Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lover's advice and baby step blogging

Just got finished reading some of the comments on the English 10 blog, where we are currently sharing some ideas about Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In this latest assignment, the students wrote advice letters to one of the four lovers in the play - Lysander, Hermia, Helena, or Demetrius. They wrote some great stuff. I can't imagine that if they had written these assignments on paper and handed them in, they'd be as thoughtful or would they have made some of the deep personal connections to the characters that I enjoyed reading on the blog. It makes a difference that they know their classmates are reading each other. The assignment does not rise to the level of a formal essay, so posting them as comments on a blog are perfect. For now.

My next professional step is to begin planning for more embedded and regular blogging in my classroom. The comments on my blog posting are fine, but as I'm coming to discover, another effective way to improve student writing is through the use of regular blogging. I plan to try. My bloglines roll is full of worthy edubloggers to emulate and continue learning from.

Meanwhile, I'm still inching my students along this journey with me. Last week, Bill at Shakespeare Teacher noticed our work. And it got me thinking, what a great opportunity to remind my students about the potential of these web 2.0 tools that we have only just begun to use. These are baby steps, based on what I see other educators doing, but necessary ones. As part of any web 2.0 curriculum, there should be emphasis that what we write and post online can be read - in fact it is being read - by people all over the world. My students this year have only just begun discovering this. Bill's post is a nice reminder of how, even as a 10th grade high school English class, our voices can be heard beyond F14.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I see their knavery: starting A Midsummer Night's Dream...

So we began our unit on A Midsummer Night's Dream. I decided, this year, to begin by giving the students a summary of the first half of the play - in my words - as their first taste of the thing. They read it and I told them that they probably would be confused, especially seeing several of those names poached from Greek mythology - Theseus, Hippolyta, Demetrius, Hermia, Lysander, even Helena. In past years, I've given them this summary and asked them to write a paper in which they came up with their own creative ending to the complicated love mess. That usually produced some fun writing. As I decided earlier, I'm going to ask students to post their endings as comments on the class blog.

Today, instead, was about introducing the play. This means undertaking what I call advance ops: jotting down notes on background, engaging in general discussion about the play and Shakespeare (the kids get a kick out of the fact that I visited Stratford-upon-Avon during my honeymoon. One memorable comment from the front row: "Wow, I'm surprised your wife still wanted to marry you." But it was said with a smile), and a light walk through of the plot and characters. As expected, the strongest responses from the students came when we went over Nick Bottom, who gets saddled with the head of an ass. For sophomores, just hearing that word is enough to draw some laughter. And why not? It's funny, and I think Shakespeare would agree. It led to quite a lively and energetic discussion, a prelude to what I hope is a lively and energetic experience with the play.

To help frame my instruction, I gave the students the three essential questions of the unit:

  1. How do we act when we are in love? Why?
  2. Which emotions “from the heart” are the strongest? Which reveal our true selves?
  3. How effectively does Shakespeare use humor to make his ideas known about human behavior?

What surprised me about our discussion was the idea about emotions "from the heart." To me, that is one of the most important concepts about Midsummer. Shakespeare creates these characters - especially the lovers - and puts them in situations in which their emotions are exposed. They fluctuate between love, hate, and jealousy with relative ease. Albeit they are under the influence of a magic spell, we can still relate to their inconstancy. This can be a key entry point for teenagers, who live in a world of shifting and mysterious emotions.

For the next lesson, I plan to start with the Act I, scene ii, when the mechanicals first meet to plan their rehearsals. I got this idea from the excellent resource book Shakespeare Set Free, which apparently is useful not just for Midsummer. Todd is using it for Macbeth. Anyway, in an essay in the book, Michael Tolaydo suggests starting a Shakespeare play in the classroom with a large group scene, especially one that contains language more approachable to the students. "This approach," Tolaydo writes in "Three-Dimensional Shakespeare," "generates and puts into play the necessary tools and skills to examine those more difficult and complex portions of the play, while it supplies students with self-esteem and confidence in their own ideas and opinions." (28) I've never taught it this way, but I am eager to try it out. This scene fits the bill Tolaydo describes, and to me is one of the most humorous scenes in the entire play. Bottom's insistence on playing all the parts and his repeated malapropisms set the stage for what's coming, his impending ass-head and the incompetence of the play performance at the end. I hope I can keep the kids with me that long.

photo credit: Bottom with the Faires in a costume sketch from Charles Kean's scrapbook for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shelfmark ART Vol. d48. from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Spreading the word, looking for suggestions

Ok, here I go again...

