenges right now, or you don’t think it’s worth the time, don’t do it. I’m just sharing.

So liberating. Seriously. Last year when teachers would push back or come up with excuses I would get really defensive. Now I smile and nod and say, “Then this may not be the right choice for you.” And I can say that because I know what works for me and it’s totally worth it–especially when I hear Superstar Student # 2 say “Wow I think we really rocked that, don’t you?”

Yep. We rocked that.

Ning is the Thing: Using web 2.0 technology to encourage higher-level thinking in senior academic English classes

Ning is the Thing:

Using web 2.0 technology to encourage higher-level thinking in senior academic English classes

Danika Barker


Central Elgin Collegiate Instute
Thames Valley District School Board



The purpose of this action research project is to assess the impact of web 2.0 technology on student attitude and engagement in a secondary English classroom. Essentially, the term “web 2.0” refers to technologies that allow people to collaborate, share, and create content anywhere, anytime.  Common examples would be blogs, wikis, Flickr, Facebook, and Google apps. For the purpose of this study, I will look specifically at one type of web 2.0 platform, Ning,  that mimics social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace.


Last year, I had the opportunity to work for our board as a learning coordinator in the area of literacy. I was lucky enough to have the time to read and research about a number of different topics related to literacy, but I was most interested in a report by Kathleen Blake Yancey, called “Writing in the 21st Century,”[1] in which she explores historical attitudes toward writing and how these attitudes have changed over time as a result of changing technology. She goes on to explain that teachers of English need to acknowledge these changes in order to provide students with authentic opportunities for writing that better reflect the kinds of writing they do outside the classroom.

This year, I am back in the classroom at a moderate-sized high school in Elgin County. The school has a reputation for academic achievement, but in recent years, the population has been changing requiring staff to focus more on strategies for student success. I have been assigned grade 11 and 12 university preparation English and grade 12 college preparation English for the first semester of the school year. Although I recognize that my “clientele” are not the most high-needs learners in the school, they have presented me with some interesting challenges in terms of motivation and achievement.

Most of my students are “digital natives”[2] who have grown up with computers, the internet, cell phones, and mp3 players. Approximately 67% of my students have cell phones and 93% of my students have Facebook or Myspace accounts and use them regularly. They do a great deal of reading and writing online, but they have also grown up in a school system that is often suspicious of online technology. Cell phones and mp3 players are banned from most classrooms even though they can be valuable learning tools. Our school currently has a wireless network installed for student use, but students do not yet have access due to concerns regarding security. I know many teachers who are very concerned about our students’ lack of awareness or concern about what they may be revealing about themselves online, but, for a variety of reasons, the response has frequently been to ban, restrict, or filter rather than teach.


My administration have been very supportive of my ideas about technology in the English classroom and scheduled two of my English classes (grade 11 and 12 university preparation) in a computer lab. This resulted in a rather mixed reaction from students on the first day of class. Some students looked thrilled while others looked deeply suspicious and nervous. I have explained to my students that this semester will be an experiment.

While I had access to a huge range of web 2.0 technology thanks to the computer lab, the content that I taught was still restricted as my administration also felt strongly that different sections of the same course should still have the same content and assessment strategies. I found a way to work around this challenge by simply using the technology available to differentiate instruction and assessment. That way, no student was ever penalized for not wishing to use technology.

A typical period of my grade 11 English class looked like this: Students came into class and logged on to their computers. They went first to our class website, www.danikabarker.ca, and then followed the link to their class blog, http://eng3u.edublogs.org/. They found instructions and updates and began working while I talked to individual students and completed attendance. Some students then logged off the computer and chose to sit at one of the tables, while others stay logged-on. I conducted a focus lesson on a particular topic and then had a practice assignment, usually in small groups. Students could choose to take a paper copy of the assignment or download the assignment from our class site on Edmodo[3]. We debriefed and then I assigned any individual work at which point students could choose again whether they would work online, or at their desks.

