Sunday, May 28, 2017

NBCT: My Experience with Component 2: YA ELA

Assembling Component 2
Considering National Boards? I recommend the process, but you should know what you are getting into. Start early and get organized.

In the spring of 2016 I began pursuing National Board Certification for teaching. I know eventually someone will ask me for my thoughts and advice about that process, so I'll capture them now while the experience is fresh. Because I teach 9th grade, and previously taught middle school for ten years, I decided to do my NBCT in the area of Young Adolescent ELA. (Yes, I also taught 11th grade for six years, but that was a while ago.)

Though some do it in one year, I'm taking two years to complete my NBCT. Last summer, at a small local conference, I stumbled into a conversation about National Boards and happened to find out that my County Office of Education sponsored a support program. I was just in time to sign up. Through that program I got early advice and support to help me understand expectations and deadlines. The amazing staff at the County Office also worked with my district to get me reimbursed for the cost of NBCT components. As each component currently costs $425 (and there are four), this was a huge help.

This year I worked on Component 1 and 2, though not in that order. Component 1 is a test. I took that yesterday, more about that in another post. Component 2 is a collection of student work samples and my written commentary about those samples.

The toughest part of the national boards process for me is the directions. There are a lot of directions. I have to follow them exactly and sometimes it's hard to find that one little detail I know I remember reading somewhere and I spend 20 minutes looking for it because I can't remember if it was in the general portfolio instructions, or the component instructions, or somewhere else. As a result, my copies of my instruction documents are filled with notes and highlights. Print out all of the directions (2 pages to a page can help save paper). Plan to read through them multiple times with a pen and a highlighter. Flag your questions and find someone who has done NBCT to help you answer them. Get a binder and set up separate sections for each component. (Normally papers and binders are not things I regularly use anymore, but for NBCT I was glad to have a binder I could hold on to.)

If I could do Component 2 over again I would not be so quick to identify my two focus students. Instead I'd pick 8-10 possible focus students and begin collecting work from each of them early in the year. You see, in the beginning, I didn't know for sure which pieces of work I wanted from each student. I didn't know what assignments would give me the best evidence, and sometimes a student just didn't have everything I needed in their work. Missing a graphic organizer, being absent on the day of a key lesson, or just not turning in the assignment sometimes happened to all of my focus students. I had a moment of panic early in the fall when a student I thought would be a focus student moved and left our school.

By March I had enlarged my pool to four students and I made a spreadsheet that had student names down the left side and possible assignments across the top. In each cell I described the work I had from that student for each assignment and began to color code. Green for work I could use in my portfolio, yellow for maybe, and pink for things that probably wouldn't work. I needed two reading assignments and two writing assignments for each student. (The blurry lines between which work is about reading and what is about writing, made this even more fun.) So I had seven possible assignments, spread across four students, and different levels of completion and access for each piece of student work. I needed to pick just two students, and just four assignments from each student that would allow me to write the most effective commentary about how I know my students and how I use that knowledge of their skills to inform and differentiate their instruction. (I don't know how people do this without spreadsheets.)

I also needed to create a packet for each student that had a cover sheet for each assignment, the prompt, or assignment sheet, the rubric and the student work. Those packets ended up being 20-24 pages each and it involved some technical hurdles. (I should write another post about that.)

For added fun, the YA ELA Component has some tricky requirements about student's reading responses. Each student must respond to at least one reading that is "non-print," a video, a work of art etc. And each student must have at least one response that is non-print, a video, a work of art etc. Because my student most often create visual work in relation to writing projects (visual memoirs, multi-media projects about academic honesty etc.), I didn't have a project that specifically responded to reading in a non-print format. I had to add that kind of assignment into our Reading the Novel unit. If I had not added that project to that unit in the fall it would have been harder for me to complete my work on Component 2 in the spring.

Things I know now. (Of course I won't get my scores until November, so this advice may be useless.)
Not all of the student work has to be summative work. In several cases I included work that was formative, such as a paragraph in their English Journal, or an essay early in a unit that was a rehearsal for a later essay. Focus students should be different enough from each other to show that you differentiate your instruction. While I was busy avoiding the highest and lowest students in my classes, I didn't notice that two of my early focus students were fairly similar to each other.

Though NBCT has taken a lot of my time and mental energy this spring, I know the process is worth it. I think my favorite thing about NBCT is that it is always about the teaching and the learning. The focus is on the student work and the instruction that lead to and followed that work. No where in this process am I asked about awards I've won, books I've written, or anything else about me. My portfolio is scored anonymously, with only my candidate id number as an identifier. The process has integrity. When I can say that I'm a National Board Certified Teacher that will mean that I have met rigorous standards of instruction and reflection.

