Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hunger Games Blog-Out!

As I wrote about in my last post, my students and I have spent the majority of our learning time this year engaged with the Hunger Games. With the second half of the novel, students mainly spent class time either reading it, writing about it, or talking about it.  They kept an ongoing double entry journal in their daybook that they would write in each day, responding to events in the text as they read.

Every Thursday, students would build off of what they had written in their double-entry journals in an extended piece  published to their blogs during our weekly Hunger Games Blog-Out.  My requirement for the blog post was deliberately broad, so as not to stifle student creativity, ownership, and the opportunity writing with meaning. I only asked that students write blog posts that were thoughtful and focused primarily on their response to the text, rather than simply retelling what had happened.   I've linked a few of my student's posts herehere, and here.

Friday, for the second part of our Blog-Out, students would read and respond to the posts written by their classmates, writing comments that spoke back to the ideas of the author or other commenters about evens from the Hunger Games.  With about 15 minutes left on our commenting days, students would complete this brief reflection/self-assessment I made on a Google Form and posted to my classroom blog; it focused on both their writing and the ideas they encountered written by others.

We pretty much followed this routine of reading and writing, blogging-out and commenting for six weeks, as we read the second half of the Hunger Games. It went incredibly well, with students coming to look forward to both having the space and time to compose their thoughts, and receive responses from their classmates.
Browsing student blogs and  comments
 via Flipboard on a Friday Blog Out

This commenting time gave students the opportunity to learn and practice something that I always have trouble teaching....responding to writing.  The comments students left for each other spoke to the ideas within writing, not the writing itself.  Only rarely would a student leave a comment saying something like, "you need to add more detail," or "you misspelled a lot of words."  Because of the nature of the Blog-Out assignment, with it being response-based around a common text, it was natural for students to write comments that served to converse with others' ideas.   Honestly, I didn't foresee our blog commenting time having this affect, but I'm excited that it had.  It will definitely ease the creation of the larger-scale writing community we will be building as we enter into our writing workshop in the near future.

I also found that responding to each others ideas, Students' attitude toward writing changed dramatically over this time, as well.  Many of the posts written at first were minimal, clearly written to get over with.  But as the process progressed, students writing became more about clearly articulating a position with a clear audience in mind. Students were writing for their own purposes, rather than mine.  They began to see that their writing didn't have to be a certain way, that it was their thoughts and thinking that mattered and doing so they formed a deeper connection to and understanding of the book.

We finished the book and had discussions of it in students' reading groups.  The conversations went well, but this didn't feel like the right place to end the unit. From reading students blog posts and listening in on their conversations, it was clear that students had and/or were forming deeper understandings of events from the text.  They needed the opportunity to develop and share these ideas, and for it I designed a final project.  One that incorporated students' blogs and let them take their creativity beyond text alone.  One that empowered them to use digital tools to create something awesome.

I'll write about this final digital project and share some of my students' work in my next post.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Glogging into the School Year with Mixed Media Poetry Projects

The first real project that my students dive into combines poetry, writing, and multimedia composition through several minilessons and the website Glogster. The project takes about a week to complete, and within it students write, collaborate, use digital tools, and self assess.  It's an awesome project that is perfect for starting the year; it introduces students to each other and elements of my class that they will build upon throughout the year.


The writing component of this project serves both to introduce students to each other and enter into the writing process.  For it, we focus our attention on two poems that address different aspects of one's individual experience.  The first, Being 13 (author unknown, but I linked to it here) defines this difficult age through timeless experiences that many adolescents can relate, and Where I'm From by George Ella Lyon, where the speaker captures aspects of her past that were important in defining her present identity.

Over the course of a class period, we read the poems, do some focused freewriting in response to each, discuss, then spend a little time creating copy change poems where students model the author's structure and organization to create poetry of their own.  The lesson is a tight squeeze for into a one hour class, but it gives students an excellent experience with writing for different purposes as well as the start of two drafts and an aching hand.

When students return the next day, they freewrite in response to the following quote from Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers:
To improve your writing you don't need advice about what changes to make; you don't need theories of what is good or what is bad writing.  You need movies of people's minds as they read your words.
This writing invariably leads to discussion about their past experiences with learning writing in school, and it also leads in to the conversation about the importance of feedback for writers and the types of feedback that are most useful. I then introduce students to the concept of writing groups, and introduce them to theirs, whom with which they will have their first meeting today and will be working with throughout the school year. This first meeting, which consists of each writer reading their piece aloud and listing to the responses of group members, tends to be fairly short, and after students finish, we have a quick conversation about revision, and they spend what is left of the class time revising and developing one of their poems.

Glogging into Digital Writing

Glogster has established itself as a digital tool in most teachers' toolboxes, and as a result, my students need little overview about how to go about using it.  Once signed on, I instruct students that they will be creating a Glogster poster with their poem being primary focus.  I ask them to consider the mood of their poem, and to be deliberate about picking a both a wall for their poster and text box for their poem so that these visual texts build upon they mood their text creates.

We also review the idea of symbolism, and I ask them to make decisions about the graphics they include so that they in some way way symbolize the concepts that are expressing through their writing. After it appears that most students have these aspects of their poem well under way, I bring in another mini-lesson on using images and fair use, inviting them to include CC images in their digital poster as well.

As they take the better part of the class to type (and continue to revise) their poem and make selections about visual elements, I make sure to talk with as many students as I can about the decisions they are making.  I try to keep our conferences encouraging and positive, which this year has turned out to be incredibly easy.

After a couple days spent creating their digital posters, I introduced students to an additional layer they would use to add to the meaning the reader of their poem would experience: video.

