Posts Tagged ‘Learning’

Weekly Google Classroom Tips

Google for Education recently tweeted a link to a slideshow of weekly tips for using Google Classroom.

Now, this isn’t just a list of suggestions, they are based on what actually is happening in classrooms! This is something that you will come back to week after week!

Google Classroom Teacher tips

See the slideshow here:

You can access the slideshow by clicking here


Class Seventeen – Students thinking about Text/Image Relationship

Today we began again with writing and adding detail. We wrote and then passed our work around so that we could read each others and ask questions. This worked well. Each person (myself included) got their work returned with questions from two people. Then we went back and answered the questions. I think that both Franklin and Adam realized that they were leaving things out that their reader wanted to know. Tomorrow, I’ll ask them to ask questions of their own writing and try to answer them. My goal is to show them, while getting feedback from someone is good, how they can work on adding details to their writing to make it more interesting.

The work on “A Circle of Friends” is going well. I printed out the text for each page last night and today the guys cut them out and figured out where on the page they should go. A couple will have to get formatted to fit in a tall narrow spot and three or four got split between two pages or split to go in different spots on the page. They decided that two should involve the font getting bigger to make the image of the words reflect the meaning of the words. It really showed that they were thinking about the text and the relationship it has with the images. I simply made changes to the digital copy, and asked one or two questions; they did the work and the thinking – SCORE!! I was starting to wonder if this project purpose had gotten lost. Today showed me that it wasn’t and in fact it was better than I’d hoped for.

Tomorrow will be the big push to get all the projects done. In addition to the aforementioned project, Adam is creating a fake Facebook wall and Franklin is performing his reading of “Falling Up” that we will record and show. I hope it can all get done!! Time has really flown for these seventeen classes, I can’t believe that after two more it will be over and I’ll have my Masters – SWEET!!

Class Twelve – Progress

The interaction between Franklin and Adam has been an interesting thing to watch evolve. Yesterday Franklin wanted to go to the library, to which I said absolutely and made time for it. He picked out another Shel Silverstein book (Falling Up) and to my surprise Adam picked one out too (A Giraffe and a Half). Today Franklin read two poems aloud, acting out the first one. Adam read part of his book aloud and asked Franklin to read a part as fast as he could. They each tried. Franklin made a copy of the passage to turn into a rap. Franklin’s unabashed interest in reading (and performing) is having a positive impact on Adam, just as I’d hoped. A little conversation with Mom revealed that this “I don’t like to read” attitude is new since middle school. I hope that this summer’s workshop will change that attitude (and it seems to be already) and will carry over, or at least not slip as far back, once school starts.

The discussion on Theme today wasn’t terrific. They understood it but the heat was making it difficult for all of us. I used the Lorax as an example to talk about theme as we’d just read it yesterday. Adam came up with some good themes, Franklin seemed distracted but participated when I asked him directly. Then we tried to talk about When You Reach Me. Trying to pull a theme out of this book while half way through is difficult. I thought it was a good compliment to the Lorax to show them that the theme isn’t always obvious.

We got out of the building and found a cooler spot to spend SSR and Read Aloud time. As they read or I read, I asked them to make a note of a scene that they could picture in their mind and that we’d try to draw that scene after. Franklin had Read Aloud first and stopped me to point out three different scenes that he could picture. Adam chose one from his independent reading book.We trudged upstairs, grabbed materials and sat on the floor at the bottom of a stairwell where it was deliciously cool. They both enjoyed this activity and when I asked them why we try to visualize when we read Adam immediately said that it helps understand the book and Franklin said that it helps get into the book.

I truncated the explode the moment activity because of the heat. I talked about slowing a moment down, read an example that I wrote, showed some videos of slow motion (see them here and here and here) and talked about real-time and being able to slow it down as you write. I’d like to come back to it because I think it is fun and connect back to imagery.
Lastly they worked on their Fake Facebook walls (Adam’s for Hatchet and Franklin‘s for Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life -he hasn’t had as much time as Adam to work on it) and finished reading A Circle of Friends. Once both of the boys had finished going through A Circle of Friends and talking about each page I went through and put each of their sticky notes containing the brief description they’d given me together on each page. This way they can go through and see what the other came up with and collaboratively choose one or edit them together or come up with something else.

