Sunday, March 22, 2015

DigiLit Sunday: Why Leaders Should Be Connected

Not too long ago we received an email from our superintendent titled:  Follow Your Passion.  Apparently he sensed the apprehension growing over upcoming mandated testing.  The email was several paragraphs in length and sent to remind us to stay focused on what we do.  Here's a piece of the letter:  
"Don't allow outside forces to compromise your classroom environment, building culture, or faith in yourself.  Good teaching trumps all... teach well and let the tests take care of themselves.  Be true to your passion and true to your students."  Dr. John Marschhausen
This was a timely email, perhaps a result of a growing anxiousness about testing that seemed to be starting to build in buildings and even in social media.  We have been fortunate in the last few years to have leaders working to stay connected using email, blogging platforms, Google, VoiceThread, and social media, among other digital tools.  As a teacher in a large district, I appreciate the time leaders take to stay connected.

It didn't seem uncommon, years ago, to sit in a meeting and hear about a new initiative that seemed to just come from nowhere.  It was hard to process it all.  All of a sudden there would be something new we were doing, and as a teacher you worked to catch up to it.  It didn't seem uncommon to talk to teachers in one building who had different information than we had in another building.  Leaders made a good effort to keep everyone informed, but information shared in meetings and through people will arrive in different ways and at different times.  It feels different now with leaders staying connected; messages are more consistent.

Not only are messages more consistent, but it is easy to see the unfolding of ideas across time.  Many of our technology, curriculum, and administrative leaders have started to share and collaborate using Twitter.  I've found following these accounts and conversations has helped me to stay informed and continued to inspire me across the school year.  As district leaders have thought about developing a growth mindset, blended learning, digital literacy, personalization, grading practice, assessment, and re-visioning school, they've shared interesting articles they've discovered, new steps being considered, and ways to grow the work we do with children.  It is easy to see the collaboration and learning happening across the district.

In addition to supporting a journey of learning, they have helped to tell the story of the work we do.  They've shared the work of committees and the conversations in community meetings.  They've shared the stories of the many things happening throughout our district.  It's much easier to see the connectedness of our learning environments.

Finally, it would be easy in any district to get caught up in our own work and lose sight of envisioning new possibilities.  Connected leaders continue to grow in their own thinking as they have conversations and follow the thinking of colleagues around the globe.  Many have grown their personal learning networks and started to participate in larger conversations that push their thinking.  There's something exciting about being in a community where learning, sharing, and risk-taking are becoming common.  Connected leaders make a difference.  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Considering Social Learning when Grouping

What can students learn from
one another?  
"I don't get it," Autumn said as she looked up from her copy of Henry and Mudge:  The First Book.  It wasn't a surprise to me that she was confused as I had been watching the question grow in her facial expression as she read and reread the sentence.  The book said Henry would never worry again, but this didn't make sense to Autumn who was sure that Mudge had run away on purpose because Henry was upset with him.

"What are you thinking?" I asked, trying to get to where her confusion might be, but allowing her to continue to sort it out.

"It just doesn't make sense," she said as she reread the sentence to me.  "Why wasn't he going to worry?"  I waited for her to continue, but she did not.  

"Why don't you go ahead and finish the chapter.  Then we can come back to this part and talk about it," I suggested thinking that maybe the last part might help her to put her thinking together a bit more.  I also knew that talking about this with another student might allow her to sort out her question a bit more.

After the pair finished reading we returned to the book.  "What you did was important to understanding the story," I reminded Autumn.  "Sometimes readers will just skip a part that is confusing, but you reread and looked back a bit to think more about what the author said.  Can you share with your friend the part that seemed confusing?" I inquired.

Autumn reread the part, and Matthew looked thoughtfully at her for a minute before he replied.  "I think he won't worry because he knows where to find Mudge now," Matthew considered.

They went back and forth for a bit, discussing the question, going into the text, and considering different possibilities as to why Henry felt this way.  As they talked I inquired, "Do you think Mudge ran away or got lost?"  The two readers continued to think about this.  I wasn't looking for a particular answer as much as I was hoping to get them to use evidence from the story to think about it.  When they would reply I would ask that they show me the place that made them think that.