Author Interviews

A neat feature of Glogster is its ability to grab a video and/or audio to be included on the poster directly from a computer's webcam and mic.  After introducing this feature and brainstorming a list of questions they could ask each other about their writing, students got back in their writing groups and took turns interviewing the author of each Glogster poster.  Each student included their interview on their poster, adding yet an additional layer of expression and type of media to their projects.


Students embedded their completed Glogster poster into a post on their blogs, and after a brief conversation about leaving comments, visited the posts of their classmates to view their projects and leave feedback. I asked students to first visit and comment on the projects of those in their writing group, as they have privileged insight into the journey undertaken by the author of these projects.  Afterwards, they were free to visit and leave comments on any of their classmates' posts.


Grading writing is always tricky.  On one hand, students should know what is expected from them and how they will be assessed.  On the other, using a rubric with set criteria neglects the differences that students bring with them to my class and emphasizes product over process.  Using standard criteria to assess a writing-based project can't begin to assess the thinking and learning that occurred through creating the project.

So for this project, and those that will come after it, I focused on assessing the important, but often unseen, aspects of this project the only way I know possible: by having them assess themselves.  I posted the directions to the self assessment here.

Reflecting on Reflection....

But also, as expected, there were quite a few students who were thrown off by the idea of assessing themselves.  For years, they've been given the message that learning is determined by the teacher, not them.  Some students, in their assessments expressed relief that I wasn't just judging their final product because it did not truly reflect all of the effort and hard work they had put into their writing and/or learning how to use Glogster.  There were others that quickly created sophisticated digital posters, who weren't able to say a whole lot about their writing or learning.   And there were also a handful of students who were angry that they had to assess their own learning, wanting instead for me to do it for them. 

Like or hate the concept of self assessment, my students will have plenty of opportunities to practice this sort of metacognition this year, and it's my hope that as we continue the process of writing and reflecting, that all of my students will feel more free to embrace the messy process of learning and the opportunity to reflect on the importance of what they have done.

Overall, this project turned out to be a terrific experience. Through carrying it out, I got to learn about this amazing new group of students, and the students got to learn about and connect with each other in ways they previously had not.  They got to compose through multiple mediums and experienced moving back and forth in their writing between physical and digital spaces, and they experienced the practice of writing to think and learn, as well as writing for publication for a public audience.

This project served an important role in building our new classroom community, and it set the tone for the writing we will be doing for the next 175 or so days together.  I'll be sure to keep posting about how that goes.

Below are a couple examples of projects by students who asked me to share them.  I'm sure they'd love to receive some feedback!

Callie's project, titled "Callie's Poem"
Justin's Project, titled "Being Me"
Megan's project, titled "Being Megan" 
David's project, titled "Being 13"
Katelynn's project, titled "Being Me"

Friday, June 10, 2011

Revisioned Student Blogging

*This post is a follow-up to two posts I wrote earlier in the year, Rethinking Student Blogging, For Real and Headfirst into Blogging.
It is also the extended version of a piece I wrote for the UNC Writing Project Newsletter.  Portions not included in the Newsletter article are written in bold.

When I was first presented with the idea of using blogs in the classroom, it was suggested that they be used as a way for students to respond to a question or text and the ideas of others. I set up a classroom blog, had my students use it as a space to respond to a story we read, and quickly decided that I wasn’t impressed.  Physical class discussions elicited greater depth and participation, and besides, there were better online venues for students to interact share.

Recently, however, something happened that has caused me to rethink the blog and its potential in my classroom.  I started blogging for myself.

I created my own blog where I write about what matters to me and enter into a conversation with others of the same interest.  I learn from these other bloggers and integrate their ideas into my own, composing my new knowledge in a digital space where writing is no longer constrained to a pencil and daybook, where the world is my audience.

How I have come to know blogging hardly resembles my initial conception of it, as a teacher-centered space for student response.  Real bloggers are engaged writers because they write about what is important to them, and knowing this helped me to understand that meaningful writing needed to exist at the heart of student blogging if it is to be successful.  

With this realization in mind, I decided this year that I would make a second attempt at using blogs in my classroom.   I've always had my students compose and share pieces of thier choosing in our writing workshop, and if meaningful writing was my goal, our existing workshop provided just the place to begin our journey into blogging.
Getting Set Up

In order for students to feel a sense of ownership of their blogs, I decided to have them each create their own (as opposed to creating a single class blog where each could contribute) on the educational blogging site, Edublogs.  While it wasn't my first choice because of the learning curve presented to new bloggers, Edublogs was free, provided plenty of options for composing and customizing, and had an incredibly simple sign-up process.  Within minutes, students created accounts, named their blogs, and were ready to start blogging.   
To give students access to the blogs of their classmates, I created this Google Form.  On it, students typed in their name and pasted the url of their blog.  I then shared the resulting spreadsheet on my website, were students could then be able to browse through their classmates (and those in other classes I teach) and access their individual blogs.

Becoming Bloggers

During class time that we devoted to writing workshop, I made sure to have computers on hand so that students could write their final drafts to their blog when they were ready.  Every two or three weeks students would publish a new piece to their blogs and also take time in class to read and post comments on the published posts of their classmates.  The process was fairly simple and on the surface wasn’t much different than how we did things before blogs.  What happened after we began these digital sharing sessions, though, was pretty exciting.

I noticed it on our first commenting day when a student turned around and told her friend about a post she read that was really good.  After she made this comment, I noticed that student in earshot was reading the piece the student mentioned.  By the time I got to my computer and read it, seven students had posted comments.  By the time the author arrived to my class (the last of the day), 25 comments had been posted on it.  She came in the next day with the sequel to that post in hand, and her enthusiasm for writing has only grown since.  And she was just the first.

