Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The literacy of the image search

The last several classes I have had my students spend quite a bit of time searching the web and learning, doing informal web research to find out just what is out there about a topic they may know little about.  In our case the subjects of our googling have in some way connected to the context of Night, by Elie Wiesel  a novel that we'll soon start reading together.  Last week we inquired into the Holocaust and World War II.  Today our lesson focused on trying to learn a little more about how the concepts of Jewish Mysticism mentioned in the first three pages of Night connected to each other, so that we could better understand Wiesel's childhood and background.

I have used this time to teach students a little about how to search the web and also a little about website evaluation. Actually, I imagined that I would be writing this post today as a way of reflecting on the process of how these mini-lessons on digital skills have gone. I'll have to hang on to that idea for another time, though, because I noticed something today that I'm feeling needs more thought.  I noticed how many of my students, while searching for information on the internet, do an image search.  It's a habit that I'm seeing become more common among my students, and I'm wanting to think more about value of it.

My first reaction as a teacher is to say, "Hey, were doing research (even as light-weight as these mini-research assignments have been)! Those pictures aren't going to give you the information that you need.  Stop being lazy and read some complex text or else you wont be college and career ready." But I don't feel like that's the right reaction.  Partially because I do the same thing sometimes....actually a lot of times.  I am reading or watching television and something sparks my interest.  I go to the web, and depending on the topic, I usually end up at some point doing an image search. Having those pages and pages of images from the web help me "see" the concept I'm trying to know in a way that searching blogs or news articles don't.  Of course, there are other times when I specifically search for blogs, journal articles, news articles, or even tweets.  Usually I'll end up meandering through several of different genres of web text, and at some point stumble across something that gets me thinking about something that makes me feel like I need to do an image search to better understand what I want to know.

By the last class of my day today, after I had the first three classes to observe and wonder about students internet searching habits and the value of image searching, I was a little more conciseness of my students' internet search habits.  I noticed that most of my students didn't begin with searching for images.  I noticed that at some point most students at some term that they searched in images. They were basically doing the same thing that I did when I sat on the couch at home and wanted to learn about something.

Both my students and I understand that there is value in having a visual reference to a concept that we want to know more about, especially one about which we are unfamiliar. Image searches are worthwhile, I don't doubt that, but I'm wondering about the place the practice has in the context of literacy instruction in my classroom.  Should I incorporate lessons that guide students in doing image searches, and what would such lessons focus on? I'm not sure exactly what the guidelines are for being an effective image searcher.  Maybe we could create some. It could also be interesting to "read" pages of images, examining the story they collectively tell, and looking at this story critically. Maybe even looking at the results as augmentative texts.  Perhaps even students' findings of image searches could work their way into the more formal research papers that we'll write later in the year....

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Caught by suprise by Kidblog

I found my self in a bit of a bind this week as my school's process for issuing students their school email addresses has been hung up.  I was planning by now to have all students set up blogs in Blogger and begin composing and publishing there.  Any account that students make online through my classroom is supposed to be created with a school email, so without them, I had to put the plans for the Blogger and Google setup on hold. 

I decided that as a temporary solution I would have students create blogs using Kidblog.  They are excited about the writing that's been happening (right now we are creating narratives), and I felt that making sure they had the space to share and respond would be important for both students' sense of audience and also for the community that we are building.  Today is my second day with using the platform, and I've got to be honest, I'm starting to reconsider just how temporary this Kidblog fix is going to be.  It seems to be working pretty well for all of us.

The set up was a breeze.  I decided to create a separate class for each of my classes, and all I had to do was share the codes that the site generated for each class, along with these simple instructions, with students.  Within minutes they had created user names and passwords, and were part of the class. On that first day, I gave students very little background about the site or it's purpose other than telling them we would be using it to compose and share our writing.  I gave a overview of how to get around the dashboard, and within 10 minutes, all of my students were writing from daybooks into their first blog posts.

