Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gradual Release of Responsibility: A Play in Four Acts

At first glance reading The Crucible with 11th graders in southern California would seem like a thankless task that only someone foolish enough to become an English teacher would even think to attempt. A play written in the 1950’s, set in Massachusetts of the 1690’s, and laced with archaic vocabulary, about the conflicts of a very restrictive society. Why would this interest students? The play is also heavy with inference, dramatic irony, multiple complex characters with conflicting motivations and choices to make.

It’s easy to assume students won’t “get” the play and that they will necessarily need to read or review every bit of it in class with a teacher to explain it to them. But, I’m not coming with them to college in future years to explain any of that reading to them. My job is to make sure they get better at reading and parsing complicated texts for themselves. That skill will be more valuable to them than having detailed (and likely soon forgotten) knowledge of the significance of a poppet in Act II. Therefore, I began the play with a four act plan for gradual release of responsibility.  This is how it worked.

In Act I, most of the major characters are introduced and most of the major conflicts are also revealed.  We read this act together as a class with volunteers reading the parts in the play. I performed the quintessential English teacher role.  I stopped the flow of their reading as often as possible to ask clarifying questions, probe character motivations, explain significant vocabulary (even though it was also posted on the wall) had them take notes about the characters, and generally make sure they knew what was going on.  This took us five days of class.

Along the way I was asking them to respond in writing to daily warm up questions about the characters and the conflicts that were being revealed. On Friday their warm up question changed. “What kinds of questions has Mrs. Roberts been asking you while we read the play this week? Make a list of as many as you can.” When they had some time for their individual lists I asked them to talk to their partners about what they listed and I wandered the room listening to their questions and handing out markers. When I heard a good question I gave the student a marker and had him or her add it to a chart. From that I learned that they perceived I was asking many character driven questions, so I tried to focus on other aspects of the play as we finished Act I.

For Act II I split the class into heterogeneous groups of 4-5 kids each. (I determined the groups heterogeneous nature based on the results of a quiz I gave them about Act I.) I wrote seven questions on the board that they should try to answer while reading Act II and reminded them to stop themselves and ask the same kinds of teacher questions I did in Act I. I hung a chart with the vocabulary I thought might challenge them and circulated among the groups.  The difference between Act I and Act II was that now every student was responsible for a part, not just the volunteers up front. And, they would have to decide as a group how to answer the questions I wrote on the board. Engagement went up.  I took pictures and they didn’t even notice.  Reading Act II this way took about two days. (Act II is a lot shorter than Act I.)  I had another quiz ready for them about Act II and they did better than they had for Act I. (I use Google forms to make quizzes. More about Google Forms here.)

We were approaching Act III, where Elizabeth Proctor must make the fateful choice to tell the truth or lie about why she dismissed Abigail from her service. It is a moment rich in dramatic irony because Elizabeth does not know that her husband, John, has already told the court the real reason they fired Abigail. It is pivotal to the play and also a complex moment of conflicting motivations and dramatic irony. Would students be able to get this? I had to find a way to help them.

Before reading Act III, we revisited the end of Act II.  Elizabeth has been arrested and her husband, John, must decide what he will do about it.  He has several possible choices.  With my classes we made a decision tree for John.  We listed his possible choices horizontally and then under each possible choice we listed the possible consequences of that choice.  This lesson did two things at once.  It made students interested in reading Act III to see what Arthur Miller would choose to have John do and it modeled the decision tree they would be making about Elizabeth’s choice. (Examining the choices author’s make is a part of the Common Core Standards.)

Students returned to their groups to read Act III.  This time I gave them no questions.  I required that each group create questions of their own as a group and answer them. They had moved from teacher questioning, to teacher giving them written questions, to writing their own questions for the Act.  When they finished Act III I asked them to work as a group to create a decision tree for Elizabeth like the one we made for John. All groups, after much discussion among themselves, were able to show what would happen if Elizabeth told the truth and if she lied. My students were quite pleased with themselves. I decided to sneak in some expository writing.  For homework I asked them to write me an explanation of Elizabeth’s possible choices and the consequences of those choices. The work they had done in their groups prepared them for the writing and they felt successful explaining the complicated layers of dramatic irony that made her choice so difficult.

By Act IV I gave them hardly any direction at all. I asked them to read it. I asked them to make sure they were stopping often to have conversations and I sent them off. Once again I circulated, listening to their great conversations, stopping to answer a question here or there. Near the end of the period I heard a student say to his group, “You know, if we each read the rest of Act IV tonight at home, we could spend all of our time together in class tomorrow just to talk about it.” I had to walk away so they wouldn’t see me smiling.

It takes a lot of planning to make sure that my students are engaged in our classroom. Lea said, “Mrs.R you just have everything organized so that we can do the work. I like that.” I believe students want to be active learners.  They want to figure things out for themselves. They liked The Crucible because they had to make sense of it without a teacher telling them what every little bit meant. They made meaning for themselves and once you make something yourself you want to hang on to it.

Will they remember the fine details of The Crucible in ten years? Probably not, but I think that’s true no matter how the text is taught. Will they feel more confident about tackling complex texts? Maybe. I’ll know for sure after they work their way through some Twain, Poe and Fitzgerald.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is your document camera holding them back?

From the Doc Camera
I walked around the large store looking at all the back to school supplies on sale and I began to notice how many of those things I'm not buying anymore because there is so much less paper in my classroom.  I didn't need...well, paper, folders, dividers, binders, paper clips, staples, pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks, etc. Then I realized my document camera was just like many of those supplies, nice to have on hand, but not seeing much action.

Document cameras are great and they have many excellent uses, but I just don't ever have much paper to put under mine. I've moved on. Almost every classroom in my district has a document camera. They are standard issue as part of a digital initiative that is putting 1:1 devices in most classrooms as well. But, I'm finding that when students have their own computers they can spend their class time much more productively than watching me teach from the document camera. 

