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.)

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.

The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far From the Teacher

This time of year, teachers all over the country are meeting the parents of this year’s students. Without fail, when a teacher meets a parent of a child who has stood out in some way (usually negatively) he or she will say something about the apple not falling far from the tree. It does seem to hold true that many mannerisms, behaviors, or beliefs can be explained when one meets a child’s parents. However, I never hear these teachers say the same thing when a child is having a negative experience in their class. If parents entrust us with the care of their children for several hours per day, it stands to reason that we, as educators, must bear some responsibility for the results of that education. Like it or not, the apple also doesn’t fall far from the teacher.

I have gone on record saying that when a child performs poorly in my classroom, I bear some of the responsibility. True, I can lead the child to the knowledge, but I can’t dunk their head in the trough and force them to drink. That being said, there are numerous reasons as to why a child fails and in my experience as a special education teacher consultant for children with behavior or learning difficulties, I can tell you that they are generally not failing deliberately. Failure does not feel good and it is human nature to avoid it whenever possible. As a teacher, I need to put in the time and effort to determine WHY a child is not performing up to par in my class.

Some of the reasons why students fail a class have nothing to do with school. Unfortunately, there is often very little a teacher can do about harmful home or social issues, but we can try to help lessen their detrimental effects. Regardless of (or despite) outside issues, there are steps a teacher can take to have a shiny, happy classroom full of successful, engaged learners.

Motivation is the key to a child’s learning. Motivation leads to engagement, and engagement leads to success. So let’s begin at the beginning.

Much has been written about what truly leads to intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards, Daniel Pink in Drive, and my edu-hero, Rick Wormeli, are great reads on the topic. One thing we know for sure—carrots and sticks don’t work. The will to undertake a task and reach for success must be organic. Sadly, for many chronically failing students, they have never experienced much academic success and have just come to accept that they never will. We want students to actively participate in their literacy development and must help put students on the path to success.

It is not as if students do not have literate lives. They text, direct message, and Facetime with friends. They play video games or read beauty books where they have to read directions. They write song lyrics or stories for fun. The success of teen novels has led to numerous movie franchises. Many adolescents just don’t want to participate in the literacy activities that teachers design. Sadly, most of these activities are not particularly motivating or engaging. Therefore, reading and writing in school become something that students must “get through” in order to pass, but they never really care about the material.

How You Can Help Motivate A Struggling Student:

The assignment may be something students do not see as relevant to their lives. A good teacher can bring all texts (even “boring” classics) to life if they show the universal connections and themes that exist. (I’m working on this for my next series of posts.)

Many students have too many things diverting their attention from the task at hand. If their home life is difficult, perhaps speaking to a trained school professional may help. If it is a social relationship issue, time is a teacher’s best friend as many of these resolve themselves. If they don’t, this could become a teachable moment to recommend reading material, have a general class discussion, or suggest a writing assignment on the topic to allow a child to process his or her thoughts. If the problem is that a child is legitimately overscheduled, then assistance with how best to prioritize his or her time may be in order. I have been in meetings with parents where I’ve addressed this topic and asked for the parents to work with me to develop a plan so the child can pursue passions and still find time for schoolwork.

For some children, reading is arduous, not enjoyable. Asking them to read material that they must slog through causes them to give up. A good teacher can assist the child in understanding by facilitating lively class discussion, allowing for audio texts (which I love), or encouraging them to read with others. Additionally, there should be safe, low-stakes activities designed for all students to practice and make mistakes without severe academic consequences. Practice without meaningful, targeted feedback and support can lead to poor learning. Meeting with the student often, or scaffolding the reading activities to build confidence, is crucial.

If a child has never developed language skills to the point where he or she can comfortably participate in class, this must be addressed. There are numerous avenues available and no stone should be left unturned. This problem will only get worse and intervention is of paramount importance. With individual coaching and explicit instruction, the student will make progress. Once a child experiences some sort of growth, they will want to continue on this path. Nothing breeds success like success and baby steps can be cause for private or public celebration.

As always, choice and opportunities for collaboration motivate students. The more they can be involved in and direct their education, the more invested they will be to produce their best work. The use of technology can also be motivating as long as it is not a substitute for or replication of weak pedagogy. If technology is more than bells and whistles or rote practice, it can assist students with self-expression and understanding.

Positive, supportive relationships between the teacher and the student are the key to classroom management and student learning. The classroom environment can support or undermine a child’s success. I wrote about this previously in How to Create a Shiny, Happy Classroom and The Class Where Everyone Knows Your Name. As Rita Pierson says in her TED talk, “Students will not learn from a teacher that they don’t like.” They also will not learn from a teacher who does not like them. Research proves that a positive classroom climate creates the conditions necessary for true student engagement.

A classroom full of successful learners does not happen by accident. The teacher has more influence over this than many acknowledge. Taking even small steps toward motivating students can have a profound effect on breaking the cycle of failure. All great teachers want to lead students on the path from motivation to engagement to success. Make sure the apples in your classroom don’t fall far from the talented, caring teacher tree.