Between our workshop time yesterday and today, we have had very few problems, and yea, I'm impressed. Here are a few reason's why:
  • Kidblog's user-friendly interface makes it incredibly easy for students to navigate.  It's lay-out is logical and includes the most important components that bloggers need to compose.
  • The administrative controlls makes it easy to adjust student accounts.  The number of forgotten passwords when kids logged on today was on par with what I usually see (a handful in each class), but the fix took very little class time.  I opened their profile on my iPad, let them type in their new password, and the student instantaneously was able to sign in on the netbook at their desk.
  • I could see student drafts as they were automatically saved while they typed.  As students worked I would flip through the posts they were writing and then approach individuals for a conferences as I saw appropriate. In the past (when not writing on Google Docs that they shared with me), I accomplished this by reading over students' shoulders as they wrote for a bit then initiating a conference.  The conference process today was one of smoothest I've experienced.
  • On the same note as the point above, being able to open the most updated version of their draft from my device didn't require the student and I to share a screen, a task not possible in Blogger unless a student had published the post.
  • Students could see the posts of their classmates as they were published without having to take the additional step of following each others' blog or learning to use RSS and a feed reader. Kidblog combined the benefits of a class blog while still letting students have individual blogs.
  • I was able to see comments as students posted them. Actually, I was surprised to see that students were even posting comments, since our commenting day wasn't until tomorrow. But, as I pointed out with the point above, students know immediately when a blog gets published.
I'm excited about Kidblog, and I wasn't expecting to be.  It's not new.  I've played around with it before.  I've introduced it to other teachers in my building, and led pd sessions for teachers using it in other schools.  I knew the site and its capacities well, but I made the decision last year to have my students use Blogger.  I wanted them to use the same site that real bloggers use.  To have the freedom to customize, not feel policed, and develop a sense of ownership of their digital composing spaces. I wanted them to feel like their words were on the same playing field with others in the global blogosphere.  And I thought that using a "big-kid" (not made specifically for school) blogging site, I would then have more possibilities for teaching students the real-world lessons in digital literacy. 

I still believe in the value of all of these initial reasons I had for using Blogger, but my two days with Kidblog as got me thinking if, when, and how I'm going have students make the transition to Blogger when students' emails become available.  I'll have to keep thinking and writing about that.  But in the meantime, feel free to check out what my students have been posting and leave them some feedback. I'm sure they'd love it!

  My student's blogs by class:
    Block 1
    Block 2
    Block 5
    Block 6

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dear John --my response to your inquiry into fostering student bloggers

Like I often do, I was sitting up tonight past my bed time reading some blog posts that I subscribe to in my Reader. I came across this post by John Spencer (if you don't follow him, you should) about some thinking he was doing about getting his students blogging.  I've spend quite a bit of time thinking and blogging on the subject, so I had to respond.  But as I wrote my response, I noticed a new strand of my thinking about sustained student engagement with blogging come up, and because of that (and the fact that my comment was getting a little lengthy), I decided to post it here and leave him a link to it on his blog.  So John, in response to your post, here is what I'm thinking:

Hey John, I got my students into blogging a couple years ago, and I thought (and still think) about many of the questions that you're asking yourself here. I like how you pointed out that the blogging your students were doing bared little semblance to the blogs you write and read.  I've thought about this difference between school blogging and real blogging before also, eventually deciding that if I want my students to blog like "real bloggers," then I need to rethink the conditions in my classroom that support or inhibit the motivations of people who blog.  That seems reasonable, right?

The approach I eventually decided to take in my class was for students to all have individual blogs, use them as a space to publish writing assignments (often fairly open) produced in our writing workshop, and set class time aside for students to read and respond to each other. Over the course of the year, kids began to take ownership, create amazingly thoughtful and creative writing pieces, build off of ideas they found in others' writing, and value this space.  If you'd like to read more on this process, I blogged about it here.

Considering the context of my students' engagement and the tightness of the blogging community we had formed, I thought that for certain my students blogging practices would continue well after school was out.  And I had reason to believe it, too.

The day after the last day of school, one student emailed me this:
Wow.... I can't believe everything is over. I was in your class and now I'm going to High School, but the legacy for me to write is still on!!!! You taught me so much!!!. When you said write what is on your mind, I basically wrote everything that was on my mind. . I hope you and the little ones have a great summer and know that I will be writing on my blog for the rest of my life!!!!!!!

Another student amassed a following of student bloggers from outside of our class because of the amazing writing she was doing.  In response to a comment she received on this post, she stated:
 Thank you! It's a really sad poem, but I felt the need to publish it. I'm glad that you do check my blog. I try to post something at least every Friday, so you can always count on a new poem then.
The first student had not posted since the school year ended.  The second posted a blog post the week after school got out.  It was the last post she has written to date, and she was the only one of my students who had returned back to her blog.