It seems I'm not the only one grappling with how to start taking some of those next steps and spread the word about the best uses of these web 2.0 tools we all blog about. Dan, a math teacher in California, volunteered himself to research and suggest an educational application to bring to his district that will be easy to use for teachers of all digital proficiency abilities and interest levels. It seems some of those in his department suggested the school invest in some PD time on how to update HTML files and upload them to the school server. To do this, they also suggested buying more server space and some publishing software. That's when Dan rightly stepped in. And now he's taking a day off to put together some web 2.0 solutions. He's looking for some input. The best I could do was suggest he consider some of the ideas about blogging that have been bandied about recently. Based on what I've read of his blog in the last several months, Dan will surely come up with something that is both well thought out AND well-written. Check back to see.

Along a similar vein, Eric is in search of the killer EdApp, and he's gotten quite a bit of feedback from some people who know what they're doing. A lot more than I do, that's for sure. I also like the wiki resource that Patrick Higgins has put together for a workshop along these same lines. I'm glad guys like that are on the job.

All of this has kept me thinking about how these next steps are going to be taken. Finding that killer EdApp is a laudable goal, but I wonder if is reasonable to think there is just one. One of the defining characteristics of web 2.0 is the inter-connectivity between users, a dynamic consumption of information, and the remixing of data from different sources.

That seems to imply that even if there was a killer app, the very nature of our changing digital world is that the tasks and tools that it would provide could and should be reused and remixed as user needs change and evolve. Thus, today's killer app is tomorrows piece of the larger puzzle. I think that's how we need to approach our task of making such instructional tools more widespread in our classrooms. My immediate goal is to bring to F14 a more authentic writing model for my students, and it's looking more and more like it needs to start with some form of class wide blogging.

I'll get on that as soon as I get my Midsummer unit ready and under control.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Starting to think about where to begin with a batch of digitally challenged teachers

I'm not exactly where this all started, but I've been hashing out the subtleties of using blogs and blogging in the classroom. There's been some good conversation about just what is the best use of blogs by students as part of a class. Clay has smartly drawn a fine distinction in the pedagogy of using blogs in class, separating them into two different types, for two different purposes. Others have pointed to earlier portfolio assessment models as a place to look for further ideas for refinement. Check out Clay's post and ensuing comments) Essentially, it comes down to what we, as teachers, believe will best serve our students. All this talk has prompted me to look back on my short journey of discovery this year. If we are going to ask - expect - demand - other teachers to embrace this new technology and use it to promote 21st century skills, where is the best place to start with a batch of digitally illiterate teachers? Or even those with basic digital skills who are still unaware of the full educational potential of web 2.0. I can't imagine that my path would be the most effective model in which to bring others along.

Let me step back in time a few months...

When school started in August, a fellow English teacher told me about the blog she's starting this year to post a daily record of class assignments and lesson plans, like a resource for herself and her students. It serves the purpose of providing her students a place to get the work they miss if they're absent, and serve as a repository of her lesson plans throughout the year. Cool, I thought. But I have my web page for that.

Then come October, a colleague of mine shows me a blog he set up for his AP Calculus class. On it, he had posted questions and asked students to respond. It was a model he found engaging and new, an assessment he said his students shared. I was familiar with blogs and understood the general idea of what they were, specifically what made them different from web pages, for example. What a great idea, I thought. I could do that, too.

I set up an account in Blogger and created a site for my English 10 class. On the blog, I posted a few open-ended questions related to our readings. I played around with the comments section, figuring out what was required to allow commenting, either from students our others. I spent some time talking to another colleague, a special education teacher who co-teaches one of my English 10 sections with me. I decided to try it out while reading The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds. I put up a prompt, brought the kids to the computer lab, paired them up, and showed them how to comment. That was the first assignment.