 

Just Because It’s Fun, Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

I’ll admit it—I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. I work tirelessly to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, there are many colleagues who are not so enamored of my fun class. They are under the misperception that students enjoy my class because it is fun and therefore easy. Some have even said as much. They don’t believe the students could possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors. This is absolutely not the case.

To these other teachers, rigor (by the way, I hate that word when applied to education) usually just means hard. It means more worksheets or problems assigned every night. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. It means many students dislike their class.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. This first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it. It truly speaks to my philosophy of teaching.

Below, I will give an example of how I teach a fairly boring required skill (comma usage) in a way that challenges and engages my students. These are some of the activities my students do in class. I don’t use all of them every time and there are a few more not listed here. They are in no particular order.

  1. I show funny examples of comma misuse (such as this one) so they can see how commas avoid confusion.
  2. I show funny examples (such as this one) of how commas placed in different locations change the meaning of the sentence.
  3. We discuss the ongoing debate about the use of the Oxford comma.
  4. I give them a set of mentor text passages using all of the different types of comma usage. I have them work in partners or groups to see if they can determine the rule being exemplified in each passage. We share these together to make a master list. They are so excited when they get them right.
  5. They do scavenger hunts in their choice reading books for interesting sentences with commas to share and determine the rule being used. The more advanced version is to have them work together to find examples of every comma rule.
  6. They become human commas to punctuate sentences. I have a group of students write a sentence a couple of words at a time on individual white boards. I have them line up in order and the human commas must stand in the correct positions.
  7. I give them a passage using all of the different comma rules but with the commas missing. I tell them there are exactly X number of commas in the passage and challenge them to find every one. They generally work on this in pairs, but it could also be an informal assessment.
  8. I show them a video such as Flocabulary’s Comma Camp. There are other songs about commas online, but I have not yet used any of them.
  9. If they want to practice more at home, they can play online games. NOTE: these change often and I preview them every year, so I did not provide a link.

Over the years my students have enjoyed all of these activities. At no time was there a lecture with me requiring them to take notes and there was a lot of collaboration involved. Many of these activities require strong critical thinking skills as well. Most importantly, they remembered what they had learned because they were active participants. One of them even bought me this plaque because she saw it while on vacation and determined that I had to have it.

There’s no reason that the serious business of education needs to be serious. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. My students aren’t.

 

Inquiry + Gradual Release of Responsibility = A Recipe for Success

I’m a big fan of Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bandura, and Bruner, and their ideas strongly influence my teaching. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model of instruction is built on the foundation of their work and appeals to me for many reasons. I have found that inquiry plus GRR has been invaluable in deepening student understanding in my language arts class classroom.

Over the years, I’ve discovered how important it is to scaffold instruction so that students are not turned loose before they are ready and able to be successful. In my opinion, the most beneficial part of the GRR model I use is a form of structured inquiry toward the beginning of the process. It really cements the learning. I’ve outlined my argumentative writing instruction below.

Focus Step: I set the stage with providing the learning focus: Argumentative Writing. We discussed where students might see this type of writing in real life, what forms it may take, and a working definition of the term argumentative.

Structured Inquiry Step: Students worked in groups. I provided each group with multiple examples of exemplary argumentative mentor texts in various forms—editorials, student samples, blog posts, magazine articles, political writing, etc. Their task was to closely read these texts, determine as a group what commonalities they observed, and record their findings.

Guided Instruction Step: Groups took turns sharing their findings with the whole class. The information was compiled on the whiteboard. I then provided explicit instruction in a mini-lesson about how the characteristics they “noticed” fit into argumentative writing using correct academic vocabulary. (They were very excited to have figured these out on their own.) Together, we determined possibilities for organizing the information. They used these as the foundation for strong persuasive writing.

 Group Work Step: The student groups choose a topic to argue. They wrote their arguments and evidence in note form and then organized the information logically. Each group determined their best idea, and then fleshed out this idea into a full paragraph that they shared with the entire class.

Independent Learning Step: I then gave them the opportunity to practice and apply what they discovered in some fun, low-stakes persuasive writing exercises (to be detailed in a future post). Finally, students chose a topic of personal meaning and wrote their own argumentative paper.

 Assessment/Reflection Step: As a class, we determined an informal rubric containing the characteristics previously determined to be used for self-assessment and reflection. They shared their writing with others for feedback, evaluated themselves, conferenced with me for feedback, made adjustments as necessary, and then submitted a polished piece.

I use various versions of this model for many topics I teach. It has been successful for me and I hope your version of Gradual Release of Responsibility works as well for you.

The Class Where Everybody Knows Your Name

I believe that students won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they realize this—watch out! The potential for learning in your class will be limitless.

When I was in high school, I started watching “Cheers” on TV. I watched in part because Coach made me laugh, but mostly because I loved the theme song. Every time the singer crooned,

“Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everybody knows

Your name”

I would think to myself: Yes. Yes, I do want to go to this magical place where everyone liked me and choruses would erupt when I walked in the door. How great would that be? Who wouldn’t want that?

