I Have a Confession to Make

I am an English teacher. I love words. Reading them. Writing them. I would love nothing more than to sit and read the day away. Of course, I’m also a mother, which means free time is a luxury. For many years I’ve had to apologize to my students for not picking up the book they insisted I read. “But Mrs. Allison you HAVE to read it.” I would feel so guilty as the books lay comatose next to my bed, gathering dust.

But no more. Reluctantly, I entered the world of audiobooks. At first, I felt that I was cheating. I have always recommended audiobooks to my reluctant readers. In fact, my son read the first Harry Potter while listening along to Jim Dale’s narration. As an English teacher I felt a bit guilty initially. I thought that not reading books was somehow not giving the words the respect they were meant to have. Hogwash!

Now, I devour books. I listen while I’m running, brushing my teeth, driving. I always have the corresponding book on hand, too, and read intermittently, when I get a moment of quiet. I still enjoy seeing the words, but I get so enveloped in each story, I can’t wait to drive somewhere alone.

I can now read all those recommendations from students. I can recommend the latest books to eager readers. I can be a part of the book conversation and celebrate reading in my classroom.

Plus, I can still do all my mom duties.

Today this English teacher loves words: reading them, writing them and listening to them.  I’m really hoping I don’t kicked out of the club for this.

Feedback: No Time Turner Needed

I have been teaching English for a long time. A very long time. I have spent hours writing feedback, inking up student drafts with corrections as a service and gift to my students. I kid, but really, I just want them to succeed. I want them to think about where they can grow as writers and spend time considering suggestions. Most of the time, though, my students just shove their papers into the abyss of their backpacks, feeding the zippered monster of never to be be seen again assignments. Why? Because I handed those papers back with a grade.

This year was going to be different. I was going to get better at giving students feedback. I have read many articles and blog posts that referenced Butler’s study that showed  students who received comments alone demonstrated the greatest improvement (Butler, 1988), and Hattie’s study that showed student self-assessment/self-grading has the greatest impact on student learning  (Hattie, 2012). Only how was I going to get students to actually READ and DO something with the feedback? Then last June, I read Cult of Pedagogy’s post on Delaying the Grade: How to Get Students to Read Feedback by Kristy Louden. Suddenly, I had a “No, DUH,” moment. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

Collecting the Best Draft

This trimester my students were tasked with writing an original Hero’s Journey story. They wrote (and wrote and wrote) until some had over 40 pages (double spaced). They really got into it. We went through all of my “normal” ways of teaching: brainstorming, mini lessons, sharing and revising in writing groups, and when they were finally ready to collect,instead of calling it a “Final” draft,  I simply called it their best draft. “Best draft due on Friday.”

Streamlining Feedback

Being  an 8th grade teacher, unless I had one of Hermione Granger’s Time Turners, it is impossible to find the time to give extensive feedback to every student. Instead, I created a Doc with all the comments I could possibly make to an 8th grade student on a narrative. I started with looking at the rubric, then added as I was reading stories. Under each comment, I added a link to a video, website or blog post that could reteach the concept. This way, as I came across an issue in a student essay, I would simply add a comment on the document and paste the already prepared comment with the reteaching tool.

 

Feedback without Grades

As I was reading each narrative, I wrote down a rubric score for my purposes, only. No grade was shared with the student. I simply returned the writing and asked each to revise before resubmitting. When I looked at the stories a second time, I simply looked at the grade I had given the narrative in my notes and clicked “See Changes” in Google Docs.  No need to read the whole thing again! This made the process so much faster and efficient.

As Expected 

It happened just as I hoped. Students paid attention to my feedback! Not knowing their grades made all the difference. Not all did as good of a job as I had hoped. Some only fixed the areas I made specific suggestions and not where I made general statements. That is definitely something to work on next time.

Growth Opportunities

I did find that my grade book was sparse. I had a parent ask me why I hadn’t entered any grades in such a long time. I really have no idea how to solve this issue, or even if it really is an issue. My students were learning during the process, and I didn’t want to stop them to assess, simply for a grade in the grade book.

I would also like to develop a more extensive Doc of curated resources so I could create individual playlists for each student based on what each needs to revise. I am hoping to work on that list going forward, with some help from my network of colleagues across the nation.

In a perfect world, I would be able to sit down with each student and conference on each piece of writing many times during the process. The reality is, that takes time, the most valuable and scarce resource of my classroom. For now, I’ll work on improving this process. I am sold.