Matthew quickly went back into the text to use parts of the story to support his thinking.  This was harder for Autumn, but I could tell she was listening to Matthew and really considering what he was saying.  He was causing her to rethink some of the events in the story.

As I listened to these two talk about the story, I began to think about how important diversity in our grouping can be.  There are many reasons we pull small groups together, but often it is because we have noticed they need the same thing.  Sometimes groups get put together for a particular reason, and then we forget to really rethink our purpose and keep moving students around.

As I listened to these two talk together, I began to think about how individuals construct information with other learners.  Matthew gave Autumn new things to think about.  He challenged her thinking and because these two respect one another, they listened to each other and were willing to reconsider what they thought they knew.  While Matthew helps Autumn to reconsider new thinking, Autumn helps Matthew to look a little more deeply into text.  Her questioning slowed him down a bit, and reduced his tendency to speed through reading with only surface level understanding.

When we think about a child's zone of proximal development (Vygotsky), that space between what they know and what can do with support, we often think about how we as teachers can help them to make the next shift in understanding.  I try to continually remind myself that this theory is a social theory in nature and that sometimes the most powerful shifts in understanding really come from conversations with peers who often are closer in language to where the student is.  Often the rapport students have with one another can help lift learners to new places.

There are many things to consider when grouping students for learning including what they understand and what they need to know next, but I'm trying to think more and more about what learners can get from one another.  Instead of focusing solely on what they need, I'm trying to think more about what learners can bring to one another.  How can I bring students into a group to compliment the thinking of one another?  How can I bring students together so they can help each other reach new understandings?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

DigiLit Sunday: The Digital Maker Playground

Photo:  Pete Proedohl
Professional development is no longer confined to physical spaces.  A myriad of opportunities are available for professional learning across social media, through blogs, and in online learning spaces.  Educators are busy so opportunities to learn in different spaces and at a variety of times opens new doors.

Julie Johnson and I are hosting the digital playground for educators in our district and around the world to connect and learn from one another.  The Digital Maker Playground is MOOC-ish digital maker space where participants gather to share and learn together.

Teachers work together
during the Live Workshop.
The Digital Maker Playground
The Digital Maker Playground, #P2Lmooc, is a unique opportunity open to everyone near and far. All educators are invited to play with us as we explore new tools, create and compose projects around themes, as well as share and collaborate with one another.  The Digital Maker Playground is located on Google Plus where participants can ask questions, discuss topics, and share makes.  The goal is to allow time to consider meaningful digital composition while providing opportunities to connect with other creators.

The course takes place across April and May with a new make every other week.  Currently the community has over 50 participants from local districts and around the globe.  The course is free and open to anyone who would like to participate.  You are welcome to join the fun.

Our Makes 
Our first make was sharing our maker space with one another.  A variety of tools were utilized to share our spaces.  (You can view the maker spaces here.)  This week our next make will be posted in our Digital Maker Playground.    The next make is about lifting a line from literature and finding a way to share it with the community.

Our first live workshop.
Every two weeks, Julie and I host a live workshop for those who would like to attend.  Our first workshop was two weeks ago.  We were excited to have so many people join the workshop from our district as well as neighboring districts.  The time is for participants to work, ask questions, and puzzle things out together.  It was fun to watch everyone work together and share what they know.

Professional development is no longer confined to one space and one time.  Opportunities like this allow us to learn and grow together in a supportive learning community.

As part of a continuous collaboration among educators interested in digital learningMargaret Simon hosts a weekly Digital Learning round-up on her blog:  DigiLit Sunday.  Stop by Reflections on the Teche (today's link-up) to read, discover, and link.  

Keeping Schedules & Plans Flexible

"When I suggest that we must 'teach with a sense of urgency' I'm not talking about teaching prompted by anxiety but rather about making every moment in the classroom count, about ensuring that our instruction engages students and moves them ahead, about using daily evaluation and reflection to make wise teaching decisions."  Regie Routman, Reading Essentials (p. 41) 
Whether a classroom teacher or an intervention specialist, in our roles as educators, it becomes much too easy to get caught up in our routines and schedules.  Before we know it, we can be cycling through groups and schedules with superficial attention to the learning going on within them.  We work hard to keep an eye on learning as we observe our students.  What do they know now?  What's next?  How can we best support these next steps?