But even with this engagement with blogging and the tightness of the blogging community we created,  I've only seen a handful of students' posts come across my Reader since school got out.  I've been thinking about this, why not more of my students have been blogging when during the school year they seemed so into doing so for their own purposes....like you and I do.  Maybe it was because the blog started in the context of school, as an assignment.  That's one possibility.

Another explanation, which I'm thinking is more likely, is that the blogging my students were doing was not entering them into the larger "conversations" that were already taking place in the real (rather than k-12) blogosphere.   During the school year, my students knew their words were heard by classmates, and they knew that students around the world may come across their blogs through the blogging communities I had them enter  into, like Comments 4 Kids and the Student Blogging Challenge.  But these spaces for audiences had limited existence outside of school.  Maybe that's the problem. 

So now, I'm wondering....
I'm wondering now about how to guide my students toward blogging into the existing real-world, conversations.  I'm wondering if there are other communities of student bloggers out there sustaining their blogging practices.   I'm wondering what that would look like and how to go about it.  I've only just begun to think about it, and I'm open to any ideas. 

So John, that's what I got for you.  I'm not sure if this is the response that you were looking for.   I'm certain that you're content, school, and students are all much different than mine, but it is for these reasons, though, that I decided to respond back to you with my story and thinking, rather than suggestions. 

I hope you'll continue your inquiry in the public space of your blog.  I enjoy being part of that conversation.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A year in the life of an 8th grader--A digital end-of-year project

It seems like every year after the first round of EOG testing, the learning community we have created throughout the first 170 days of school begins to lose shape.  Remediation and retesting takes center stage, schedules change, kids get shuffled around, and for many students, particularly those who passed their tests, the time spent in regular content classes becomes and exercise in passing time.

I've never considered such an end to the school year desirable.  After a year's worth of building connections and knowledge, the end of the year should serve as a point to celebrate a year's worth of achievements.  It should be a time to look back and reflect on all that had happened with new eyes, realizing the value of our time together and the effect it will have on the rest of our lives.  

I've been thinking throughout he second semester of school about the idea of doing such a reflective final project, contemplating what it could look like.  One that was was intellectual and reflective, while also flexible and engaging.   One that would enable students to refocus their attention from standardized tests and the summer break around the corner, to celebrating and sharing the the amazing transformations that had occurred within them this year. 

Going into the last week of school, I felt like I had pretty good idea of what this project would be, and I was hopeful that it would be awesome.  So, on Tuesday after my students and I were back together in class after a long weekend, we dug in.

Writing into ideas for our project:

To begin the process, we opened our daybooks, stretched out our hands, and wrote for a few minutes in response to the following questions:
  • Describe yourself as a writer at the beginning of the year.  You can talk about your attitude, likes, dislikes. 
  • What are some important events that have occurred in your writing this year? 
  • How have you noticed your writing change this year?
  • How has your writing changed you?
  • What other important ways have you changed this year?

With some thinking fresh in our heads, I presented students with three possible directions their projects could take.    Below are the directions I gave:
A Year in the Life of an 8th grader--Digital Reflective Project 
         Pick one of the following options for the focus of your project:
1. Show the path of your journey as a writer/reader this year

2. Retell one of your writing pieces with images or other media

3. Explain lessons you learned about life as an 8th grader

        And use one of the following tools to create it:

        Animoto, Glogster, Prezi, Photostory, Movie Maker 

I gave students brief demonstrations of each of the digital tools, adding that if they knew of another tool in they would like to use, they could, and I encouraged them to use one that was new to them for the purpose of learning something new.  I also told students that they were more than welcome to do more than one project option, combine options, or, if they wanted to, come up with their own option for a reflective project.  

Students took the next 10 minutes or so to write in their daybooks about their plans, then took a few minutes to share ideas and get responses from classmates.  I gave students the last 15 minutes to either plan in their daybooks, experiment with possible tools, or dive into their projects.  

From what I could tell, it seemed like just about all left class with a sense of direction and, importantly, motivation. Students seemed excited and engaged, and I could feel a level of energy in the room that, like I had hoped, would make this last week we had together powerful and productive. 