Showing not Telling: Writing is a Process

I am a huge fan of teachers writing. Not just emails and the mundane reports we need to fill out, but real writing. Of course, being an English teacher, I am a bit of a writing pusher. I know how powerful journaling or even blogging can be for personal growth through reflection, but also to share ideas. I mean, it’s why I blog. It helps me focus my thoughts and share my crazy ideas with the world. It doesn’t even matter if no one reads my posts. It’s about the process.

Of course, I also know what kind of writer I am. I need a quiet comfortable place, wine in reach, with the ideas already worked out in my head. I also never show anyone my writing unless I think I’ve done my best. With that being said, my teaching partner inadvertently challenged me to break all my writing comfort zone rules.

Our eighth graders are drafting “Hero’s Journey” stories. When I walked into my partner’s room the other day, she shared how she was writing with her students. Now, I have always tried to draft a version of the assignments I give my students for a few reasons: mainly to give the assignment a trial run and to have an example to show students. Usually, I have done this in my quiet bedroom, revising over and over before even considering presenting an example in class. But in her classroom, my partner was writing at the same time as her students, and not just that. She had granted them access to comment!

This blew my mind. We talked about it later, and she shared how powerful letting her kids see her process was. She was so right. I knew I needed to try it.

So yesterday, I shared my unfinished, first draft (dribble) with all my classes. I asked them for advice and put my heart on my sleeve. I sucked up my pride and posted my story in our Google Classroom. I must say it was not easy. I am supposed to be the expert, right? Aren’t my students supposed to see me as a mentor?

As hard as some of the comments were to take, it was a powerful experience. They loved it. My students could see how I was trying to navigate the assignment, the same as them. They could see that writing is messy, even for the ones who are supposed to be “experts.” Writing is a process, and it isn’t easy, but getting feedback from others is how we grow. I will expect them to share their drafts with their peers and with me. I needed to show my students that sharing and allowing others to give feedback is valuable. Growth mindset, right?

                 

And they also had a little fun with commenting.


 

 

That One Time I Held My Tongue

I am a teacher. I began teaching when I was 23 years old, but my mom would tell you it started much earlier than that, teaching my stuffed animals about classroom procedures, math and how to properly read a book. (I was a bit uptight and strict seven year old.) I also consider myself an advocate for students in education, researching, reading, learning and encouraging others to implement good first instruction, quality curriculum, but mostly literacy with authentic applications. Over the last few years, I have been given opportunities to present and teach educators at conferences with CUE, the Writing Project and other local organizations, passing along my passion for doing what is right for children.

But I’m also a parent. I have a 14 and 12 year old in the public school system. My 14 year old does school well. She knows how to play the game, even when she thinks the rules are ridiculous. She can learn from anyone, even a teacher who left a packet of worksheets on her desk with a bold face due date and no instructions. She can figure it out. I’ve always believed she could learn in a room full of just books. She loves learning. I’ve never worried about her.

My 12 year old learns constantly on his own, as well, but he would forget the packet of worksheets the moment he got home. He would be too busy experimenting with dry ice or making masking tape sculptures from videos he saw on Youtube. School isn’t hard for him, but organization and the “rules” of school often elude him. With him, I have to pay close attention: check the planner, check the online grade book.

My conundrum: what do I do when I see the assignments my son brings home as nothing but busy work? What do I do when a grade for participation is labeled “assessment” in the gradebook? What do I do when my son scores 100% on every quiz, then fails the test? What do I do when his teachers’ policy is no retakes of tests, nor can he review tests to check what he did wrong? What do I do when I see my own kids’ teachers practicing instruction and assessment that seem ineffective and lacks rigor or engagement?

I do nothing. Nothing. Because I know my son needs to learn the game to be successful.  I know my son respects and adores his teachers. I know that his relationship with his teachers is far more important than his grade. I know I have done some crazy things teaching, too. I know that he still loves school, so I can’t mess that up for him.

Sometimes you need to forget you’re a teacher and be a parent, sitting on your hands and holding your tongue.

Falling Flat on My Growth Mindset

As in any profession, education is full of trends. When I started teaching, it was all about multiple intelligences and Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning. Risking showing my age, I still find a lot of validity in both. In the same way, the last few years have been all about growth mindset. As Carol Dweck states, “In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence….they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” Part of this is trying new things, failing and being open to learning from those shortcomings. I preach this almost daily in my classes. “You’re not there YET, but you’ll get there if you keep working.” I mean I am ALL in. Well, at least I thought I was. When it comes to having a growth mindset with my own failures, I suck.

