One Simple Thing

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One thing teachers can do immediately to benefit students is to communicate electronically with students and their families. There are many options for doing so, and depending on how much autonomy you have within your school, you might want to explore a variety of tools to find the best fit for you and your classroom.

As a former teacher and current learning consultant and parent of two school-aged children, my experiences tell me that clear and regular communication with families is really important. This may seem like a no-brainer, but in this day and age, it’s even more essential. Busy families rely on technology, particularly cell phones, for communication, and papers tend to get lost in the household shuffle.

At my house, we appreciate frequent electronic communication because my sixth grader has a mild executive functioning learning disability, meaning that she has difficulty with organization. As Julia begins junior high, I need quick access to her assignments and grades to make sure everything is running smoothly for her. While I hope I am not “a helicopter parent”, I do know that I have to be in tune with her school life. As a typical pre-adolescent, she’s not always forthcoming about such details!

Given that she’s my kid, it’s not particularly surprising that Julia thrives in a digital environment, too. I decided a few weeks ago that I would help Julia get organized electronically as she received an iPhone as a birthday gift. Experimenting with a web-based tool called LiveBinders, I wanted to organize her teachers’ web sites in one place so that she could quickly access course material on her new device. Much to my surprise, only a couple of her teachers had currently updated web sites. One was published, but contained the original Latin placeholder text that comes standard with Apple’s iWeb software. The teacher had yet to fill in sections of her web site with her own content, and Julia thought her teacher’s web site was in Spanish when she saw this!

I’m uncomfortable publicly criticizing schools where my children attend, and I have to say that in all other ways, we are really happy and impressed with Julia’s school. Her teachers are energetic, love teaching, and care about our daughter. I do wonder why more of her teachers aren’t utilizing the web more efficiently to help kids and their families, though. At her previous school, Julia regularly accessed the web site of her world language teacher who posted assignments, handouts, and audio files to support student learning and it made a huge difference in helping Julia learn to help herself.

It’s always been a struggle to get teachers to see the value in communicating with students and families via the web. People don’t have time, don’t see the point, and don’t readily see the benefits for publishing a web page. Some teachers I’ve known believe that posting assignments enables students to not accurately keep their traditional assignment notebooks.

When this issue came up with my daughter’s school, I felt that it was not my place to dictate what teachers should do, and thought perhaps I was missing something about this debate. Thus, I posted the following question to my Facebook page, and trusted friends and acquaintances from all walks of my life responded:

Do you think teachers should keep an updated web page to communicate with parents? Is it really that difficult to post a minimum of information to keep parents (and kids) updated?

The responses varied, but all agreed some sort of communication was essential. One teacher noted that she had less parent phone calls and email because everything was clearly posted on her class website. Another said she kept a blog, and the parents loved it, while a third indicated, “My parents, over the years, have come to depend on updated information available 24/7 as well as a way to connect with other parents.” And another teacher friend wrote, “When my son was in middle school, the teachers posted all the homework assignments to their district web pages each day. It made a HUGE difference to us! My son has ADD and having that information available 24/7 helped keep him on track. Now that he is in HS, there is nothing like that available and I really miss that.” Even a university professor shared how she’s utilizing the web in her courses, “I regularly use email, wikispaces, university course management software, and so on in my classes. I even use blogs to ‘channel’ student questions and discussion. I’m not the world’s most creative person, but even I can take advantage of these tools to make my teaching better.”

On the negative side, another friend who’s involved in the PTA at her daughter’s school wrote, “I can’t even get my 3rd grader’s teacher to answer an e-mail….The teachers in our district were all given websites a few years ago, and were expected to use them. I have yet to see one who does it…..I do the website and e-mail for our PTA, and have been able to track how well we are actually staying in touch. Very few parents check our website; site visits are virtually nonexistent between e-mail messages. In other words, they only go if I remind them, AND usually only for something they really want or need to know. In middle school, parents are expected to get online daily to check on their children. However, there seems to be no expectation that the teachers will update in a timely and accurate way–I am very disappointed in the fact that we’ve invested so much in technology, and this is the best we can do.” This opens up another can of worms in terms of expected norms and accountability in the use of technology in schools.