As a primary intervention teacher, I'm fortunate to work with teachers who are very willing to rethink schedules and learning plans for students.  In the last few weeks, a variety of circumstances have given me reason to look at my intervention schedule yet again and see if I can make changes.  New data, changes in teaching focus, and classroom teacher's schedules have created the need to rethink the way the day looks.  It's not always easy to revision something we have grown comfortable doing.  I'm fortunate to be able to go to other intervention teachers, our literacy coach, and other classroom teachers for fresh eyes and new possibilities in working with students.  When a new need arises in my schedule, but I can't see the solution, I know I can go to these people to puzzle it out and work to make changes.

Every time I plan a schedule change I worry just a bit as I know this will impact teachers in their classrooms.  Yet, these changes are often necessary to make optimal use of the time given for support.  I always keep an open mind to the concerns of everyone impacted by these changes.  There's always a way to accommodate the needs of everyone, it just takes flexible thinking.  These changes have to maintain a balance between support, important classroom instruction, and time for students to work independently to practice new concepts and strategies.  The teachers I work with are always so willing to rethink the time students are receiving support, keeping what's best for children in the forefront of their decision making.  There are always ways to rethink and rework schedules to better meet the needs of students and teachers.  It just sometimes takes some creative thinking.

Time.  There could always be more of it, but the truth is there are ways we can use the time we have more effectively.  What's needed next?  What's most important?  What can we set aside?  To make the best use of the time I do have with students I try to:

  • group students with common needs.
  • set clear learning goals.  (Even better, have students set their own learning goals.)
  • make sure independent learning times are used to work on next steps.
  • move children around often.  
  • stay on the edge of student learning.  
  • use frequent formative assessment to track progress and plan next steps.  

As an intervention teacher, I work to maintain an open dialogue with teachers.  Knowing the focus of learning in classrooms, being aware of classroom schedules, keeping classroom teachers informed of learning goals, and chatting often about students often helps us work together to find ways to support young literacy learners.  It isn't always easy, but together we accomplish much.  

Sunday, March 8, 2015

DigiLit Sunday: Helping Students with Image Use

As part of a continuous collaboration among educators interested in digital learningMargaret Simon hosts a weekly Digital Learning round-up on her blog:  DigiLit Sunday.  Stop by Reflections on the Teche (today's link-up) to read, discover, and link.  

Recently a conversation with first through fifth graders about obtaining photos for their blogs left me sweating.  It went something like this:

Student 1 to Student 2:  "How'd you get that picture on your blog?"
Student 2 to Student 1 (and a gathering crowd): "My big sister helped me.  We just went to Google, found a picture, and then put it in the post like this..."

Me beginning to sweat and the crowd growing.

Yep, the next thing I knew students were headed to Google.  This concerned me for three reasons:  safety, copyright, and digital responsibility.  We managed to work through the situation at the time, but I knew I needed more long term solutions.  Students needed to have a respect for the artistic and creative work of others.  Students needed to know:
  • where to find images safely
  • how to locate images that have acceptable use distinctions
  • how to properly acknowledge the artist/owner of the work (proper attributions)
  • purposeful selection of images
  • alternatives to finding images
Getting Help
The problem was these weren't my students on a daily basis so I needed a way to quickly help them.  The window of time I'd have for this would be limited, and honestly I wasn't sure the best way to support them in this.  How do you teach young literacy learners about copyright in a way they will understand?  

I did what I always do when I'm really stuck.  I turned to Twitter.  I asked for some help from colleagues I collaborate with digitally on a regular basis.  These were some of the responses I received (within minutes!!! They're amazing!!).  

I've been fascinated with [and panicked about] copyright since I first started using the internet.  Mary Lee Hahn really pushed my thinking a few years ago with her poetry work around copyright and creative use in which she used WikiMedia Commons for images to inspire poetry:  Common Inspiration, Uncommon Creations.  Since then, I've been trying to wrap my head around what this means for students.

The Solution
For me, the easy solution to copyright concerns has been to take my own photos.  Using my own images takes the worry away from having to locate a photo with the appropriate copyright.  For this same reason, I've encouraged students to take their own photos to go with their posts.  We will talk more next week about purposeful image selection for our posts.