Last week, CapCUE hosted our annual Techfest. I say “our” because I am an active member and a director on the board. Besides helping to plan, arriving at 6am to set up, as well as working throughout the day, I thought it would be a great place to try out a new session I’ve been working on: “Creating Book Clubs that are Figuratively Lit and Literally Awesome.” I am very passionate about implementing choice reading groups in my class, and this summer I decided to put together a presentation to share that passion. Apparently passion doesn’t always make a good session.

Some things were out of my control: the projector went out just before I begun, so the great staff at Rocklin High School found me a different room. However, most issues were my own doing. Being flustered, I left my wireless clicker behind, along with a box full of books I planned to use for my opening activity: Book Speed Dating. Consequently, I ran out of the room and returned panting, holding a heavy box of books. Instead of just moving on, I decided to go down with my self inflicted sinking ship and still try the activity. Of course, with so much time lost, I had to rush through the activity and subsequent slides. Continuing, information spewed out of my mouth choppy and disorganized like a teenage boy on a first date.

They say the smartest person in the room IS the room and that was certainly the case for me. If it weren’t for my attendees asking questions and sharing their experiences, I’m afraid the whole session would have been a complete disaster.

Now for MY growth mindset. In the room was one of my friends, someone I consider a mentor and have learned so much from, both as a leader and a person, Josh Harris. When I saw him later at lunch, I was embarrassed, but knew he’d give it to me straight. I had to ask. I knew I couldn’t just ignore what had happened. Growth Mindset, I whispered to myself. Learn something from this. Don’t pretend it wasn’t a crime scene.

“Josh, tell me how I can improve…”

Learning Out Loud

In early June I received an email asking if I would like to be a Lead Learner for CUE. I had no idea what that actually meant, only that I needed to fill out a W9. That had to be a good thing, right? Turns out, it made my summer rock, like really loud!

It started in early July with the CUE Hootenanny at the California Railroad Museum, which really was just a way to get as many Lead Learners in one spot as possible (and eat Barbe-CUE). A few weeks later I was at the CUE Leadership Development Institute near Monterey with my CapCUE board members. Only a few days after I found myself presenting in Truckee at CUERockstar. Now that was a lot of CUE! But it was so worth it.

Catching @kmartintahoe at CueRockstar Tahoe/Truckee

Being in the presence of such out of the box thinkers tends to challenge your views on so many things. Of course, being in the presence of so many organized and goal-oriented people also brings balance to those innovative ideas. At all these events, great ideas tend to rub off on you. I think I began the summer with a list of books to read, and now I’m ending with twice the amount of professional books on my list. The same is true for the amount of innovative strategies I plan to incorporate in my classroom this year. Someone should have warned me: when you spend your vacation with other Lead Learners, your brain swells.

Goofing off with @John_Eick at LDI

The best part is that your heart swells, too. Call it filling your bucket, sharpening your saw or whatever. For me, hanging out with people that inspire me, make me laugh and care about me is a great way to spend a month in the summer.

I go back to work next week and I’m excited and anxious about introducing and implementing all that I’ve learn. The best part is, my CUE family is only a Tweet or a Voxer message away!

Reflecting before Relaxing: Ending my School Year

When I end the school year, I try to take a moment before I reach full blown summer mode to reflect on my year. Today I chose to sit down for a few minutes and decipher my report card: the survey my students take to grade me. It includes quite a few questions that I take to heart: have I treated them fairly, am I easy to understand, do I care about them. I’m a huge proponent of getting feedback from my “customers” and unlike the local retailer who has to bribe consumers with coupons or chances to win $100 gift cards, my students gladly take the time to be honest with me, especially when I give them class time to do it.

In August, I set out to make my classroom a place of readers and writers. So, this year I added a few specific questions about each. Did student attitudes about either change? Answering on a Likert scale, here’s what my students responded.

Reading

For the most part, attitudes changed for the better. I was generally pleased, but that bottom end still bugs me. I know there is still work to be done.

What I did:

I tried desperately to create a culture of reading. Students were to read at least two hours every week. On Fridays, they would have a book talk with their group members where each would share one assignment from this grid. Based on the standards, I wanted students to try to make more meaningful connections with their books. Plus the assignments gave them something to talk about. I also shared what I was reading, and we had whole class book recommendation time. At the end of each trimester, we would make book trailers and write reviews on Goodreads.

