Questioning success

What if we empower students with choices A through D, and they choose E, none of the above? The competition: Netflix, Snapchat, Instagram, Finstra, Amazon, iTunes…The odds seem unfair, almost tragic. Is this an excuse for my shortcomings as a teacher? Or the April voice of a teacher of seniors–many of whom have been accepted to colleges and watch their grades plummet passively like children on slides at a park? Perhaps it’s a little of both with a grain of truth at its core.

This year, I attempted to make the ELA classroom more student-centered, integrate technology, and create authenticity through having all four classes choose independent reading texts for Fridays. They would read, journal, and once per quarter, write book reviews on a class blog. Students were also instructed to fill out a multi-question Google form for every book they completed or disliked and switched; this way, I could track their preferences.

Two out of four classes continued to read, journal and blog throughout the year with many students therein who looked forward to Friday reading sessions, engaged with journals, and blogged effectively; some even admitted to enjoying reading for the first time. There were select students, of course, for whom this was not the case–perhaps they never found the right book, took a zero rather than complete a blog, or neglected journal entries. However, in the other two classes, the results were flipped, with only a few students engaging repeatedly in all aspects of this process. Many were so disengaged, in fact, that for quarters three and four, in the name of adjusting practice to meet student needs, I had to modify these activities drastically.

Was it coincidental that most students who thrived in this model were from honors classes? Certainly, I had students from the C1 and C2 level classes disappointed that we would not continue the project, but most were indifferent. In the honors level classes, according to survey responses, a majority of students seemed to enjoy the Friday reading and journaling, but although most completed the book review blogging, it became another academic chore to be done for a grade, and rather than improving throughout the year, grades and the public eye notwithstanding, some of their work actually declined; they published careless grammatical mistakes and proofreading errors in the name of “getting it done.”

At the end of the day, school was still school, and I was still the teacher assessing students with traditional grades. Were there students who read more books than they otherwise would have? Yes. Were there students who did not expect to enjoy reading that made that leap? Yes again. But what does success mean in the classroom? What does a student-centered classroom really look like? I had one student say, “It’s not you Mrs. Black, I just don’t like to read at all.” Yet, if this is an ELA classroom, is there not a minimum basic expectation that printed matter be involved?

I did not expect for all students to walk out of my classroom in June loving reading, tossing their iPhones for the latest New York Times bestseller, but I did hope that opportunities for choosing material involving their interests and writing in public, more “authentic” ways about their choices would be effective for more than half of my students.

I am still not sure how I will move forward with this knowledge in the next school year–perhaps some student groups would be better off with quarterly, rather than year-long projects. For now, I will rest with the knowledge that school may not be the place in which students prefer to spend their days and that books simply do not appeal to everyone, but I can continue to communicate with them, take their needs into consideration, and hopefully expose them to one or two new skills and ideas along the way.

The Efficacy of Student Choice

Students as Readers

I was afraid to pick up my coffee mug and flip the lid open for fear of shattering the calm concentration in the silent room.  Silent–yet teeming with mental activity.

Invariably, students requested the book I read to them–some even arguing over it, a heated round of rock paper scissors cropping up at one table to see who would get the book.

“I can’t wait to go home and read more–it really has me hooked.”

“I have other work to do at home, but this book keeps calling to me.  I feel like I’m discovering the joy of reading again.”

Above are some of the responses to the “students as readers” initiative taking place on Fridays in my ELA classroom this year. I read to students from a new text each week, one in which they may or may not show interest.  After this, students pick up their current independent reading choices, read for 30 minutes or so, and finally respond to what they have read in a journal entry. Granted, the adventure has not been without obstacles for some students, especially those with repeated absences or limited interests.  One student has already been back to the library three times in an attempt to find the right “fit.” This has made it difficult for some students to complete required journal entries, and it may prove challenging for these students to produce blog post book reviews at the end of the quarter if they have read very little of their books.  However, I still feel that I must emphasize the importance of persistence in searching for an ideal fit for each student, even if this absorbs time.  If I simply insist that each student makes a decision to meet a deadline, I fall into the same trap I wish to escape by shutting down the opportunity for student choice I am attempting to create.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Friday’s choice reading, journaling, and eventual blog post make up one component of the choice-driven, student-centered classroom I am trying to foster this year.  In addition, I am attempting to build choice into each assessment and vary my approaches to standard curriculum texts based on student input and formative assessment from the previous and current school year.