However, I understand sometimes you just want to find a picture quickly or are looking for a particular type of image.  To help students to locate images with greater ease, I decided to put together links for students to use.  These links have been added to our website and should help these young writers locate images safely:  Merely Reading.  I'm hoping this is the first step in helping students to understand the importance of respecting the work of other creators.  I want them to have good habits now for their work in the future.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Blogging as a Genre

Recently, I sat down with a group of first through fifth graders to kick off our Slice of Life writing group.  Our group would have the goal to write every day in the month of March.  We would meet once a week to provide support for one another.  After much debate I had decided to set up a blog on Kidblog to host all of the writers.  They weren't required to write in this space, students could write on their class blogs or personal blogs if they had one, but most chose to stay in this space.  

As we talked about the blog questions began to surface:
"Can we write about whatever we want?"
"Can I get on the blog whenever I want to get on the blog?"
"Do we just write in the comments?"  

I hadn't expected these questions.  Of course students could write about whatever they wanted, but we did chat a bit our responsibility in public writing.  I assured them they could get on their blog anytime they wanted to get to their blog.  It would be possible for them to access the blog at home, at school, in the library, at grandma and grandpa's house.  I then showed them how they would have their own space to write about topics of their choice.  They wouldn't need to write in comments to my post, but would have their own digital space. 

Considering Blogging as a Genre
I have written before about blogging with young learners:  Am I Crazy?  Blogging with First Graders.  In this post I consider the reasons I think blogging with young learners is an important part of building a learning community.  The day we started our writing event and the conversation with students reminded me of the importance of teaching blogging as a genre.  In today's world, blogging seems like a worthy genre study.  Taking time to help students to understand what blogs can give them as readers and how they could use them as writers is worth some time.  

In teaching blogging as a genre we should consider the purpose of blogging.  Why do bloggers blog?  Why do readers read blogs?  As a reader, I have blogs I follow because I know they provide information I want to know.  I read blogs for entertainment, information, and to push my thinking.  There is something about having "fresh writing" that appeals to me as a reader.  I also read blogs to join conversations with others.  There's something about being able to interact with the author and other readers I find interesting.  As a writer, I blog to ask questions, to reflect, to join larger conversations across blogs, and to connect with an audience.  

In teaching blogging as a genre we should consider the characteristics of blogs.  Providing opportunities for young learners to read blogs and begin to consider the characteristics of these digital spaces through inquiry can help to understand blogging as a genre.  What do you notice as you visit blogs?  What are blogs about?  What does the space usually look like?  There are blogs that write about a particular topic.  You'll find blogs that focus on sports, cooking, books, movies, education, science, gaming, and other areas of interest.  You will find blogs where authors focus their writing around a topic, but you will also find blogs where people share life experiences with a larger audience.  Some bloggers write every day, others weekly or as they are inspired.  It's helpful to understand the features of blogs such as blogrolls, useful links, and other features bloggers will include in their spaces.  

In teaching blogging as a genre it is important to consider the connectedness of blogs.  Blogging changes audience and purpose.  Students can get their writing and thinking beyond the teacher and into their community and the world.  There's so much power to learning that your voice can make others stop to think.  Unlike other genres there is a connectedness to blogging.  There's something about being able to interact with the author to ask questions, add to thinking, or share stories.  There's something about being able to read through comments to find out more or join the conversation.  Often conversations connect across blogs and blogging events often help to support this connectedness.  

In teaching blogging as a genre we have to consider digital responsibility.  Of course, with public writing comes the need to understand our obligation as digital citizens.  In blogging, our writing will speak to who we are as people.  Writers need to understand their voice will be sent into the world so there is an obligation to being thoughtful about our contribution.  Additionally, in blogging there is a responsibility to comment, collaborate, grow conversations, and interact responsibly.  

It seems considering blogging as genre with particular form, content, and style would allow us to open new doors for young writers.  If we use blogging in the traditional ways we've asked students to write so we know if they understand, we have missed the greater possibilities provided through blogging.  Blogging allows writers to extend their voice out into the world.  By allowing students to use blogs in the way they are used by readers and writers in the world, we open the door to new possibility.  Literacy is power and students can learn this by interacting in these connected environments.  