We were all excited to begin. 

The best laid plans.....

My plan for the week was to use the next two days as workshop time, and Friday for presentations.  Two days wasn't a lot of time to work.  I knew it was going to be tight, but if students used their time productively, a couple full class periods should be enough.  Motivated 8th graders can accomplish just about anything. 

Students arrived at class chattering about their projects.  While they logged on to their computes, I reviewed the project they would be working on, explaining that they would have two days to work and that Friday would be our presentation day.  As computers logged on, daybooks opened to yesterday's planning, and the class grew quiet as students eagerly dug into their projects.

Right away, I noticed something wasn't right.  Some students noticed that the internet was slow.  Others began loosing their network connections.  And some were not even able to log on.  I couldn't figure it out.  It wasn't the wireless connection.  I was connected and so were about half of my students.  Not knowing what else to do, I instructed students that if they experienced problems with their computers, they should try restarting, and while they waited should use their time to continue their project planning in their daybooks.  Restarting worked for some, but was incredibly time consuming.  But having more time to work ideas out paper proved to be a good thing, though.

Our first work period wasn't a total loss, but we couldn't afford to lose another day.  Motivation is hard to come by in 8th grade during this time of the year, so I spent my planning period in our technology facilitator's office.  Eventually she figured out the cause of the problem.

It turned out that, while nothing was wrong with our school's network, many other classrooms in the school
were streaming movies and videos from the Internet, using up quite a bit of bandwidth.  

Teachers were instructed to stop streaming, and while our web connection was better the next couple of days, many of my students were still not able to finish their projects.  A few barely had the chance to start. 

Presentation Day

We went ahead and presented projects anyway, even though for many students this presentation consisted of them talking through what they were planning on doing.  It wasn't exactly what I had planned, but even so, what students had made or were wanting to make was pretty impressive.  Here are some examples:

  • Jacob created this Prezi, showing how he had transformed as writer this year.  And indeed he has.  Check out his blog to see the amazing work he produced. 
  • Diana created this Glog.  It didn't turn out exactly as she wanted it to, with some parts being cut off, but it was an awesome idea.  In it she reflects on her growth as a writing and includes quotes from the writing of her classmates and comments that people left on her writing.  
  • Josh created this photostory reflecting on his writing and life as an 8th grader.  In it he includes screenshots of his writing and writing of his classmates that he found particularly powerful.  He ran out of time in class and recorded this presentation from home. 
  • Alycia's project took the form of a letter to next year's 8th graders that she posted on her blog here.  In it she addresses subjects such as work, principals, teachers, and cliques, writing in a way that is sure to capture the interest of her audience.
  • Weston created a Prezi and embedded it in his blog here.  In it, he describes the growth he experienced as a writer this year. 

It's rare that a project my students and I take on for the first time goes as planned, and, of course, this one was no exception.  The technology problems that we ran into were out of our control, but with respect to what students could control, the directions they took with the freedom they had was awesome.  They carved out ideas for what they would create based on their own experiences, taking directions that I hadn't considered.  It was fascinating to watch their process as they experimented and worked with different mediums for creating.  Many took me up on my challenge of learning to compose with something new, and many also thought considerably about the possibilities and limitations different tools presented with respect to how their message was conveyed.  

The presentation day, regardless of the projects' stage of completion, was indeed a celebration.   Students were eager to share just how far they had come this year and were supportive of their classmates.  I think I was the most excited though, as many students highlighted elements of  learning and growth they experienced in my class of which I was completely unaware.

This was how the school year should end; it didn't go as planned, but it was exactly what it needed to be. I'm sure that I will build upon this project next year, but without question my students and I will again head in this direction during the wild time that is the final days of school.  

I'm excited to be able to share my experiences here.  Perhaps I will inspire others, and next year bandwith loss will be less of an issue. Perhaps.

*In the meantime, I'd love to hear additional suggestions for end of year projects.  I'm also all about collaboration, so if you're interested in heading down a similar road with your students next year, please get in touch!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Opening New Spaces in the Digital Writing Workshop with Google Docs

 Writing workshop is, and always has been, where some of the most powerful learning has taken place in my classroom.  Last year, I made the move towards a more digital writing workshop, mainly though the incorporation of blogs as a space to compose and publish.  I noticed that this move drastically changed writing instruction as I knew it.  Technology provided a new space and a new way for students to create, share, and develop ideas.
Three weeks ago I added another layer to our digital writing workshop:  I introduced students to Google Docs, and with it learned the power and potential of yet another space that again is changing writing instruction as I know it.

