Low-Tech Learning as a Novel Concept

Today’s students have never known a time when computers didn’t exist. What’s more, they have the ability to carry a ridiculously powerful computer in their jeans pocket. Funny enough, even while having an electronic appendage with instant access to the world, I am noticing more and more that students appreciate being exposed to low-tech experiences.

I introduced the concept of Genius Hour (which I call Passion Projects) to my sixth grade students last month. They were given the option to learn a skill, create something new, or find a way to help others. I was quite surprised that, when given completely free reign, less than 15% of my students chose anything that involved technology. Instead, they wanted to learn how to do handicrafts such as knitting, cooking, cake decorating, and sewing. Also popular were model building, designing, and creative writing. Over a quarter of them are designing fundraisers to help charities close to their hearts. I did not expect that they would eschew technology. When I thought about this a little more, I realized it is because technology isn’t new for them. It is completely integrated into their daily lives so when given the task of choosing something new to learn, they opted to stray from their beloved technology.

Then it happened again. The middle school where I teach has an advisory period and a couple of days a month, this time is devoted to teacher-led clubs from which the students may choose. As each of the teachers introduced his or her club, the ear-splitting cheers were for clubs such as board games, knitting, eco-art, brainteasers, and the like. Although there were several clubs involving technology that will no doubt be equally as popular, I was again struck that students were also excited to learn hands-on skills or participate is low or no-tech activities.

The following week, at an assembly on the history of our school, the presenter showed pictures of girls in home economics classes cooking and sewing. This led to a classroom discussion about the “olden days” when students were required to take either home economic or shop classes. As I described these classes to students (because I took them), they were full of questions as to why we don’t still offer this kind of education because it sounded so “cool.” They were clamoring for the opportunity to cook and sew. Who knew this old-fashioned class would sound so interested to today’s students?

As a PD junkie, I come across dozens of articles each month lauding the use of technology in the classroom and detailing the myriad ways that technology can replace the old-fashioned classroom assignments. Don’t get me wrong—I am in no way anti-technology. I am as addicted to my devices as the next girl. However, I don’t find that students are nearly as engaged in most educational uses of technology as adults would hope. I’ve even heard students complain about too much screen time in school. Perhaps this is because some of the crafty, not necessarily pedagogically sound, projects that teachers are enamored of have merely been replaced by digital versions of equally dubious merit.

I think that perhaps one of the reasons so many teachers of all ages have jumped on the digital bandwagon is that we feel it is something that defines us as current or means we are teaching 21st Century Skills. It could also be that the use of technology in school is exciting for the teachers themselves because many weren’t exposed to much when they were in school. I know that I am often excited when I see the classroom possibilities of a new app or program. My point is not that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom, it does. It is that we may be overestimating the amount of engagement bang for our buck that tech provides. Not everything in our classrooms needs to be digitized and our students will appreciate the chance to experience the excitement of analog learning in a digital world. Excuse me while I go read my book (on paper, of course.)

Toward a Culture of Collaboration, Not Competition

The following is the text of an article that I recently wrote for SmartBlogs on Education.

As I read education blogs, news editorials, and twitter, I am struck by the “us vs. them” mentality I see between veteran and newer teachers. The purpose of this article is not to demonize or laud either one of these groups, but rather to promote the idea that teachers should support one another instead of tearing each other down. We all got into this profession for the same reason and I suspect we will find that we are more alike than we realize. What’s more, both veteran (which I am using to describe those in the profession for 10 years or more) and newer (those with 5 or fewer years’ experience) teachers have valuable, unique skills and perspectives and could learn a lot from each other. In the end, we all want to do the right thing for our students.

Veteran teachers can offer wisdom and assistance based on their years of experience. They have already developed curricular materials for their subject area and should be willing to share these with teachers entering the profession. The first couple years are tough enough without having to reinvent the wheel. Those who have been in the classroom for a long time also have the benefit of knowing how best to deal with the nuances of parental communication which can be one of the most difficult parts of the job. Another area of concern for many rookie teachers is classroom management and this is generally an area where an experienced teacher can provide valuable tips. Finally, veteran teachers can share the “need-to-knows” with those new to the district. They know who to contact about special classroom needs, the building climate and norms, the political history, and who makes the best coffee. Newer teachers will appreciate this kindness and it will go a long way in easing their stress.

