An Inquiry Into Student Blogging

After a summer of enthusiastic research, I jumped headlong into the world of student blogging in 2013. None of the dozens of blogs, videos, or how-to’s could quite prepare me for just how much goes into it.

Even all these years later, I’ve continued reflecting on how I could improve. While recently reading “It’s Not All About Blog: The Work Before The Blog” on Two Writing Teachers, it came to me: why not share the preparation with students through inquiry?? One of Deb’s tips is to expose kids to lots of great examples of blogging. Today’s inquiry is designed to help kids explore quality exemplars of student blogging!

Resource #1: Edublog Awards

This is where you can find Edublog’s yearly student blogger awardees. This is a great resource if you’re looking for blogs built and maintained by students.

Resource #2: AutisticAndProud

This blog is run by Fionn and his mom with the following goal: “a boy with aspergers gives some views through his eyes…” It’s a wonderful example of how blogging can help us refine our feelings and experiences with words, while also inviting others along that journey.

Resource #3: TheLivBits Blog

I highlighted Olivia as an example of powerful digital citizenship at the beginning of this year. Her blog is another great source for students to look for peer-written, inspiring content — particularly when it comes to books, words, and being true to oneself.

Resource #4: Edublogger Class Blogs (sorted by type/grade)

These class blogs aren’t necessarily run by students (some are run by teachers, etc), but it can be a helpful place to go if you are looking for blogs in a specific group (ie, 1st graders, art, mathematics, etc).

Resource #5: Professional blogs

Checking our professional blogs run by grown-ups can always be worthwhile, too. A few of my favorite consistent blogs as an educator include ones by Pernille Ripp, George Couros, and Seth Godin.

Provocation Questions:

  • What is the connection between writing blogging?
  • What do you notice about the purpose of blogging?
  • What do you notice about how they set up their blogs? (font, text size, About page, widgets in the sidebar, etc)
  • What are the responsibilities of being a blogger to yourself? To your audience?
  • How do comments work?
  • How is perspective connected to blogging?

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Inquiry into Friendship

Real learning — the kind that students carry with them and treasure in the longterm — is a vulnerable process. If we are to help our students get to a place where they are truly willing to put themselves out there, take risks, make mistakes, and try again, we need to take an active role in cultivating a classroom of trust.

It’s with that in mind that I share this week’s provocation on friendship.

Resource #1: Gymnastics student’s repeated efforts, via harleykyan

Resource #2: “Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton

Resource #3: The Wonderment online children’s platform

Meet Us In The Wonderment from The Wonderment on Vimeo.

Provocation Questions:

  • How are trust and the growth mindset connected?
  • How does friendship work?
  • Why does feeling a sense of belonging matter?
  • What is our responsibility to be a friend to others?
  • How has technology changed the way we can support each other?

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4 Reasons We Just Can’t Break Up with Basals (& How to Finally Move On)

The typical basal-reading program lesson frequently boils down to something like this:

  • Assigned shared text read aloud.
  • Definitions of carefully-bolded vocabulary words copied down.
  • Comprehension worksheets filled out.
  • Students and teachers alike feeling bored to tears.

The truth is, putting kids through this kind of soul-less exercise will produce authentic readers no more than the mastery of connect-the-dots sheets will produce artists.

And we know it. Master teachers refer to the need to “finesse and hybridize” basals to make sure they’re effective. ¹ (which also makes basals’ claims at “research-based effectiveness” shaky since there’s real possibility they take credit for master teachers’ adjustments).

There are so many other ways to help our students develop the reading skills they need while protecting and nurturing their love of reading. Here are a few of the messages I believe we keep getting from basal program companies to convince us otherwise.

#1: Inexperienced teachers need me!

Basals assert that new teachers won’t be able to navigate the waters of literacy instruction without their careful direction. However, if our solution for offering literacy support to new teachers is to let them muddle through a sub-par program, we’re doing a disservice to both our teachers and our students.