We headed back to the room so that Franklin could perform the poem he’d picked. He did a reading of the title poem from Falling Up to which he added some actions. Then he read another. Looking at the book it looked like he had marked a couple of poems. Back inside Adam shared (as I mentioned already) and while Franklin was transcribing the passage Adam looked at A Circle of Friends and a conversation sprung up between them “How did you know it was money? I thought it was a book!” They were discussing the process in which they made meaning of the images! It was brilliant. Then Franklin took the book and went through and narrated a story to it that was very good, his delivery is dramatic and ‘serious’, the vocabulary he chose and the way he crafted the sentences made it sound like there were words in the book he was reading instead of coming up with them right then.

I’m feeling pretty good about the project. I think that the boys will work well together and they will question each other’s choices in a productive way. I’m excited to get started on the next step.

My summer journey – class one

First let me say that the journey will not physically take me anywhere, well to Gorham Monday through Friday. No this journey is the last class of my Master of Education in Literacy Education at the University of Southern Maine. I have to journal daily for the class and give pass in a hard copy but I will also post them here for your reading enjoyment. You can take the class vicariously through me (you won’t get any credits though).

The class is EDU 639 Literacy Practicum, also known as the “USM Reading and Writing Workshop” (so says the information page). It is a four week, six credit, extravaganza of teaching and learning. During this time I will be paired with two students and tutor them for 2.5 hours four times a week (M-Th). I will assess where they are on the literacy continuum, look at the goals associated with that stage of literacy, and create individualized plans that will help them reach (for) those goals. I will create a lesson plan each day and write a page(ish) journal reflection on the previous day’s lesson. In addition to the tutoring the entire class will meet together, then we will split into our smaller groups with our own literacy coach.

Today was our first class. The students will arrive on Monday. This initial meeting was to give us the program’s beliefs of Literacy Learning, talked about ‘teaching with intention’, reviewed the stages of Literacy Development, and discussed how we will use the stages in our planning and teaching. Then we broke into our smaller groups.

  1. Beliefs of Literacy Learning [These were copied verbatim from slides, I added the formatting, parentheticals are my words)
    1. Becoming literate is a developmental process. (your literacy is ALWAYS developing, it is a continuum, it is never completed)
      1. People pass through distinct stages of growth throughout their lives, marked by targeted benchmarks of ability and behavior, as they continuously acquire habits, strategies, and skills of reading, writing, and the other language arts.
    2. People learn how to read and write through voluminous interactions with text.
      1. Through an extensive engagement with a wide variety of books and other print material, people increase in ability, experience, confidence, and motivation.
    3. Literacy learning and teaching is constructivist, rooted in meaning, and rich in purpose. (Teaching with intention)
      1. Explicit instruction supports learners as they move through the stages of development. The careful use and analysis of ongoing formative assessment leads teachers to design effective instruction.

I find that these beliefs fall in very comfortably with my own (lucky for me huh?). I never say that I’m going to work, I always say I’m going to school; I still see myself as a student, I learn every day, I grow every day, and I will never stop. I believe very strongly in the second in the list. Practice, practice, practice in ways that have low, or no, stakes. I am a firm believer in SSR, I’ve had to fight for it the last two years when people wanted to co-opt it for other things. I stood my ground though and will continue to defend the twenty-minute period where all we ask of students is to read a book they chose. ( I have to remember whose shoulders I stand on with this belief and bring them to the discussion!)

The idea of teaching with intent is not new (in fact Debbie Miller wrote a book with that title; Nancy and Peter swear she stole it from them!). I do think that it is important to stop and formulate that intent; I don’t think that this happens enough. Why am I using this strategy? Why am I using this piece of writing as an example? Why am I using this activity? If I don’t know then I shouldn’t do it. I would add a word to the phrase though and make it “Teaching with transparent intent” I made a goal for myself that students should know why we’re doing something. I don’t want to hear “Why are we doing this?” and not have a valid answer; in fact I want to answer this question before it is asked. I tell my students about this goal and ask them to help me keep it. This class is going to make me be even more critical of my instructional choices. With only two students there is no real room to ‘fake it’ (not that I’d ever try). What I mean is that there is no middle of the road choice – I am tailoring my instruction to individuals so I’d better have thought out the ‘why are we doing this’ question.