Getting students started with their first Google Doc was easy.  My students already have Google account as they maintain blogs on Blogger, so having them begin their first Google Doc was as simple as directing them to log into Google, click a couple tabs, and begin a new document (if you've never done it before, create an account on Google, visit google.com/docs, and hit the "create" button).

To be honest, my main purpose for getting my students to begin using Google Docs wasn't composing; rather, it was the possibilities presented for collaborative writing and conferencing.  But even so, after a couple days most of my students expressed to me that they preferred typing in docs over the text editor in Blogger. They cited the larger screen and more familiar format, as well as the ability to access previous revisions.  Others mentioned that they liked being able to access their drafts on their phone through the Docs app for Android. I also noticed that I had fewer students coming to me with the problem of loosing work they had previously thought was saved, like would happen on occasion with Blogger.

Getting Collaborative

The transition to using Docs as a drafting space went pretty smooth, and after all of my students seemed to have drafts underway, I introduced them to the Google Doc conference. Google Docs provides users the option of sharing documents, so others can have the ability to edit and add comments to a document in real-time. It is an option that, I've felt for some time, had potential to change the way conferencing is done in writing workshop.  I was pretty excited today to take my first real step into it with my students.

In order to invite collaborators to a document, the user simply clicks the blue "share" button in the top right corner of their document and enters the email addresses of intended collaborators.  Before my students could do this they needed access to each other's email addresses, which we accomplished in about two minutes with a Google Form and a link to resulting spreadsheet posted on my home page (Google Forms is yet another handy feature of Google Docs).

After students had time to fill out and submit the form, I introduced them to the conference they would soon be having.  Students in my class have an established writing group they have been working and sharing with since the beginning of the year, so the idea of a writing conference was not unfamiliar to them.  Actually, the way I framed this conference using Google Docs was with the exact same instructions that we had been following the past two weeks:
  1. Students would meet sit together with their group
  2. One student would read aloud his or her writing
  3. Other students would listen, ask questions in response
  4. The group would have a conversation about the piece
  5. The author would get any help he or she felt they need
  6. Repeat 
Before meeting in their groups, I gave students time to refer to our list of student emails and invite their group members to their document. When the invites were sent, students got with their groups and began their conference, just the same as they usually did, but this time instead of just listening, they would open that author's draft and read along; and in addition to just responding and asking the author questions, students used the insert function to type their comments onto each student's draft. 

Responding to each other's writing in a Google Doc enabled group members to attach comments to specific places in the text, while also leaving the author the option of accessing the feedback on the draft at a later time. These two posibilities alone made writing conferences more engaging and worth while, like I expected they would.  But there were also some things that happened that I didn't expect.    Things that began after the initial conferences had ended.

Opening New Spaces
Well, maybe "ended" isn't the right word to use.  Because, what I noticed was that after students moved back to their seats and continued their writing quietly, many of the conferences didn't end.
A student collaborates with several others on a Google Doc

Rather, I saw right away that many students took it upon themselves to continue to post comments on each others drafts, reply to those comments, and in some cases, carry on conversations about their writing using the chat feature on Google Docs.  This, I didn't expect (especially since I didn't mention anything to students  about the chat feature).  Yes, I planned on later giving students the option of having Google Doc conferences during workshop time, but I had not figured it was something they would just begin doing on their own.  Clearly, they were ahead of me.  So, I decided to just get out of the way, watch, and learn.