The Role of Technology

In what ways is technology integrated throughout this process?  Google Classroom has proven instrumental in both monitoring student engagement and simply keeping track of the many choices offered. One method of gauging student engagement and preferences involves poll questions through Google Classroom which are easy to post, answer, and the results of which are quickly and clearly reported. In addition, students may be unaccustomed to having so many choices, leading the choices to become overwhelming as opposed to liberating. By posting choices, resources, links, instructions, and multiple assignments and due dates for different components of the class, I can provide students with a single reference point to which they may return.  The Google Classroom application works well on most students’ phones as well; this can be a resource for students at any hour and was helpful in the classroom on a day when building copiers and the classroom LCD projector failed to function.

Moving forward

As I continue to move forward, I will evaluate the efficacy of providing students with ample choices and attempt to use both technology and face to face interactions with students to pinpoint the line between providing effective and excessive choices for students.

Embrace the Future

As we enter into the “home stretch” of the school year, I thought I would share a few reflections on the research I have done this year.

A quick reminder for readers: I am a U.S. History teacher at Waltham High School and my research this year has been a qualitative analysis of technology integration in a classroom with no direct 1:1 technology. I have attempted to analyze the struggles, realities, and triumphs of embracing 21st century skills in a classroom with 20th century technology.

As mentioned above, I have attempted to integrate as much technology as possible into a classroom that has inconsistent access to 1:1 technology. The technology-based projects, assignments, and lessons that I created have primarily taken place in the four labs (three computer, and one iPad) in my school.

Part one of progress report I completed reflecting on my research question.
Part one of a “Penultimate” progress report I completed reflecting on my research question.

For the most part, I have been able integrate technology into my classes at least once each month. However, I have found it difficult to maintain an integrated classroom throughout the school year. Although applications have allowed me to sprinkle in technology, I am far from a place that is a truly integrated or “flipped” classroom.

As I reflect on the past year, I find it difficult to isolate just one or two reasons that I was unable to fully integrate technology into my classroom. I know that one of the reasons is that technology in my school is limited and in high demand. This leads to a race to secure coveted lab reservations. So, the lessons where I am able to fully integrate technology are only those which I am able to foresee weeks in advance and book space accordingly. For instance, I planned ahead to have my classes complete the Touchcast assignment and Paperless Research Papers. However, this advanced planning rules out spontaneity. If three days prior to a classroom lesson, I have a stroke of genius about a great way to integrate technology, I won’t be able to make it happen because the lab will already be booked.

The lack of 1:1 technology also limits my ability to give formative and summative assessments online. I have found this to be restrictive. For instance, if I did have regular access to 1:1 technology for my students, I would have been able to use Socrative, Poll Everything, and other similar applications more efficiently. (Aside: since most students have their own cell phones, I contemplated having students use them to access apps like the aforementioned. However, after some thought, I decided against it.)

Part two of my progress report. I reflected on a few successes and failures.
Part two of my progress report. I reflected on a few successes and failures.

Furthermore, it has been difficult to maintain a flow of lessons that embrace technology integration throughout the school year. I have struggled with the conflicting demands placed upon me as a high school teacher. Teachers are required to cover certain content by particular dates, as bookmarked by required student assessments. This demands a certain amount of teacher-centered learning. At the same time, however, teachers are encouraged to “flip” our classrooms and engage in student centered learned.