What I would change:

I would no longer require students have their grid assignment done for homework. I want the focus to be the reading. Instead, I would give them time just before book talks to do some sort of reflection for the week, then share that. I’m considering dropping Goodreads and somehow incorporating their reviews instead into student blogs. I love the online community, but we just don’t have time to utilize it. Also, I would do more individual book conferences. In a 47 minute class period it takes me a week to get to every student, but the one time I did accomplish it this year, it was powerful.

Writing

Like reading, I’m very pleased with the attitude change. The negative attitude (1-2) dropped significantly. Of course, still work to do!

What I did:

I wrote a blog post about this a few months ago, but basically, I kept my promise. We wrote every day and we shared in some form every day. Monday-Thursday we wrote in our journals and Fridays we blogged. In addition, we wrote many other genres: stories, essays, letters, etc. In a nut shell, we wrote a lot.

What I would change:

First of all, I would personally write and share more. I can stop what I’m doing for three minutes and write at the beginning of each period with my students. The times I have shared my writing, the students loved. It’s powerful to be a model. Sometimes I forget that. I would also try to carve more time for personal feedback. Whether that’s an official writing conference, or even just an email or comment on a Google Doc. I need to make it a priority to make sure I give each student something to improve. It’s how we all grow.

It was a great year, and I’m thankful my students thought so, too. Now, it’s time to start summering. The stack of books on my nightstand are waiting. 

A Bittersweet Goodbye

I opened up my blog the other day and was shocked! I haven’t written anything since DECEMBER? Seriously? What the heck have I been doing? Oh, yeah. I’ve been finishing my Master’s degree in Education Technology. As I finish out my last week (the work is DONE!), I can’t help but think about what I’ve learned.

  • Pedagogy over Tools. When it comes to incorporating technology in the classroom, teachers can be quick to try a tool because it seems cool. But sometimes, a piece of paper and a pencil is better. Technology can open a world full of possibilities, but always make sure the tech is chosen because it is the best teaching tool for students. Think pedagogy first. Always.
  • Data Sees All. Having to complete an action research project where I am scrutinizing quantified data and coding qualitative data, opened my eyes. I often think a lesson or unit is working in my classroom, but is it really? Collect data and you’ll know for sure. Often, the results are not what you anticipated.
  • Read. Read. Read. There is nothing more powerful than reading research. Yes, it’s dull and time consuming, but actually diving into other researchers’ data, can be incredibly enlightening. Plus, you might win an argument at the lunch table or sound really smart at a staff meeting.
  • APA Kills. I was quite sure the fifth draft was fine. I was wrong. I swear. APA is like a blood-sucking mosquito. There must be a reason for its existence, but no one cares what it is.
  • Time is Precious. When you’re a mom with a full time job, then decide to add a degree program, you learn quickly that time is one thing you cannot spare. I feel incredibly lucky to have such support around me, keeping me organized: most notably, my husband. And Google Calendar. In that order.
  • Facebook is a Stress Management Tool: No, not reading about your fabulous weekends or dinners at exotic locales, I mean the constant questions, rants, memes, and other snide comments that created our iMET 18 Facebook Group. I was honored to have shared this journey with 13(ish) other tech-loving professionals. It was in the Facebook group that we could have the honest conversations and just generally help each other out. I would often laugh because our professors wanted us to have authentic online conversations so badly. We did. It was just out of the school’s earshot. This group of amazing individuals were my lifeline. I will be forever indebted to them.

While I am thrilled to be done with all my coursework, I will miss the camaraderie our group created. Getting to see my cohorts in person a few weekends a year was an added bonus. It’s the one factor I loved most of all about the program: not all of it was online. My cohorts connections allowed us to be honest and truly learn from one another.

I asked a few of them to share what they learned in the iMET program:

The biggest thing I learned wasn’t the theories or the tools, it was in fact the level of intelligence, the passion, and the commitment that my fellow iMET cohorts had to teaching. Teaching, as it turns out, isn’t about saving the world or even a child. It’s about education, not through the mechanism of schools, but to provide the tools, whatever it may be for students to be able to read the world and become productive participants of their society. This is where technology fits in education.”–Chong Yang (Engineer)

I learned how to use digital tools to reach students using different learning modalities. The use of student created audio and video resources have been valuable in making me a better teacher.” —Graham Stewart (Middle School Social Studies Teacher)

–Brianna Strang (5th Grade Teacher)

“I learned about collaboration on-line, as well as designing curriculum for online spaces. I learned that there are still injustices in classrooms throughout our country. Oh, and I learned that results were mixed in whether or not VR is better than 2D learning.” —Josh Breese (Community College English Teacher)

On Saturday afternoon I don my robe an hood (YES!) and receive the piece of paper for which I’ve been working. I must say I’m a little sad to be saying goodbye to the iMET program, but at least I still have Facebook.