I used to spend a lot of time sitting next to my overhead projector. This was in my middle school teaching days when I literally gathered the kids on a rug and sat on a low table next to the overhead. We did some great reading lessons, shared writing activities etc. there on the rug together, with that old overhead projector.  But, the document camera is not an overhead projector.  I know that seems like an odd thing to say. In most classrooms the document camera came in and the overhead projector went out, but teachers still using their document camera just like an overhead projector need to know more. They have traded horses for cars, but they are still only moving at ten miles per hour.

First of all, the overhead projector was one tool. A document camera is actually two parts, the camera and a separate projector that it connects with to display the image. Those projectors also connect to computers, most often laptop computers. This is a huge advantage that often gets underused.

Even the best document cameras can not create an image as clear as the projected computer. So, if what you want to put under the document camera was originally produced with a computer, your students would be able to see it better if you just project the computer.  I frequently see colleagues, new to educational technology, print something, run copies and then put a copy under the document camera to model the lesson.  The image is usually poor. Today I take that computer created document, graphic organizer, text material etc and push  it out to my students through Google Docs or a public Dropbox link. No paper at all, so nothing to put under the document camera. 

Once my students have their own computers to work on I want to go see what they are doing. I have fancy software that would let me monitor their screens from an underground bunker five miles away, but what's the point of that? Education is a human activity. I need to get out there. That's probably another reason I hardly ever use the document camera. Document camera teaching keeps me bolted to my teacher table as tightly as it is bolted to the table itself. If I am explaining something with a whiteboard or even a Promethean board I can easily step away from it and get out to my students. Document cameras tend to get set on tables and it seems to makes sense to pull up a chair and sit down at the document camera. If you absolutely have to sit, set a timer for five minutes and then get up. 

Another common sight is the textbook under the document camera. Why? The students have textbooks right? Even if they are sharing a book, the text is right in front of them. Let them read it. Give them a graphic organizer to work with, or a problem to solve, and make sure they are reading with a purpose. If textbooks are crucial to your subject area please get (and read) Reading for Learning by Heather Lattimer. It's a short book that will give you lots of help making reading content material work better in your classroom.

A tip about textbooks and doc cameras, especially for English teachers. Most of what publishers put in literature anthologies is already available for free on the internet. I saw a teacher reading a short story with her students, from the textbook, under the doc camera. It was a visual catastrophe. The same story was on the internet. If she had pulled it up on her computer the text would at least have been clearer. If she had put it into a word processor she could have even modeled annotation skills. When I asked her later why she didn't try that she said it never occurred to her.

I know some teachers (even those who have had laptops and document cameras for years) still put things under the camera because they only have that resource as a hard copy. It's time to scan it. The scan will be cleaner and show up better from the computer. You'll have a digital copy that you can share with colleagues and students. Plus that old newspaper clipping won't get any more yellow than it is already.

In my room the projector is now integrated into the interactive whiteboard. If you are still working with a separate projector please position it to make the screen as large as possible. I know this can be tough because the projector often needs to be a good ten feet from the screen to get a large image. Fight for a ceiling mount. Put the projector on a cart and roll it to the middle of the room when you need it, but please don't make kids squint at a small screen. 

I asked about document cameras on twitter recently. "Do you have one? How often do you use it and what for." The response was passionate and enthusiastic. There are lots of excellent teachers out there using document cameras in great ways: to have students bring their work up and explain their thinking to the class, to show science experiments or math manipulatives, to flip it up and use it as a web camera when skyping, (Yes, many doc camera models will do that.)  I asked lots of my responders if they also had 1:1 devices for their students.  The trend seemed to be that those with student devices had less use with the document camera.

My favorite answer about document cameras came from Shawntel Allen who said she did not have 1:1 devices but still never used her doc camera because, "...I prefer student focused activities with small groups doing the work...not board focused activities. BORING. =)"

How you use a document camera depends heavily on the age of your students, the other technology you have available to you, and your style of teaching, but it is always worth asking, "Is this the best way to teach this material? Could I make this easier to see, more interactive, or more interesting?"  And if the document camera is the way to go that's great, as long as you really thought about it first.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Would you like to play a game?

I'm married to a game designer. I don't think that qualifies me in any way to write this post, but it does explain why the buzz about gamification piques my interest. Some of my thinking about playing school.

A colleague asked via twitter for responses related to “academic entitlement” as described in this ED Week article. Briefly, academic entitlement being the belief that one is entitled to a particular grade for reasons tangential to academic achievement such as attending class regularly or paying for the course.

The article resonated with me because I do see students so often caring more about their points and percentages than what they have learned. Parents too will call and ask for extra credit assignments. In a mastery learning, standards based system, extra credit is rather meaningless. I told one mother that her son was welcome to write an extra essay, but if the new essay didn't score better on the rubric her son’s grade would not change. (He already had a B.) But, despite my best efforts to make my class about growth, passion based learning and self efficacy, I always have that handful of students who make decisions based on their perceived or desired grade.

This week, I was privileged to be present for a keynote presentation from  Gabe Zicherman (@gzicherm) about gamification in education. It’s a hot topic, and I hear lots about adding gamification to classrooms. Gabe gave it to me from a new angle, though. It’s not about making your classroom more like a game. It’s about understanding the psychology of gaming and motivation and applying those lessons to the classroom in an intelligent way.  Because in reality the classroom is already implicitly gamified. I said as much to my colleague who asked about the ED Week article.  Me: “As soon as there are grades students become more interested in points than learning. School is already gamified.”

Her response, I think, reflects some of the hope by many that gamification is some kind of magic bullet that will fix classrooms. She replied, “You think school is already gamified? Games only give points that are earned and many kids get promoted that don't deserve it.”   And here we have a fundamental breakdown in understanding about the way games work, the assumption that they are always fair and always merit based. Most games are not. In fact a huge motivating factor in many games is the element of chance. This is why the lottery works, but there are hundreds of other games that rely on an element of chance, from free parking in Monopoly to easter eggs hidden in video games. We keep playing because there is always the hope of the unexpected bonus points. Many points and game rewards are unearned.