Finally, another educator added to our Facebook thread with a creative spin around the student role in communication, “What I do instead is frequently write lengthy newsletters and updates; I’m a familiar name in the parents’ email inboxes. I try to give the overall perspective on what’s going on, but not details about assignment due dates, etc. (unless it’s a really big assignment and parental involvement would be helpful). Every other week or so, I assign my students the task of taking their parents on tours of our class online network. There the parents will see descriptive student essays (blogs) on recent activities, photos, reviews of books, and the like. They’ll be able to look at recent conversations the kids and I have been having.” How about this approach for promoting student autonomy!

At any rate, to answer my original question, there really is no right or wrong way to communicate with parents, just as long as teachers do it on a regular and consistent basis. Giving parents a window into the life of your clasroom is beneficial for so many reasons and it doesn’t have to be difficult.

In a follow up post sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll suggest some ways for getting started if you want to go the electronic route. In the meantime, I hope that teachers who are already leveraging blogs, wikis, and other kinds of web spaces will share their sites in the comments in order to inspire others.

Overlooking the Obvious by Bob Sprankle

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“The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve recently finished reading the outstanding book by Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success. I highly recommend it, so much so, that I don’t want to give away too much of what makes it an essential book for educators. I do want to “zoom in” on one of the final chapters that discusses what could be one of the most glaring and obvious ways to “fix” the current problems that “ails” the US school system.

There’s a lot of great discussion going around thanks to the documentary, Waiting for Superman, MSNBC’s Education Nation, as well as rhetoric in recent elections. I haven’t had the chance to see Superman yet, and admittedly, I saw little of Education Nation, but I’ve read plenty about both. My informal assessment is that both avenues shine positive and negative light on the systems we have in place at present. There’s some bashing going on, but there’s also praise. It seems universal, however, that most people agree that they want things to get better. Fair or accurate representations from the media are important, but even if they get it wrong, this is an excellent opportunity for national conversation.

The chapter I’m referring to in Gladwell’s book Outliers, seems to me to be one of the most obvious places to start the conversation. As Gladwell states,

“Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates. It is considered a permanent and inviolate feature of school life, like high school football or the senior prom.”

He goes on to smash this untouchable tradition by citing the work of Johns Hopkins University Sociologist Karl Alexander (his research into “Summertime Learning Loss”), and then hits us smack in the head with numbers that are indisputable: Number of school days for the South Korean school year is 220 days. Japan: 243 days.

United States: 180 days.

The whole point of Gladwell’s book is that more time to practice skills is what leads to the “outliers” —those that reach high levels of success. He provides anecdotes and evidence that those with the opportunity for more time, will undoubtedly rise to the top. Gladwell refutes the idea that talent is what makes great basketball players, musicians, mathematicians, writers, fill-in-the-blank, etc. It is time that makes greatness. Time to really learn and practice a skill, as well as not having an unjustifiable and extended break (such as summer vacation) to unlearn or become rusty at skills attained, is the difference between good and great.

243 days – 180 days = 63 days of advantage.

There used to be a reason for summer furlough (and Gladwell explains the difference between Western agricultural needs vs Asian agricultural needs), but students are clearly no longer needed to be home to help get the crops in during the summer months. Again, I refer you to the research Gladwell cites from Karl Alexander to illustrate the damage that this time off has on students —most notably, on lower income populations who suffer a larger loss, as evidenced in the data. In short, students of lower income lack the opportunities for “continued learning opportunities” that more affluent students have access to during the summer months.

Perhaps “No Child Left Behind” would have been better served with the title: “Leave no Month Behind.”

As Gladwell points out, “Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates.” Counter-arguments or conversation-stoppers on the subject most likely come in the form of “We’ve always done it like this,” or “High School students need summers off to make income for college tuition,” or “This would have a severe impact on the economy as dollars are no longer put into summer vacation circulation,” or even, “Give me Summers Off, or Give Me Death!”