That was October and November. Meanwhile, I set up my own personal blog and began reading some others I came across. I discovered Bloglines and began compiling feeds. I discovered wikis and experimented with a few collaborative writing projects. I continued to blog about it as best I could. It's through the blogging where I've benefited from the knowledge of others farther along this path than me. I've listened to them hash out ideas, or present new uses for the emerging social networking technology.

Which brings me back to the original intent of this post. As we bring others along, where is the best place to start? What is the one or two most important web 2.0 tools or concepts a newbie should be taught? For example, there's no sense teaching someone how to set up a Bloglines account if they have little concept of what kinds of blogs or other feeds are available. The social bookmarking and networking tools are wonderful, but require a deeper understanding of the types of information and ideas out there.

Eric maintains an excellent wiki where he organizes his technology resources under the following categories: one-to-one; one-to-many; many-to-many. Blogs are under one-to-many. I like that categorization. Maybe the best way to spread the word is to use those categories, and start by showing other teachers the potential of one-to-many. I'd love to know how such efforts - these drops of change in otherwise stagnant pools - have gone in other schools, where the ripples of change have begun to spread.

To me, it makes the most sense to show a newbie how to set up a blog. And by extension, the easiest and simplest use of a blog is posting content-based prompts to which students respond. It's simple, straightforward, and most closely matches an instructional model that digitally illiterate teachers are familiar with. We, as teacher-leaders, must understand any distinctions between different types of student blogging. The potential I saw in blogging when I first asked students to post comments to my prompts was powerful. For the first time, they had the opportunity to read each other's ideas. Although it was not truly embedded in that form, it did provide me that glimpse of the power of web 2.0 that has led me here.

photo credit: Disperse by CentralJake on Flickr.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Props to the best web 2.0 tools for educators

A few weeks back, Steve put out the word asking edublog folks to tell him what their three favorite free web 2.0 tools were. Here he posts the top 10, with leading the way.

Some random thoughts on the list...

My three favorites made it - Bloglines, Google (do I really need to link that?), and Wikispaces. (He actually lists wikispaces and pbwiki which are both great wiki tools.) In fact, I just finished reading my students' posts on the class wiki with Bloglines. It's simple. I set up an RSS feed to pick up all page changes. When I click on a new feed coming into my Bloglines feeds, I get the newest addition on the page in green and the deletions in red. Google reader does not provide the same type of feed.

Flickr came in at number three. So far I've uploaded only a handful of photos there. Only one I made public. Essentially, I've discovered that I'm not the greatest photographer, despite that class I took in high school in which we all used a twin lens reflex camera. Let me play around some more before I have enough confidence. Also, a little faux pas this week reminded me that I'm still learning the rules about photo sharing and the like. Also, check out the thread started with the fifth comment here. Oops.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hand-wringing and other approaches toward professional growth

Been reading Clay Burrell's regular thoughts about the evolving nature of blogs in schools. One interesting thread addresses teachers sucking blogs dry by using them for too much "homeworky" stuff, such as simply posting prompts online to replace traditional paper assignments. His original post garnered some interesting comments, including one from yours truly. He says,

"'Blogging is just another way to turn in homework.' That's the sentence that scares me. Because that's how non-blogging teachers, and perhaps those unfamiliar with literacy pedagogy--communication across the curriculum, writing to learn, authentic writing, and more--will probably use blogging in the classroom. And it will become drudgery. And the students (not learners here, because "teacher" can't let go of being "teacher," dominating, squelching, and dictating to students) will bang out the minimum for "blog homework," as in old days, and turn to something authentic. Like their MySpace."
What struck me is that I've spoken - or at least thought - that first sentence. That's had me wringing my hands for the last few days. In fact, my first introduction to blogging was using them in just the way that scares Clay. The kids seemed to like it, better than the "old" paper way of handing out assignments at least, and it provided me with a more dynamic way to keep track of and assess their thinking. I'm not going to use the term homework in this context because what I did was fundamentally different than the "traditional" homework model. The comments on the blog were richer, more open-ended than what I would have expected from the students if I had asked them to write a journal entry or respond to a question on a piece of notebook paper to hand in to me. The very nature of posting their thinking as comments allowed them to see each other's work, an unprecedented opportunity that I think benefited them and improved the level of instruction in class.