For more information about NBCT their website is an excellent place to start.
http://www.boardcertifiedteachers.org

Friday, May 26, 2017

Reading Challenges: Choice with a subtle nudge

Reading in my classroom is about choice, flexibility, and above all, driven by student interests. We read at the beginning of each class period and I regularly spend some of that time helping students find books they will like form our classroom library. Most of my students read much more than they did the year before. They get better at making their own reading choices. And, at this point in the year, they are better at making suggestions to each other than I am. We take books when we need to visit the counseling office for a full period of articulation meetings. I've found students reading on the 40 yard line during disaster drills. One student even carried his book to and from the bathroom because he wanted to read while he walked. Reading is happening for my students and I love it.

But...you knew there would be a but, right?

Among all this reading nirvana I also saw a lot of reading bubbles. Series are popular and some of them can go on for quite a while, five or six books or more. When students finished a book or series they liked they always wanted a new book, "just like that one." I needed to get them out of these ruts filled with princesses, disaster zones, and zombies that so many had fallen into, so I wrote a list of reading challenges.

To be clear, the idea of reading challenges is not mine. Just google [reading challenges] to find lots of ideas. I did a search and then built my challenges chart by adapting a variety of what I found to a list that would work well for my students.

It also happened that I did this on the day we were scheduled to visit the library. I had visions of my students wandering the stacks aimlessly, so in part, these reading challenges were a desperate effort to make our library time more purposeful. It worked.

I made this chart a month ago and since then many of my students have stepped out of their reading bubbles, considered books they might not have read before, read things they would not have otherwise picked up, and generally expanded their horizons.

When I introduced this they had two choice books left to read for the school year. For their first one about half my students went with the "author I have never read before" option, an easy way out, but that just meant they had to work a little harder to find their next book which would meet one of the other nine challenges.

Suddenly students were looking for books set in other countries, exploring autobiographies of Tony Hawk and Malala Yousafzai, enjoying The Alchemist, and digging into classics like Wuthering Heights. ("I've always wanted to read this," she said when we found it in the library that morning.) And my favorite, the boy who decided to try Rain of Gold when I told him our school security guard considered it his favorite book.

I was really worried about removing their free choice. A few students have tried to tell me that the fourth book in their popular YA fantasy series is their mom's favorite book. A few have said they will save the next book in their current series for summer reading because now they, "have to read something from the list." (Insert Eeyore impression.) But overall, for the vast majority of my students this has been a very successful experiment in finding new ways to pick books. And they liked them too. A full 94% of my students rated their book 5 or better on a 1-10 scale, where 10 was "the best book you ever read in your life." And 57% gave the book 8 or more. (So glad I can use Google forms to ask these kinds of questions.)

I still believe students need to have choice in their reading lives, and now I know I can nudge those choices with some well chosen challenges.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Issues of Interest in Our Classroom Library

As I examined my classroom library a few months ago I saw that historical fiction and non-fiction were not popular. Maybe, I thought, there are just not enough high interest books there. Maybe my students are having trouble finding what they are interested in among the less popular books. I decided to weed out those sections and make it easier to find the really compelling titles. As I began pulling books though, I realized how many titles actually dealt with the history of issues I know my students care about now. So I did a book talk that went something like this:

"I know a lot of you are really interested in some of the issues that have been in the news recently. I know some of you are worried about changes in our national immigration policy. I know many of you care deeply about LGBT rights. You all know about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and if you've seen the news lately you know hate crimes are increasing, and Jewish Community centers are receiving bomb threats. I know you are worried and I know you are paying attention. What I'm concerned about though, is that even though you know about whats happening now, you don't know much of the history about these issues."

Then I profiled some of the books I had on hand that related directly to the history and experience of each of those issues. When I was done several students asked for specific titles and I put the rest in a basket called "Issues of Interest."

I know some will say a basket is not enough, and you are right, but I didn't want to overwhelm my students. I have multiple copies of many of these titles, so I have no trouble keeping the basket stocked. And, there is something to be said for scarcity driving a sense of urgency. Also, the basket fits perfectly in a high traffic spot, so this works for me at the moment. Many of my students who care the most about current issues are reading more about the history of those issues. I just needed to show them that the things they are passionate about now have a history they could know more about.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Plagiarism and the Google Tools to Reduce It

I find plagiarism to be rare among my students. By rare I mean it occurs less than once or twice per major assignment. Some times it is intentional and some times unintentional. Sometimes it is almost the whole paper and other times just a few sentences borrowed and not cited.  Sometimes it is a sign of laziness and other times it is a call for help from a student who really did not know how else to tackle the essay. It is always a teachable moment and I almost never see a second offense from the same student. 

Recently, I was presenting to a group of English teachers about the ways I have transformed my English class to a mostly online environment, including how my students do much of their work in Google Docs. One of the participants raised her hand and said that her school had stopped using Google Docs because of too many problems with plagiarism. (I wondered why she came to the session.)