For the purposes of this study, I focused my research on one web 2.0 platform my students use regularly in my grade 11 and 12 classes. Ning is a social networking site similar to Facebook. This site allows students to form groups, add content such as video clips and music, and create discussion forums on topics of their interest. It also has a blog feature. Initially I only planned on using a Ning to support the student study of the novel, The Great Gatsby in my grade 11 class. As students worked with the application, I saw additional benefits and created Nings for a variety purposes in all three of my classes. In the end, I created five different Nings:

Ning Class Purpose
Gatsby Ning ENG3U
  • enrich student understanding of the novel The Great Gatsby by allowing students to research historical context and then share with other students
  • allow students to demonstrate understanding of character through the creation of a “Facebook” page
Othello Ning ENG3U
  • Provide students with a platform to blog as they study the play
Literature Circle Ning ENG4C
  • Extend the discussions that happen in class during our literature circle meetings
Life of Pi Ning ENG4U
  • Extend small group discussions about the novel Life of Pi
Hamlet Ning ENG4U
  • Provide students with a platform to blog as they study the play

When I initially began this project, I wanted to assess the impact of both Edmodo and Ning on student achievement and engagement. I now realize that I based my initial question on an assumption that students would enjoy and be excited by the prospect of using more technology in the English classroom. As I received some “push-back” from students, I was forced to reassess and I came to the conclusion that what I really wanted to know was this: What benefits do students gain through use of web 2.0 technology that they could not achieve through non web 2.0 tasks? Specifically, how does the Ning allow students to use the higher order thinking skills of Bloom’s Taxonomy?[4]



The methodology summarized in this section includes: demographics, research method, data collection, and ethical considerations. The main question in this study is: How does web 2.0 technology allow students to access higher level thinking in their responses to literature?


The study focused on a grade 11 university preparation English class composed of 15 girls and 12 boys. All students had internet access at home, although some had limited access due to dial-up. The physical environment of the classroom was unusual for students and most of them were accustomed to a more “traditional” English classroom with desks and a blackboard. While most of the students spent one to two hours a day outside of class time using computers for socializing, playing games, and occasionally doing homework, some of them had been uncertain and even suspicious about using computers on a regular basis for schoolwork.

Research Method and Data Collection

After experimenting with using the Ning for The Great Gatsby, many students became routine users of the Ning while others remained mechanical users. After they became fairly comfortable with the site, they were presented with an assignment that allowed them to choose to use either the Ning or a more traditional method to complete a character study of one of the characters in The Great Gatsby.

Since the purpose of my study changed over the course of the semester, the initial survey I had students complete asked questions about their attitudes and experiences with technology. As the study evolved I realized that my focus was not so much on attitude but achievement. With that in mind, I collected and examined the work of a selection of students and looked for evidence of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation level thought.

Ethical Considerations

I am aware that some students are uncomfortable with using technology for communication purposes in an English class. While the English curriculum document supports and encourages the use of technology, I wish to be sensitive to the feelings of all of the students in my class. For that reason, technology use is simply another option I provide to students in order to differentiate instruction.

I have also spent time talking to students about how to limit their personal risk when working online. The Ning is only open to students in our class so they are permitted to use their real names. Any samples of student online work used in this study will have surnames deleted to protect privacy.

Data Analysis

I took screen shots of student work on the Ning and then used the following criteria to look for evidence of different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in student work. Specifically I focused on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation:

Knowledge * observation and recall of information

* knowledge of dates, events, places

* knowledge of major ideas

* mastery of subject matter

Question Cues:

list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.

Comprehension * understanding information

* grasp meaning

* translate knowledge into new context

* interpret facts, compare, contrast

* order, group, infer causes

* predict consequences

Question Cues:

summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend

Application * use information

* use methods, concepts, theories in new situations

* solve problems using required skills or knowledge

Questions Cues:

apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover

Analysis * seeing patterns

* organization of parts

* recognition of hidden meanings

* identification of components

Question Cues:

analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer

Synthesis * use old ideas to create new ones

* generalize from given facts

* relate knowledge from several areas

* predict, draw conclusions

Question Cues:

combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite

Evaluation * compare and discriminate between ideas

* assess value of theories, presentations

* make choice based on reasoned argument

* verify value of evidence

* recognize subjectivity

Question Cues:

assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize

Character Study Performance Task

As the project progressed it began to take on a life of its own. In my grade 11 university class, students were given a character study assignment. The purpose of this assignment was for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the characters in The Great Gatsby. I wanted students to have a rich understanding of the characters’ motivations and relationships to other characters as well as their importance to the overall novel so I created a performance task that allowed them to interact in role with other students. In order to provide some differentiation, I gave students two options from which to choose:

Option A required students to imagine that Facebook was around during the time of The Great Gatsby. They could use the Gatsby Ning to create a page for their character complete with status updates, photos, blog posts, groups, etc. More importantly, this assignment allowed them to interact with other “characters” from the novel just as they interacted with their friends on social networking sites.