Fairness is likewise a myth. In any game there are always some players who have an advantage over others. Many times these are inherent advantages such as prior experience, age, physiology, distance, strategical knowledge and money. (Seen Moneyball?) Anyone who teaches knows that students come into their classroom with a wide range of readiness. In the game of school there are some kids who start ahead and others who start behind. This becomes a challenge for those attempting to apply gaming principles to classrooms. Should rewards be based on specific achievements or on progress? Even the question reflects the reality of an unequal starting line. Imagine being the player who joins a Monopoly game after several other players have already gone around the board a few times already. You’d be more than a bit behind. (This is an actual activity done in my local writing project to make a point about inequality.)

So, if game theory does not fit some idealized notion consistency and fairness how can gamification impact classrooms positively? I think the answers are psychology and transparency. Understanding gamers can help us understand our students, (often one and the same). And as I said before, school is already a game. The smartest students know that (they sometimes refuse to play along) and the kids with the best grades have learned how to play school so well that they draw self esteem not from learning, but from earning good grades. Player motivation is something we need to understand.

Gabe Zicherman explained the four player types as described by Richard Bartle, Achievers, Socializers, Explorers and Killers, (his word for those who must not only win, but need to make sure others lose.) Achievers love to win, but only if winning means something. An achiever is satisfied with winning only if there are very few winners. If everyone gets an A then that A is worthless to an achiever. Socializers and explorers are the types who will enjoy collaboration, process, and have that passion based learning experience I want for them. I think the killer group have gotten a lot of press lately by another term, bullies. Their success is measured not by how well they do, but by how poorly others do.

I don’t know that thinking of students through this lense is any more useful than multiple intelligences, learning styles or any other social behavioral/learning theory label. We are all a bit of everything. But, I can tell you I see students who fit those player types quite often. So, if knowing about player types helps me understand their motivation a bit better, then I’ll try it. I also found John Radoff’s model of player motivations helpful.

One fear, besides the romanticism about the fairness of games, is cheating. In the gaming world cheating is an accepted practice. I’m not saying it’s okay, just that it has become normal in many areas. Just as steroids were once the norm in some sports, cheat codes, player walkthroughs (step by step directions for how to beat a game), youtube videos and entire websites are devoted to helping players win in the video game world. The goal is to win, and while it may be more satisfying to win based on effort, it is still nice to win. When we make school even more game like, we open ourselves to the mentality that the ends justify the means. As educators we try to tell students that cheating and plagiarism are wrong, but the game like nature of school implicitly encourages them to use every resource they have available to them to win. When winning becomes more important than learning we have lost.

I'm looking forward to the discussion this post may generate. I'm excited for the possible applications of game psychology and game theory to education. Much as game designers have to think through all the possible player behaviors and possible loopholes in game play, we must be thoughtful about the design of our classrooms lest we get played.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I’m hoping to go to TEDx San Diego this year.  My husband, Kris, went last year.  I didn’t apply because I was presenting at an educational conference the same day, but I followed some of the live stream before my session started.

When he came home he said, “You really should have been there.” I agreed and told him I would apply this year. He said, “No, you should have been there at lunch today.” and then he told me this story. It’s been told and retold a few times, so I hope these details aren’t too embellished.

During the lunch break he had been sitting with a group and education came up. Kris mentioned that I use a blog to manage my classroom interactions to the woman sitting next to him. Another woman, across the table, paused, looked up and peered for a moment at his name tag. “Are you Jen Roberts’ husband?” she asked. Surprised, he acknowledged that he was.

To hear him tell it the woman from across the table went on to tell him that I do way more than blog. “She’s a Google Certified Teacher.” (As if Kris didn’t know this fact.) She told him she followed me on Twitter and (to hear him tell it) raved about me for a few minutes.

I asked her name. He couldn’t remember. I asked my twitter followers. None acknowledged being at Tedx San Diego. I still don’t know who she was, but I need to thank her. Not only did she create a memorable family story that will often be retold, but she also made me realize that my blogging and sharing provides value to many people I will never meet.

Through Twitter, Nings, Conferences and blogging I have connections to thousands of other teachers and they are connected to thousands more and so on and so on. All of them constantly pouring resources and ideas into this great lake of knowledge that I can draw from. But, unlike a real lake, the more knowledge I take out the deeper the pool gets because we are all constantly passing those ideas on to others.

I’d like to see a study done about connected educators. I bet it would find that teachers with strong connections to other educators through professional social networks are happier, more effective (if you can measure that), and experience less burnout than teachers without any professional social network.

I’m looking forward to the TEDx San Diego applications being available this year. The lake just gets deeper and deeper.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

How do you use your class blog?

Once in a while someone stumbles across my work and has a question. I love when that happens because I get a chance to answer it.
"Hello! I found your "Fresh English" class blog and love it! I am wondering how you do your posts every day-do you create them the night before, then post, or do you create them off-site (Google Doc), then copy and paste them into your blog? Any info you can provide is much appreciated. Thanks!"
I've used a blog to manage my classroom since 2006, first as a newsletter and then as a daily management tool. For the first four school years I was using a blog while teaching American Lit. Last year I switched to 9th grade and opted to create a new blog for my freshmen. That's the one she stumbled on and asked about.

I do a great deal of detailed long term planning with my PLC, (I've blogged about them before here and here.) After that I create the blog posts as needed based on our long term plan. Usually, I am writing the blog post in the afternoon and using the scheduling tool in blogger to have the post go live just before my students arrive. When I get behind I do have a bit of time to pull a post together in the morning if I need to, but I prefer to get them done before I leave campus.

On occasion, there are things I need to discuss with students before posting, so sometimes I even write a post during class while students are working. Often I will edit a post with students as well based on their feedback. I want them to see how easily I can make the changes and that I am responding to their advice. I try to think of it as authentic shared writing and not "you messed up Jen and now the students have to help you get it right." Of course all typos in my classroom blogs are deliberate attempts to encourage students to correct me.

I typically compose straight into the post editor in blogger. Class blog posts are heavy on numbered lists, links and images. It's just easier to pull all that together in the blogger editor.  I sometimes use Docs to write posts for this professional blog, especially if I am expecting to go through a lot of revision or if I need to use the research bar a lot.

