Tag Archives: collaboration

The Digital Farm

15 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 1.24.35 PMI grew up in the Midwest of the United States, so many people (not from the Midwest) assume I grew up on a farm. Far from it. We Neals are not the handiest or hardiest of folks. We didn’t fare well in the fields and quickly found white-collar work. I grew up around farmers, though, and I understand, though admittedly secondhand, the combination of intelligence, dedication, creativity, sacrifice, and hard work required of those in agriculture. I know I would be utter rubbish at it. Yet, the metaphor of a farm has helped me change the way I am teaching some of my English classes. My students and I have been using a digital farm concept to structure our study.

I first heard of the digital farm idea from Alan November. Quick plug: if you ever get the chance to attend November Learning’s Building Learning Communities Conference held each summer in Boston, go. My BLC experiences have been some of the most practical, rewarding, and provocative professional development I have ever had.

In my experiments with a digital farm, every student is given a chore (or two). Over the course of a predetermined time period (I find students need about two weeks to try out ideas and make multiple attempts), each student must make a meaningful contribution to everyone’s learning in his or her assigned role. Students may contribute in any way and at any time, too. If they are, for instance, designated a Feedback Provider they could still make a contribution as a Big Thinker. Also, depending on the size and personality of the class, I assign multiple students the same role. Students may work with partners or alone to fulfill their task. Students must also communicate with me in a timely fashion so that I can plan our lessons around their contributions.

At the end of each chore cycle, students complete a journal reflection and their work. I give one-to-one feedback, and then assign new chores for the next cycle.

Visit our Digital Farm wiki for a complete set of jobs. Some jobs are not assigned but come up in a rotating fashion. Discussion Leaders and Student Scribes work this way, and I will make a future post on the Student Scribes concept I learned from Darren Kuropatwa.

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Parent Teacher Conference Game

9 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 11.31.06 AMI have one finely honed skill that serves me better in the classroom than all the rest: I know when I should steal a great idea. Well, I am not really stealing an idea if I give credit, and the person who originated the idea is sharing it freely.

No single teacher can always be the perfect creative force who whips up an appropriate and effective solution to every teaching dilemma. We educators work best when we work together…or we at least share. At its core, sharing is what this blog is all about, so here is a great idea for your next parent/teacher conference. I just finished mine.

Thankfully, at my school we really hold parent/teacher/student conferences; the student does most of the talking. In the past, I have always been a bit flummoxed as to how to get every student to talk precisely and honestly about his or her class work. My excelling students spoke articulately about their work, but my struggling students…well…struggled to pinpoint what they needed to do to improve.

This last time around, however, I stole an idea from my colleague that worked perfectly. You should steal it, too. Here is the explanation video he sent to us: Continue reading

Wikis as Textbooks

7 Apr
Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Let’s be honest. Wikis are ugly. At least the wikis I make are not sleek and arresting in a visual sense. Yet, I use wikis in a variety of ways that I find elegant and interesting. Think of them as a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla. They usually won’t turn heads, but they run beautifully and always do what they should.

Wikis as Textbooks

This past fall, I taught a brand spankin’ new public speaking course based on TED talks. I had never taught public speaking, so in preparation, I searched for the perfect textbook. I have never used a textbook in any class, but my own insecurities where sending me looking for some solid backup. Well, I didn’t find the perfect textbook (because they don’t exist). Instead, I decided to have the students create their own textbook using a class wiki:

Public Speaking Class Textbook

The experience reinforced my belief in constructivism. While far from perfect, our self-constructed textbook served our purposes perfectly. After giving their first speeches, I asked the students, “O.K. Now that you’ve given one speech, what do you think you need to learn?” Their answers became our chapters.

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Classroom Management Based on Respect and Consensus #1st5days

24 Aug

Recently my uncle came out of retirement to become a classroom teacher. He worked as a vocational instructor for many years in the prison system, but he was, understandably, pretty nervous about teaching a roomful of teenagers. They can have that affect on the best of us. He will be fine, of course. When I asked him why he decided to take the job, he said, “I really care about the kids who struggle to learn. I was one of those kids, and I told my classes on the first day, ‘I’ll never embarrass any of you. If you don’t understand something, I’ll work with you whenever and wherever you want…and if I don’t know how to help, I’ll find somebody that can help me help you.” He’s going to be great, isn’t he?

He will take care of his students and they will take care of him. Teenagers’ reputation is unfounded. In my time in the classroom I’ve always found them to be some of the loveliest people I know. Teens have abundant optimism, honesty, and a sense of fair play, and we can tap into these wonderful qualities when establishing a set of classroom rules.

Here are some of the structures I use to establish a safe, fair, and productive classroom. They are a conglomeration of methods I learned from mentors and students.

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Taming the Paper Beast: Time Saving Techniques for Essay Grading

25 May

As I finish my fifteenth year in an English classroom, I’m seriously thinking about tattooing the following phrase across my belly in Old English lettering ala Tupac:  “Students will write more; teachers will grade less.” I once started to calculate how many hours I have spent writing feedback on student writing, but I quickly abandoned that sadistic calculation. The number was impressive. And depressing. And not at all meaningful. Any instructor of writing who lasts for any length of time has to embrace two concepts very quickly: acceptance and efficiency.

I now accept that it takes me 20-30 minutes to write comprehensive feedback on an individual essay, and in a future post I promise to break down my system. In this post, I share some of the things my colleagues and I have done to become more efficient with our feedback.