Newer teachers offer enthusiasm, energy, and ideas. Because they have recently been in school, they tend to have read the most current professional development materials and are aware of innovative teaching methods. Teachers fresh from college can be more familiar with the seemingly endless variety of technology applications and how they can supplement more traditional lessons. Finally, they have the benefit of their idealism because they have not been demoralized by the media who seem content to place the blame for school “failure” squarely on the shoulders on the veterans.

None of this is to say that veteran teachers cannot be well-versed in technology or that rookie teachers are unable to control classroom behavior. I am speaking in generalizations and know this is not the case. Rather, this is a call for us not to be threatened by, but to reflect on our own best practices and collaborate with one another. We will all be stronger teachers for it and our students will reap the rewards.

Collaborative Constructivism in Language Arts Class

At several professional development sessions I attended this year, the speaker reminded us, “The person doing the talking is the one doing the learning.” This hits home for me because I am a constructivist at heart. It is one of my core beliefs that adolescents need social interaction in order to engage with the material and discovery to cement the learning. To that end, one of the instructional techniques I use nearly daily is that of Gradual Release of Responsibility (“I do, We do, You do” process), but I usually begin with the step: “You do together.” I find that the students are very motivated by the challenge of “figuring things out” and end up retaining the material better.

An example of how I use collaborative inquiry is with grammar, usage, and mechanics (G.U.M.) instruction. We are studying the characteristics of a personal narrative so today’s lesson was on dialogue punctuation rules. Rather than going through a book, worksheet, or power point, I had the students open up their choice reading books to a page with dialogue. Working as a group, they determined the rules of how to use commas, quotation marks, capital letters, paragraph breaks, and dialogue tags and wrote their responses in a chart. After they finished, we shared and they all added any missing information to their chart. Finally, I gave them the actual rules for punctuating dialogue and they determined which ones they had gotten correct (resulting in lots of cheering) and which ones they had overlooked. The culminating practice assignment was to write a properly punctuated conversation between themselves and another person (real or fantasy/positive or negative) with each person speaking at least three times. The feedback from the students was that the assignment was great fun and all were fully engaged in writing their conversations.

This same process works well with other topics such as capital letter or comma use, but I also use this technique for lessons beyond G.U.M.. For example, last week, I distributed a stack of eight brief memoir mentor texts to each group. Working together, they each read a couple and then attempted to determine the commonalities between the texts. I was pleasantly surprised at their rich discussion and the resulting list of qualities and characteristics of personal narratives they compiled. They hit the nail on the head and I didn’t have to lecture once. I am excited to read what they write as a result.

MORE Short Stories and Texts to use with Notice and Note Signposts

I know that many of you are excited about using Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Robert B. Probst in your Language Arts classrooms. I have previously posted about some short stories I used last year to teach the signposts. Since then, I have had other requests for more story ideas. I thought it made sense to use short stories  and texts that are typically found in grade-level literature anthologies to save teachers time making copies. For each of the stories below, I found signposts. You and your students may find even more. Of course, I would never use all of these in one year, but I was trying to make a resource that may be of use to you based on the materials you have. Enjoy! I love teaching close reading using the signposts.

Birthday Box Jane Yolen Memory Moment
Catch the Moon Judith Ortiz Cofer Contrasts & Contradictions

Memory Moment

Charles Shirley Jackson Aha Moment

Again & Again

Eleven Sandra Cisneros Again & Again
Fish Cheeks Amy Tan Contrasts & Contradictions

Words of the Wiser

Flowers and Freckle Cream Elizabeth Ellis Words of the Wiser
Jeremiah’s Song Walter Dean Myers Words of the Wiser
Miss Awful Arthur Cavanaugh Contrasts & Contradictions