These and other arguments are not to be treated lightly. There are some very important decisions that would have to be made, and perhaps even hardships incurred that changing to a year-long school curriculum would require.

I surely don’t have the answers to the infinite conundrums that could be caused by giving up summer (read Gladwell; he makes a better argument than I can make, and he’s not alone), but the numbers don’t lie: the data from Alexander’s research are impressive, and, I think we can all agree that a 63 days difference between American school days and Japanese school days is by no means insignificant. There’s got to be some “out of the box” thinking for restructuring our school year to either include more days, or perhaps distribute more evenly the large gap of nearly 3 months that depletes learning across the year, rather than keeping that time lumped together in its current summer vacation embodiment.

Here’s my biggest worry, however. Let’s say a “magic wand” is waved and somehow we expand our school days to a number closer to Japan’s. What I fear is that rather than finally having time to master (even “conquer”) the curriculum we already have in place (that is already given short shrift), even more will be added on. This won’t help at all, will it? We’ll be in a worse situation: still not enough time to accomplish the curriculum, and now even more curriculum to not have enough time to accomplish.

Gladwell gives an excellent example towards the end of the book from the KIPP Academy where students are given extended time to solve math problems. He demonstrates that the extended time allows for the teacher and students to make “mathematics meaningful.” After all, what’s the rush? Is it more important to make sure we cover the required content, or make sure that the students are given all the time necessary to acquire the content?

————

Bob Sprankle is a Technology Integrator in Maine, writer, blogger, podcaster, iphoneographer enthusiast, and father. He is humbled and honored to be asked to be a guest blogger for November Learning. To learn more about Bob, head on over to www.bobsprankle.com.

Student Ownership in Digital Classrooms

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Young Writers Project teaches a Master’s Practicum in Digital Learning. It’s yearlong, and we supply teachers with a customized digital classroom site, built in Drupal, that we refer to as a “creative management system.” The Master’s class focuses on having the teachers learn by doing; we help them fold the site into their curriculum as they go, and they reflect on what happens and what they learn on a private space on another of our sites, digitalteachers.net, that mirrors their school digital classroom. Teachers can see and feel what it’s like to be a digital classroom student.

I love this class. The teachers come from schools that are 220 miles apart. We have teachers from grades 3 through 12; some are brand new some have been teaching for 20+ years. We have two librarians, two science teachers and an art teacher. Apart from their different styles, experience, knowledge of technology and personalities, they have enormous differences between their schools — in terms of leadership, policies AND students. For instance, recently we spent quite a bit of time in one group talking about the startling difference between three teachers’ requirements for assessing student work. One teacher has to post data responses on rubrics for each kid once a week;  another has to devote 8 classes during the year for on-demand portfolio writing that is sent out for external assessment; and a third said, “I’d die if I had to do that; I grade them. And I write up my observations about their progress at the end of the year.” And knowing the latter teacher, I bet those are  detailed, useful, observant assessments. But more on that at another time.

What is great is to see the very different approaches the teachers are taking in their digital classrooms.

Two teachers in the class are a team — she language arts, he science. I’ve known these guys for nearly 7 years and this story should tell you what kind of teachers they are: Three years ago YWP held a kid-organized writing workshop on a day that had the most miserable weather of the year. And for those of you who’ve never been to Vermont, well, it ain’t no Arizona. Thirty-two kids came to the session (we had no power for the first hour) and the language arts teacher drove almost two hours to bring two of her students. (Her science partner was flattened with illness so couldn’t make it.) Oh, I forgot to mention, it was a Saturday. Why did she make the trip? “Because I knew how much this meant to the kids.”

So flash forward. The two teachers love the digital classroom. They’ve never used one before, but they are finding all sorts of uses for it as they go.  And their involving the kids in how it gets used. The other day, on a whim, the language arts teacher decided to create a tag on the site called “extra.” Then she told the  7th and 8th graders that they were free to use the “extra” tag anytime they wanted to post something they’d done on their own or anything they wanted to share; but she also said there’d be no additional credit, no assessment and she and her partner probably wouldn’t have time to read them all. That was 10 days ago.