As we continued to blog, so did this trend of students talking during class and in the hall about student writing.  Students gained reputations for their writing, and networks began to emerge both in our school and beyond.  They established their identities and started thinking like writers, borrowing ideas from the posts of others and viewing the events that unfolded in their lives and in the world as new topics to write about.  They jotted down notes in their daybooks and freewrote with purpose. Revision was taken seriously, and proofreading gained a new significance.  

In years past, I've observed my students growing in such ways as writers over the course of the year through writer's workshop,  but the scale at which this growth took place this year was unlike anything I had seen before, and I'm confident that blogging had a lot to do with it.  Sure, I am a better teacher of writing this year thanks to participating in SI last summer (shout out UNCC Writing Project!), and without question my students' experience would not have been near as powerful it were not for my improved practice.   That being said, writing as bloggers afforded my students opportunities not avaliable to writers in physical spaces alone. 

Blogging gave students a chance to do more than tack their final drafts to the classroom wall.  It broke down these walls, and entered students into a new type of writing community, one where their words could be read by anyone at any time, where their ideas were widely received and could be disseminated instantly, and most importantly, one where they were able to feel that writing about what mattered, mattered.
Blogs as Digital Daybooks
As students became more familiar with writing in these digital spaces, it wasn't just their attitudes that changed.  The role of their blogs evolved as well.   Rather than only using them to publish final drafts, students would use their blogs to jot down ideas and start new pieces with the “save as a draft” feature.  Sometimes they would abandon drafts and began new ones.  And other times they would return to the ones they’d abandoned.   By the end of the year, students’ blogs functioned much like their daybooks, and many found a balance between working through ideas in both spaces.  

Growing into Digital Writers
The types of writing that students were doing changed, too.  Blogs provided students the opportunity to add new depth to their writing through integrating various digital elements.  Of course, this didn’t happen all at once.  Along with those I typically do on craft and mechanics,  I also led mini-lessons on different digital composition tools, many times learning right along with students. 

By the end of the year, they became quite good, too, at drawing upon digital tools to compose ideas beyond words alone.  Within their pieces, students included hyperlinks to outside web pages, past posts, and the posts of others; they  inserted Creative Commons images, videos, and music within their writing; and they also embedded digital projects they created themselves like podcasts, slideshows, animations, and comics.  Listed below are a few examples.  I'm sure they'd welcome any feedback that you'd like to leave!

  • After writing this poem, Carol retold it in this post using only images that she created using Pixton
  • Juan created this comic retelling a scene from our team's canoe trip, using Toondoo.  Pierre, his canoe partner told his version of the event with this animation he created with xtranorml.  Will, who did not go on the trip, created this animation with Goanimate to explain how the day went for those who stayed back with the substitute.
  • Heather created this book using Storybird, which was inspired by previous posts she had written.  Check out her blog here and see if you can notice the recurring theme of her writing :)
  • Allison created and embedded this 3D pop-up book about her experiences in 8th grade using Zooburst
  • Lorenzo embedded a video slideshow that he created on Animoto into a post he wrote about child abuse.
  • Shaytania and Katelyn wrote this poem on a relationship told from perspectives of both people in it.  Along with the text, they also recorded themselves reading their poem, which they posted as a podcast created using Audioboo.
  • Ta-Layza wrote a rap about what she had learned about gymnastics and recorded it using Audioboo.  She posted her performance of it here.
  • Erin created the Alice Jacob fictional series.  With each chapter, she gave readers links to other pieces in her series.
  • Belen wrote this piece on her favorite music, where she included multiple links to related pages and sites to listen to the songs.



Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reflections on Digital Teaching

Last week my friend and colleague Josh sent me an email, asking for a favor.  Below is an excerpt from it:


Early in the month of June I am participating in a panel discussion entitled “Using Technology to Enhance Teacher Effectiveness” that is being put on by the NC Network of Grantmakers and being supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.   I believe many of the practices in your classroom are incredible and should be a model of instruction.  That being said, I would like to outline some of your pedagogical approaches as examples of how technology can increase teacher effectiveness.  Below is the session description and below that are some specific questions. I would love to have your thoughts regarding these points so I can help share the great things you do. You are da man!

This sounded like a great opportunity.  I love sharing my practices, and  I'll do whatever I can to further the integration of technology in our school.  Besides that, I can't possibly turn down anyone who thinks that I'm da man.

So Josh, of course, I'll help you out.  Thanks for keeping me in mind, and also thanks for giving me permission (I did ask him first) use this opportunity to reflect on the ventures my students and I have undertaken this year, and post my thoughts in my blog while they are all still fresh in my head.

First, I'll start with some of the high points of how my students and I learned with technology this year.  There is overlap between them, but I'll break it down as best as I can.

1. The Digital Inquiry Project

Earlier on in the year I reflected on an observation I made that many of my students didn't know what they wanted to learn about. It struck me as odd that group of teens who are growing up in a world so rich with information were not continuously thinking about new questions and subjects they wanted to learn about.  Everything they could possibly want to know was only a few mouse clicks away, and I felt that if I didn't give them the chance to learn how to be a digital learner and contribute to this continually expanding wealth of knowledge on the web, I wouldn't be doing my job as their teacher in preparing them to live and learn in the 21st century.

Out of this perceived need grew what came to be the Digital Inquiry Project, which I wrote about in detail in this post here.  This project gave students the chance to be the directors of their own learning. 

In short, students decided what they wanted to learn about, scoured the web for content that answered their questions, organized relevant content through social bookmarking, and then used what they learned to inform pieces of writing they published to their blog.  As students wrote, thought, and responded to the writing of their peers, they developed new questions and interests, which they reflected on and used to guide future learning and writing. 

2. Diigo for (and beyond) Organizing Web Content

When swimming through the sea of content on the web, students could quickly get lost and even drown without a way to keep track of and organize sites they find.   It was for this reason, that initially, I introduced them to the social bookmarking site, Diigo.  With it, students bookmarked sites, tagged them to keep them organized, highlighted text that was important, and included sticky notes of their own thoughts and ideas.