I'd love to hear your thoughts.  What do you think we need to help students to understand about blogging?  How does it change learning?  Can it be considered a genre or is just another place where writing can live?  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

DigiLit Sunday: Growing Communities in Digital Spaces

As part of a continuous collaboration among educators interested in digital learningMargaret Simon hosts a weekly Digital Learning round-up on her blog:  DigiLit Sunday.  Stop by Reflections on the Teche (today's link-up) to read, discover, and link.  

As technology and educational practice evolve I find myself constantly asking new questions. Are the changes I am making improving education for children?  Are the changes I am making helping learners to build connections with other learners?  Do these changes give children more control and ownership of their learning and work?  Is what I am doing best practice or am I just working in old ways in a new space?  

I think we constantly have to ask ourselves if this practice is empowering children in new ways.  If we are just delivering content in the same way, we have missed an opportunity to create spaces that provide information, share resources, encourage interaction and put students in charge of their learning.

One of the greatest gifts of digital spaces is the power to connect.  Digital spaces allow us to connect in new ways within, and beyond, our learning community.  Digital spaces equalize the voices in our learning community.  Everyone can contribute, ask questions, and seek more information.  Digital spaces allow learners to not only create and share with others, but to receive and give feedback to other learners in authentic ways.

Learning in digital spaces can create possibilities for students to own their learning in new ways.  In digital spaces, students can own the work they are producing and collaborate with other learners.  They create content for, not just their teacher, but for a much larger audience.  They can choose learning opportunities that match their personal interests and fit their needs.  They can find answers and revisit challenging material in digital spaces.

Joining Digital Learning Communities:  Slice of Life
Our Slice of Life Writing Group
New connections are possible in digital spaces.  This week begins the Slice of Life Writing Challenge.  Two Writing Teachers host this challenge on their blog, connecting writers and classrooms around the world as they work to write every day in March.  This will be my fourth year in the challenge, and my second year to have a group of students to join the event.  The digital space hosted by Two Writing Teachers will allow us to connect to other classrooms and writers.  We will give and receive feedback from a variety of people, and learn new things about ourselves as writers along the way.

In this event, children aren't writing for the teacher; they are truly writing for an audience that reaches beyond the teacher.  Through the event they will connect with other writers.  They'll learn the power of their message and ways to get people to respond to their writing.  They'll understand the importance of making their writing clear and easier for someone else to read.  The process, and the feedback they will receive, will change them as writers.

Creating a Hub
Anytime I work with a community of learners, I think it is important to create some type of hub.  This is a digital space everyone knows they can visit for links to other spaces, important updates, and other  information that becomes useful as we work together.  Typically I use Weebly to create hubs with student learners.  In the case of Slice of Life, I chose Weebly for my hub as it will allow me to create a page for updates, links, information, insert video, and build a space useful for writers.  By adding a page to my Merely Reading website, I can easily bring together our community by putting all information in one space:  March Slice of Life Challenge.  On our page you'll find:    

Students learn to start at the hub.
Once students arrive at the site, they can click the blue
button to get our blogging space.

Buttons will take students directly to the
blogs of friends participating in the event. 

Here we will grow important links to other
participating classrooms and build resources for
helping writers.

The page allows me to continually
share important information with students
and families.  (Yes, snacks are important.)

I can also create short video tutorials
to answer questions commonly asked by students.
(I can also post video created by students here as well.)

This year my group of writers are students in grades 1-5.  They come from a variety of classrooms, and have a varying amount of knowledge of writing and digital publication.  For this reason, I know I will need space to create short video tutorials and share important updates.

New Possibilities
Digital spaces allow us grow our learning communities so students can access information outside of our school day.  Writers will be able to go to the website from anywhere, at anytime, to get to their digital writing spaces, access important information, receive help, and connect to other writers.  These possibilities completely shift the dynamic of learning.  No longer are conversations only teacher to student, but instead student to student, student to community, student to world.   Digital spaces make new things possible for young learners as they work meaningfully to discover, learn, curate, collaborate, create, and connect in purposeful ways.