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Building Class Community: Role Call Questions

23 May

Most of my best classroom ideas come from students. As a young teacher, I was wise enough (and desperate enough) to ask them what they liked about their favorite teachers. I was confident in my own bumbling, so I wasn’t fishing for false compliments. I KNEW their favorite teachers would be somebody else.

My students—luckily—were honest and kind and eager to share teaching practices they enjoyed. Like every new teacher, I struggled with classroom management and daily lesson planning. I was devoted to the idea that a teacher’s primary responsibility is the delivery of curriculum. I did not allow for any wasted time in the 45-minute period. I planned every second of class.

Fifteen years later, I’m still this way. I plan out every moment of class, but now I know to welcome (and even engineer) tangental moments where we throw out my plans. Role Call questions are one of the most productive ways to steer off course. Continue reading

Learning From Failure

18 Feb

Many people envision a one-to-one classroom as a sterile nightmare, a room filled with distracted students glued to sickly blue screens, so constantly plugged in that they are completely checked out. The reality is quite different. The more experience I gain in a wired classroom, the more I realize how much easier it is to humanize education when students have immediate access to personalized technology.

I teach a senior elective entitled Local Living Writers. The premise of the course is simple….We study work by writers living in and around Boston and then invite these writers into our classroom. This past term, for whatever reason, brought a group of students that did not identify as readers or writers. These seniors were funny and earnest and curious…but they were not model English students. They struggled to write with the style and control. Some of my typical approaches fell flat. I typically run the elective like a college literature course, and most of my writing prompts require students to develop literary analysis skills. Such prompts, however, were not working this term.

We had just finished William Landay’s The Strangler, a suspenseful and stylish crime thriller about three brothers wrapped up in the investigation of the infamous Boston Strangler. The students thoroughly enjoyed Landay’s cinematic setting—a gritty city on the cusp of a modern future—and they viscerally related to the authentic characters the author spun to life. Yet, I struggled to get them to notice the finer points of Landay’s craft.

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Making Grammar Sticky With Google Docs

10 Jan


I spent many hours in elementary school diagramming sentences, parsing parts of speech on spidery branches of sentence trees. I must admit, though, I never found this procedure painful. For me the activity compartmentalized language. The parts of a sentence worked like Lego bricks, and once I understood the various “shapes” of grammar, I found enjoyment in rearranging them.

As an English teacher, then, I’ve always felt palpable guilt about the way I teach grammar…or more accurately the way I don’t. I teach it every year in every class, but my students don’t seem to do a very good job learning it. I was never satisfied with my approach or my students’ mastery of basic language rules…until I used Google Docs to have my students keep grammar journals. I leveraged technology to make students more accountable for their grammar work, but this technique could be adapted in any subject to keep an error analysis log.

The set-up of this classroom practice is simple. In the beginning of the year, I asked students to start a new Google Doc and then make at least one entry per week, on their own. I spent a portion of a class period leading a discussion on why grammar might be important to them, and I framed my expectations with this assignment description.

I walked students through the description, but I also used their own writing to guide this initial work. Prior to class, I had gone through the first writing assignment of the year and highlighted any grammar errors I found, limiting myself to ten.

Using the master list in the assignment description and their highlighted essays, each student made a bulleted list of grammar errors they were making. Using the comments features in Google Docs, I asked them to identify each error. They did NOT to fix the error; they simply labeled it. I imposed an “Ask Three Before Me” rule at this stage. They first had to ask themselves what the error might be. If they were unsure, they asked the student to their left and their right for help. If there was still confusion, they would call me over.

During the labeling of their errors, I was able to give feedback to each student multiple times, clarifying misunderstandings and formatively assessing each students writing skills. After the students completed their master lists, they chose two HOT BUTTON grammar issues, the two aspects of their writing that—if mastered—would have immediate and noticeable impact on their work. I had made notes as to which errors were made and which issues I considered the most pressing. The exit slip for that day’s class was to confirm with me which two HOT BUTTON grammar issues they had selected. I used this final check-in to ensure that each student was clear as to what he or she should work on.

I had finally realized that I needed to think of ways to put the burden of learning more squarely on the students’ shoulders. I needed a way to differentiate grammar instruction but still easily document the learning. The grammar journals via Google Docs proved invaluable.

I spent the rest of the school year teaching grammar as I most often do…using a hybrid of whole class instruction, online tutorials, and individual feedback. But, each week they were required to make at least one entry in their grammar journals. The entries were meant to be specific, personal, and honest….They did not, however, need to be long. I expected one entry to take between 20-30 minutes from start to finish, including research time.

I seldom wrote feedback. Instead, I completed quick face-to-face check-ins during class. While students were doing something else, I’d call up individuals and offer critique. I would offer suggestions for other sources and methods as well. Students also completed periodic self-assessments.

By using student-directed grammar journals, grammar concepts became “stickier.” In other words, by taking a more proactive approach, the students’ mastery of language increased. Also, because I set up multiple resources and activities, the students used varied modes to learn. They could come back to a tricky concept like parallelism many times in many ways. Through this differentiation, I found myself, less often, making repeated comments on essays throughout the year.

Because the use of Google Docs effectively organized their work and allowed me (and peers) to easily give feedback, I was more likely to come back to grammar every week. Grammar instruction stopped being a chore that we all agreed to avoid.

Student response was overwhelmingly positive. Even my most reluctant, disorganized students—the ones that always seemed to be missing or rushing their entries—eventually began to realize the value of patient, independent practice…and their writing improved as a result.

Sample Grammar Journal

Grammar Journal Assignment Description

BCDS Grammar Ning

NOTE: This post original appeared at EdSocialMedia.com

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