As the Digital Inquiry project continued to evolve, my students developed the ability to use Diigo seamlessly in their web browsing, and I experimented with and discovered new ways to use this cool web tool. 

In my most popular post, Diigo for Digital Writing Reflection, I discussed how Diigo provided a great way for students to reflect on their own writing that they had published digitally.  In my post Research Writing 101 2.0, we discovered how Diigo simplifies and expedites the research writing process. 

Most recently, we stumbled upon an another unexpectedly handy use for Diigo, which I have yet to write about.  My students had just completed a couple days of web research, gathering information for their research papers.  I was introducing them to the concept of creating an outline for their papers, and after introducing one of my classes to the concept of sub topics, a student pointed out to me that she could easily determine the sub topics in her paper by looking at the tags she assigned to the sites she bookmarked.  This is a great idea, and I'm still thinking through how this is going to influence how I have my students research, bookmark, and tag next year. 


Every year my students write.  I love seeing them develop their identities as writers and learn the power of their words.  This year, though, the growth I've seen in my students as writers has occurred on a scale more grand than I any that has graced my classroom before. I thank blogging for that.

I put a lot of thought into just how blogging would fit into my class. In my post, Rethinking Student Blogging for Real, I wrote about my own journey as a writer through blogging and contemplated how I could guide my students in conceptualizing blogs as real bloggers do.  I can honestly say that my students are now blogging for real, and the journey to get where we are we all learned a lot about the potential that exists in these digital writing spaces. 

Like in years past, much of my students' journey as writers has occurred in the context of a writing workshop.  The principles of this workshop have all stayed the same.  Students wrote about what mattered to them, engaged in writing as a process, collaborated with and supported the writing of classmates, took writing pieces to publication, and shared published work with the class.

With most writing pieces, students began working through ideas for their drafts on paper, and when they were ready, typed out and developed their pieces on their blog.  And while the words they typed evolved from what they started with pencils, continuing the process in an digital space afforded them to add entirely new levels of meaning to their pieces.  With their blogs they were able to hyperlink to outside sites, their other pieces they had posted, and even related posts of their classmates.  They added videos, and podcasts, and slideshows, inserted and attributed Creative Commons images, as well as embedded polls and surveys to make their posts more interactive.

In addition to using existing digital elements to support and add depth to the meaning of written words, my students' blogs are also a space for them to publish multimedia elements that they create themselves.  A student may tell a story through images and music through Animoto, through a cartoon or comic strip with either Goanimate or Toondoo, or create a multimedia poster with Glogster.   Though these tools are hosted on different websites, each site gives users the option of embedding their composition on a blog or website.  Because of this, my student's blogs serve as places for them to both post their writing and digital stories that they create elsewhere on the web.

Having the opportunity to compose their ideas digitally has, without question, engaged my students in a depth of thinking significantly greater than that afforded through the written word alone, and while many students embraced and enjoyed this process, the most engaging aspect of publishing their words to the web was the audience that blogging gave them.

Every other week we devoted class time to reading and responding to the blogs of our classmates.  On these days, I would overhear students whisper during class and talk in the halls about posts they really liked.  It was not uncommon for a student for a student to enter class and find a piece they published the day before to have 20 comments or for a student to be approached by a peer in another class who asked hopefully if they planned to add a second part to a story they started.  The power of this authentic and captive audience drove my students to want to write, to value written expression, and it gave them affirmation that their voices and ideas mattered.

And while I believe it was the peer audience that most contributed to the fire that blogging kindled for my students, their passion for writing continued to grow as they began to notice that it wasn't just classmates for whom they were writing.   Particularly after we began the Student Blogging Challenge, students quickly began to see that  the words they published to the web were also being read beyond our school, state, and even country. This image below is a screenshot of the visitor tracker from Anthony's blog, with each dot on the map representing a view his blog had received. I can't imagine that anyone, even the most reluctant writer, could not be inspired and motivated by seeing by seeing they had such an audience.

On Students and Learning

So, you want to know how I know meaningful learning is taking place through the activities that I described above? 

That's an easy one to answer....

I know my students are engaged in meaningful learning because they have the space to reflect on their own thinking and learning
With such a wide variety of writing students are publishing on their blogs, it would be impossible to evaluate each with a single rubric.  And even it it was possible, attempting to do so would serve counter to the goals which I had in place for conducting our digital writing workshop.  The main goal was not that each student demonstrate an ability to compose writing that fit into a particular predetermined mold.  Rather, the goals of having students engage in such a process were for them to grow as thinkers, learners, and as writers; and therefore, it is these areas that were assessed.

In order to cary out such a personal and metacognitive assessment, students reflected and wrote in response to several points posted on this assignment.  Here is an example of one of these assignments.  Through completing this reflection, my students better made sense for themselves the significance of their experience with the assignment, while also making their thinking and learning visible to me.

I know my students are engaged in meaningful learning because I read what they write.
   On their blogs, students have a chance to write about what matters to them.  Many of these pieces focus on issues that are central to adolescents.  They write about love and relationships, popularity and fitting in.  Through these pieces, they seek to better understand the world in which they live and in doing so, better understand themselves and their place within it.  In each post I read, I see aspects of students' identifies emerge that previously did not exist, and in reading the comments that other students leave on these pieces, I see connections between students that would not otherwise be made and affirmation to all involved that the rocky road of adolescence need not be traveled alone.  I cannot think of any learning that is more meaningful.