I find the opposite to be true. Google Docs makes it much easier for me to spot and track down plagiarism. First, my students share their work with me when they begin a new assignment and I can watch their progress daily. The preview feature in Google Docs makes this very easy and I often find myself flipping through student papers to check on progress and see who I need to work with soon. Students know I do this and they know I expect to see progress. (See steps below for an explanation of how to use the preview feature.)

If I suspect that there has been some plagiarism on a paper it often turns up when I check the revision history. (File/Revision History) A student copying large amounts of text from another source can easily be found out with the minute to minute updates available with the "show more detailed revisions button." You can also use the Draftback extension to "play back" a student's writing process. It turns their writing process into an animated video. 

I know there are teachers who love turnitin.com, but my school hasn't bought that service, and I don't think we need it. Plagiarism is infrequent for me and I usually catch it when I notice a student writing far above their usual level; it is the vocabulary that gives them away.  Once I am suspicious I select a sentence from the paper and paste it into the Google search bar. Google limits the number of characters it will search, but a sentence fits. It helps to put quotation marks around the sentence to find a closer match. 

Plagiarism from other students: 
In the past few years teachers at my school have been collaborating much more closely on assignments, often using the same prompts. As a result, we have had a few cases of a student sharing their paper with a friend in another class to turn in to a different teacher.  If we suspect plagiarism of that sort we just email a sentence from the paper to our colleagues and ask them to search it within their own Google Drive. So, my colleague sends me a sentence, I paste it into my Drive search bar and voila, if the sentence also appears in one of my student's papers then we investigate further. 

There will always be students who purposefully or accidentally plagiarize the work of others. There is no point in being shocked or offended by it. There is value in having a conversation with the student about it, discussing how it happened, how it can be avoided, and, if necessary, the consequences of a second offense. I also like to let the student know that I have multiple ways of determining that plagiarism happened.

My best recent plagiarism story is about a book review. The piece that was copied was so good I had to use the original as a model text for the class. I showed my class all the reasons I liked it, the level of detailed adjectives about the characters, the connections between events and the lovely transitions. Later, I privately thanked the plagiarist for helping me find such a good example. 

How to use the Google Docs preview feature
  1. Find the folder of student work (or any doc) you want to view in your Google Drive list. 
  2. Click once on the file at the top of the folder. (It must be a text document, spreadsheet or presentation etc.)
  3. Make sure only ONE file is checked selected.
  4. A new set of options will appear right below your Drive search bar. One is a folder, one is a trash can and one is an eye.
  5. Click the eye and you should see the document large and in the center of your screen.
  6. Use your down arrow to scroll down on the student paper while in preview.
  7. Use your right arrow to display the next document in the folder without leaving preview.
  8. I use that right arrow to flip through many student papers in a few minutes and assess who needs more help. 
  9. To leave preview click the arrow in the upper left corner of your screen.
  10. To open the doc for actual editing or commenting use the open button in the center at the top. You can also print or share right from the preview page. 

In January 2014 I did a webinar about plagiarism for the San Diego County Office of Education. You can watch it here for more information about plagiarism. (It's free.)

Note: I originally published this post in April 2013. It has been revised and updated for 2016. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Teaching Theme? The last lesson you'll need

Every English teacher has said it, "So, what do we think the theme might be in this piece?" This question is almost always followed by ten excruciatingly frustrating minutes of students trying to guess what the teacher is thinking, while the teacher does his or her best to project the "right" answer directly into to student brains through advanced forms of mental telepathy developed through years of trail and error, mostly error. It never works and it is a waste of valuable class time.

The problem is, you can't teach theme one text at a time, so each time you teach a text you have to reteach what theme is because students have forgotten about theme since the last time you played this guessing game. It takes many repeated exposures to the concept of theme for students to understand the idea and get beyond guessing at single words and cliches.

To give my students the repeated and memorable exposure to the concept of theme that they needed, I tried looking at the process another way. Instead of giving students a text and asking for the theme, I gave them themes and asked them to list books and movies that fit the theme. I called this "Your Last Lesson on Theme" and told my students they would understand it so well after this that I would never give them another lesson on theme ever again. It was a lot of fun and it worked.

My students sit in groups of six anyway, so for this activity I grouped them heterogeneously. (Get the Group Creator Spreadsheet if you don't have it yet.) I used the slides below. You can get your own copy of them in your Google Drive by clicking HERE.

As I displayed each theme groups wrote down as many titles as they could that fit the theme. Then I asked each group for a title. They had to rotate their presenter on each round and tell me why the title they named fit that theme. They could not use a title mentioned by another group in that round. They could reuse a title for another theme later in the game though. I started with a different group each time, so that no one group was always first or last.