Furthermore, even with all the details of a basal program (many of which supply ideas for differentiation, activating background knowledge, etc), “only a well-trained teacher can make the multifaceted decisions involved in developing such instruction”² anyway. Outsourcing this training to a one-size fits all manual is simply inadequate.

P.S. Going basal-free doesn’t mean you have to/should abandon a framework. One phenomenal example is a a workshop framework by Pam Allyn that I reviewed a couple years ago.

#2: You can’t be sure students will develop skills without my guidance.

In a workshop/units of study model, not only do students develop literacy skills, but they do so with a greater degree of context and response to the ongoing trajectory of student learning.

Meanwhile, basal programs tend to spend disproportionate amounts of time drilling specific skills, such as the ones involved in reading comprehension. Consider this:

“It is critical to note that these and other reading programs allocate as much or more actual time to rehearsing comprehension skills than they allocate to teaching any other element in their language-arts program…In reality, when children experience problems comprehending text, it is much more likely due to the child’s lack of knowledge of the subject matter…The notion that we can teach students a set of skills that they will be able to apply to new and unfamiliar texts or situations is a process that cognitive psychologists call “skills transference.” This is regarded as an inordinately difficult task for our brains to pull off and, therefore, is not a practical educational goal. But it is a goal set forward by every major reading program on the market.”³

In addition, even if students develop said skills, if they never apply them because all those basal worksheets suffocated their love of reading, what’s the point? As educator Ross Cooper wrote, “First and foremost, we must promote a love of reading, not a culture of literacy-based micromanagement.4

#3: You won’t have ready access to ability-appropriate text!

Twenty years ago, this may have been the case. But just consider this small sampling of today’s possibilities:

  • Shared texts via projectors/document cameras
  • Newsela (engaging, level-able text at the click of a button)
  • Wonderopolis (text based on “more than 90,000 Wonder questions submitted by users” and differentiation features such as selected-text-to-audio and hover-to-define-vocabulary)
  • DOGO (kid-friendly news that’s also leveled at the click of a button and includes assignments, vocab, and Google Classroom integration)
  • Savvy multimedia librarians that can help identify/pull relevant texts during the immersion phase of units.

#4: You won’t have as much time without me to meet students’ individual needs!

Basal models assume that most kids’ learning takes place right at the top of the bell curve, with “differentiation tips” for the few kids on either side of the curve. But the truth is, every journey is unique. The sooner we disentangle ourselves from all the micromanaged requirements of a basal, the sooner we can spend our time where it really counts: 1-1 conferences, responsive mini-lessons, mentor text studies, student ownership/agency, etc.

No matter what promises are made to the contrary, we need to remember that “there’s no simple solution, no panacea, or miracle cure for reading. The range of ways to solve reading achievement challenges is as broad as the range of student profiles.”²

Sources:

1. http://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1507&context=ehd_theses

2. https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/2/Principal/2009/J-F_p26.pdf

3. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Basal_readers.pdf

4. http://www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/3-reasons-to-rethink-your-basal-reader

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Rethinking Calendar Time #TeacherMom

Counting popsicle sticks. Singing songs about weather. Chanting the days of the week. The Calendar Time routine has become a veritable staple in many PreK-2 classrooms.

Which is why I don’t make this challenge lightly. But between research and my own observations, I can’t help but wonder whether Calendar Time is pulling its weight proportionate to its allotted time/energy.

Research

Calendar Time for Young Children: Good Intentions Gone Awry” (May 2008) by Sallee J. Beneke, Michaelene M. Ostrosky, and Lilian G. Katz raises some important questions with regards to our use of calendar time. The two biggest include:

  • Developmental readiness, especially with regards to temporal understanding (“According to Friedman (2000), the ability to judge the relative time from a past event or until a future event in terms of the calendar year is not in place until sometime between 7 and 10 years of age”).
  •  The skills we work to cultivate during calendar time are often better suited toward guided group/individual work that is more easily differentiated.