The best part of the class blog, as I have said before, is the automatic archiving.  That makes it so simple for me to search my own blog and find similar lessons I have done before. With my freshmen I was creating all the posts from scratch because it was my first year teaching 9th grade. With my American Lit class blog I was often able to reuse, copy and paste, bits and pieces of previous lessons that had similar directions or resources. That often saved me a lot of time.

My class blogs are a crucial part of my mostly paperless classroom. If you think you don't have time to write blog posts just think of all the time you won't be spending in the copy room. And if you have a question about 1:1 or class blogs or anything else edtechy just post a comment here or find me on Twitter @JenRoberts1

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Focus on Curriculum Collaboration

Do you collaborate with your colleagues? Collaboration and particularly curriculum collaboration have become buzz words worthy of a staff meeting bingo card, but I'm finding that, like many over used terms in education, collaboration has many layers of meaning.

In my role as department chair I am planning some grade level team meeting days that will be focused on curriculum collaboration. In preparation for that I am defining for myself what I think that means.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may recall that last year I worked with a particularly strong team of teachers and we collaborated very closely to write and implement our ninth grade English course. I have blogged about that previously in my post, A Functional PLC and about our use of Dropbox For Curriculum Collaboration.  That functional experienced shifted the way I see curriculum collaboration.

This year I will be teaching eleventh grade with a team of strong teachers and also helping the tenth grade team improve their ongoing collaboration. While planning I had a flash of insight about degrees of curriculum collaboration and an idea for the graphic below that I thought would help explain my thinking to my colleagues.

Very simply,  teachers can say they are collaborating on curriculum if their work comes together at any of these levels, but the work our team did last year showed me that collaboration is most effective when teachers are working together from the unit level all the way down to the level of daily lessons and formative assessments.

It's not enough to agree on a unit title and some standards. I want the teams I work with to collaborate on all of it, to share the work load, to review the student work that comes out of the formative and summative assessments, to agree together on modifications and next steps.

The pyramid above also represents the basics of our process. We identified units based on Common Core standards, filled in the associated standards (in English there are always lots of associated standards because many are things we work on all year long like revision skills etc.), determined our guiding questions, created or found summative assessments (and then mirrored them on to diagnostic assessments), defined what projects and or other assessments would support student learning and worked backward from there to scaffold daily lessons that would support students to meet and exceed the standards. (Our team was quite familiar with the process of Understanding By Design.)

This is the very streamlined and oversimplified process, anyway.  In reality, there were hours of discussion about text selection, text complexity, pedagogy, scaffolding, skill development, reading strategies, grammar instruction, research etc. We also ate a lot of chocolate.

I am reading Focus by Mike Schmoker. He writes that the key to successful schools is, "...coherent curriculum; effective lessons; and abundant amounts of purposeful reading, writing and talking should be our highest priorities."(17)  That is exactly how I would describe the work that happened in our ninth grade classes last year because of the curriculum collaboration that happened in our PLC. It is exactly why am working next with tenth and eleventh grade teachers to move the process forward.

9th Grade Team 2011-2012

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Should I still become a teacher?

Last year a young woman, an undergrad, who was considering a career in teaching spent 30 hours observing in my classroom before applying to several local credential programs. She wrote to me last week, after being accepted into several, to ask if I thought she should still become an English teacher.

"If you don't mind, would you tell me what you think of the job market right now? All I seem to hear are horror stories and people telling me it's a bad decision. If you were me trying to get into the field, would you still get your teaching credential?"  -J
 Public version of my answer:

Dear _________,

     If you really want to teach then there will be jobs available, especially if you are willing to be flexible about where you live. Lots of districts still need teachers, they are just more remote.

Also, teaching experiences a boom and bust cycle. Right now with terrible budgets and a bad economy, lots of older teachers are hanging on to their jobs instead of retiring.  That means there will be a wave of retirements in the next five years.  My district just offered a retirement bonus to people who retire this year or next.

At the same time, people like you, who are considering teaching, see the prospects as iffy and don't get credentials. This creates a shortage 3-5 years from now. I already see numbers dropping in the courses I teach to pre-service teachers and I expect that to continue.

Absolute truth. There are always people who get credentials and can't get a job teaching. They aren't very good. I could tell you horror stories about a particularly horrible (and flat out racist) student teacher I had once. I refused to let him keep "teaching" my students. His credential program placed him at another site and he got his credential. Last I heard he was a paid signature gatherer and I never worked with that university again. 

On the flip side, another student teacher I had, who was excellent, had offers from a local district and a charter school at a time when my district had laid off a thousand teachers. The leader of my credential program, Dr. Nancy Farnan, addressed this question back in 1995, when the 28 teachers in my student teaching cohort were stressed about getting jobs even before they started student teaching. She said, "There are always jobs for good people." I'm not sure that is a universal absolute and the job may not be the one you want, but I have seen it is generally true.

If you can make yourself more employable by adding a Social Science or Special Ed credential then do that too. I got my first job because I had English, Social Science and a complete CLAD credential. I also wrote a letter directly to the principals I wanted to work for, which was against procedure, but it worked. 

If you like kids and you want to teach then go for it. If you love English and you can't wait to teach Emily Dickinson then I have some bad news, she's dead already.  You have to love kids because you'll spend 90% of your work day with them.  If you are considering other careers, and they seem equally tempting, then you should probably choose one of those.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Teaching Students to Type

I was giving a workshop last week on Google Docs when a participant asked a question I hadn’t heard from an adult before. He said, “What about kids who say they can’t type?”  In the context of the workshop I really couldn’t give the question the attention it deserves, but it is a valid point. Though adults never mention it, I do get that complaint from students occasionally.

Kids who can’t type need to learn, and they won’t learn by taking a six week course and typing, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” over and over again. I took that course. It was useless. I learned to type in college, not because I had papers to type, but because I wanted to chat with my friends on line. (This was 1992, IRC text only chat rooms. Yes, I have been talking to strangers on the internet for over 20 years.) When you are typing to another person or group of people speed counts. Students will learn to type and type faster when they have a reason to want to communicate. No one gives them texting classes and they seem to be able to manage that just fine, even a few years ago when they had to use number pads as keyboards.