And as for their actual abilities to express and convey their ideas through the written word, one needs only to visit the blog kept by any of my students and read from their initial posts to the present.  Though all have grown differently, the changes that my students writing has underwent in both content and mechanics is amazing.  In some cases, this growth is obvious, such as in developing and understanding of correct punctuation, capitalization, or paragraph organization.  In other cases, it almost appears that writers change little or even revert, but upon looking at previous posts, it is evident that the student is experimenting with new styles and types of writing, thus indicating a growing confidence with taking risks as a writer and a developing writer's repertoire.

I know my students are engaged in meaningful learning because I watch and talk with them.

My students are far from a uniform group.  They all have unique interest, backgrounds, and abilities. As such, I understand that their needs as learners are as individual as they are.  For this reason, I build in plenty of time during class to conference with students, focusing on addressing their individual needs.  Here, I use technology as well to record annotations of what my students are learning and the skills I focus on with them.  Using a Google spreadsheet, I take notes on each child after we talk.  I may work with one student on punctuating his writing, and another on editing html code.  With each conference, I refer back to previous annotations I have taken on that student, so that I can see their growth and the areas where they still need to develop.

And even without the data in front of me, when I watch my students undertake a digital assignment in my class today, what I see is in stark contrast to what transpired at the beginning of the year. When the year began, most of my students struggled to navigate the directions on a web page to create an account on a given web tool without assistance.  Fast forward to this week when I gave my students the assignment of creating a digital story using a new web tool from a list, and then embedding the final project on a blog post. Other than a brief overview of the purpose of each tool and a link to it, I gave my students NO instructions whatsoever....they didn't need it.  They dove into the project without hesitation, and learned themselves how to use web tools that, for most, were completely unfamiliar with little, if any, help needed from me.

Final thoughts on digital teaching

Without question, technology needs to play a role in creating learning experiences that adequately prepare our students for the future.  In my class, as I've described above, technology has had an incredible impact on my students learning.  But there is one point that I feel like I have to make before I end this post: appropriate and effective instruction that integrates technology is complicated.  It's about more than just the tools.  It involves not only having teachers who have a degree of tech-savyness, but have adopted a pedagogy that uses technology to meet learning needs and develop skills that are relevant to life and learning in our modern society.   

I by no means claim to posses mastery of this knowledge.  Honestly, I'd question anyone who claims that they do.  The field is too new and changing too rapidly to have it all figured out for anyone to be the authority.  In a sense, this reality of there not existing a single authority over information underlies how I understand this new pedagogy and perceive our responsibilities as educators in teaching our students to learn.  The past traditional paradigm where the teacher is the master of the content which he or she distributes to students is quickly becoming irrelevant.  With a reality where anyone can find just about any information any time, anywhere, there is less of a need for us to be designators of subject matter content in a traditional sense.  Rather, what our students need of us is guidance and support in using the digital tools at their disposal to find content on their own, evaluate and organize the information they find, make meaning of it through collaboration and composition, and contribute their own ideas to this vast and ever-growing collective authority.

This is what I'm coming to see being a 21st century educator entails, and while my teaching approach this year was far from perfect, I feel that the points that I mentioned above are all steps in the right direction.  I hope that this helps you Josh, and of course if you (or any other reader of this blog) want to get in touch with me to continue this conversation, hit me up on Twitter @steve8071.

Take care and good luck at your meeting,


Friday, April 15, 2011

Diigo for Digital Writing Reflection

As I've written about in past posts, I feel quite strongly about the role of educators in equipping students with the skills they need for both life and learning in an increasingly digital world.  With respect to the essential skill of organizing web content, I've been having my students use the social bookmarking site Diigo since the start of the school year.  They've used it to keep track of information they find on the web, to share information with our class group, and also to respond to digital texts they read.  And even though the bookmarklet, Diigolet, is significantly less convenient than the Diigo toolbar (which can't be installed on our school computers), most of my students are now are at a point where they have seamlessly integrated this bookmarking tool into their web browsing. 

It was because of their proficiency with it that when an idea came to me today 5 minutes before the start of class of a new purpose for which I could have my students use Diigo, I didn't hesitate to throw out the plan I had in place and give it a try.  It went amazingly well.  So well, in fact,  that I have resolved to finish writing this post before I leave school today and officially start my spring break.

It seems like most of the posts in this blog have been in some way or another focused around my students using digital tools to compose.   Presently, the writing my 8th grade students are doing has taken the form of a fairly open writing workshop, where students write across various genres about about topics of importance to them, publishing these pieces to their blogs every couple of weeks. Here are some of the pieces they've done recently.

The purpose of such writing is for students to develop as writers and thinkers, while also establishing their presence in a global community of learners.  Assessment of how students meet these goals is done by the students themselves, as for each piece they publish they write a reflection where they identify and explain aspects of their piece that show the following:

   -evidence of themselves as thinkers
   -evidence of using revision to improve their writing
   -evidence of how they worked through challenges

I love using this method as a way to assess my students' writing, which I was introduced to last summer at the UNC Charlotte Writing Project.   It focuses students attention on their own process, encourages them to try new ideas and approaches, respects their diversity, and guides students in being better able to talk about their own thinking and learning.

Up until today, I've been having my students complete this reflective/metacognitive assignment by responding to these directions on their own sheet of paper, which they then would turn in to me. 

But this morning while I was preparing my class for the day, it occurred to me that Diigo's web highlighter and sticky note tools would allow students to carry out that same assignment without paper.  In addition, it would also take students less time to complete, let others read the reflections they wrote, and make it easier for me to access and assess their work. 
Student blog with Diigo highlights and sticky notes

If you are not familiar with Diigo, it is a free social bookmarking tool.  With it, users can bookmark web pages to their online library from any computer,  highlight text on web pages and include sticky notes with their own typed messages, and share these sites and annotations with others. Diigo also allows users to create groups, which I have done for my students, so that in addition to saving bookmarks to their own libraries, they can also save them to the group.