Students noticed that the same theme often easily fit multiple stories that they knew. They also noticed that a single book or movie often fit with multiple themes. They came to understand that a theme is not one word. It's not a cliche. It's not a moral. It is a universal truth or statement about the world. They didn't forget that. And the next time I asked my students to suggest a theme for a text they had ideas. They wanted to talk about them. They knew there could be more than one possible theme and multiple interpretations. Instead of fishing for one quick "right" answer or trying to read my mind they were thinking for themselves.



Slide 16 is meant to be funny and clearly references one particular movie franchise. For even more fun, it is possible to go back and show students that every theme in this slide deck also refers to the same trilogy.

The following day my students completed a graphic organizer about the theme of the book they were reading with their book group. You can get your own copy of the organizer my students used for their work by clicking HERE.

If you use these I'd love to know how they work for you and your students. Leave me a comment or send me a tweet. (@JenRoberts1)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

"How do you help students develop critical thinking skills?"


I've been contributing responses to a San Diego Union Tribune project called Education Matters. One of the recent questions was "How do you help students develop critical thinking skills?" I didn't want to write a textbook answer. I wanted to tell a story about working with students. I wanted to show how challenging, messy and time consuming that process can be. This was my answer.

“Ahh, Ms. Roberts. This is making my brain hurt.” Music to my ears. My 9th grade students are working through a very short, three paragraph article about the increase in cheating in American high schools. All they have to do is figure out what the author is saying and doing in each paragraph. The saying part should be fairly simple for them; it’s just a short summary of what the paragraph says, but it’s harder than it should be because the group I’m working with insists on guessing.

“The author is saying that kids at private schools steal from stores.” (This is not accurate.)

“What words make you think it says that?” I ask. I know why the student guessed this. Private schools and shoplifting were both mentioned in the paragraph, but my student isn't grasping how the two relate. The group needs a way to get the who and what of the paragraph into a single sentence. I’ll start with the who.

“Who is this paragraph about?” One student suggests private school students, another says public school students, another says boys and girls. “How can we bring all that together?”

“Oh, this paragraph is about lots of kinds of students!” Ed is really proud he figured this out. I’m checking the clock to see if we really have enough time to finish working with this paragraph.

“Okay, so what are all these students doing?” Again the answers fly at me one word at a time, stealing, lying, cheating, being honor students. This last one is out of context. The paragraph mentions honor students as a sub-group and she is guessing again. I try to slow them down. “Can someone give me a sentence that sums up what these students are doing?”

“Students are stealing, lying, and cheating.”

“Can we group stealing, lying, and cheating into a larger category? Those are all forms of…?” I’m fishing and I know it. I want them to tell me these are all forms of dishonest behavior. I want them to do a bit more synthesis.

The girl who mentioned the honor students gets it first, “Lots of kinds of students are doing bad stuff.”

She’s got the synthesis, now we are going to take on some academic vocabulary. In the growth mindset learning community we have built for ourselves, the term for making something sound more academic is “big smart.”

“Yes, Janie, you go it, ‘lots of kinds of students are doing bad stuff’ now how do we make that sound more big smart?” She’s not offended. She knows she started with some simple vocabulary and we are going to make it better.

Ed wants this one. It takes him a few tries, but eventually he gets, “Various types of students are all behaving dishonestly.”

I’m worried that the easy part of this was not that easy. Now they need to understand what the author is doing in the paragraph. This is harder because it is action divorced from specific content and students need to use some rhetorical verbs like claims, explains, specifies, promotes or a whole host of other possibilities. And they can’t fake this. If they tell me the author is comparing when he is really predicting I will know they are confused. Also, their knowledge of rhetorical vocabulary is still limited. We need to find a word they know that also fits with what the author is doing.

Meg picks a word off the chart on the wall and tries it on, “He is proposing that students are lying and cheating?” She even says it with a question in her voice. She knows that proposing is not the verb she needs here. The trial and error method works for them this time as they work through some possible verbs looking for the best one.

“He is stating dishonest things kids do.” This is better, but Ed comes in again with a vocabulary tweak. “The author is stating that students do a variety of dishonest things and he is showing that this happens both public and private schools.” His peers literally applaud.

The team adds it to their graphic organizers. The bell is about to ring and I just spent ten minutes with one team, working through one paragraph of a short article. And I’m not confident that they can do this independently next time. We have more work to do.

Looking behind a text to its functionality is just one strategy for helping to develop my students critical literacy and critical thinking skills. It has to start with comprehension, tricky in a time when my students would rather skim for key words and then play multiple guess, as though I have a scantron printed on my forehead. When I get it right, the outcome is students who can read, comprehend, and investigate an author’s purpose. Then we can take that further into a discussion of the issues and articles we have read. I know it’s working when my students complain that they are now analyzing and questioning everything they read. More music to my ears.