The assessments mandated by our school and state, remain traditional and primarily factual tests. For instance, this year I have been responsible for administrating four in-class writing assignments, a midterm, and a final. These are six assessments that took away from classroom time or interrupted the flow of a unit I was teaching. I am not saying that these assessments are worthless. But, in my opinion, they do not measure or give students credit for the skills and ideas learned through innovative, technology integrated lessons. Thus is life, but it hinders creativity.

I feel that we can never truly embrace 21st century learning as long as we continue to employ 20th century assessments. I believe this to be a fundamental problem facing education.

Despite these challenges, I do think I had a fair measure of success with integrating technology this school year. Although I felt restricted in my ability to secure lab time, I discovered useful apps like Google Forms, Google Classroom, and Remind. These apps allowed me to push my U.S. History students to use technology outside of school, for homework assignments. (I chronicled my trials with these apps in previous blog posts). Despite the challenge of sustained use, Google Forms and Google Classroom helped to transform a lot of my teaching this year.

Part three of my brainstorm where I reflected on the tension I felt this year as I attempted to integrate technology.
Part three of my progress report where I reflected on the tension I felt this year as I attempted to integrate technology.

Furthermore, at when point when I was able to plan far into the future, my Honor’s Level U.S. History II students completed projects solely using Touchcast. Touchcast allowed my students to participate in a “flipped classroom” while creating projects about a Cold War unit that in previous years, I had taught in traditional ways.

In the end, I have achieved one of my major goals for this assignment: next year, I will have at least two classes of tenth graders that come to my classroom with 1:1 iPads. I am sure there will be structural barriers to navigate, but I am excited to think of new ways to use this technology next year.

Moving forward, I have a few tools in my belt with some of the apps I tried and found success with this year. I have some interesting ideas about how to use iPads for formative assessments. Most importantly, however, I have a new way of thinking about my teaching. I maintain my ultimate goal of achieving a more technologically integrated classroom. I’m not there yet, but I’ll get there one day.

#WINproj Findings: A Meta-Reflection

Does it count as “lurking” when it’s a blog project you created? Not sure. Regardless, I’ve been “lurking” on all of your posts this year, and haven’t posted myself. This was in part intentional — I didn’t want my voice to occupy a space that’s really all about your work in the classroom. I want this project to be driven by all of  you, led by all of you, and voiced by all of you.

But the former (and forever) teacher in me finds so much to comment on in each of your posts — so much that resonates. I never expected to become an administrator; I believe I wound up here because I wanted to have an opportunity to shape many of the policies, structures, and practices that I found frustrating when I was in the classroom. Things like restrictive web filters. Devices that didn’t always work the way I wanted them to. Apps that almost met my needs… but not quite. Resources that always felt just a little too scarce. Professional development that focused on “how to” instead of “why to.” These were all things that made me crazy — things I wanted to find a way to mold.

Then there were the victories. When I taught 8th grade English, one group of students tore me away from the standard curriculum and into a month-long digital writing project. They created documentaries about racism and sexism in their school, and held a school-wide assembly to showcase their documentaries. They collected data, interviewed staff and students, and learned how to cut, edit, and publish digital texts. I’m pretty sure that project, which drifted far from the “official curriculum” (but still addressed the standards I was expected to cover) was the reason I ultimately wound up following my passion for EdTech.

In your posts, I feel moments of tension coming up against moments of success. I feel your joy as students create and invent with technology, and your seething frustration when the technology doesn’t act as it “should” or how you “expect it to.” Here are just a few trends I’m noticing:

Tech is Engaging

Many of you have commented about students who are engaged, drawn in, and excited by the technology tasks you give them:

  • “Students’ engagement levels increased and we found them wanted to say more and record more information from their writing. This was a great tech experience!” – Kate and Stephanie
  • “Students had a ton of ideas to prove their understanding of the novel, some wanted to create Snapchat diaries using Explain Everything, others wanted to compile a mix CD that the character might make, and other students wanted to stay with Twitter or Instagram.” – Tom
  • “What was great about the lesson was that students seemed immediately engaged. They quickly read the 4-5 samples and began discussing.” – Brian