Since all of my students publish their writing on their individual blogs, they can use Diigo to bookmark their posts, highlight parts that demonstrate their thinking, revisions, and challenges, and include sticky notes on the page to include their written explanations and reflections.  Click here to see the full assignment. 

Student's highlights and sticky notes as seen in our class Diigo group library
Students would also select the option that allowed the page and its annotations to be shared with our class Diigo group, so when I or any other student visited our class Diigo library they could see each students' bookmarked blog post, and beneath that post, a display of the excerpts highlighted and the sticky note responses that had been recorded.
For grading, I only needed to visit our Diigo page and use this rubric to assess my students' work.  Alternatively, I could also visit the student's blog post, and so long as I had Diigo open on my computer, I could see the annotations on their post.  If I wanted to respond to any part of my students' reflections, I could use Diigo to type in my comments and they would then show up in my students' libraries.  Though I have not done so yet, I also see potential for students to respond to each other's assessments in the same way.

Now that I'm starting to rethink my uses of Diigo, I'm sure that some other new possible applications will come to me when as I start reading through these posts and pages of self assessments.  Honestly, I am excited to do so, but outside my window the empty parking lot and setting sun are telling me that grading can wait.  I'm sure my family would agree.

Hello Spring Break!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Writing into the Student Blogging Challenge

I first heard about the Student Blogging Challenge last year.  The event is hosted semi-annually in the fall and spring, each lasting for a period of 10 weeks.  Each week, Miss W, the teacher/organizer of the event, posts a new challenge consisting of activities intended to guide students in learning about blogging, develping thier own blogs, and connecting with other bloggers from around the world.  Ever since I first learned about it, I had an interest in working it into my classroom, but it's taken me some time to figure out how.

When the 2010 Fall Challenge rolled around, I decided I just wasn't yet ready to have my students dive in. At that time, I was uncertain about how the event should best fit into the writing my students were already doing and the direction I envisioned in taking them as writers, thinkers, and bloggers. To be honest, though, at that point, I was only just beginning to figure that direction out for myself, as I discussed in my September post, Rethinking Student Blogging, For Real.

As we have had some time to forge our identies as digital writers and learners (and teacher), mainly thanks to our Digital Inquiry Project, I decided that it was the right time to jump in to the March Student Challenge.  Now, about five weeks in to it, I feel like it's a pretty good time to write about it, sharing the expectations I had developed for the role it would play in my class, how I went about working it in to the writing we were already doing, how I approached assessing student learning, and also how it is all actually turning out.

The Student Blogging Challenge seemed like a pretty cool idea, but being cool alone didn't seem like enough of a reason for me to ask my students to devote a chunk of the valuable time for learning that we have together each week.  I asked my school's literacy coach, Cara, about what she thought of my students getting involved with this event.  Like me, she thought it sounded pretty cool, and though we didn't spend a lot of time talking or planning, she did ask me one important question that I would need to answer before I had my students move forward.  What did I want my students to get out of the process? 

It's a simple question that any teacher should ask before designing any learning activity.  And after quite a bit of thought, I arrived at an equally simple answer:  I wanted my students' participation in the Student Blogging Challenge to facilitate my students growth as writers, thinkers, and members of a global learning community.

Figuring out ensure this experience would send my students down such a path was far from simple, however, and after much thought, I settled on the following expectations that would guide what I would ask my students to do:

1. The Student Blogging Challenge would be Meaningful

Sure, this sounds like a no-brainer, but when I first looked over the format of the Student Blogging Challenge, I saw potential for it to be seen through students eyes as being "just another thing the teacher is making us do." 

 I didn't want to just tell my students each week to read Miss W's post and complete all the challenges by Friday.  It had to be more than a weekly to-do list.  Even though the challenges seemed to me pretty cool and engaging, and they did guide students in developing the blogs they were already using, I wanted my students to have a personal reason for doing them. 

I wrote earlier in the year about wanting to give my students the opprotunity to blog like real bloggers do.  To a large extent, I feel like the regular, semi-unrestrained writing they have been composing in workshop and publishing to thier blogs has placed them well on thier way to actualizing this initial vision. 

My students are at a point where they are starting to like writing.  They are engaged with blogging because they are discovering that they have something important to say,  can compose on new levles with digital tools, and publish in an online space where they can be heard by the world.  Blogging has empowered my students.  If what I asked my students to do in the Blogging Challenge encroached on this freedom, they'd resent the activity and me.  This is the last thing I wanted to happen after comming so far, but if I set it up right, it didn't have to be that way.

 The Blogging Challenge, as I see it, gives students guidance in developing aspectes of this online space where they post thier writing, as well as a chance to connect to a greater global audience.  The Blogging Challenge would be an excellent compliment to how my students were already using thier blogs, but it's predetermined tasks should by no means substitute for the meaningfull writing my students were already doing.

The key, I decided, to make The Student Blogging Challenge meaningful,  would be to allow my students to engage in it while also giving them the space and support to continue the real writing that has become so important to them.

2. The Student Blogging Challenge will engage my students as readers.

Every week, the activities that Miss W posts for the student challenge are completed by students in elementary through high school.  The directions of the challenge are clear and text based, and they are not written at a level that is beyond my 8th grade students' abilities.

However, I had a feeling that completing these tasks would indeed be a challenge for my students because they would be presented with a new type of reading.  How often are students just given directions in text form for an assignment they are expected to complete?  Unless they are taking an online course, the answer is most likey never.  We want our students to understand, so we present to multiple learning styles, model, and demonstrate. We repeat directions when nececssary and answer endless questions. 