So here’s what the 46 seventh graders have done: They’ve posted 52 “extras.”  Just for the heck of it.  (Some important context: This school has only one computer lab that’s in constant use and you have to sign up a week in advance. So these guys haven’t had that many class visits to the site. Additional detail: Last Sunday at 7:30 a.m. eight kids were logged onto the site.)  In 6 weeks, with only a few visits to the site in class, the 7th graders have posted 245 pieces of writing and 810 comments to each other. Er, make that 811, a kid just posted something.

Here’s an excerpt of what one of the teachers posted on her own blog in the Master’s class space:

Every so often, we have them work on a piece that is graded. Because we talk about the requirements for the graded pieces, and because we give feedback for pieces to be submitted to be published with Young Writers Project, students are beginning to understand the value of good comments.

So what does all this tell me? That these 7th graders are beginning to own this space; never mind that it’s part of school; never mind that it’s a place where they also do homework. And it tells me that this pair of teachers is allowing these kids to set their own course, take control of what’s going on and engage. On their own.

So this is further evidence that when you use digital classrooms, and I’m not talking about individual student blogs that are oprhaned somewhere by their lonesome out there in the ethernet, but when you have your students post on digital spaces where they can easily see each other’s work and freely comment, help the students feel like it’s their space. Here’s how:

  • Let the students post freely with no moderation.
  • Don’t give them the power to delete; they’ll figure out that in a nano second and will know that if they post something inappropriate everyone will see.
  • Lead them in an exercise where they set the rules for commenting.
  • Gently nudge them about the quality of their commenting (and model with your own commenting) until they begin to realize its true value.
  • From time to time, show them some of the comments and ask them whether they’re following their own rules.
  • Let go a bit; give them control on what’s going on and be comfortable with the fact you are NOT going to be able to read everything.
  • Create an “extra” tag.

So I appreciate these teachers and what they are doing. Their names, by the way, are Cindy Faughnan and Rick Schluntz and they teach at Hartford Memorial Middle School in White River Junction, VT.

Geoffrey Gevalt is founder of Young Writers Project, a small nonprofit in Vermont dedicated to helping students become better writers. To see the project’s work, visit youngwritersproject.org, digitalteachers.net or ywpschools.net He can be reached at ggevalt (at) youngwritersproject.org

Digital Writing and YWP

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So let me jump into your first question: Who is this guy?

My name is Geoffrey Gevalt and I am a new NL guest blogger. For 33 years I was a journalist; I believed it a calling, a profession, really, that was affirmed by the First Amendment and that necessitated long hours, low pay, dogged and sometimes unsuccessful journeys and greasy food consumed late at night and washed down with beer. I was lucky enough to work with superb editors and writers and along the way I picked up a few  awards as both a writer and editor. For two years I had the privilege of choosing the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Beat Reporting and, if pressed, could give you details from many of the entries I read. I am proud to say that three people I selected, candidates that I fought for, eventually won and if we ever meet and you’ve gotten your head around the math problem there, I’ll tell you the story.

As you can tell, I was born in the Early Jurassic Period, which fell just before the Late Great Newspaper Demise Period. And, if ever we meet, I will get into my rap about how the retraction of the American news business has been the primary cause of the decrease in our nation’s collective civic knowledge and the increase in our lack of civility in public discourse. But I will spare you that discussion here.

Because I am now a digital educator. And my life has a different mission. And I have different concerns: I believe that if we can get kids to write well they will gain confidence, learn more, succeed more and become better citizens. But we are woefully neglecting writing in our schools and in this new digital world, where writing is needed more than ever, we are doing a tremendous disservice to our kids — particularly disadvantaged kids — by not teaching them how write their way out of a paper bag.

Thankfully, many students, teachers and principals agree with me.

(more…)

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