Cheers, iMET 18!

If you want to see my projects, check out my iMET eportfolio

How Daily Writing Saved My Life

Walking on campus this past August, I made a commitment: my students will write EVERY DAY. Little did I realize how powerful this one commitment would be. Not just for them, but for me as a teacher.

Ask any teacher, there never seems to be enough time in the day to really teach every standard that is required. The answer: prioritize. I decided we would start the class period with writing. That way, it would always happen. Besides, I had some phenomenal ideas from my colleagues at the Area 3 Writing Project, the life-changing institute I was lucky enough to attend over the summer, and I was itching to implement all of it!

How I Organize

Each day has a new type of writing prompt. I set a timer and we stick to it, even if students don’t finish. The prompts range from short video clips (the students’ favorite) to different writing techniques. We will also read short articles, work on vocabulary or use the time to practice and review needed skills. However, often I tell students to ignore my prompt and write what they are feeling passionate about at that moment. After all, they are teenagers. Sometimes they just need a way to vent. Our daily writing has really become more of a writer’s workshop in only about 10-15 minutes a day.


During writing, I might circulate the room, but never read over any shoulders. That journal is theirs. Students can choose what is shared and what isn’t. It’s practice, and practice is messy.

daily-writing-examples
Writing rules written by Edna Shoemaker

What I’ve Noticed

For one, we are writing and sharing every day. YES! Our classroom is now an environment of writing. We are writers. At the beginning of the period I often hear, “What are we writing today?” Of course, their favorite part is sharing and listening to their classmates share.

img_6481

On most Fridays, my students are asked to go back and choose a piece to revise and publish on their blog. The blogs are so much better than I’ve read in years past. I believe having a journal full of rich ideas gives them a place to start. Plus, they are in the habit of writing now. It just comes easier.

When my students write, I try to write, too. Well, try. That’s the one resolution I have going forward. I know how powerful and therapeutic daily writing can be for me. Time to practice what I preach.

The Sounds of Learning

I have always been an auditory learner. I can recite commercials heard years ago on the radio, and when I don’t understand a passage I am reading, I read it aloud. As a writer, I also know the power of listening to my own words. I never publish or share a piece without first reading it in my best Leslie Stahl voice. It’s no wonder I push this proofreading technique on my students.

My first “podcast” with my students was last spring. After writing and publishing their “Now I Know Better” stories, my This American Life spin on the personal narrative where students tell stories of epic fails from childhood, usually involving a trampoline and/or torturing by an older sibling, I had students simply record themselves reading their already graded stories. I thought it would be a fun way to share, especially since a podcast was what inspired the assignment. We listened to a few in class, and I encouraged the students to listen at home. We simply ran out of time. Here are some of them:

This year, however, I decided to try something different. Instead of waiting until after the piece was graded, I decided to have students turn in their audio at the same time as their final draft. My thoughts were two-fold:

1. Make each student read the story aloud to hear any mistakes

2. Create an easily shareable format for other students to enjoy classmates’ stories.

It was a resounding success! And this time, I carved out time to allow students to listen to the stories on Chromebooks. Not only were the stories better, but students loved hearing their peers words read by the peers themselves. It was quite powerful.

Of course, my auditory journey did not end there. After going to a session at FallCUE a few weeks ago and hanging out with my buddy, Roland Aichele, he inspired me to do more. Why not record collaborative discussions? So I bought a super cool microphone (the Blue Snowball) and set it up one day last week. I plugged it into a Chromebook, set it to record on Twisted Wave, and plopped it down at one table each period during a discussion. It was AWESOME! Listening to it later, I was giddy hearing the academic discourse, mixed in with the silly 8th grade commentary. It was authentic, it was real and those kids totally rocked the discussion. The best part was I could listen to it after and really assess what each kid was understanding. It is often difficult to get to around to each group, especially in a short discussion. This was an effective way to engage my students, (they were totally on task), and check for understanding.

Now I just want eight more microphones!