The stages of Literacy Development, let’s see if I can name them without looking, Initial, Emergent, Transitional, Basic, Refinement, and switch papers and check the answers. . . rats I mixed up the first two, I almost corrected it too. Obviously the review was a good thing. So just to have to correct order here: Emergent (typically 5 and under), Initial (typically age 5-7; grades K-2), Transitional (typically age 8-11; grades 2-5), Basic (typically age 10-13; grades 5-8), Refinement (typically age 12+; grades 7+). Notice the ‘typically’ when describing the ages/grade levels. Kids develop at different speeds, not everyone in a class will be on the same stage, no matter what the grade level.

  1. Using the stages (Again this is copied from a slide except the parentheticals)
    1. Conduct the Informal Reading Inventory (IRI) (This is to be used as a guide)
    2. Suggest a stage of development
    3. Analyze IRI results to target instruction based on goals for the stage.
    4. Select approaches that will best support the targeted instruction you will design and provide.
    5. Monitor effectiveness of instruction through student progress.

In our smaller groups we shared our Teacher Coat of Arms (you can see mine here). Talked about lesson plans, got a copy of the schedule (this is going to fly by), found out the names/ages/grade level of the students we’ll be working with (I have a boy and girl, both 13, both going into 8th grade), saw the library that has been set up (awesome! and I grabbed a couple books that I think I can use right away), and discussed what Monday and Tuesday will look like.

I’m pretty excited about this class, it should be intense, but also a lot of fun. The people seem great, the small group I’m a part of already has a great vibe to it (yes I said ‘vibe’), and everyone has a positive supportive attitude.

All right, I guess I’m off to plan the first two days. Till next time. . .

Coat of Arms

In preparation for EDU 639 I had to create the above “Coat of Arms” Each section had a specific item that needed to occupy the space. I also had to explain my choices, which follows:

Section 1: Mythical Beast-Egyptian Sphinx (Greek Sphinx would eat those who gave wrong answers!)

The Sphinx asks difficult questions that make the person being asked to think carefully and often differently. I urge students to think by asking them questions. I urge them to think by developing their own questions and questioning skills.

Section 2: Symbol – Ying-Yang = Balance

Walking the line between covering the required content and teaching skills students need to be, not only good students, but good people is a challenge. Making the delivery engaging but keeping the focus on the content, not the technology is a challenge. Not spending all my time working and having a life outside the classroom can be challenging. That is why working to strike and/or maintain balance is so important in every aspect of  my professional and personal life.

Section 3: Color(s)

Green=Growth In the Language Arts classroom a definitive endpoint in learning is hard to find. Much of what is done is skill based and therefore practice and honing and deepening the skills is what we work on. In 8th grade, 99% of the students will not master the skills they’re learning/practicing. That is why growth is important, I want to see a progression and improvement in students.

Blue=Calm, Peace, Technology The first two words associated with this color, calm and peace, speak to my demeanor and the culture and environment I foster in the class. Technology also speaks to the environment. I am a technophile. I am on the tech leadership team. I am the go-to guy on my team and floor when it comes to technology. I view technology as a powerful educational tool for learning and engagement.

Yellow=Joy, Cheerfulness, Energy These three words describe my feeling about what I do for a living and my attitude towards the content I teach.

Section 4: Character (real or fictional) – Harold (and his purple crayon).

His creativity came out in very simple actions, “I need a moon so I’ll draw one”. Sometimes we try to do things the hard way. As a teacher I feel that simplicity is often the best, but not always the first thing you think of doing. Harold does not have that problem. To emphasize the idea of simplicity Harold appears in this section alone.

Section 5: Word – “Community”

Collaboration was one of the other words I initially thought for this section. I chose community because it encapsulates collaboration but so much more too. Community implies a common bond between it’s members that goes beyond the common goal behind collaboration. It is a safe place where people can be who they are, have their strengths celebrated and challenges supported; this is what I strive for in my class. It is rainbow-colored to celebrate diversity.

