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.

Where to go next…

In a whirlwind first half of the school year, I have found myself doing exactly what I said I hoped to avoid in my first post: resort back to standard teaching methods and techniques. So far I believe I have a lot of room for improvement in terms of incorporating technology in a more meaningful way in my classroom. My students have worked on a project where they utilized ChatterPix, Explain Everything, and Padlet, but other than this example, technology use has been reserved for Kahoot review games and the online textbook. This is not what I had envisioned at the start of the year, but I am starting to figure out ways to engage the students with technology.

My goal/research question for the year is to investigate how technology can enhance student understanding of primary source documents. My approach at the beginning of the year was to introduce my standard pen and paper strategies for analyzing primary sources. This includes the SOAPS method (Speaker Occasions Audience Purpose Subject Bias) and annotation as a way of engaging with a source. As students have written essays for Document-Based Questions and have encountered more varied primary sources, I am beginning to investigate ways to analyze primary sources through the use of technology.

The first step in this next phase was to conduct surveys to gauge student comfort with technology and whether or not they would prefer to use technology to analyze primary sources. The results for my surveys conducted in my classes are below:

These results show me that most of my students are very noncommittal when it comes to primary sources, but they do feel as though they learn a lot about history through the use of primary sources. These results also show me that many students “agree” that they would benefit from using more technology and online resources in class. This was very telling for me and shows me that I need to be truly intentional with my methods and how I incorporate technology in the classroom. I know I need to avoid simply digitizing my current teaching practices and go beyond to better promote student engagement with and understanding of primary sources.

In this process I am currently gathering various tools and technological methods for students to analyze primary sources. One tool that has become of particular interest for me is the Read and Write tool from Google. We completed a professional development workshop utilizing this tool, and I believe that it would be very beneficial for my students as a method of analyzing sources in my classroom. One benefit that I love about this tool is how students can collaborate, annotate, and highlight on the same document.

My plan moving forward is to be intentional about researching and implementing these strategies over February vacation. I am looking forward to taking the time over the break to plan activities and lessons around this increased use of technology with the focus on how these strategies can be implemented in a meaningful way. As the year progresses, it will be vital for me to make sure to not lose track of my long-term goal of improving understanding of primary sources in my history classroom, and I know it starts with a lot of work on the front end in making sure the structures are in place for the students to be successful. I am up for the challenge!

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.

They See Themselves as Writers!

The Basics

This year I have been focusing on using technology to help my 3rd grade inclusion students access grade level content and to be able to create their own work in a way that is both accessible and meaningful for them.  We started small, letting students use Google docs to type their writing in order to help with typing skills and the readability of their work.  This allowed them to make the font larger, apply high contrast backgrounds, and most importantly, edit their work quickly and neatly.   Using a Google Doc also allowed me and other teachers to go into their writing and give them real time feedback.  I noticed that it was particularly helpful for me to highlight the exact parts of their writing that needed edits.  

 

Extra Tools in Google Docs

Once the students understood the basics of how to use Google Docs and how to share their work, I was able to teach a few of my students who are working to master phonics skills, to use the speech to text feature.  This seemingly simple tool was freeing for so many of the students who have amazing ideas for their writing, but get caught up in the logistics of spelling words.  Students would often spend the entire writing block working on one paragraph or a few sentences because spelling the words was labor intensive for them.  Once they had taken the time to write the word, they had forgotten their idea and the rest of the sentence.  Students use the speech to text feature, edit their work, and then print their document to turn in with the rest of the class’s handwritten assignments.  The students were completely engaged with their writing, and were amazed to see themselves filling an entire page with their words.

 

Moving Toward Google Classroom

In the weeks since we started using the Google platform to help students access content in the area of writing we have continued to learn as both teachers and students.  We have created a Google Classroom where we are posting writing assignments.  This has meant that we can go in and look at students work without them having to share the doc with us, which saves time.  It also keeps all of the writing organized.  We have also been able to move from using the comments in the doc as encouragement, to really putting in some substantial edits and individual goals for students.  My favorite was hearing about how excited the students were to see that I had “popped into their writing” and was able to give them feedback  from home on a day I was not in their classroom.