However, I understand that I was not fully maximizing the blog's potential. I am still preparing myself to move my students into that next step. It's where I am now, ready to make that jump, but not feeling all that prepared. What am I afraid of?

Clay, as usual, has been thinking through the issue and working out a way to help teachers avoid "ruining" blogging for students, and instead keep it as authentic writing by establishing a school-wide plan. Some of the suggestions: One student, one blog; only writing quality should be assessed;and homework assignments are a no-no. His pedagogically-grounded approach sounds like the multi-literate teacher described by Sheryl (via Vance Stevens), who sees "these technologies as a medium, a canvas, a portal used to connect, collaborate, empower, and a catalyst for deep meaningful change-- both in the profession as a whole and in teachers/students as individuals." Will Richardson spells it out in a similar manner, that if we teachers want to effectively teach reading and writing through blogging, then we must read and write online ourselves.

Well, there you have it. Maybe the hand-wringing comes from a personal enxiety about blogging. Finding time to post regularly. Finding a voice for what I do post. Both of those have been a struggle for me.

I applaud the lofty efforts of Clay, Will, and others in the edublogosphere who are working and thinking hard about the diverse web 2.0 technologies afforded to us. They know a lot more about this stuff than I do. In the last several months, I've listened and tried to learn. I will continue to do so.

If nothing else, I think I know what I need to do, which is a lot better than where I was even just four months ago. I need to continue to use blogging as part of my professional growth plan. I need to help spread the word to other teachers in the building. I need to continue to use these tools in my classroom. It's the only way my students - and I - will benefit.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

High stakes testing, high standards, and my sophomores

Today was Day 3 of our state standardized testing for sophomores. In Connecticut, we call it CAPT. Students wrote a persuasive letter, the second such one they had to write. The test consists of two non-fiction articles, from which the testees must pull information, examples, and quotes to build their case. On Wednesday, their task involved reading a short story and answering four questions based on it. [Disclaimer: I am not an offiical proctor, but I teach 10th graders. When they returned to my class after the tests, they told me the topics.]

Needless to say, it can be dreadful for them. Although I believe that what CAPT is assessing in our students is valid, I still can't get over the high-stakes, high-pressure testing environment it creates in our schools. But how can we get around that? If you're interested in Branford's scores, see the chart above or look closer at the data here.

Essentially, the reading and writing portions of test require students to use evidence to back up their positions, and to read critically for a variety of purposes, and blend their prior knowledge with new learning. That's all great stuff, and I'll be honest, it has helped guide the curriculum in a meaningful way here in Connecticut. Our school has created a series of graduation requirements linked to CAPT standards; for each requirement, a school wide rubric is used to assess student efforts. For English teachers, this includes writing for a variety of purposes, reading non-fiction, and understanding and appreciating literature. None of this is the perfect solution to the issues we have in education. But then again, what or who is perfect? Certainly not me.

Case in point: when the sophomores showed up in F14 this morning - fresh off 3+ hours of testing, all of it essay writing by the way - they were a tad antsy. I started handing out the thinking logs for the day's Literature Circle discussion, and there was a little uproar and groaning that they'd have to do work, and they hadn't done the homework reading for the day. My first reaction: a testy lecture about keeping up with work. That quieted them down. Then I stopped and looked around. And I told them they could have the time to catch up on their reading or to start brainstorming ideas for their papers. And you know what? I feel guilty for scolding them today, and I feel guilty for giving them a break.