In the writing workshop sessions that followed it became clear that Google Docs was opening spaces for writing in my classroom that I didn't know existed. Spaces, that I wasn't aware of until I saw students carve them out before me:
  • Jacob, Luis, and Cody shared a common interest in wanting to write science fiction.  While in different  writing groups, each invited the other to their Doc where they were drafting the next piece.  During class workshop time, each had three documents open.  Each spent the majority of the time working on his own writing, but would also pop in and out of the chat side bar of the others' Docs asking for help or a response to part of their writing.  The three would chat briefly about the part under consideration, then move back to work in their own Doc, every so often checking in on each other to see how their stories were progressing. 
  • After it was received well by the class at our Friday Open Mic, David decided to create a sequel to the first part of his sci-fi piece.  Josh, inspired by David's piece, decided to write the sequel as well, but from the perspective of a different character. Each invited the other to their drafts, and collaborated
  • Isaac, wanting to get new ideas for his writing, whispered to Jhonny, asking him to send an invite to his draft.  Jhonny did, and while Jhonny continued to revise his writing, Isaac chatted with him about parts of it that he liked and ideas it was giving him for his next piece. 

Above are highlighted a few specific examples of how students adapted the features of Google Docs to meet their needs as writers. In each case, I didn't instruct students to confer or collaborate.  They just did.  They recognized the need, were aware of the value that collaboration had on their writing, and used the tools and space afforded to them to carry it out.

I feel it's important for me to point out the the examples I shared above were not the exception to how writing was being done in my classroom.  After having now used Google Docs in my classroom writing workshop for three weeks, frequent collaboration while writing has become the norm.  It has become increasingly difficult to draw the line between writing time and collaboration time.  And this collaboration, which seemed to be taking place at any given time between pairs and groups of writers, looked different in each case, dependant upon on the needs of the writer.
In just this short period of time, with Docs in the mix, I've seen a significant change in my students writing and identities as writers.  Not only are they coming to see themselves as writers on an extent to which I had never before seen, but they are also developing an appreciation and understand of the writing process and  the nature of writing that I had not considered possible with 8th graders.

This is the most engaged and creative group of writers that has ever been inside my classroom walls.
I say this every year, and I always mean it.
Writing is going well, and there are a number of variables that explain why. The workshop model is part of it, my students are part of it, my teaching is part of it, and the technology is part of it.  I'm sure that there is a really interesting explanation in the intersection of it all.   But with respect to the technology,  specifically Docs, I'm pretty sure that the difference is being made in the space the technology creates.

Google Docs creates a space where writers can move seamlessly and more effectively through the steps of writing.  Regardless of how it often gets taught, as straight-forward and rigid, the process that real writers use is anything but linear.  With Docs being cloud based, students can write whenever they are inspired on whatever device they have with them.  With the collaborative features, students can give and receive feedback quickly and quietly (which is pretty important when 30 students are writing in a classroom) at any given time, as well as write collaboratively.  And with the ability to access past revisions, it's easier to try out different approaches and take risks in writing without fear of irreversible damage.

The space of Docs is also highly conducive to the development of new and better ideas for writers. It is a space where ideas can move as quickly (or slowly) as they need to, collide with other ideas, and give rise to new ones.  It is a space that is a catalyst for creativity and innovation. It's one that affords opportunities not possible in physical space alone, and one that fits in pretty well with the digital and physical elements present in our workshop already: daybooks and blogs, conversations with me and between students, and mini-lessons and mentor texts. 

Adding this new layer to our workshop has redefined the act of writing for my students.  It's changed me, too.  I've noticed that I've developed a new awareness of and appreciation for my both the workshop model and my role as a teacher of writing.  I'm pretty sure that I haven't seen all of what is possible through Google Docs in the few weeks we have been using it, but I've seen enough to know that it's a place significant enough to be permanent.  And I also know that my students, so long as they are allowed to take the lead, will gladly continue to carve out new possibilities for composing and collaborating within the space of our Digital Writing Workshop.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Learning Showcase Reflection Posts--just another reason why blogging is awesome

Next Monday evening, our school is hosting a Learning Showcase Night, where students will take their parents to each class and lead a conference about their learning over the course of the year.

Today I put my regularly scheduled lesson aside to give my students a chance to stop, look back, and reflect on their learning, so they will be prepared to talk with their parents about it.

Fortunately, as much of student work for my class has been published on blogs, students had a chronologically organizaed portfolio ready for them. All they needed to do was sort through and make some sense of it.