I am not saying that such support is necessarily a bad thing, but I have noticed that students can grow to rely on it.  In addition to challenging them to blog (the slogan of the Student Blogging Challenge) I also wanted to challenge them to read carefully for information and follow directions. Yes, I will model and demonstrate for them, but as for figuring out how to complete the tasks, they will be on thier own.  I'm sure that I'll be asked plenty of questions, the help I give will most often take on the form of redirecting them to the text.  I've taken this approach of other aspects of my teaching, like I wrote about here, and while I'm sure I'll encounter some pockets of resistence, I'm pretty sure my students will end up being suprised at just how much they can do on their own.

3. The Student Blogging Challenge would be student-paced

I teach an incredibly diverse group of students with a wide range in reading ability and technological literacy. I didn't want any of my students, particularly those who struggle with reading and writing, to feel that the Blogging Challenge was a task they were going to fail before they even began. To ensure all of my students were included, I told them that they didn't have to complete every activity in each week's Challenge.  Rather, they could choose the tasks they wanted to complete and work on on their own to get them done.

If they got stuck on a particular task, they were to revist the directions and work through the problem, even if this meant they would only get a fraction of that week's challenge done.

4. Assessment of The Student Blogging Challenge would be about learning, process, and metacognition.

If you're still reading this post, I'd like to thank you for not giving up after reading #3 above.  I promise, I'm not completely out of touch with teaching middle school students.  I just have come to conclude that if I want The Blogging Challenge to make my students better readers, thinkers, and learners, than the environment in which students engaged in it needed to also faciliate that type of problem solving...a process they would surely shy away from if I emphasized primarily the product over the process.

So, to guide my students in embracing the process of thinking and learning through the Blogging Challenge, I made students' assessment a metacognitive one.  After each week of the challenge, my students would complete an assessment that required them to think about their own thinking over the course of the week while they worked through whichever parts of the Blogging Challenge they decided to undertake. The most current version of the self assessment can be seen by clicking here.  Each week, students, with their notes (I'll explain this later) out and blogs open, would have time to write their reflections in response to each item listed on it. 

5. Commenting on the blog posts of others was non-negotiable.

Sometimes, as part of the Student Blogging Challenge, Miss W would include an activity involving visiting and commenting on the blogs of other students participating in the Student Challenge. This is one area I did not want to leave as "optional."  Each of my students would have time to visit other blogs, read what others are writing, and post thoughtful comments in response.

Responding to the writing of others is not a new area for my students.  We established guidelines for composing quality comments at the start of the year (thanks to the help of this video published by Ms. Yollis), and students have read and commented on the writings their classmates have posted throughout the year. I feel like now they see value in getting thoughtfull responses from readers, but the importance having space for commenting in The Blogging Challenge goes beyond reading and responding.

The Blogging Challenge provides students the opprotunity to connect with students outside of our school's walls. They become introduced to new writers and exposed to new ideas. They encounter different points of view, topics for writing, and possibilities for composing. And through connecting with other bloggers, students broaden the audience for thier own writing, as after recieving a comment, students often visit the blog of the student who left it.

Bringing It All Together

With only seeing each of my classes for 55 minutes, five times a week, I realized that organizing lesson plans which met my above expectations was going to be pretty tight on time. Add to it that I also needed to make time throughout the week for students to read and discuss thier novels (which students had began before the start of The Student Blogging Challenge), I honestly didn't know if the vision I had would actually work.

Even so, I went ahead with it anyway, breaking up my week something like this:

  •  Reflect our thinking and learning throughout the previous week of the Student Challenge by completing the self assessment.
  • Preview the activities of the current week, and begin working on them. 
  • With 5 minutes left in the class, students would write a few reflective notes in their daybook discussing the activities they had worked on and how the process went, being sure to point out any frustrations they were feeling or problems they were trying to work through.  *Each day after working on part of the Student Blogging Challenge, students would add another entry onto this page, to which they would refer next Monday when completing the previous week's reflection.
  • Begin brainstorming, drafting upcomming writing piece, and have time to share ideas and get feedback from writing group.  We would only be doing this on every other week, as students would be required to publish a piece of writing to thier blog every two weeks.  This time next week would just be spent as an individual writing/conferencing period.


  • Students would have the option on these days of either working on thier own writing pieces or continuing with the Student Blogging Challenge. It was for them to decide how their time was spent, but they are expected to spend some time on both.

  • Fridays are comment days. 
  • On the weeks when students had to have completed their own writing pieces, about half of the class will be devoted to reading and commenting on the posts of their peers.  At any time during the commenting period, a student can come to the board and write down an author and title on our "Most Awesome Blogs of the Week" list.  Students also keep thier daybooks open on their desks, so they can write down any ideas they find for writing pieces of their own they will compose in the future.  The last 20 minutes of the class, students turn their attention to thier own piece that they had published, and complete this self assessment.
  • On the weeks when students are not commenting on each other's published posts, they are given time to visit and post comments on the blogs of students participating the Students Blogging Challenge, who are not from our school.  For one of the comments they post, they complete this form, which I use for assessment and share with the students so they can see their classmates' responses to the blog posts their classmates have visited. The latter reason is why a rating is included on the form.
So Far, So Good

If the schedule that I described above sounds impossible when considering that I'm also having my students do literature circles, you're partially right. My students don't have near as much class time that they need to complete both thier writing and the Student Blogging Challenge.  Good thing that both can be done at home, too. 

While I haven't formally assigned my students specific homework tasks, I've told them throughout to take what time is necessary outside of class to ensure they are doing quality writing and participating thoughtfully in the Blogging Challenge.  Many are putting this extra time in...more so than what I typically see with homework I assign.  And overall, the work that my students are doing is incredible.
Though my students are participating at different levels in the Blogging Challenge, they all seem to be finding it challenging.  For most, the level of difficulty is just right, while for others, there is a pretty high level of frustration.  These latter students, I've concluded, are those who are most used to having directions explained for them.  