Option B required students to create a monologue to deliver in role. They also had to create a list of questions for the other characters in the novel. After they preformed the monologue in a small group, other “characters” asked them questions and they took turns responding in role. This assignment still allowed students to interact within role. I recorded these monologues.

I anticipated pros and cons for both assignments. While students had had opportunities to work with the Ning before trying this assignment, they were still mechanical users of the technology. On the other hand, I hypothesized that the fact that students would have more opportunities to read and consider before formulating responses would lead to richer discussion. I suspected that students who chose the monologue might write pieces that demonstrate better factual knowledge of plot and character, but that their responses to the questions might not demonstrate as much ability to apply their knowledge and understanding since they did not have as much processing time as the students working with the ning.

Twenty students chose Option A and seven students chose option B. Three of the students who chose Option B were absent on the day of the assignment which meant that they didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the “interaction” portion of the activity.


I used the same rubric to assess both options, but I found Option A very difficult to assess:

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4


Limited understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)

May not contain enough information

Adequate understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4) Thorough  understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4) Thorough and insightful understanding of character traits, motivation, relationships with other characters and history (up to the end of chapter 4)


Weak communication of ideas and may not  be  appropriate for format chosen and / or may a number of inconsistencies Adequate communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen may contain inconsistencies with character portrayal from the text Clear communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen and consistent with character portrayal from the text Sophisticated  communication of ideas  appropriate for format chosen and consistent with character portrayal from the text


Limited transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Some transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Good transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters” Excellent transfer of knowledge evident through interactions with other “characters”

It was much easier to assess Option B for knowledge and understanding since Option B was a more traditional assignment. Option A was challenging because there were so many different elements that students could include as evidence of their understanding. Because I’d never done an assignment like this before, I couldn’t anticipate the types of evidence students would include. Below is an example of a page that I would use as a level 4 exemplar:


This student chose an appropriate image and page layout for his character. He also had a number of status updates that demonstrated his knowledge and understanding of the character, as did the groups he chose to join.

One of the elements I was most interested in assessing was also the most challenging. It was very time-consuming to track the conversations between students on the Ning because I had to click a number of different links to follow the conversation thread. Below is a composite of the conversation between two students, one acting as Tom Buchanan, the other as Daisy Buchanan:

Daisy Tom

While it was interesting to watch the interactions between the students “role-playing” their different characters, I also found that this particular activity did not allow them to access the more complex levels of thought. Most of the discussion and interaction took place at the Knowledge, Comprehension, and occasionally application levels. When “Tom” replies to “Daisy”: “Because, there is stuff to be done…it is none of your business don’t ask,” it’s clear that the student playing Tom has and understanding of Tom’s character. He is evasive and aggressive and the student is able to respond to “Daisy’s” request using the same tone.

When comparing this interaction to the discussions that happened in the monologues, the Ning conversations did appear to be more “authentic” because students had some time to craft their responses. There was also more of a flow in the conversation in the Ning version. That being said, some of the monologues did a much better job demonstrating knowledge of character than the Ning pages did. I have included an audio file of the conversations that you can listen to by clicking below:

Monologue and questions

While both options worked well, I felt that the Ning could be used in a more effective way which led me to the blogging project for Othello.

Reflective Blog Post Performance Task

The blogging task evolved from a desire to ensure that students would take more ownership for their learning and be aware of the ways in which their initial thoughts and impressions changed as they read Othello. Rather than posing questions for them, I wanted the students to ask their own questions and use their peers (as well as me) as sounding boards and resources. A blog seemed to be a perfect format for that.

To begin, I explained to students that there was a difference between a blog and a journal:

Untitled 2

Some students were anxious about having other students read their work. I encouraged them to share their work and explained why it was important. Then I also showed students who were particularly anxious, that they could adjust the settings on their ning so that only their “friends” could read their posts. “Friends” were people they chose to add as contacts on the ning. Not all classmates were automatically “friends.” While students knew how to use this feature, very few of them made use of it after their first post.

Below is the outline for a level four blog post.


I made use of modeled and shared writing and wrote a blog post with the students and had then provide me with feedback before they were expected to write on their own.