Thankfully there's no CAPT again until Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I'm ready to hang with that cool dude, Billy Shakes

I've been enjoying reading about Dana Huff's unit on Romeo & Juliet, but I have to say that I much prefer the happier side of teen romance. That's why A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably my favorite piece of literature to teach. Like Dana, I've memorized many parts, and even play a game with the kids at the end of the unit, in which they read a random line and I guess who said it and in what act. There's something about the play, with it's overwhelmed lovers, clueless actors, and meddling fairies, that makes it, well, magical. It can also be pretty darn funny. And what I think I enjoy the most is when the students, too, appreciate the humor that Shakespeare so obviously intended. Karl Fisch got me thinking about if Shakespeare was one of our students today. Based on some of his choices in Midsummer, I imagine myself pulling him aside after class to discuss his latest antics:

"Now, Will, come on. You're a funny kid, but you can't keep handing in work like this. Don't keep trying to tell me that when you were writing about that Bottom with the head of an ass that you were actually referring to a donkey. Well, you're not fooling me, mister..."
With that in mind, I am eagerly preparing the unit to start in about two weeks. Before the kids can appreciate any of the different kinds of humor in the play, we face a major obstacle right off the bat: the Athenian lovers. Who loves whom? Shakespeare intended it to be muddled, and it is. His point seemed to be that whether it's Lysander or Demetrius or Helena or Hermia, all of us - humans that is, not just ancient Athenians - are pretty much the same when it comes to the power of love. For 10th graders trying to keep track of who Lysander loves as opposed to Demetrius can be downright confusing and typically frustrating.

One effective approach I've found is to provide the students the general plot of the play in a scaled down summary. I tell them the whole thing, from the lovers coming to Duke Theseus right up to the part in the play when Puck has accidentally mixed up all their affections for one another. And, oh yeah, he's put the head of an ass on Nick Bottom. I stop right there and turn the story over to the kids. Fix this whole mess, I tell them, and make sure it has a happy ending. It's a comedy, afterall.

There's a lot of confusion at first. So who does Helena love again? What's up with that Indian boy? That's ok. I'd rather have them struggle with who's who before they're faced with Shakespeare's archaic language - the "thees" and "therefores" that today's audiences have a difficult time getting past. The students' writing on this assignment is typically some of the most enjoyable I read all year. They seem to like the total creative control of such an assignment.

This year, as I continue my journey of discover, I am eager to put a web 2.0 spin on it. Maybe I could set up a wiki and assign the kids to collaborate on an ending with a student from a different class period. Maybe I could use a wiki or blog to create an ongoing story, with kids adding their twists to those posted by classmates.

Or you know what, maybe I don't have to make it any more complicated than it has to be. I'm still wrapping my brain around all this. So, instead of handing out the assignment, I'll post it on the blog. Kids will write their story and post it as a comment. Yeah, I know. That's not true web 2.0 application, but rather a different way to word process. However, it will allow them to read how their classmates tied up the loose ends of the story. That can't be a bad thing.
photo credit: Sleepy Hollow on Flickr

Friday, March 02, 2007

The challenge for our students is now ours

One of the biggest challenges our high school is undertaking is developing an honors challenge option for our mixed-ability sophomore classes. In other words, we plan to retain our heterogenously grouped English 10 course but add an option for those students wishing to extend higher-level thinking and English skills. If the student successfully completes the option, they would earn an honors designation on his/her transcript.

I've blogged about it before. A draft of the department's proposal is currently being developed on a wikispace wiki. Essentially it will allow a student to independently earn an honors distinction - perfect for padding a transcript or boosting a grade point average. We plan to have guidelines and procedures in place to assist students taking on such a learning challenge. The only way to get the honors distinction is to earn it. For the student to earn it, not just for the parent to want it.

On a philosophical level, I wholeheartedly embrace such an idea. I teach English 10, and one of the most rewarding aspects of the sophomore program at Branford High School is the true broad spectrum of students that come into my class everyday. No levels. No remediation. No distinctions based on anything. Of course there are challenges inherent in that setup. You can imagine the range of writing and reading ability I see between students sitting in the same class. Differentiation is essential.

Put aside philosophy right now. Here's where the rub is. As head of the English department, I am spearheading efforts to develop and implement the honors challenge option so it is consistent across the board. How do we balance the needs to sufficiently challenge high-achieving students, while not demanding too much extra from the teachers in the class? There is fear that such a program will turn into a logistical nightmare for the teachers and lead to essentially another prep. How do we keep our expections clear, firm and simple? Can it be done? Should it be done. There are certainly plenty of teachers who feel true honors means a separate honors class.

Right now I don't have those answers, but I expect to be figuring it out over the next few months. And if anyone has any suggestions or can point me towards some resources, I'd be grateful.