Students will type when they have something to say that they feel passionate about. Typing skills are a side effect of passion based learning and access to a keyboard. If you expect students to use a keyboard for daily work, communication and yes, chatting with classmates, they will learn to type. It may not be perfect touch typing at 90 words a minute, but those students will be able to type. Confession, my own typing is not perfect form, but I still managed to crank out a masters thesis, a novel, and all these blog posts with my less than stellar skills. I think the kids will be okay.

Typing is a great equalizer. Once the email is written no one knows if it took you five minutes or fifteen to type it out. Grammar, spelling and punctuation may still reflect on their skills, but their handwriting is not part of the equation.  When students see that revision no longer means rewriting their entire paper by hand, they suddenly prefer typing. When they have handwritten and then typed up several papers, they figure out it is easier to just type them the first time. Students who can’t type need more time to use computers in school, not less. 

When students new to my classroom tell me they can’t type I don’t worry too much about it. Some days we write a little some days we write a lot and they do alright. Over time their typing skills improve, they realize no one cares how fast they type, and their papers get written just fine. In the end they thank me for teaching them about writing, about tools like Google Docs, and about books. No one has ever thanked me for making them a better typist. I think that’s because by the end of the year it is just another skill they take for granted, just like most of the adults I know.

Disclaimer: I teach high school. I still think it is perfectly appropriate for students to learn both printing and cursive writing in earlier grades. I am not saying those skills are obsolete. I just don’t think lack of typing skills is a valid reason for keeping kids off computers in classrooms.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

No Products Were Placed In This Post

My thoughts on marketing and product placement at ISTE 2012:
Opinions ahead, you were warned.

It is striking to walk the exhibit hall at ISTE and see the millions spent and earned there by companies providing services to the education sector. By all accounts schools and districts all across the country are slashing budgets due to state funding cuts, laying off teachers, closing schools and cutting programs. At the same time there is a thriving industry providing, or trying to provide, tools to schools and districts. ISTE is definitely the place to see educational technology marketing machines at work.

I noticed a lot of product promotion at ISTE. Perhaps you did too. It was in several of the keynotes, as you may have heard. The interesting thing is the product promotion and product placement, I think, really backfired. Each mention of the company or item only made the promoter seem desperate. Everyone in the room was already well aware that these products existed, and many had already chosen not to use them. If the featured products had been more popular I think the perception that there was too much product placement might have been different.

Several companies deemed themselves too big or too important to have a presence in the exhibit hall. Instead they had rooms, some quite large, up in the areas where sessions were being held. I walked by one of them several times, but the doors were always closed. On Wednesday morning, when I did make it in I found out why. This corporate giant was holding sessions about it's products in one quarter of the room and they closed the doors when they did that. The rest of the room was mostly empty and the closed doors meant no one else would make it in for thirty minutes. This doesn't strike me as as marketing genius. I tried sitting through that session, but the display was an awkward assembly of four monitors pushed together, making a large black cross in the middle. The black lines cutting across the information was frustrating and I decided to go.

I did go to a one hour session by the same corporate giant about a new product that I wanted to learn more about because my district is going to use it. The presenter spent the first 15 minutes, yes I timed him, showing  pretty pictures of students in classrooms and telling us that the future would be about collaboration. It seems to me like an ISTE audience probably already knows that. Yeah, I left that one too. I may have attention span issues, and I definitely don't mind voting with my feet, but I have zero patience for people and corporations who waste my time with fluff.

I did love the exhibit hall. I spent several hours there on different days. I talked to vendors whose products I use and like. I appreciated the ones who honestly asked me what they could do to improve their product and listened to my answers. I was amused by those who were more interested in scanning my badge than talking to me, just booth flunkies racking up numbers. I took their shwag and left. It will be a long time before I need to buy pens for my classroom.

I think there were lots of companies that did very well at ISTE, spread their message, grew their customer base and increased their visibility. Disruptions are happening in education, but they are happening even faster in marketing. It's not about who knows about your product. It's about who is using it. What's funny is the company that had the most users did not have a booth or any corporate sessions. Why spend the money on a booth when everyone is already holding your device? Even the official conference app was only available from one app store. Product placement is probably more effective when the product is in the hands of nearly all the people sitting around you and not just on a slide in the keynote. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Things I Learned from #ISTE12

Social Ed Con Stair Photo
Some of these things are useful in general and some are more specific to me,  but hey, it’s my blog and I get to write whatever I want.  This list ranges widely from the mundane to the profound, but that’s the way I learn.

In an effort for originality I left out all the very true things I have read in other posts about making connections, planning but being open to change, acting on learning while it is fresh and making sure your learning reaches your students.  (Most of those were things I knew already from other large conferences, but the reminders help.)  So, without any more stalling, my list.

1. Whenever possible always wear a large VIP badge at ISTE. There are confirmed reports of several tweeps getting access to locations they would have otherwise been excluded from just because they were wearing their Ed tech Karaoke VIP badges at the time. Go #ETK12 (Yes, I know mine is still on my blog. I'm not ready to let it go yet.)

2. Review the online program early. There were free, but ticketed, sessions I didn’t get a spot in because I waited too long to review the online program.

3. Always attend Social Ed Con. I did and it was fabulous. I learned about great iPad video production apps and hardware when I wandered into a session Brad Flickinger was leading. He also asked a great question at the opening of the session, “Who is here to share and who is here to lurk and learn?” Since most of us did not have much experience using the iPad for multimedia production, Brad generously shared his knowledge and student work. We took notes and bought apps as fast as we could.

4. Bernie Dodge has some really interesting work coming up using mobile technology for running educational simulations. I’ll be keeping an eye on that.

5. Things I quickly learn to take for granted, like the research bar in Google Docs, will astound and amaze an audience who hasn’t seen it before.

6. My fellow GCT’s are an awesomely knowledgeable and talented group. (Okay, I kinda already knew that one.) They are also generous, supportive, and very kind.

