Sunday, August 31, 2014

How do you get to know your students?

In the past week, several novice teachers have asked me this question. It's a good question to ask and it is especially important in the first few weeks of school, but getting to know your students is a year long process. Some of them you will know a lot about very quickly, others will surprise you with important information in May. Getting to know your students isn't a step in the teaching process; it is a mindset professional educators adopt that keeps them open to the clues, tidbits, and details that help them know their students strengths, needs, and interests.

I'm sure there are exhaustive lists of "get to know you" activities on the internet. These are just some of the things I have been using for the past few years that work for me.

I learn their names as quickly as possible.
This is probably pretty obvious. I have some tricks for it, but it can still take me a week or more to get them all in my head.  Name learning tricks:

  • I greet them all at the door and ask their name.
  • I assign seats and keep them in the same seats until I know their names.
  • I call roll out loud for a few days. 
  • I walk around and peek at the names on their papers as I practice their names in my head. 
  • While my students are working on a group activity (getting to know each other), I quiz myself on their names. 
I learn something about them:
  • One of my "get to know each other" activities is to ask my students to make a list of the names of the people at their table and write down one fact about each person. I collect their lists and learn those facts. 
  • I give them a student data form that asks about their previous learning experiences and their interests. 
  • I give them a reading survey to get to know what they like to read and find out more about their reading lives. 
  • I ask them to write me a letter about themselves during our first class period. 
  • We write six word memoirs. 

I watch them:  I know this sounds creepy, but kid watching can tell you a lot. 
  • I'm watching to see when and how a student gets distracted from a task. 
  • Who stalls about getting started on work? 
  • Who avoids reading and needs help picking a better book? 
  • I look to see how they relate to one another. They come to me with a long history of going to school together. Many of them went to the same middle school and some go even further back. What social dynamics have they brought to the classroom this year? 
  • Who is smiling? Who looks frustrated? Who seems isolated? 
  • All of these factors will impact their learning.

I listen to them:  The conversations before, during, and after class tell me a lot about my students. 
  • What are they happy about? 
  • Which classes are they struggling with? 
  • What are they posting online? 
  • During class it is pretty obvious which students have a lot to say and which prefer to play the invisibility game. 
  • Do they challenge each other's thinking? 
  • Do they contribute their own ideas? 
  • Do they speak in complete sentences? 
  • Do their words reflect understanding or confusion? 
Getting to know my students takes the whole year, and some I still feel I never know well enough. In addition to getting to know them, I let them get to know me. Their first activity in my class is to write down a question they have, but leave their name off.  At the end of that period I start pulling the questions out of the bowl and answering as many as I can. I give them answers that are helpful, honest or flippant depending on the question and the mood in the room at the time. Some are about school things, "Where is the cafeteria?" Some are about our class, "How much homework will we have?" Some are about me, "Are you a fun teacher?" I let them figure out that last one for themselves over the next 180 school days. 

You can visit my class blog post from Day 1 from last year. The one for this year is similar and goes live on Tuesday morning.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How I used Socrative for Writing Instruction

I've hit upon an interesting and effective writing pedagogy using Socrative. This worked well multiple times last year and I'm now confident about it enough to write about it.

Socrative is an app and a website for getting questions out to students. The students need devices to respond, but Socrative is really flexible. It works on smart phones, iPads, laptops and even iPods that have wifi connections. Basically, if a student can access the internet, they can respond to a Socrative question.

My favorite way to use Socrative is the single question mode that lets me send out a question whenever I need to see student answers. (You can also pre-plan quizzes that are either teacher paced or self-paced.) The single questions can be multiple choice, true false or short answer.  It's the short answer questions that help me with writing instruction.

Say I'm working with my freshmen on a specific skill, like character description, creating a particular mood, or introducing evidence in an essay.  I will model the skill, show them several examples and then send out a short answer Socrative question and ask them to try writing their own instance of the skill we are working on.

Students get the question immediately and they all begin crafting their attempt at doing the writing move we are trying. I see their efforts flow onto my screen as soon as they submit them. I can tell right away which students are "getting it" and who needs more help. It's low stakes because they know I'm not grading these, we are just experimenting with a new skill. But then something amazing happens. When all of my students have made their attempt I can send the responses out for a vote. The names get stripped and every student sees what every other student wrote, anonymously. After reading through the responses each student "votes" for his or her favorite example from the answers.

From their votes a handful of answers emerge that are generally (at first) much better than the rest.  As a class we read them and talk about why they thought these examples were good.  I find students pay much more attention to exemplars written by their peers than they do with other mentor texts.

Then we do it again, and everybody writes another version of the same skill, and they all get better. That's not hyperbole. Everyone writes better on the second round. We vote again and the pool at the top gets larger, each answer gets fewer votes because the overall quality has improved. Then we do it again. I can usually fit three rounds into a 50 minute class period, with time upfront for my initial instruction. Over the course of that period I can see the growth in my students as they come to understand what we are trying to write and get multiple chances to practice.

Sometimes an answer gets 90% of the vote on the first round. "This is terrible." I say. "That's great if one of you can do this really well, but what about the rest of you? We need to step it up people." Their answers get better and the vote gets more spread out.

Often the answers that rise to the top are not from the students you would expect. I've watched my English Learners and students with IEP's drop their jaws when they see that their classmates voted for their writing. It turns out (in my classroom) that fabulous writing voice is not closely correlated with other forms of academic achievement. The quiet students often have really interesting things to say in their writing.
From our end of the year course survey

My students request this activity. They also see the immediate improvement it makes in their writing development. It allows them to rehearse their academic writing skills. And it's fun. It's immediate, but anonymous feedback about the quality of their writing. It's an opportunity to level up quickly. It's also paperless, highly engaging, requires little preparation time from me, and most importantly, very effective.

The data from our end of the year course survey shows that my students saw their own growth as writers, (5=strongly agree). Much of that had to do with the writing assignments we worked on, other scaffolding, and a lot of hard work on revision, but some of it came from our practice with Socrative. I encourage you to give it a try with your own students and let me know how it goes.