We talk a lot about “student engagement” in education. And certainly, we want students to be engaged and excited about their work. I have always found the concept of “flow” a powerful one — it was initially developed by Mihali Csikszentmihalyi (say that name out loud, I dare you)  and describes a state of engagement so deep that time just evaporates (read more here). I think it’s hard to know, though, when you’re doing something that’s engaging purely because it’s fun versus because students learn something from the process. A number of you noted this in your posts, questioning yourselves (“why am I doing this? what do students take away?”). In the digital age, these are important questions to ask. Engagement for the sake of engagement doesn’t necessarily result in meaningful learning. Which brings me to the next trend I am noticing…

Authenticity and Relevance is Powerful

This is no surprise, right? When kids can see why something matters, connect it to their own experiences, or ask questions that they find interesting, they work harder, dig deeper, think more critically:

  • “Overall, my students are definitely demonstrating progress in their willingness and ability to question information and also question their own role in the world.” – Marika
  • “I am all for including more complex texts but we cannot lose authentic, creative, and multimodal assessment in the process.” – Tom
  • “This was a powerful lesson because students were analyzing a primary source to introduce a new topic within a unit. What better way teach history than to have students act as historians and discover the information themselves?” – Jess

Inquiry-based approaches are all about helping students see the connection between academics and real-world issues and questions. As we engage students, we want them to be thinking like historians, like humanists, and using digital tools in the ways historians, anthropologists, authors, humanists, scientists, engineers, or architects (and the list goes on) would. We want them to draw on what they know, but we also want to challenge what they know. But this is difficult when…

“The System” is Not Always Supportive

Whether it’s administrative, bureaucratic, or technological, “the system,” “the man,” or “the powers that be” don’t always make it easy for you to integrate meaningfully:

  • Technological: “As I mentioned, there were many unforeseen problems that we had to figure out. One of the biggest challenges was how to save student projects that were created on iPads that they did not own.” – Mike
  • Bureaucratic: “So I made a YouTube channel…which my students still weren’t able to access.  My school’s tech guy told me that I have to tag each video I make as WalthamEDU in order for the video to make it past the filter.  However, I can’t tag videos that aren’t mine (if I find something really great), so I’m more or less back at square one.” – Alex
  • Administrative: “I received immediate feedback that the lesson and the project as a whole was too low on Webb’s DOK. While I definitely understood their point and the cumulative project of the book could have been a more direct synthesis or analytical project, I saw and still see, a lot of value in the creativity of the project as I had it.” – Tom
  • Technological: “One of my major beefs with google sites is that ii has a tendency to reformat itself. This is SO FRUSTRATING! I feel obligated to check back with the site from time to time to be sure that it is still laid out the way I intended.  It also lacks the cuteness I look for as a first grade teacher.” – Marianne

These are just a few of my findings and reflections, based solely on what you have written (a bit of qualitative data). I can’t wait to see what you have recorded, collected, and developed as the project moves forward.

In our workshop on Monday, we’re going to talk about “findings” and “data analysis,” and how to somewhat-systematically take our vague impressions and capture them, hold them still, and say things about them (perhaps here on the blog). That’s what I’ve attempted to do in this post. I had a few vague impressions about what you all were experiencing: that perhaps you were running into obstacles, that certainly you were finding the use of technology powerful, but that maybe just being “engaging” isn’t “enough.” I have tried to capture those trends here by quoting your writing in what is a bit of a meta-reflection… a reflection on your reflections.

Where we go from here? Not sure. But I look forward to thinking about it with all of you on Monday.



Are We Forgetting About Multimodal Assessment?

Between midterms, report cards, meetings, and coaching, my time to blog has, unfortunately, been pushed to the back burner. However, my springtime resolution is that I will be much more consistent. I have been thinking about posting about this particular subject for a while and hope that I do the discontent I feel about this topic justice.