It took some time for students to understand the concepts of tags, hyperlinks, and inserting photographs. I thought it was important to teach appropriate use of technology and show students that they had to give credit to images they found online and that just because it was online, didn’t mean they had permission to copy it.

In the example below, Alex, a student who typically performs in the level three range, blogs about the end of the film adaptation of Othello. He begins by making a personal connection with Emilia. He then uses specific evidence from the film to support his contention that  “the director did an excellent job of showing Emilia’s emotions.” The image supports the post nicely and Alex uses a hyperlink to appropriately reference the image. He has, however, forgotten to use tags to help identify key ideas in his post

Poor, Poor, Emilia. - Othello

While I do not think this post shows a high degree of synthesis, analysis, or evaluation, it is interesting to see what happens in the comment section of the post. The first comment is by a stronger student who is able to add more ideas to Alex’s initial thoughts.  Then Alex considers the comment and responds with the new thought about divorce.[5] There is certainly some synthesis happening here that might not have happened without the comment feature. The comments about Emilia are also interesting because they were not prompted to write about Emilia. This was a topic they found interesting and chose to write about.

The next post was written by a student who performs in the level four range, provided that she finds the task engaging. Blogging seemed to be something she was very comfortable with. She even drew her own images and added them to her blog posts.

Animal - Othello

In this post, Mallory has used clear tags to help other students identify the topics she’s blogged about, specifically the idea of conscience. I find it really interesting that she also chose to include a song that she was listening to that reminded her of the play. She includes a hyperlink to the song in the comment section of her post. What’s missing from this post is a reply to the comment posted by another. It would have been interesting to see what Mallory thought about this idea of conscience. The students are—without prompting from the teacher—beginning to pose very interesting and thought-provoking questions. They are certainly working within the range of syntheses and evaluation.

I find the next example particularly interesting because it comes from a student who usually scored a level two on her assessments. What is interesting is not so much the post itself but the conversation that occurs in the comment box.

Iago Has a change In Plans (good vs Evil) - Othello

The first comment is mine. I occasionally posted questions and prompts to encourage students to extend their conversations. Another student, Ian, jumped in to the conversation and posed a new thought–that Iago is finding that victory isn’t as sweet as he had hoped. Vanessa considers this though and responds which prompts some thoughts from Jesse and Mallory. Jesse, Vanessa, and Ian’s comments cause Mallory to reexamine some initial thoughts she and then draw some conclusions.

Conclusions and Implication for Professional Practice

The value in blogging is not so much the initial post itself, but the conversations that it ignites. The real thinking occurs when students reconsider their initial ideas, change their minds, or come up with new thoughts. A conventional reader’s journal does not allow students to do this because the journal response is the finished product, whereas a blog is organic. The comment feature encourages collaboration and deeper consideration.

The tagging feature allowed students to classify their ideas. Then other students who shared similar interests could see all the posts on that particular topic which would be a great way to have students brainstorm for a culminating task such as an essay.

In the future, I would emphasize the importance of blogging at regular intervals. Some students left all their posts until the end of the unit and missed out on the “conversations” and didn’t get to see their ideas develop of change. I would also work harder on modeling the difference between a level two or three comment and a level four. Students put much more emphasis on the original posts than they did on the comment portion. I would also make this project a stepping stone to a culminating task where students used the tags to develop ideas for an essay, debate, seminar.

It would also be interesting to collaborate with students from other classes and indeed other schools. I have been experimenting with ning in my media class where my students are commenting on the blog posts of students in a different school in a town two hours away. I think this piece of web 2.0 technology presents teachers and students with very exciting and rich opportunities to learn collaboratively while encouraging students to think reflectively.

[1] Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Writing in the 21st Century: a report from the National

Council of Teachers of English” February, 2009.

[2] The term “digital natives” popularized in the paper “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” by         Marc Prensky in 2001. Recently, David White, a social/educational media researcher at            Oxford University has argued that we should instead talk about “digital residents” and           “digital visitors,” but for the purposes of this paper, “digital native” will serve as a more      accessible if less accurate term.

[3] Edmodo is a social networking site that is specifically developed for teachers and students. They can post assignments, questions, and notes as well as submit assignments.

[4] Specifically, I wondered if I would see more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation level   thinking in the responses on student blogs.