Since I was a child, I was a good student and well behaved so I was largely ignored by teachers and never encouraged to reach for more than just getting good grades. Most teachers knew little else about me besides my academic standing and they didn’t seem to want to know more. I lost count of the number of times I was called by some other dark-haired girl’s name. (The principal even said my name incorrectly when announcing my scholarship at graduation!) I got the message that hard work and good behavior was all that was expected of me. I got used to being invisible. I never stood up for myself. I shut down emotionally. Even though I loved learning, I never liked middle or high school. I wonder if this may have been different if any adult outside of my immediate family had ever told me that I mattered and that I was enough. (See Angela Maiers’ “You Matter Manifesto.”) However, it did make me the kind of teacher that I am, and my students benefit from what I never had.

My sister’s best friend, a teacher, was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show finale so I watched when I normally did not. I’m glad I did. Oprah said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?” She put into words what I wanted a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom—a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated, and cherished.

My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I spend a great deal of time and energy getting to know them personally to achieve this environment. The first few days of my class are devoted to learning their names and a bit about them. Several years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite. They give me this feeling in return. And I know all of their names.

Finding the Gift in Every Student

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw a slide about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from a presentation given by Rick Wormeli. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As an educational psychologist and former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. With the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many of these students are depressed and disenfranchised? Does this practice anger anyone else as much as it does me? There has to be a better way. (http://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet/TabId/270/ArtMID/888/ArticleID/372/Perseverance-and-Grit.aspx)

There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Unfortunately, many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. I was enrolled in these gifted programs in school and remember that time as being highly motivating and enjoyable. Herein lies my frustration. If these are the best teaching practices we know of, why are they not used with all of our students?

 

I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be somewhat facetious, it is based in my truth. I am a constructivist at heart and believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. To that end, I’ve always incorporated techniques recommended for teaching gifted learners. In an article on teaching gifted children written by Carol Ann Tomlinson in 1997, she states, “What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.” In short—a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Why is this not what we want and demand for all students?

This leads me closer to solving the issue I posed in previous posts–developing a “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I’m going to continue to develop and provide more Project Based Learning and Genius Hour experiences. This will not only address the standards I want to teach, but it will do so in the manner I want to teach. Since I believe all of my students possess their own gifts and that all of them need motivating learning experiences, I’m looking forward to exploring how to make all the puzzle pieces fit.

You mean we get to read for fun?

Whenever I am in a group of English teachers and we discuss our classroom practices, I share that the best thing I have done for my students over the last six years is to offer them ten minutes of free, choice reading at the beginning of every class. I even offer to share the research demonstrating the validity of this practice because I believe in it so much. They challenge me by saying that they cannot afford to give up the classroom time because they have so much material to cover. I completely understand this as I only have 45 minute class periods myself, but I can’t imagine taking this time away. It is a challenge, but it is non-negotiable. The conversation inevitably turns to how I assess this choice reading. I dread this question because it puts me on the defensive. My answer is that I don’t. I am always met with disbelief, disapproval, or peers that tell me their kids won’t read if it is not for points, a prize, or a grade. This has not been my experience. It works for me and my students and I see the results in their improved reading, writing, and speaking skills. Additionally, they are completely engaged on a daily basis. They enter class and open their books right away. They share their favorite books with me and even show me passages that they particularly enjoy. You can hear a pin drop during those ten minutes and they groan when it’s over. That’s enough assessment for me.

I consider Donalyn Miller, Terry Lesesne, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Stephen Krashen, and Kylene Beers (among others) to be experts on this topic and all are a huge influence on the way I run my class. I have drunk their Kool-Aid and it is my favorite flavor–literacy. In his book, Readicide, Kelly Gallagher asks readers to put themselves in their happy reading place at home. He asks, “Do you finish your book quickly so you’ll have more time to write a report, make a poster, or build a diorama?” Of course not. Adults do not do this, and children should not have to either.

My students do a great deal of formal and informal activities with the books that they read. I require them to keep a reading log including the author, title, genre, rating, and rationale for their rating. I want them to look for patterns to learn what they love and where there may be areas for growth. I have them write a literacy letter to me each marking period. They tell me what they are enjoying reading and why, and I respond to their letter. They do book talks, book trailers, and book recommendations one another. We have book swaps and book floods, write reviews for bulletin boards, make graffiti walls of favorite quotes, and use the texts as examples for mentor texts. I just don’t grade their reading in any way. These activities are naturally motivating and they always complete them. The bonus is that the children are always reading. I almost can’t keep up with the requests for book recommendations. They get so excited when I tell them I tweeted the author to tell them how much they loved the book. They take their books to other classes and read when they finish their work. (To the point where a colleague complained that all the kids wanted to do was read, and another colleague replied that there are worse problems we could have.) What more can I say? This system just works for me.

I don’t know whether this will work for you, but you truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Signing off for now. I am sure there is a twitter chat I am missing.