7. Common Core standards can be an opportunity to revise curriculum and instruction to incorporate digital pedagogy and lots of technically based production projects for students.

8. Don’t ask how much the food costs in the convention center. Just get your two things, hand over a twenty and don’t look at the change. Trust me you don’t want to know.

9. If you are at an event where pictures are being taken by an actual photographer have a friend snap one with your camera/phone too. You’ll get tweetable access to the results much faster.

10. The people I like the most online tend to be the people I like the most in person. 

I was going to end this list with 10, but I should also add. I learned that I really want to attend ISTE13. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Things I shared at ISTE

I was new to ISTE but that didn't stop me from being a part of presenting some very cool sessions, in my opinion. If you came to one, thank you. If you missed something this should help you catch up.

On Saturday I went to #SocialEdCon for the first time and had an awesome experience listening and sharing about teaching tech, using ipads for media creation, and online writing. Of course I got to meet many people I already knew from our internet connections. It is very surreal to have others blogging and tweeting about things I said there that resonated with them. My big #eduwin there was that several people from my district came just because I told them about it at a workshop the day before. A huge thank you to Steve Hargadon for organizing that experience for us all.

Monday I helped my friend Will Kimbly with his Rockstar session on Google forms. Mostly I assisted, reminded him about a few things, and took a few questions, but I also got to share some slides I made earlier for our Google English Teacher hangout about a unit our team did for comparative analysis. This was relevant because I used Google Forms to get kids collaborating on the literary analysis aspect of the prompt. I also described this project a bit during a session at SocialEdCon too.

Tuesday I was on two panels. This first, organized by Vicki Davis, was about Collaborative Writing and the Common Core Standards. I believe Vicki is planning to put the slides up on Slideshare, but here are the ones from my portion of the presentation.  I got lots of questions about The NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program, which is an awesome resource for teaching narrative writing, with curriculum and support for teachers and students. I highly recommend the experience. Also there was a lot of interest in the writing groups that I do with my students. I built a site with all my resources about that,  Roberts On Writing.

Tuesday afternoon I was on the panel of Google Certified Teachers sharing what's new with Google tools and I got to show them the research bar in Google Docs. It is quite amazing to hear an audience gasp when you show them that the links and pictures you have been adding to a document are already cited in the footnotes automatically. Even better is hearing them oooh and ahhh when they find out they can choose MLA or APA for the citations.

This video by Ronnie Bincer gives a pretty good overview of what the research bar does. It will also let you search for images that you can just drag into your document and switch the search to Google Scholar too. There are lots more videos on YouTube about using the research bar if you want to learn more. I also really like this one.  Both were made before searching Scholar was an option, though.

By Wednesday my main goal was not to present anything.  Next time I get to post it will be about the cool things I saw and learned at ISTE12.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dropbox for Curriculum Collaboration

This year I got to be a part of an amazing team of gifted educators, who agreed to collaborate all year long and then did it. The essential tool that made it possible was Dropbox.  I think if you made a wordcloud of all of our meetings this year the biggest words would be reading, writing, scaffolds, and Dropbox.

*See my earlier post, A Functional PLC about how we worked together as a group.

I didn't think the way we were using Dropbox was that revolutionary or innovative. We just needed that kind of functionality. But, having now seen another group use it less functionally and after having some quite tech savvy folks ask me how we did that, I figured a blog post was in order.

Dropbox is a web 2.0 tool that offers free cloud storage starting at 2.5GB. It comes with a client you can put on your laptop that makes your Dropbox folder look and act much like any other folder on your computer. (This is good for people who are comfortable using files on their computer, but aren't too sure yet about browser based collaboration tools.) The crucial element is that, within Dropbox, you can have a folder that is shared with other Dropbox users, whom you select.

My team shared a folder called 9th Grade English.  Inside of that main folder, we had a folder for each of the units we created and most of those units had subfolders for resources, assessments, grammar support etc. The important part here is we only had ONE shared folder for the team. Everything went into it. The team was already familiar and comfortable with Word for creating curriculum materials, so Dropbox just made it easy to share those files.

I realized the importance of the ONE folder per team part when I saw another PLC where each person had shared a folder with each other person on the team. So, everyone on the team had folders named after each other member. That meant that to find anything you needed to know who created it. It doesn't work because each person had their own naming conventions, some had sub folders and some didn't. Part of this reflected the group culture, as each person held tightly to the things they had created that they wanted credit for. No, ONE folder is way more functional. It may take a little time to move your creations into the sub-folders where they fit, but others will be able to find them, and that's the point.

The other thing everyone in your group needs to know about Dropbox is that if one person changes a document in the folder (or a sub folder) that change will happen to that same document for everyone else.  Say I want to customize an exit slip for my students and ask them a question that the rest of the group won't need.  I can do that, but if I just save that change on the document it will percolate quite quickly to the rest of my PLC. Instead, I would open the document and use "Save As" to create my own copy BEFORE making my changes. Most of the time I saved that copy in a folder of my own (within Dropbox) that was NOT shared with my PLC. If I felt I was making changes that another group member might want, I could also use "Save As", but save the doc back to the original folder with a modified name to indicate the change.

The really helpful part of this syncing across the dropbox came when we inevitably found typos in our materials.  One of us would just open the doc, fix the mistake and save it again. The next teacher who used it would get the corrected version. Plus when a document syncs there is a little popup message you get down in the corner of your screen to let you know a document was just updated. Often this was a hint that one of my colleagues was working on something and a reminder that I needed to be working on things for the team as well. A little subtle professional peer pressure.

Though we met twice a week, our email communication was frequent, often along the lines of, "I thought we needed a graphic organizer for...... so I made one and put it in the Dropbox." Often, I would walk into a colleagues room, see them doing something and start to ask, "Is that...?" But, before I could finish the sentence, the reply was already, "In the Dropbox? Yes."

Now, the other four brilliant and generous people I worked with this year are all laid off. It is left to me to recreate our work with two teachers who both previously taught other grades. The fact that all of our work is organized in Dropbox is what will make that feasible. In the end I made a backup copy from Dropbox of all of our work from the year, 239 files taking up 33MB of storage. In binders it would sit on a shelf. In Dropbox it will live to be used, revised and reinvented on a daily basis as we adapt to the changing needs of our students every year.