[5] It’s also interesting to note the time of the responses. Neither of these responses happened during class time. Students continued conversations begun in class on their own time outside of class.

So I changed my mind

My original action research plan was hampered by my failure to remember who teenagers are and that perhaps trying to get them to share information that they may deem too private and personal would defeat my original purpose.

So with that in mind I moved on to a different plan. With no further ado, here is my rough draft of my introduction:

Digital Natives?

“Digital natives” “the Net Generation”… these are terms I hear a lot. I’m on Twitter and Facebook. I blog. I text. I create content and upload it on a regular basis. I’m not online constantly, but I do feel a need to stay connected, and I get excited about the possibilities for sharing and collaborating that exist because of web 2.0. I keep reading that this is what my students do too. It’s what they want from teachers. So when I was planning for this year, I thought about how I could make my teaching more representative of the world they experience outside the classroom. I thought about authentic writing tasks. I thought about anywhere anytime learning and created blogs and edmodo classes. I even started to think about how to use cell phones in the classroom. My new principal was so excited by this that she scheduled 2 of my senior academic English classes in a computer lab! I was so psyched! I even made a funky intro movie for my classes.

And then, at the end of my first class on the first day, it happened. A polite and friendly student said to me, “Um, it’s kinda weird being in a computer lab for English.”

My heart started to race a bit as it does when I get anxious.

“Weird good? Or weird bad?” I asked hopefully.

She smiled, not wishing to offend. “Kind of weird bad. Like, it’s English class. I don’t really think there’s a need for technology.”

My heart sunk. Literally. I found it in my left shoe at lunch.

Now I know, I know. It was just one student. I know some of them were as psyched as I was. But I got the impression from a number of them that this idea of a 21st century English class was just as threatening for them as it must be for some teachers. I really didn’t expect that.

It made me wonder. Where is this coming from? My current theory is that most students probably are digital natives. I’m not sure they’re as savvy as we’d like them to be, but most of them are comfortable using technology (that’s what they told me on the survey anyway). But I think that some of them have gotten the message from parents and teachers that technology is bad. It’s a distraction. It’s a toy. It’s something you ban. It doesn’t have a place in a serious academic classroom (maybe?). And these students are the “good” students–academic, disciplined, polite, respectful. They really listen to the messages they get from adults. And they’ve gotten the message that this is bad.

I’ve had to change my mindset about technology in the English classroom. Instead of it being the expectation, it is an option. It is another way for me to differentiate my instruction. They don’t have to post comments on the blog (but I wish they would). They don’t have to submit assignments on edmodo (but it’s usually more convenient that way). I’ve told them I never want to get an angry phone call from a parent saying, “You told my son he HAD to submit his assignments online.” It’s an option.

It’s so strange for me because, yes I’m interested in technology, but I’m doing this because I thought it would be good for the students. I thought they would prefer to learn this way. I thought I was making life easier for them–not harder.

Sigh. It’s still early. And I think some of them are coming around. The girl who spoke to me on the first day made a wordle and shared it with her classmates via edmodo. That’s kind of weird good.

Literature Circles and Classroom Management: Getting kids to buy in

If you’re looking for answers from an expert, stop reading now and pick up Harvey Daniel’s book. I’m just throwing out some thoughts.

One book or multiple books?

While I’ve certainly had success using literature circles with a whole class novel, Daniels says that the whole point is that “[w]hen, with artful teacher guidance, kids get to pick their own books for reading and friends to read with, they can experience success, not frustration.” He goes on to say that “doesn’t mean we don’t also study some well-chosen whole-class books, but we alternate them with titles of choice.” (Daniels, “What’s The Next Big Thing in Literature Circles”)

So maybe trying to use literature circles as a way to cope with the language in expected practice defeats the purpose of literature circles.

How do we group them?

The idea is that students buy in because they have choice. Teachers can direct, guide, limit that choice using their professional judgement. Same with groups. It’s probably not a good idea group kids according to ability if they’re not likely to be comfortable with those kids.  I like the idea that came from the Tribes program for selecting Tribes which had each student write down at least two names of people they would like to work with and then teachers formed the tribes, trying to make sure the student was with at least one person they liked.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and yes students need to learn to work with people they don’t like, but literature circles are supposed to be FUN. They’re supposed to promote accountable talk too.

That’s all for now, but I’ll post stuff later on instruction and assessment.