Visual Literacy + Textual Literacy = Students Learning, Enjoying, and Making Meaning in regards to what they are Reading

Making meaning is the name of the game. Does it matter how that meaning is made? Does it matter what kind of texts students are using if they are employing effective literacy skills and strategies? My answer is no. I want kids to want to read; I know that when kids want to read they can read at levels beyond what any test may tell them their abilities lie. This is why engagement is so powerful and important, it creates connections between the reader and the text that allow for a deeper understanding, and makes it enjoyable. As an English teacher, especially in the middle school years, engagement is the key to all success. This means students must have a way to relate to and enjoy what they are reading, and also interact with the text. I am very much a technophile; I have a wiki that we use in my class that I maintain where students are able to add content, I set up a blog where students respond to prompts about their free choice book, and I have Smart Board in my room that we use for a variety of things. The information that kids engage with is no longer presented in a static, print only fashion. As teachers we need to be aware of how the world and word is changing and integrate that into our teaching. The articles of McVicker, Cowan and Albers, and Norton that I explore within this paper deal with understanding that ‘texts’ are not just made up of words, that teachers should be connecting the lives of students to what is happening in the classroom, and that kids already know how to use images and words together to make meaning from a text. All things that lead down the road to helping students gain important and valuable literacy skills.

McVicker describes her article, “Comic Strips as a Text Structure for Learning to Read”, as a presentation of “ways classroom teachers can use comics to build strategies to deepen their students’ understanding of content using visual literacy skills.” (McVicker, 2007). Children grow up with books that have images and words that interact; somewhere between Middle and High School students are expected to make the leap to books filled solely with words that have no support of visual representation. One idea to emerge is the use of the structure of the Comic Strip to teach reading. McVicker describes Comic Strips as “hybrid texts” (McVicker, 2007). These hybrid texts demand the use of visual literacy skills in tandem with text based practices; saying that a “picture extends the meaning of the text” (McVicker, 2007). She also points out that readers of all levels can benefit from the use of comics in the classroom, making it a perfect tool for differentiation. The point that is brought up over and over is that comics make the learning fun, and fun equals engagement in the lesson and a greater chance that the student will learn the skills being taught.

In their article, “Semiotic representations: Building complex literacy practices through the arts”, Cowan and Albers define literacy as “the ease with which learners can create or interpret others’ semiotic systems” (Cowan and Albers, 2006). In other words a person must be able to communicate and function within a given system of signs and symbols, e.g. in a math class or as a restaurant employee. Both of these examples requires the ability to understand and interpret and create the symbols and jargon specific to each setting. These authors suggest the use of hands on and visual representations of words and ideas to create connections that will improve comprehension and utilization of knowledge in students. In this case (as in the McVicker article) the use of visual literacy practices extends the students’ engagement with written word. Students create a visual representation, 2-D or 3-D, of a word or concept, write about the word or topic, and then discuss their work and the choices they made during the creation process with the class. This article has examples of student work that is a helpful addition, not to mention follows their theory of using multiple literacies to help readers create meaning.

Bonny Norton focuses on a specific comic read by elementary children in her article, “The motivating power of comic books: Insights from Archie comic readers”. She explores the appeal of the comic and how children define appropriate reading materials, and also the skills that are being employed by the students. Norton discovers that kids are sharing comics, talking about them extensively, and “debat[ing] the merits of different characters.” (Norton, 2003). There are also literary devices that the students are being exposed to and working with to create meaning such as ‘irony, puns, and plays on words” (Norton, 2003) these are sophisticated (especially irony) concepts to be encountering and understanding at the age level she is dealing with (9-12 years of age in this case). The other idea that Norton explores is what constitutes a ‘text’. She interviews two groups; one consists of student teachers, and the other of students. The student teachers did not think that the comic was a legitimate text, but some did concede that it was better than no reading at all. The kids were aware of this view of comics by teachers but were adamant about the value of Archie. The students, in their defense and discussion of the Archie comics, “spoke animatedly about their enjoyment of them and illustrated their comments with numerous references to Archie stories.” (Norton, 2003). [The kids are using textual evidence naturally in their conversations!] The interview also turned up an attitude about what a ‘text’ is; according to the student quoted, what makes a text legitimate “depends if it’s supposed to be fun or not” (Norton, 2003). This was discussed at length, trying to ferret out the reasons behind this attitude, the status quo was settled on in the end.