PS If you have an English position open, I know four excellent teachers who might be interested.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

No Chip Heads Here

I found the line, the line my intellectually curious, technology savvy, digital native type freshmen won't cross, and it surprised me.

We were talking advances in technology, things that will be obsolete, and their frustration with the terrible track pads on the school issued netbooks. iPads have made them crave touch screens. They look forward to controlling their television with a hand gesture, and they expect speech to text will make typing a thing of the past before they finish college.

Taking the discussion just a bit further, I mentioned that the day would come when a chip in their brain would convert their thoughts directly into whatever device they were operating. They were shocked, horrified, and stunned that I would even suggest something like that. I told them about the disabled woman who recently controlled a robotic arm with her thoughts after doctors added an implant to her brain.

My students thought that was all well and good for someone unable to move their limbs, but they saw no reason for "normal" people to need that kind of thing. Playing devils advocate I suggested that their grand children would likely have no problem with the idea of a brain implant, but they were not swayed. "No one is putting anything in my brain ever!"

In an instant these children, who fully embrace technology and even crave its improvement, became nostalgic for the tech they currently have. In that moment they reminded me very much of my grandmother, who refused to ever have a microwave oven in her house, stubborn, certain and absolute.

I asked them then if they had heard about the Google Glass project. They hadn't and I showed them the video (below). They loved it, wanted it, but were almost immediately discussing the drawbacks of the physical glasses. "A brain implant would solve a lot of that." I mentioned one more time casually, but no dice.  They were firm. They would put up with glasses, phones, remotes and all of the other tech that they would like to see work better as long as no one ever puts a chip in their head. Well, what can you expect?  They were born in the 20th century, just like my grandmother.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Goodreads in the Classroom: Reprise

I've been using Goodreads with my students now for over a year and we love it. Okay, I love it and most of them like it more than I thought they would.  Last spring I started using it with juniors and this year I have used it with my freshmen all year long.

Students can set up a Goodreads account using their Google login information. That's a great short cut for them. I haven't tested that with a Google Apps for Education account, so I'm not sure if that would work. Students do need an email account to create a Goodreads account, so they should be at least 13.

My students add me as a friend on Goodreads and then I can see their updates about the books they are reading, and their book reviews.  They also friend (v.) each other. I don't require that. They just do it naturally. I have noticed that students with more friends on Goodreads tend to read more. I think seeing their friends updates regularly creates a little positive peer pressure about reading.

I am amazed at the insights Goodreads gives me about their reading behavior.  Last year one of my Junior boys added Memoirs of a Geisha to his "to read" shelf.  I happened to have that book, but I never would have thought to recommend it to him. He told me he had been looking for a copy for a while. I never would have guessed.

With my freshmen this year I found they needed a push to read independently. I found it helped if I asked them to read and review two books a month. I feel some ambivalence about setting reading expectations that way. Kids who were not reading at all certainly read more (and even liked it) to meet that simple goal, and kids who naturally read a lot continued to do so, but I know there were a few students who read two books and stopped because they met the requirement.

Today I asked students to use the recommend feature to suggest books to friends and me.  That was a lot of fun and hopefully will give some of them ideas for summer reading.

NOTE: Good reads will suggest recommendations for you if you have rated over 20 books.  My students like that.  The process I had them use today was to go to a page for a book they already read and find the recommend button there. After that it pulls up a list of their Goodreads friends and they can check off the ones they think will like that book.

*My original post about Goodreads in the classroom.

I want to answer some of Rachel's questions in the comment below.
1. I grade reviews by having students submit a form with the direct links to their reviews. This makes it much easier to find their work and saves me a lot of time. The form is embedded on a tab in our class blog here 

2. I don't worry about my students seeing what my friends are reading. (Disclaimer, I teach high school.) I don't worry because my students will only see my friends activity if I interact with their posts. So yes, if you "like" your friends review of an inappropriate book your students may see that.  There is no private on the internet. Act like a teacher at all times when online. And you students have probably already read the books you are worried about anyway.

3. What to do about former students? Keep them. I love seeing what my former students are reading. Most of them drop off in their Goodreads use after my class, but a few keep going and it is great to stay in touch.  The model for a book review I gave my students this year came from a student I had two years ago and he wrote it this past August. Two years out of my class and he is still writing reviews I can use as an example.  I have a colleague who deleted all her students from last year. Many of them are my students this year.  They were very hurt to be unfriended. If you are using a Google Form to collect URL's of reviews from current students then you don't need to worry about former students making it hard to find current students.

Friday, June 1, 2012

That Search Makes You Look Good

In an era of social media dominance who you know matters. But how do you get people to want to know you?   

You can be powerful: I'm not.
Innovative: Some people call me that.
Informative: I try, but other people are much better about breaking ed tech news than I am.
Influential: Last time I checked my Klout score was the the same as the AFLAC Duck, really.

All I've got left is funny.  I can do funny. Nick Provenzano (@TheNerdyTeacher) once told all his followers to follow me after I replied to a comment he made about airport security with a Spinal Tap reference, something about a vegetable in his pants. Pop culture is currency in social media. Knowing about the things that other smart people know about makes you part of the club. But what do you do about the things you don't know? Can you just Google it?

A few weeks ago I began following James Sanders (@jamestsanders) because I heard he was the keynote for a conference I can't go to on Google Apps in Education. His Twitter profile looked good and I decided he was a keeper. He is, innovative, informative, influential and it turns out, also funny.

Last Friday morning he tweeted that Doris Fisher would be in his classroom that day on short notice. He seemed like this was a big deal, so I wondered who she was. I was waiting in the drive through line at that coffee place to get some tea and scrolling through twitter. I switched over to Google and searched. Turns out it is a pretty common name. She was either a singer, a billionaire or a dead British politician. I went with the billionaire and in a few clicks found out that she was the founder of The Gap and also a major funder of KIPP schools. That fit.  Feeling more informed I tweeted back to James that I hoped he was wearing the right jeans. He got the joke and replied that he had on the wrong brand and was therefore doomed. It all happened in less time than it took to get my tea.