Words of the Wiser

My Grandmother’s Hair Cynthia Rylant Memory Moment
Names/Nombres Julia Alvarez Again & Again
President Cleveland, Where Are You? Robert Cormier Tough Questions
Priscilla and the Wimps Richard Peck Contrasts & Contradictions
Seventh Grade Gary Soto Contrasts & Contradictions
Smart Cookie Sandra Cisneros Words of the Wiser
Sneeches Dr. Seuss Aha Moment

Again & Again

Thank You, Ma’am Langston Hughes Contrasts & Contradictions
The All-American Slurp Lensey Namioka Contrasts & Contradictions

Aha Moment

The Landlady Roald Dahl Aha Moment

Memory Moment

The Medicine Bag Virginia Driving Hawk Aha Moment

Tough Questions

Words of the Wiser

Memory Moment

The Richer, The Poorer Dorothy West Aha Moment
The Scholarship Jacket Marta Salinas Contrasts & Contradictions

Tough Questions

Words of the Wiser

The Stray Cynthia Rylant Tough Questions
Tuesday of the Other June Norma Fox Mazer Contrasts & Contradictions

Words of the Wiser

Who Are You Today, Maria? Judith Ortiz Cofer Words of the Wiser

Choice Reading Personal Book Challenges

I participated in a wonderful #titletalk Twitter chat last night. I mentioned that I provided my students with a list of independent reading Personal Challenge options for them to choose and undertake. Several participants asked for a copy, so I promised I would post it this morning.

Here is a little background about this list.

First, for the last six years, I have devoted the first 10 minutes of every class to independent choice reading. I currently teach at an independent middle school and have 45 minute class periods (the longest I have ever had to teach middle school ELA is 52 minutes), but I believe choice reading is time well spent. We have a slightly shorter school year than the local public schools, so I changed the traditional 40 book challenge to 30 to accommodate.

Second, my school emphasizes the study of literature so, with the exception of one, the challenges are for fiction books.

Third, there are no rewards for these challenges. They are merely a fun option to get them engaged and they seem to enjoy setting their own goals.

Fourth, there is the option to design their own challenge which several students chose to develop.

If I come up with any more ideas, I am going to add them to the list for next year. Please let me know what you would add.

Below is the document I created with details of the challenges. Feel free to adapt for your own use.

Personal Book Challenge Ideas

Mindset, Rigor, and Grit: What We’re Getting Wrong

I am a full-time teacher as well as an educational psychologist. This means that I am a rabid consumer of research on teaching. However, after spending a couple of successful decades working with students, I am that teacher who greets each “new” idea that is spawned with excitement and a healthy dose of skepticism.

A few educational ideas that have gained momentum over the last several years are the concepts of Mindset, Rigor, and Grit. While all of these ideas have merit, as with all shiny objects that attract our attention, we need to proceed with caution and think about how and how these fit into our personal pedagogy. Being willing to implement the hot new thing is admirable, but not if it is done feet first with our eyes closed.

Mindset:

First, let me say that I believe in the Mindset theory. Several years ago, while teaching in San Jose, CA, I was lucky enough to see a presentation on Carol Dweck’s (at the time) new Mindset book given by one of the graduate students who worked on the book with her. It was wonderful, inspiring, and perfectly logical to anyone who had ever worked with children. The problem is that many schools have jumped on the Mindset bandwagon without changing the policies they have that work against the concept. Many teachers and schools who say they believe in fostering a growth mindset in their students still have an environment that encourages a fixed mindset.

Ways to encourage a fixed mindset:

  • Maintaining grading policies that don’t allow for any re-dos or re-takes on assessments. We tell students that they should grow and learn from mistakes, and that if they practice, they will improve. However, we grade using an “F” for failure when we should be using a “Not There Yet” and allowing them to keep trying. In fact, we should encourage re-dos and re-takes because, by trying again, they are more likely to learn the material. (See the writings of Rick Wormeli for more on this concept.) What is more important to us as teachers—that they learn the material or that they learn the material the first time?
  • Something is taught and assessed once and if a student doesn’t get it, the teacher moves on anyway.
  • Encouraging speed and competition rather than thoughtfulness and collaboration. Rewarding some students for “perfect” products and not acknowledging the effort of the individual.
  • An emotionally unsafe classroom where students do not feel free to take risks because their experience is that there is one “right” answer and the teacher and some of the students are the only ones who know it.
  • Grading or awarding points for every little thing a student does in class and then averaging them together at the end of the marking period. If we truly want kids to learn, we need to be providing regular, constructive feedback throughout the marking period and letting them demonstrate their mastery toward the end.