Last year after reading The Call of The Wild I was able to incorporate my first real-deal iPad project. Students worked together on Padlet to create a twitter stream that not only summarized the novel but also worked to show character growth and perspective through word and image choice. Student engagement was high and the projects showed student understanding. You can see student work examples as well as an image I created to help share the project with other teachers below.


2014 Student Work From the Call of the Wild Twitter Project using Padlet
2014 Student Work From the Call of the Wild Twitter Project using Padlet


Hints and Tips to use Padlet as Twitter for Class Projects
Hints and Tips to use Padlet as Twitter for Class Project

New and Improved Year = New and Improved Project?

As we finished up the novel this year I was excited to tweak the project to incorporate more student choice and really use the iPad to its full potential. The students and I collaborated to create a rubric with summarizing expectations as well as synthesis expectations to prove the students understood the character dynamics and could find quotations to support those beliefs. Students had a ton of ideas to prove their understanding of the novel, some wanted to create Snapchat diaries using Explain Everything, others wanted to compile a mix CD that the character might make, and other students wanted to stay with Twitter or Instagram.  I thought the project was going to be awesome.

During one of the days the students were working on the project, I had an unannounced observation from a few administrators. I received immediate feedback that the lesson and the project as a whole was too low on Webb’s DOK. While I definitely understood their point and the cumulative project of the book could have been a more direct synthesis or analytical project, I saw and still see, a lot of value in the creativity of the project as I had it. By giving this creative group project students were able to show their abilities and understanding through multiple modes of authentic assessment. I saw student work that amazed me, and students realized a passion for graphic design like in this project where a student created character cards for an NFL video game.

Sample of Call of The Wild Player Cards that a group of students created for the cumulative project on the novel.

COTW Madden Player Card 3

I tweeted this out and it was retweeted by Explain Everything and over 3,000 people viewed this group’s work. That is the power of technology, the power of authentic and creative assessment. There is still rigor in that, despite that it wasn’t synthesizing multiple non-fiction texts in an essay format. I am all for including more complex texts but we cannot lose authentic, creative, and multimodal assessment in the process.

Tick Tock Tech

Is the time worth it?

My name is Tom Farley, and I am a third year 7th grade English teacher at Kennedy Middle School in Waltham. As I embark upon my second full year with 1:1 iPad integration in my classroom I am constantly trying to improve and streamline my practice. After the first year of full 1:1 iPad integration at Kennedy, I spent the summer pondering how could I better establish routines and set high expectations to engage and push all of my students further. I began modifying and changing lesson plans to better integrate the use of technology, and as I did I came across more and more questions every day. Loads of these questions answered on blogs and through seminars with @edtechteacher21 and the T21 program. However, one question came nearly every day, and despite many Internet searches, I have yet to find an adequate, comprehensive answer.

“Is taking time to create audio/visual projects worth the cost of instructional time?”

My data driven inquiry project will focus on this dilemma and discuss the pros and cons of using technologically integrated audio/visual projects in the classroom. How much time is too much time? When do visually appealing projects trump graphic organizers to prove knowledge of content? Why would my students even spend time trying to find a .png file when they could just have a poorly cropped .jpeg in Explain Everything?  You can see an illustration of my project outline, (with less questions) which I created on Paper53 (one of my favorite drawing apps) below.

WIN Inquiry Project Outline
WIN Inquiry Project Outline

By focusing this study specifically on teaching recurring content and using data driven assessment to continuously modify and adapt my integration practices, I hope to improve student-learning outcomes. In this way, I plan on having comprehensive data to show the importance of integrating authentic audio and visual technology based assignments into today’s classroom.  I hope that this, first of all makes sense; second, would be useful to you and your own instructional practices; third, although this might be a stretch, will be interesting to read. I look forward to posting extended updates here monthly. However, if you are looking for rough draft, 140 character-confined updates please follow my twitter (@hashtagfarley) (also because my follower count is incredibly depressing).