The article offers several alternatives that would be more developmentally appropriate and effective for the intended outcomes of Calendar Time, such as:

  • Showing the story of the day’s schedule with a picture schedule
  • Shared photo-journals or artifacts chronicling class happenings
  • Time-linked displays to document learning
  • Project work that brings time-related concepts to a more immediate and relevant sphere

They conclude,

“Teachers who intend to keep calendar a part of their daily classroom routine will be more effective if they develop ways to incorporate the calendar that require little time and reflect young children’s limited development of time concepts.”

Personal Observation

I witnessed just how valuable the alternatives can be in watching my own daughter’s temporal development unfold. When she was about 4 years old, I noticed that she could never keep track of how soon events would occur — life became an endless stream of questioning to find out how many days before _____. In response, I decided to create for her what we called our “week wheel,” on which we stuck pictures of frequent events (which she illustrated, of course). Quite apart from saving my sanity, this handy tool also provided a hands-on method for her to better comprehend what comes next.

More recently, she started asking me what day of the week it was — every single day. For a long time, I didn’t think much of it; I dismissed it as simple curiosity. Until I realized that she was creating her own picture calendar out of the one included in the weekly bulletin at church.

Each day, as soon as she heard the name of the day, she’d dash back in to check what she’d planned for herself for the day, meticulously crossing off the day before. Honestly, I can’t think of a better way for her to learn the days of the week than this kind of authentic, personal application.

Obviously, such strategies become more complex when there are 20-30+ kids in the mix — a whole-group Calendar Time seems sensible. But what seems more efficient isn’t necessarily going to be effective. We can and must get creative to find ways to meet our kids where they are in all their diverse needs and interests.

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Combating Summer Slide (Without Workbooks)

During our big summer project (building a deck!), I decided to let my daughter jump in with the painting. I thought it would be a simple opportunity for her to experience some ownership over our project. Turns out, it was much more.

For one thing, her questioning was endless. The difference between primer and paint, the purpose of even brush strokes, the relevance to the overall design, and so on.

For another, she identified several valuable life lessons. My favorite was when she told me, “You know, things aren’t always as quick and easy as they seem. I thought I’d finish painting this board in just a minute or two!” It was also wonderful to help her observe the patient, and often tedious, preparation that is required for a job well-done.

As I reflected later on, I recognized the richness of that learning experience. Her critical thinking, reasoning, communication, and comprehension skills were sharpened again and again — with a depth and authenticity that all those summer workbooks can never even come close to matching.

Now, summer slide is a legitimate problem — particularly for children from lower-income families. Take a look at some of the figures:

via Oxford Learning

Our family is certainly fortunate to even have the time and circumstances to have the experience I described above. But as teachers and parents, we would be remiss to assert that the summer slide solution for children from disadvantaged homes would be to load them up on workbooks. The best programs recognize this; as an ASCD Educational Leadership article described,

“In addition to reading and math instruction, Horizons programs give children the sort of enrichment typically enjoyed by more affluent youngsters, such as field trips to museums, camping in the mountains, Broadway shows, and music instruction. Without programs like these, most of our students would be sitting at home watching television while their middle-class peers were off to camp or on a family vacation.”

In my community, the public library, local schools, and local university all offer programs designed to help kids access authentic learning experiences. And it is delightful to watch that access grow all the time.

Whatever our circumstances, we should always be on the lookout for experiences that will help our children make connections and cultivate skills — and no matter how simple, personal interactions go a long way.

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Sharing Benchmark Scores With Students? #TeacherMom

I recently came across this article from Fountas & Pinnell entitled, “A Level is a Teacher’s Tool, Not A Child’s Label.”