Now, reverse all of these behaviors, and you will be onto something!

Rigor:

I have read Rigor is Not a Four-Letter Word by Barbara Blackburn and I like her definition: Rigor is creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, and each is supported so he or she can learn at high level, and each student demonstrates learning at high level.  (Blackburn, 2008). I know that this is true and some teachers are getting it right. Sadly, many in education are stuck longing for the good-old days (which have never existed in the ways they think) when kids worked hard, weren’t babied through life, learned harder material, and there was only one winner, etc. This would be worthy thinking if it were true, but it isn’t.

According to some, rigor from back in the day is defined as the hard work that they used to do when they were in school. They will post on social media that ridiculous test from the 1890s that made its way around the internet. If you look at that test closely, you will see that much of it is rote learning and also specific to time and place. Much of what is on the test is no longer relevant in today’s society. Furthermore, most adults would struggle to pass most tests given in the average high school after they have been out of school for 20 years or more. They are not currently mired in the material the way their teenage children are, so they would have difficulty recalling all of the necessary information.

But I digress. We need to get over the idea that somehow there were these miraculous, genius students that existed when “we” went to school, but now all young people are lazy, coddled, and addle-brained. I would bet that even the ancient Greeks whined this way about their own offspring. It’s simply not true. The solution to this thinking, in their minds, is to increase rigor. Unfortunately, rigor is often misinterpreted as just meaning really, really hard.

Rigor does NOT mean:

  • more and harder homework
  • a text or material several grade levels above the student’s current ability
  • high expectations, but no support to reach them

So stop doing that, okay? Thanks.

Grit:

I have to say the buzzword that most grinds me is grit. Somewhere along the line, the grown-ups responsible for running the world decided that they would teach these lazy, spoiled children a thing or two. They are remembering fondly our Puritan ancestors who worked hard and got ahead and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. If these “kids today” would only put forth the effort, they would be more successful adults. They say that children need to learn how to fail because it builds character. The trouble is that it often doesn’t.

What’s wrong with grit:

  • If perseverance were all it took to be successful, we would all have the capacity to be Olympic athletes if we just put our minds to it. Not true. Yes, it is always possible to improve, but it is a lot easier to hit a home run if you begin life on third base. For the rest of us starting at home plate, we may need a little more support and encouragement to round those bases.
  • Sometimes the students are working at their peak capacity; the task is just beyond their realm. Meeting the individual where he/she is at and working within their zone of proximal development is more likely to yield positive results. It is a destructive belief that if children only tried harder, they would be successful.
  • Generally, repeated failure does not motivate one to work harder. Usually, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the child believes himself/herself to be a failure. “That’ll teach ‘em to study harder next time” doesn’t work.
  • If what we mean by grit is the ability to stick with an assignment or pay attention in class, we, as educators, must be darn sure we are asking students to do work worth doing and making class engaging. Students who have creative, challenging work to do in a positive classroom environment do not need “grit.”
  • The need for grit is primarily useful when the task involves drudgery. Not every task is worth doing and we need to be able to let go of the mind-numbing assignments of the past and move into the 21st Not that we still can’t teach the required material, we just need to do it in ways that we know engage their brains and work within a modern construct. The kids are already there and if you are not with them, you are against them.
  • What teachers think is grit is often merely compliance. Doing what the teacher asks just to achieve a high grade or get the work finished is a sure recipe to crush souls.

I want teachers to try something new and embrace change, but I want them to do it with their eyes (and hearts) wide open. Don’t make change for change’s sake. Make change for the students’ sake.