From here I hope to shift more of their work into Google Classrooms.  I will most likely start by uploading their guided reading books so they can use the Google Read and Write tool to troubleshoot words and definitions, practice their fluency, as well as annotate what they are reading.

It’s hard to tell who is more excited about using this in our classroom, me or them!

 

Technology: A Key Component to a Multi-Sensory Approach to Learning

Last year, as I was navigating through the uncharted waters, also known as my first year of teaching, I couldn’t help but notice how limited my knowledge and abilities were on the use of technology in my classroom. About halfway through my first year, I began to use a projector, but pathetically my use of technology ended there. As I went on peer visits in my school, to observe other teachers in my building, I was in awe of the use of technology in some of the classrooms I visited. Students in the middle schools have this amazing resource at the touch of their fingertips, an IPad, and I had no clue how to use it.

At the beginning of this school year, I reviewed different units and lessons from my first year, and I noticed something missing across the board: the use of technology, specifically IPads. This was not okay. I knew I needed to take advantage of the technology available to teachers and students in our district. As I started to think about how I wanted to incorporate technology into my classroom, I knew I wanted to connect the use of technology to the individual styles of learning and instruction present in a special education classroom. As a special educator, I know how beneficial a multi-sensory approach to learning is for students with disabilities. So how can I use technology a means of incorporating a multi-sensory approach to learning in my classroom?

 

The students I teach in my program are auditory, visual, and/or tactile learners. Some of my students benefit from all three approaches, and some students identify only with one learning style. As I get to know my students, I am able to identify how each student learns best, and can then adjust my practice accordingly to fit each student’s needs. However, as a middle school teacher, I know this is not only the time to teach academics and social skills, it is also the time to teach independence. A goal for most of my students is for them to become more responsible in their learning experience. With the technology accessible to students today, it is important for all students, especially those with difficulties in their reading, written expression, organization, etc., to know how to use technology to their advantage.

Students needs to be explicitly taught, and before I can have the expectation that students will use technology to accommodate their multi-sensory approaches to learning, I need to understand myself how this can be done. Through the course of this year, I will be exploring how technology can be used as a multi-sensory approach to learning, specifically for students with disabilities. The more I learn about this amazing resource, the better I will be able to explicitly teach my students on how to use this tool as a complement to their individual learning styles.

Developing a Research Question: Ready, Tech, Go!

Hi, I’m Jennifer Ostayan, I am a special education teacher at the Whittemore School, and this year I will be working with students in three fantastic 2nd and 3rd grade inclusion classrooms.  Previously, I taught inclusion kindergarten for 9 years.   I am equal parts excited and nervous about the WINproject this year, as I feel that tech is really my thing, but not so much the blogging/sharing my work in a public way.  

I am always looking for and experimenting with meaningful ways to enhance my students learning by integrating technology.  I have found over the past few years that technology has been a way for all of my students to participate in a way that meets their individual needs.  My own use of technology use in the classroom has evolved quite a bit over the years.  I often refer to the SAMR Model to frame technology use in my classroom, and a lot of my early work was in the sphere of augmentation, or using technology to improve the functionality of a task that my students could really do without technology at all.  For example, using a drawing program on an iPad to illustrate during writing).  Over time the purpose of technology in my classroom has changed, and I have found that my students are getting the most from the higher level tasks in the spheres of modification and redefinition, and are really using the technology to do something that was not possible before.  An example of this is using the app Book Creator to upload pages of their writing, record their voices reading their words, and then publishing the video of their books being read aloud.

This year, in my new grade levels and role in the classroom, I am starting with a very broad research question: How can I leverage technology in the classroom to allow my students to access grade level content?  My goal is to make sure my students are included the meaningful and complex work that is being done in their classrooms, in a way that makes sense and is accessible to their individual needs.  For the first few weeks of school I plan to get to know my students, deeply understand their needs, learning styles, and what supports need to be in place to help them be successful.  From there I will have a better idea of action steps to take this year, and to refine my research question.  In the meantime, I have included a concept map that broadly looks at the factors that will influence my practice this year.

WINproj

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.