Am I a fraud for acting like I already knew who he was talking about? Is searching about a twitter reference cheating? I hope not. I'd like to think that's just information literacy being applied to social media. I have cultural currency in some areas, but I do borrow from Google when I need to. Now if you'll excuse me I have some online shopping to do.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Research Bar Improvements

May 15th, 2012: Research bar appears in Docs:
"What's this box?"

I peered at it uncertainly on his small netbook screen, until with a flash, I understood what I was seeing. And then, like the present you didn't know you wanted, but love, I was smitten.

 "That is a research bar." I told him. I understood immediately that Google had combined Search with Docs to make it seamless to search from within your document.

The timing was perfect. My students had just begun a major research project a few days before and they were ready for this tool. We learned how to select words in a doc and search for them, how to link to a result and how to cite it within a few minutes.

I tweeted out about our find. My friend Will Kimbly (@willkimbley) retweeted that with a reply. His follower Wanda Terral (@wteral) picked it up and wrote a great blog post about the features of the research bar.

We've been using it for ten days and love it, but as an educator, and a Google Certified Teacher, I see ways to improve it already.

1. Integrate Google Scholar: The research bar seems to do a basic keyword search just like any other key word search in Google. That works a lot, but not always.  Use case: A student studying the Renaissance highlights the word, hits ctrl-r to research it, but mostly gets hits about hotels.  I predict Google will soon integrate Google Scholar into the results of the research bar, or make that an option users can turn on.
**Added: I should have watched my Google Educast #49 before this post.  Scholar is already an option!  To switch to scholar results click the little grey arrow next to the Google logo in the search bar. That's also how you can access images and quotes too.

2. Use other words in the document to help establish search context: The next most likely improvement Google would make would be to look at the other words on the document to make more accurate search assumptions about what you might be looking for. So that if I typed: "Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo were all artists in Renaissance Italy." and then searched Renaissance, I should get results about the art and architecture of Renaissance Italy.

3. Use writing to determine lexile level for results: Okay, this falls into the area of creepy scary, but Google could analyze the lexile level of the written document and then skew search results to provide links with lexile levels slightly higher than what has already been written. Using Advanced Search we can already filter Google results by reading level, so this seems like a viable next step. It should probably be something the user can choose to turn on. This would mean kids from any grade and any achievement level would get results in their zone of proximal development.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Advice for my laidoff colleagues

I'm working on letters of rec for my colleagues who were laid off by the school board this week. Seven people have been cut just from our English department, over twenty school wide.  I spoke to one of them this morning and gave him some tips for professional networking.  He asked me to send them as links and I thought they might be useful for people beyond my own site.

1. Make sure you are on Linked In.  Add everyone you know in education. You can ask for recommendations on Linked in too.  These are usually shorter than typical letters of rec and can range more broadly.  If you have former students on it they can write you recs too.  If you have parents of former students they can recommend you and of course colleagues.

2. Visual CV:    I've seen some resumes on here that look very impressive.  Use the URL for your visual CV as your link on your twitter bio.

3. Twitter: Look up the hashtag #edchat and follow people who use it that look good to you.  It's not easy to build a network on short notice, but it's time to start.  If I had to find a new job right now my twitter network would be my best resource. (See also hashtags related to your subject area, #engchat, #sschat, #scichat, #mathchat.) I'm @JenRoberts1

4. Of course you probably already know about edjoin

5. Network: Most educational conferences have a vendor area.  Many vendors are looking for teachers who want to work with them to create materials.  The largest ed tech conference in the world will be in San Diego at the end of June. Walk the vendor hall with your personal card and promote yourself.  You don't need to be a tech expert, just an experienced teacher willing to learn about their product. Often you can get free or discounted admission to conferences if you offer to volunteer.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Twitter is harder than you think

If you are reading this you probably clicked a link on Twitter, which means you are probably comfortable with Twitter and used to the way it works, but lately I keep finding that people new to Twitter seem to be having trouble with it.  These aren't tech newbies either, one used to work for the other social media giant, another is an educational technology expert, and, okay one is a ninth grader, but still supposedly a digital native right?
Somewhere I read that something like 60% of people who sign up for Twitter stop using it within a month. (Fine, I went and found the source for that.  It was a Neilsen study from 2009, but probably still something close to that percentage.)  Some of them must quit because of time or other commitments, but I think now that there must be a lot of people who feel like they just can't figure it out.

There is a lexicon to Twitter that you have to crack, RT (re-tweet) MT (modified tweet) and all those crazy hashtags. There are the intricate rules about who can see your tweets.  If I tweet to Mary and Bob follows Mary and me then he will see that tweet, but if he only follows me then he won't. Except that there are hundreds of Marys and Bobs and many relationships like that which determine who sees what.

There are direct messages (DM) which are private and @ messages which are not. A friend new to twitter wrote a DM to me announcing to the world that he joined twitter. I pointed out that this was just to me. Another friend decoded Twitter wrong and saw RT as response-to. This caused most of her @ messages to go to all of her followers and it made it look like the person she was responding to was saying something that she was really saying to them. See what I mean about complicated.

The hardest part about Twitter, though is building the relationships. Taking the leap to send an @ message to someone you don't really know. Figuring out who to follow, avoiding spamers (that's another post all together), and wondering if it is worth tweeting to the nine people who followed you.

I get a little frustrated with Twitter experts who send out a tweet during a workshop to show the attendees how "simple" it is to get answers from around the world about a question.  That works great for people like them who have been on twitter for years and amassed thousands of followers, but it almost never works that well for those new to Twitter.

My advice to those newbies is to stick with it if you are following people you like learning from. Don't be afraid to reply to a tweet that interests you. Share a link that you thought was great. Engage in Twitter chats about subjects that interest you. Re-tweet the things you think are valuable. Spend a little time on Twitter each day.  There are amazing people there and they are giving the world a lot to Tweet about.