Fountas and Pinnell believe very strongly that students’ reading levels have no place in teacher evaluation or on report cards to be sent home to parents. Too much emphasis on levels can lead to misconceptions on the part of families. Informing parents of the level at which their child is reading can make them uneasy.  They may see the level as a very exact measurement, but students don’t always read at a precise level. Parents also talk with other parents, and if they find that their child is reading at a lower level than other children, they might panic. But they don’t understand the intricacies of how those levels work the way you do.

I completely understand where Fountas & Pinnell is coming from here. As a teacher myself, I was glad during my daughter’s last parent teacher conference to possess the background knowledge of these assessments’ imperfections — we chatted about their subjectivity and the uneven spacing between levels (for instance, in the program my school used, it was an extra wide gap between levels T and U for some reason).

I also worry about our students and their parents taking too much stock in these assessments and therefore experiencing pressure, lack of confidence, and yes, even labels. And I recently wrote about my quandary over whether to share scores at all yet with my first grader (Will it Help Or Hurt to Review Scores with My First Grader?).

All that said, I believe that in order for students to take the wheel in driving their own learning, they should be able to reflect using available resources and data to inform their decisions and progress. Not to mention the whole idea of “No secret teacher business!

So is there an in-between place here?

The more I reflect on this, the more I believe there can be — but with some important considerations, including, but probably not limited to the following:

  • Data should only be one piece of the feedback puzzle. Reading benchmarks are a much less frequent and much more formal form of assessment. Students should rely much more on regular formative assessments as they make course corrections in their learning/growth.
  • Seek transparency not just about the data itself, but on its limitations. That it’s not an exact measurement. That there is a definite degree of subjectivity. That it’s meant to compare individual students’ levels against their own progress — not against anyone else in the class.
  • Are students developmentally ready for the type of data you can share? If, as in the story I shared in “Will It Help or Hurt to Review Scores with My First Grader,” the student has yet to even comprehend the nature of data, then it would be counterproductive to share.
  • Ensure there’s a clear connection between the data, metacognition, and “what’s next.” Help students tune into their own thinking about their progress, and maintain a dialogue on the strategies that will best help them move forward.
  • Ensure that students understand that the data is never the goal, but a guide. The goal is always learning, and data serves as lampposts along the way.
  • Protect intrinsic motivation. Students should want to progress for the sake of progression, not for the sake of their levels moving up.

There’s not necessarily a clear-cut answer to the question of whether we should share benchmark data with students. But as long as we are actively engaging with our students to help them take ownership over their progress, we are on the right track.

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An Open Teacher Appreciation Letter #TeacherMom

I dreaded kindergarten from the day my oldest was born.

I knew, even before the years of careful nurturing had even begun, that the day would come to let go. That I would go from knowing what she did every moment of every day to being totally in the dark for large swaths of time.

That darkness terrified me. Because no matter how much we chatted about her day, I knew much would remain undisclosed — even significant moments that she might not recognize yet as significant.

Now that she has almost finished first grade — her first year of being at school for a full school day — my fears have been greatly assuaged, first and foremost thanks to her phenomenal teachers that have taken the time to communicate and show they care.

So, especially with National Teacher Appreciation Week coming up next week, I’d like to say, thank you. 

Thank you for leveraging the most useful forms of communication to help us keep in touch, from notes home to Facebook Messenger (I especially loved the occasional photos of all things random, quirky, and awesome).

Thank you for that time you expressed a hope she was feeling better when she’d had a tough day.

Thank you for being understanding of the sometimes-graphic descriptions of all her experiences with vomit that she thoroughly enjoyed sharing. With the whole class.

Thank you for being there for her in all those endless details and difficulties of being 6 years old, from figuring out buying milk to learning to sit at the carpet to dealing with hurt feelings — all while teaching her to become more responsible for herself.

Thank you for seeing and nurturing her passions — even when it meant creating an extra folder just for her to organize her 20 page personal narrative.

Thank you. As teachers, we often refer to our students as “our kids.” Thank you for meaning it, and treating her as your own. And thank you to teachers everywhere who do the same.

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