But regardless of the level of frustration, all of my students are enagaged and participating.  Just last week several students had commented to me that they noticed themselves having an easier time reading and completing the directions for the weekly activities.  And even for my more frustrated students, I've noticed that they are making progress too, both in their abilities figure out text directions on thier own and articulate the areas where they are finding themselves stuck. For these students especially, not having the requirement of completing all tasks has facilitated their willingness to engage in the problem solving process and put forth the extra time they need to develop this neglected set of reading skills.

The response to the actual activities of the Blogging Challenge has also been mixed....much more so than I had anticipated.  I've heard a suprinsing number of complaints. 

No, it's not the fact that my students are complaining that suprises me....I'm no stranger to second semester 8thGraderitis (the middle school version of Senioritis.)  What suprised me is that the majority of the complaints had to do with that the time they spent working on the Blogging Challenge took time away from the writing pieces.  For this reason, I'm really glad that I left the writing component in, Click here to see some of the top student posts from last week.

But I also have no regrets about keeping the Blogging Challenge component in either.  Though my students may have complained when, for example, they had to take the large part of a week to create a comment avatar and link it to thier blog, they all loved seeing avatars appear next to the comments posted and how much easier the link made it to visit people's blogs who posted comments on thiers. On Friday, a few even complained that some of comments made on thier blogs didn't have an avatar linked to the commenter's blog.

That's pretty much how it went for all of the other aspects of the Student Challenge that my students initially disliked. After they had completed the tasks and saw the purpose, they were glad they did it.

I feel like my students are seeing this too, and I'm hearing less least those related to the Student Blogging Challenge.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Most Recommended Student Blog Posts

Last week my students published pieces of their writing to their blogs, and on Friday, students took some class time to read what their peers have published.  During this time, when students came accross a piece of writing that they particularlly liked, they would write that post title down on our class Awesome Blog Post list.  Monkey 'Like' Handphoto © 2010 MailChimp® | more info (via: Wylio)
If that post was already on the list, students put a check next to it to indicate they also "liked" it.   Below are the nominated posts from last week, sorted by the times that they have been "liked" by their peers. 

These pieces reflect a wide range in topics, genres, and writing abilities.   They are as diverse as the 8th graders who wrote them, discussing topics from adolescent angst to world events.  Many are absolutely amazing, particularly so if you also look at the pieces that the blogger had published earlier in the year.  Check them out....I'm sure these student authors would love to recieve a comment from you.  And if there is a piece that you particularly "like," feel free to share that in a comment on this post!
Likes  Author      Title

8       Cristian       Song
8      Allison        Burried Alive!
7      Jerry           The Final Four
6      Ta-Layza    The Mistake
5      Erin             The First Story of Alice Jacobs
5      Kirsten        For You
5      Tania          Never Fail
4      Alexus        I thought I could trust you
4      Alyssa        My Bestfriend Kiki
4      Heather      Gone but Never Forgotten
3     Claudia      Issmo
3     Lorenzo     Burried Alive in Japan
3      Marshall    What's Going Through My Mind
2      Antwanette Gone From Me
2      Candace    Last Tear
2      Crystal      Finding your way around my community
2      Kris          The Secrets Zone
2      Nathan      Current Event
2      Nereida     I love you
2      Tamera     How Not to Bug Me
1      Jordan      Family

Friday, February 18, 2011

Getting Ready for Social Justice LIVE

     There's a lot I've used the web for with my students this year, but come Monday we'll be participating in an event unlike any other we have before, one hosted live on the web. 

     For the past several weeks, my students have been delving issues related to fairness and equity.  We've researched, wrote, and debated.  We've begun to identify what issues most plague our society today, and are moving towards solutions and actions. Through this live event, organized with the help of Michael Fisher, my students will move our conversation from a classroom level to a global one and will take what we find to determine how we should best translate ideas into actions.

     It's sure to be an awesome learning experience.  I can't wait to see how it goes and blog about it afterwards. 

Below is the post directly from Mr. Fisher's blog.  In it, he describes the event a bit more in detail, and also includes links to spaces in which will be working and the live video feed. Check it out, contribute your ideas, or even better, have your students add theirs! 


Social Justice LIVE!

Social Justice LIVE! is a global action research project where 8th Grade Students in a North Carolina school collect and interact with information from multiple people, as they seek solutions to problems of justice.

Participants, anywhere in the world, can contribute their thoughts anytime between now and Tuesday, and can also join us for the live classroom event on Monday. In order to participate,

CLICK THIS LINK to go to the LiveBinder of resources.

Inside the Binder, you can choose a particular Social Justice issue by clicking on the relevant tab, each of which has subtabs for different ways to interact. You can choose to pose a question/answer in the Today’s Meet subtab. You can choose to leave a comment, relevant image, or response to others’ comments/images on the Wallwisher subtab. Or, you can choose to write a comment or leave a web resource link in the Google Doc subtab.

You can participate in any way, at any level, at any time between now and next Tuesday.

Students will be responding to, interacting with, communicating and collaborating during the LIVE event on Monday, February 21st between 12:00 and 1:00 PM. (EST) The event will be USTREAMED Live (click the link here or in the Binder...) and students will be able to interact with the world audience through live streaming chat and video.

Social Justice LIVE! is open to all...individuals, classrooms, both local and international, kids, adults, EVERYONE! The comments, questions, responses, resources--all interactions, will be data that these students (and anyone else who wants to use it!) will organize and write about in the days after the LIVE event. You can access the students’ blogs by CLICKING ON THIS LINK.

We hope you can join us for this Global Event, as we engage 21st Century Fluencies, New Forms of instruction, and unlimited opportunities for learning!