Letting Go

Far from the sage on the stage mentality, giving students choice is, on many levels, letting go– letting go of the image of a decorous, well-oiled classroom, letting go of tried and true, familiar texts, letting go of neat, staid assessments with prescribed answers. In short, providing choice in a student-centered classroom requires us to widen our scope of what it means to be teachers and have faith that we, and the students, will survive, and perhaps even thrive.

I remember an old Billy Blanks Tae Bo boxing workout video in which Billy shouted out to his viewers, “you’ve got to give some to get some!” In the student-centered classroom, what teachers are giving is always changing, and what we are hoping to “get” is more engagement from students. Ultimately, we want to turn around the giving and getting, so that students receive intrinsic rewards from what they “give” or put into the learning process. All of this involves risk and uncertainty, meaning that we must open ourselves up just as much to the possibility of failure as we do to success.

In my four high school ELA classes ranging from freshmen to seniors, students have selected independent reading texts; they read and journal on these texts each week alongside our additional class reading and activities, and roughly once per quarter, they post book reviews to a class blog using Blogger. Using a Google Spreadsheet for each class, I also try to keep abreast of their reading choices as they change, whether students are rejecting or finishing books. Finally, I have a running survey using a Google form that students have been asked to take repeatedly throughout the year each time they finish or switch texts in order to keep general data on their preferences.

The “wins” have been numerous: from students who have cited this as the “first time” they enjoyed a book, to artfully composed, insightful, engaging blog posts, to groans and disappointment when independent reading day had to be rescheduled, there is no doubt that many students are both “giving” and “getting.”

Others, unfortunately, are not. When it came time to write our second blog post of the year, several students were still reading the same book with which they had started the year–some were genuinely still enjoying the book and were close to finishing, yet others had not used time effectively and had hardly made progress, thus, they had very little about which to write on the second blog post. Faced with the prospect of a shallow piece of writing, I felt forced to allow these students, for a lower grade, to complete their posts on classroom readings we had just finished. This is far from an ideal solution, but I do not believe in dishing out zeros when I can find some way for students to participate in the task at hand.

I also have students–many of them seniors–who, at this point in the year, are hard pressed to do any type of reading independently.  For this reason, I am exploring audio options such as audiobooks and quality podcasts for some students. Again, this is not my preference, but I feel that I must expand options in order to gain greater participation during the second half of the school year.

For the most part, Google Forms, Spreadsheets, the Google blogging interface, and Google Classroom have been helpful in disseminating, gathering, and organizing materials and data in this process with predictable glitches along the way.  At one point, our blogs were blocked by the school’s censoring mechanism, something our capable technology experts were quick to fix. At other times, spreadsheets open for students to edit and update were not accessible to all students since only freshmen and sophomores are currently one-to-one.  This required me to do a lot of “chasing down” in order to keep information current, as students frequently forget to update spreadsheets at home.

In the end, giving students choice is worth it, and I’ll keep throwing and blocking punches to stay in the ring.

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.

Paperless Research Papers

It’s March… which means we have entered the “Heartbreak Hill” section of the teaching marathon. Not only this month mark the longest stretch of uninterrupted teaching all year, it also marks the point where I embark on the yearly task of teaching research papers.

The month of March consists of me teaching students: why we cite sources, how to research with scholarly sources from peer reviewed databases, how to write introductions, why Wikipedia is not an approved source. And of course, how to capitalize letters… Just kidding on the last one.

In all seriousness, writing research papers with high school students can be frustrating because so much of what humanities teachers do during the writing process is antiquated. Students simply don’t understand the purpose of writing research papers. I think most students believe we are simply trying to make them jump through hoops. “Cite that source!” “Double space that paper!” “Size 12 Times New Roman Font!” These are actual quotes from a nightmare I had a few nights ago!

This is a copy of an assignment I provide to my U.S. History II Honors students. It describes details of the assignment and the requirements of the paper.

As a history teacher at Waltham High, teaching research papers has always been the Wild West. The only requirement placed on teachers is that we have students write a research paper at some point during the year. The assignment itself depends on the teacher. I usually write a traditional research paper with my students.

This month’s blog post illustrates my attempts to utilize Google Classroom and Google Docs in an effort for students to complete research papers without actual paper. I attempted to rely solely on these online platforms for the writing, submission, and grading of papers. Not a radical idea by any means, but also one I had not yet tried.

A screenshot of the first page you see when you enter a Google Classroom. It displays the active classes you have. A screenshot of a few assignments I posted on Google Classroom.

Google Classroom is an application featured through the Google Suite and it is offered strictly to teachers. There is no surprise in the name, it offers an online classroom similar to online platforms like Edmodo. Since Waltham High School (WHS) provides all students with a google account students simply have to log in to their Google Account to access the Classroom application. Students must use their WHS account to access Google Classroom, they would be denied access if they attempted to log in with a home account.

Once students log in, they can join a teacher’s classroom by entering a password that is provided by the teacher. Once inside the

More Google Classroom assignments. classroom, an email is sent to students whenever a new assignment is created by their teacher or when their teacher has returned or graded one of their assignments.

For the teacher, Google Classroom serves as a place to post assignments. Assignments can be anything from a discussion question that asks students to post a response, to an essay that needs to have a document attached.

Over the course of this year, I have used Google Classroom for small formative assessments. This allowed me to familiarize my students with the application, so that we wouldn’t have logistical problems when we depended on it later in the year.  The early use of Google Classroom was building towards my larger goal for the month of March: to use Google Classroom as the sole platform for interacting with students’ work while they wrote traditional research projects.

A PDF attachment of a reading and questions posted on my Google Classroom.

Throughout the year, I have created many different types of assignments for my students to complete in our Google Classroom. The first week of school my students posted answers to discussion questions, and followed links to surveys about themselves. Later in the year, students completed extra credit readings and attached answers to questions. Students also were able to access links to Google Form quizzes (mentioned in an earlier post).

This year I told students that I was not accepting hard copies of their research paper. I know this may seem like a radical move, but I think going paperless makes complete sense. It cuts out excuses about printers and allows students to turn in assignments from any device. Therefore, students were to type their research papers in Google Docs and submit them through Google Classroom. Throughout the month of March, I posted assignments that asked students to attach segments of their research project as we progressed to the final copy. In the end, each student attached a draft of their paper as well as a final, edited copy.

Unsurprisingly, I have really enjoyed using Google Classroom. For one, it has allowed me to go almost completely paperless. Instead of having students flood me with paper, I have electronic copies that I can edit and grade online through Google Docs. Students can see the changes or suggestions I have made and decide whether to reject or accept them.

A paper I edited and made comments on in Google Docs.Another paper I edited and made comments on in Google Docs.

More importantly, I find myself grading electronic rough drafts and final copies much faster than paper copies. Therefore, I am saving precious time. Furthermore, I can post students grades as soon as I am done grading and send them an email notification letting them know that I have finished reviewing their paper.

Overall, I think using Google Classroom for project submission andA screenshot of the screen a teacher sees while grading on Google Classroom. Google Docs for essay writing is a no brainer. I think the only drawback to Google Classroom is that sometimes students are stumped by its interface. I have had a few students unsure of where to post on the Google Classroom, so they simply email me the paper. It is a small frustration, but one I can handle.

In sum, I recommend going paperless and using Google Classroom and Google Docs to write traditional research papers. I think it saves time, cuts out excuses about printer and computer problems, and prevents students from losing papers or forgetting to save their papers. And of course, the trees will thank you!