In their daybooks students made the chart below, which they used to record notes about pieces of thier work that best hightlighted their ELA accomplighments to date:

Then, after having some time (most only needed about 20 minutes) to get their ideas organized, I told students that they would next take the inforamation on thier chart to create a new blog post, one that would assist them as they led thier parents through the conversation about their learning this year. Here were the guidelines that I gave:

I gave a brief demonstration on creating hyperlinks within their writing, something I've touched on before but never required, and gave students the rest of the period to work on it while I circulated the room and talked to as many kids as I could.  What I saw and heard was pretty amazing.

The first thing that initially struck me was how few issues came up with students being uncertian about what they had done that reflected areas such as creativity, growth as a writer, and themselves as a thinker and/or learner.  Figuring how ones work shows these characteristics requires some reflective and tough thinking.  But students seemed to know right away what parts they needed to pick and why.  After a talking with a few students about their process and selections, it became apparent that this reflection came so readily because they had already been through it a few times with the reflective self assessments that I have them complete after each piece.  Here is one they used with a narrative writing piece (using Diigo), and here is one they did with a Google form for a writing workshop piece.

One area in particular, students' growth as writers, was the most fun to see them write about.  For many students, this was the first time going back through everything they posted on thier blog since the beginning of the year.  And as they did changes in their writing seemed to jump right out at them.

Some of the students I talked with were able to trace changes back to a particular minilesson or conversation. Emeli, for example noticed how her sentence structure and use of imagery in her writing changed after we did a lesson using Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a mentor text. Jhonnatan pointed out to me how after I had a conversation with him about puntuation that his subsequent posts weren't written in the same multiple-run-on format that his earlier posts were.

And there were also other students who saw apparent changes in their writing but were not able to trace these changes back to any particular lesson or event.  Quite a few students just told me that that their writing just seemed to get better the more they wrote, such as Weston.   Erin is another such student, and while she wasn't able to pinpoint a specific influence, she was able to tell me that she could put her finger on the piece that caused her to move from being a hater of writing to discovering that writing was her calling.  She showed me the draft in her daybook, I snapped a picture with my phone and emailed it to her so she could include it in her showcase post.

Since I started having my studnets use blogs to publish thier work, I've been meaning to do a lesson like this to encourage reflection and direct thier attention to just how far they have come. I had honest plans to so something like this last year, but things got busy and I was too focused on the flow of learning moving forward to build in a day of looking back.    I can't say enough about how glad I am that today we finally did it.   After what I saw, I couldn't imagine any parent leaving Monday night unimpressed with the learning taking place; I sure am, and more importantly, so are the students.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Finding new hope for research papers (and a new use for Diigo)

Guiding my students through the process of writing a research paper is part of the 8th grade curriculum.  Having done plenty of research writing myself, I value and respect the importance of the process.  But to be completely honest, I have never really enjoyed teaching it.

There always seemed to be something missing from the research papers students wrote in my class.    Even when students had complete control over what they researched, their writing just wasn’t meaningful. It was forced, mechanical, and impersonal.  Every year, I revised my both approach and the assignment, and while the changes I made to my practice usually yielded an improvement, they never affected what I had most hoped to change.  

I had just about accepted that research papers were lifeless, when a few weeks ago I tried out an idea for a project with my students that has given me new hope.  The project, a research paper, was a little different than anything I had done with my classes before, and I began it before I fully had my head around where it would go.   It combined a novel we had just finished, The Hunger Games, with a little brainstorming, some Diigo assisted web research, and a lot of writing.  The result was paradigm shifting.

Here was the idea for the project: Students would select and research a topic related to The Hunger Games, then use what they found through their research to write a paper that connected the novel and the topic.  It sounds simple, but of course, it wasn't.

In short, this is what we did:

I told my students we would be researching topics that related to the book.  As a class, we made a list of related topics that were researchable. Below is the list of what we brainstormed.
Students picked a topic and did a couple quick-writes in their daybook about what they knew already about the topic and how it tied in with the book.  
With their topics fresh in their minds, students turned to the Internet to search for more information.  I intentionally didn’t give much direction as to what they needed to find through their research.  Instead I just directed them to read-up on their topic, and while doing do, use Diigo to 1) highlight important information they found, and 2) attach sticky notes to the site that explained connections they found/realized between their topic and The Hunger Games.  For example, a student researching "relationships" may find a site giving information about healthy relationships and put on a sticky note on a fact that she/he felt explained a characteristic of Katniss and Peeta's relationship.   They took a couple days to find as much information as they could.

