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, 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.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Amazon Education Building Open Educational Resources Platform

I'm really excited about the work the talented folks at Amazon Education are doing to launch a new open educational resource platform. I've been participating in their private beta since late March and I am really impressed by the scale and functionality of what they are building for teachers.

Imagine an online space where you can search for the resources you need by standard, key word, or grade level and find free materials shared by other educators. Of course with the engineering resources of Amazon behind it the user interface is beautiful and functional.

I've already tried uploading a variety of resource types and found that it was very quick to upload, describe, and publish my content. The site supports a variety of file types and also allows me to add resources directly from my Google Drive. I particularly love that I can link to online resources like a website, tool, or blog post that helps me in my teaching as well.

The private beta group is fairly small, but soon Amazon Education will launch a more public beta. There is a waiting list to join the site and you can sign up here.

I believe that the future of education is going to rely heavily on digital resources shared freely among educators on a global scale. Amazon Education is building a site we desperately need to make that vision a reality.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Education Matters: A year-long conversation about education with the leading teachers in San Diego

Today the San Diego Union Tribune launches a new section called Education Matters. Over forty top educators from all over San Diego county have been invited to contribute answers to pressing questions in education. The conversation starts today.
Visit Education Matters to learn more.

The first topic is: The top three things that would help teachers most
This was my answer.

I believe the most common answer we will get for this question about the top three things teachers need, is time. I need more time to plan, more time to assess student work, more time with my students who are struggling with skills and content material, more time to collaborate with my colleagues, more time to attend school events, more time to reflect, and more time to take care of myself after doing all of the above.
Time, though is the one thing we can’t make more of. I’m a high school English teacher. I see over a hundred students a day. I assess 800-1000 examples of student work each year, and much of that is student writing pieces. I plan and implement 180 distinct days of instruction. I meet with my team of colleagues over seventy times during the year to look at student work, collaborate on our unit goals and materials, create assessments, and discuss what our students need most. I won’t even list all of the parent meetings, staff meetings, district meetings, surveys, phone calls, emails, and other paperwork that add up so quickly.
The solution to my workload though, isn’t more time, it’s better data. I need to know which of my students have learned a given skill and which need more support. I need to know which of my instructional strategies is most effective and which is not worth the time it takes to plan and implement. I need to know if students are acting on my feedback or not. I need to know who needs intervention most. I need to know how my students feel about their learning process and when they need a break. And I need all of this information sorted and packaged in a way that makes it easy for me to take action.
I won’t be greedy. I don’t need three things. I’ll take one very smart virtual assistant that can digest my students’ data, tell me what is and isn’t working in our classroom, point out which of my 100+ students need me the most, and give me time for creative lesson design, collaboration with my colleagues, small group instruction, and personal connections.
Knowing about our students strengths and needs is the art of teaching. But to make more time for the things that only a teacher can do best, we should leverage the talents of our digital tools. Some people will be appalled if I suggest that a machine can take over any of the work that thoughtful teachers do. But managing data is what computers do best, better than humans most of the time. If I had a really well designed classroom assessment system that also helped me evaluate the data, and made actionable suggestions, then I could be a better teacher. This is not the computer beating the chess champion. This is the computer playing alongside the chess champion and making suggestions. In the case of chess, a computer assist can make average players into amazing players. What could that do for teaching and learning?