What I find most fascinating is the mention in all the articles of the changing world and the need for multiple literacy practices to be taught and nurtured in school. The Internet is a common example of how students already have multiple literacies that they use while surfing any number of web pages that have words and images working together to create meaning. The world is rapidly changing; technologies are bringing together parts of our world that were separate before. While we cannot teach students about each combination of literacies, what we can do is provide skills for approaching and engaging whatever forms texts and communications of the future takes.

Four of the major factors that influence comprehension are discussed in each of these articles: 1- Accessing prior knowledge, 2- Motivation and interest in the subject, 3- Text structure, and 4- Metacognitive awareness. Comics and comic strips are structures that students are aware of and have most likely interacted with before; therefore the motivation to read is based on prior positive experiences with these hybrid texts. Using semiotics builds a knowledge base built upon the students’ initial response to and research upon a topic in order to create a visual representation. The discussion of the students’ processes of creating their own hybrid texts provides them with an understanding of their own thinking (metacognition). So we can see that using McVickers’ ‘hybrid texts’ is just good practice, as they are vehicles to discussing, practicing, and monitoring the meaning making that kids are engaged in.

In each of these articles the main points are: accessing prior knowledge, connecting that knowledge with new knowledge (by using what they like and already do outside of school and using that in school), and developing and using multiple literacy practices.  Each strategy is part of a larger group of strategies that are used together. By designing lessons that require literacy practices that are not usually found inside the classroom, but typically encountered outside the school setting, the students are drawn in and are more invested in the lesson due to their own interests being used in class.

I did have some concerns while reading the articles. When I first saw the title for Norton’s article I assumed that it had been written decades before. I didn’t think that Archie comics were that popular and I am surprised that she didn’t use a more contemporary comic to base her research on. McVicker also references older comic strips (Garfield, Peanuts, and Family Circus). I think that their research would be more compelling if more recent comics had been used, I suspect this may have something to do with their own comfort levels with the texts they chose.

In the McVicker article the phrase that sticks out to me is not, “comics” (which I assume most would pause at), but “deepen their students’ understanding”, this is the goal is it not?  For the new or struggling reader the structure of the comic strip provides an engaging way to develop some sophisticated skills. Picture cues help with comprehension; comics depend on the interplay of the word and the image, one without the other is incomplete. In order to decode the meaning of a panel of the strip inference, deduction, and summarization all play a part. The students experience success in reading and this will aid in lowering their resistance, or fear, of reading; success that may even lead to reading for the sheer pleasure of it. We know that the more they read the better they’ll do in school so this should be a main goal of teachers. What I liked about this article was all the different ways comics were shown to have an impact. Reaching students across the stratification of reading abilities is a powerful support for bringing comics into the classroom. The changing literacy demands on humanity with the internet becoming more widely available and cell phones that have access to the web seemingly ubiquitous, teachers need to use the structures and semiotic representations students interact with on their own each day in order to ensure students having a clear understanding of how the world works and how they interact with it.

Cowan and Albers I think went to far in analyzing a piece of work done by a fifth grade student, Warren, saying it was a study in the use of the student’s use of “irony and ideological beliefs” (Cowan and Albers, 2006). An image of the work is included in the article and while I don’t argue that Warren’s work may indeed contain some irony and certainly is representational of his ideological beliefs but I do not think that they were put there consciously, as the authors imply. I think they maybe a bit overzealous in their demonstration of the product of their research.

Teachers ask students to read difficult texts, understand them, and form an opinion of them. In order for students to be ready for this, they must have a love of reading and the necessary skills needed to tackle difficult texts. A successful teacher is one who: fosters and encourages a love of reading through modeling, reading choice, discussion about required and free choice books, and provides tools, tips, and strategies to approaching challenging texts. All of these things happen within and through a safe, nurturing, and supported classroom environment. To gain the skills to become one of these successful teachers, one must be willing to step back from conventional practices and evaluate what works best for the students you have in your classroom.