Next came the writing part (here's where it got really cool)
I told my students that they would be using what they found online to write a research paper.  The paper didn't have to be a particular number of paragraphs or have a particular organization.  What it had to do was show how their topic connected to The Hunger Games, bring in information from three sources (web sites), and give their reader a deeper understanding of both the novel and their topic (here is the full assignment that I posted for students). 
And this is also where my planning also started to fall apart.  I didn’t know what exactly a paper that did these things would look like.  So, my students and I figured it out together.
We brainstormed ways in which such a paper could be organized, and eventually decided that most would fall into one of the following categories:
  • Use the topic researched to analyze something in the book (like with the relationships example above),
  • Explain the facts behind the fiction (how real hovercrafts differ from those in the book)
  • Show multiple connections between the topic and the book (how types of roman gladiators mirrored characters in the book).  

How kids decided to organize their paper depended on what they found in their research, particularly the connections they wrote on their sticky-notes. Fortunately, Diigo makes accessing these notes, as well as the content highlighted, pretty simple.

Screenshot taken from student's Diigo library

We made some rough outlines, and started writing.  The content I usually teach with research papers (quoting and paraphrasing, bibliography, citing sources) and essays (introductions, paragraph organization, conclusions) I back-loaded in through mini lessons and conferences while students were writing.  
Students published their projects (research papers) on their blog, we took a day to read and post comments on each others, talk about ones we thought were really cool, and complete a brief self-assessment of the experience (right).  Also, the rubric I used to grade the self assessment and project can be found here.  

Unlike the research papers that my students wrote in the past, these make for pretty interesting reads.  Below are some links to a few of them:

  • For Liz's project, she analyzed and drew comparisons between poverty in the US and in Panem.
  • Weston made some interesting comparisons between the Hunger Games and Jersey Shore in his piece
  • Alycia used her research to write a post examining the science behind the genetic mutations featured in the Hunger Games
  • Asia analyzes Katniss' relationships as well gives advice to anyone caught in a love triangle in this tip sheet.
  • Jacob researched force fields, and wrote this post about figurative force fields that exist in the Hunger Games. 
  • Luis wrote about his analysis of the wilderness survival techniques used by characters in the Hunger Games.
  • David wrote this brief, but interesting, piece that compared Hunger Games characters to types of Roman Gladiators. 

Making sense of what worked
Earlier in this post, I called this experience “paradigm shifting” for me.  And it was.  I now look upon writing research papers more favorably. What made this experiences so different was that it treated my students like writers. The writing they did was the real type, not the scripted, certain-number-of-paragraphs, topic sentence-supporting details type. It put students in a position, where writers often are, of having to make a number of decisions based on the information they have and how they want to get it across.

It was hard, too.  I saw my students struggle a lot more through this process than any time we had written research papers in the past.  By not knowing myself what these papers would turn on out to be, when a student asked me for help, I wasn’t able to give them a quick answer.  Instead, we would end up having these long conversations about what they found through their research and what they were trying to make happen in their writing. There really wasn't much more I could/should do.  The eventual form this paper took was up to students, as writers, to figure out.

When the process was all said and done, the final product was amazing.  Not necessarily “amazing” in the sense that all of my students produced the greatest research papers ever written (though there were a few that were better than any produced in my classroom before). What made these papers so great was that they had life and personality. Their words had a voice of their own, not separate from the author who wrote them.  And all of them, even the ones that were a bit rough around the edges, clearly reflected a considerable amount of thought. These were papers written by students who were not just going through the motions.

This isn’t the last experience my students will have in my class with writing research papers; I never planned for it to be.  My intentions were for this assignment to be an introduction to the genre of research writing in the context of a creative activity that would also extend their thinking about a novel.  Later in the year, we will build off of the skills introduced here to write a more formal research paper. A paper that I'm going to be doing more thinking about before I begin taking my students through the process.  

I need to think through more this idea of formal writing.  In my mind I've kept it separate from creative writing (I even said above "an introduction to the genre of research writing in the context of a creative activity), but now this separation is seemingly less distinct.  Formal writing need not be formulaic, and creative writing need not be it's own, segregated genre apart from the more academic types.    I know this to be true now from my experiences with this project, seeing my students give life to writing that I had dismissed as hopelessly dead.