I have already begun to think of ways that the use of multi-media literacy can be increased in my classroom. Differentiating is challenging for me, I am constantly asking myself how a lesson might be altered to fit different students. My fall back for differentiation is choice. I ask students to write about the book and use textual evidence but they can write about anything they want within those guidelines (and we brainstorm possible ideas). Or I provide fourteen questions over two chapters, students have to pick five to explore, free choice books are used to respond to writing prompts . . . you get the idea. Using hybrid texts, and creating hybrid texts really appeals to the techno-geek in me. These are the types of texts students see all the time; Facebook is awash with images and text, kids use Tumblr to write words, post pictures, and respond to each other. News sites, magazines, comics, and billboards are combinations of words and images. Students are bombarded by hybrid texts. It only makes sense to bring them into the classroom and discuss the structure, analyze it, use it, and bring the outside world into the school setting. That is really the overarching message in these articles – use the text structures that kids are engaged with outside of class (Facebook, Tumblr, Comics) in the class. Getting them engaged in the lesson is when real learning begins, and hybrid texts are clearly a way to do just that.


Albers, P., & Cowan, K. (2006). Semiotic representations: building complex literacy practices through the arts. The Reading Teacher, 60(2), 124-137.

McVicker, C. (2007). Comic strips as a text structure for learning to read. The Reading Teacher, 60(1), 85-88.

Norton, B. (2003). The motivating power of comic books: Insights from Archie comic readers. Reading Teacher, 57(2), 140-147. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

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A new model

I convinced my 8th grade colleagues, and the administration, that King Middle School‘s model of Expeditionary Learning (EL) is worth looking into and emulating. We visited the school yesterday and everyone is really fired up about it. I think that we’ll do our first expedition next year!

I am familiar with King because I interned there for 13 weeks while completing the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. (While at King, I taught the Laurie Halse Anderson‘s novel, Speak. You can learn more about that work here.)

If you aren’t familiar with Expeditionary Learning, it follows Outward Bound principles. An Expedition can be many things but at its center is careful planning, an authentic task, an authentic product, and an authentic audience. Notice the focus on authenticity; this drives both student and teacher to excellence. When you know that the public is going to see your work you are more likely to do what needs to be done and a bit more to make sure it is quality.  King’s website has examples of past and current Expeditions and products.

The culture of the school is amazing. We had two 8th grade students give us a tour of the school. Everybody, staff and students, was polite and helpful and excited for us to be there. Teachers waved us into their classrooms and were happy to talk to us. Even more impressive was that while there were 5 new adults in the room who were taking the teacher’s attention away, the students continued working quietly and without issue. We stopped a couple different students in the halls to ask questions and they were thoughtful, well spoken, and happy to help.

Everyone knows that integrating academic disciplines leads to higher student involvement, buy-in, and achievement. Everyone wants each student to be challenged appropriately to do their best, to learn and improve. Expeditionary learning combines all the things that we know about what is best for students and fits them all together. Instead of individual pieces, we have a cohesive whole. Differentiation within an Expedition becomes much easier. I think that it lessens the stigma that still surrounds ‘difference’, especially at the middle school. There is a great deal of structured independence embedded within this model, people work at different paces and perhaps in a different order. This means that it is no longer obvious that one student is doing something different than the rest of the kids. Traditional schools have kids move from class to class, subject to subject with no connections between. But think about it, if each class is working on a piece of a larger puzzle school starts to make more sense, the disconnect between classes is healed and, paired with the authenticity of the learning, students begin to discover the joys of learning and exploration and want to share what they know with others. It makes our job as a teacher more enjoyable and easier – the principal of King, Mike McCarthy, said during our meeting “Engagement trumps discipline.”  This is absolutely true, if kids are interested then they are not going to be a behavior problem.

Needless to say, I am very excited about this. I hope that the Administration continues to be fired up about it, that the school board will go see King’s “Celebration of Learning” and that Kittery can follow the shining example of King Middle.

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