Sunday, November 25, 2012

Homework, an Old Faithful

I guess you've already met at least two teachers who have sworn off homework, and they're not alone. Some teachers just can't be bothered with chasing after students to get homework returned. You may have heard, "I'm not gonna spend time planning for homework review when they're not even gonna bring it back the next day." 

Other teachers aren't sure how to incorporate at-home tasks into class reviews, so they limit themselves to in-school instruction and practice only: "Even if they do the homework, am I really gonna have time to do corrections and class discussion before completing the objectives that follow? How will I stay on schedule?" 

I can understand both of those reasons for wanting to give little to no homework, and neither of those addresses another common reason for avoiding homework assignments: "Homework is just another thing to grade, and I already don't have time to grade the papers that I have." 

What element do all of these reasons for hating homework have in common? You've got it; it's time. No teacher wants to feel like he or she is wasting that most valuable commodity, the golden goose in every educator's life, TIME. I propose, however, that homework can save you time and energy if it is properly implemented and rewarded in your classroom.

First, let's have a look at what homework is supposed to be and what it is supposed to do.

Homework, for the sake of this blog, is students' opportunity to demonstrate to their teacher what they have learned or known about a chosen concept. It does not ask students to embark on new tasks without previous guidance or explanation; rather, a home task asks students to apply previous knowledge to a direct (obvious) or synthetic (creative, applied) product. The teacher has already given the background information. Every child has the capacity and provided support to complete the task.  

Big whoop, right? What does all that mean for homework assignments, how does homework make our lives better and how do we get the children to bring the stuff back? Good questions!

First, the size of homework assignments matters. The widely accepted "10-Minute Rule" (read this one) suggests that no homework assignment should be longer than ten minutes per day per grade level. A fifth grader wouldn't have more than 50 minutes of homework per day; more than 50 minutes wouldn't appropriately fit the average maturity level and attention span of a fifth grader. There would be 20 minutes of homework per day for a second grader, and 60 minutes of homework per day for a sixth grader, etc. Notice, there is no "per class" designator, so teachers would have to consider the amounts of homework given in other classes when assigning their own.  

If students believe you are considering their time when you plan homework assignments, they will be more likely to complete the work you send. (The same is true for teachers who are completing tasks for principals or committees.)

Second, the kind of homework matters. It's good to assign homework that allows students to argue their points of view with support. Though this kind of assignment requires some reading and writing, it also engages students in critical thinking, logical organization and sharing when students return. People like talking about themselves (and students are people too, lol). When a safe environment has been established, students feel happy to hotly debate controversial topics. All subjects have controversial topics in them. When students get hot under the collar about class topics, real learning is taking place. 

Third, the expected product matters. This relates directly to the amount of time it would take to produce the task. It would be unfair to expect typed papers out of students who have no access to computers or typewriters, and it would be just as ludicrous to require models from students who cannot buy materials. When teachers can demonstrate to students that they have chosen a reasonable product, students are more likely to return with an assigned task completed.    

When homework is a functional, social part of the classroom, it's not so much of a hassle. It becomes the "easy 100" part of the grading table, and students like the easy 100s. Also, we must not look at homework as a burden to us, the teachers. It is a means of expression for the children. It tells us right away what the child took away from class discussion, and it shows us misunderstandings that we otherwise might not discover.

Don't just take my word for it. Assign one homework assignment that considers the size/time, kind and expected product for student work, and tell me what happens the next day. I wonder if that kid you've had to chase all year will come to school with a paragraph of reasons why he's right. ;) 

Beach Balls and Parachutes,

-Ms. Moss

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Google Voice, a Communication Tool

Students love their cell phones. We can't blame them, after all. We love our cell phones too. I use my cell as an alarm clark, a calendar, an appointment book, a radio, an instant messenger... the list goes on and on. Quite frankly, I'm sure you have your own list of uses for your cell, and it's probably a bit more exhaustive.

Here's a question for you, assuming you agree that students and teachers have cellular love in common: "What happens when the cellular becomes a tool for classroom communication?

If you feel yourself getting defensive, don't retort just yet. Consider what Google Voice is first, and then make your final determination.

Google Voice is a hybrid calling environment where you can send and receive text messages, receive voice messages and make phone calls from your cellular phone (for free) USING A VOIP TELEPHONE NUMBER. That means your students will never have your personal cell number; they will see your Google Voice number when you send reminders, homework support notes or classroom announcements.

In addition, Google Voice keeps a transcript of every message sent or received through its platform. That means a student could never accuse you of sending something inappropriate via your Google number; all messages are maintained like e-mails in an organized list according to phone number.

If you take the time to create a directory (which I highly recommend the moment you get students' cell numbers), your messages will be organized according to student name, time and date.

How might this make your teacher life easier and your students' academic lives more exciting?

First, a student will never have an excuse for coming to class without homework again. When you assign a task for homework, you can text it to all students (and their parents if parents are interested) immediately. Everyone knows that homework was assigned. Even if the student deletes the homework text--which he might--Google Voice will keep a copy of that message and a record of where and when it was sent.

That's not the only way that Google Voice can revolutionize homework. A second use, which I thoroughly enjoy, is allowing students to shoot you a text message when they struggle with certain parts of independent assignments. If a student gets halfway through an assignment at 6:30 p.m. but he feels subconscious about the work's quality, he can simply shoot you a text message (to your Google Voice number) which says, "I am completing assignment X, but I feel really uncomfortable about part B. Can we talk about this tomorrow?" You now have real-time student reflections about tasks, and that might give you insight into concepts that need re-teaching or clarification.

A third use for Google Voice is to give students praise or show concern regarding daily activities. It is good to call parents will students do well, but students also appreciate it when you take a moment to say to them: "Good performance in class today; I called Mom to let her know." This for some of us may seem like a lesser use for the technology, but students like to know when their parents have been contacted. I have even used Google Voice to ask students about absences: "I noticed you were absent today. Is everything okay? Do you need your work" or "Be sure to bring a note to attendance in the morning regarding absences." This kind of teacher interaction--if used correctly--can build excellent rapport with your students and their parents.

There are many things you SHOULD NOT DO with Google Voice and the power of captive audience through cellular phone access, but they are pretty much the same things no teacher should do with the power of captive audience in the classroom: no inappropriate relationships, no insults, no proselytization, etc.

You don't have to believe in the value of this communication tool because I say it's wonderful; give it a try. A Google Voice account is free to open and free to use when you make your calls and send and receive messages via your paid cellular number. If you already have a Google Mail account, your login to Google Voice is the same as your Google Mail login information.

I promise that you will never look at after-class communication the same way after you have seen what Google Voice can do for you.

Text Messages and Technologies,

-Ms. Moss

Friday, November 2, 2012

Create, Compile and Publish

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Some people would have you believe that teaching is a team sport. You may hear things like, "It's okay to share resources; we're all working together to achieve the same goals" or "I hope you have something for that; I couldn't find anything."

It's great to open an exchange of a sort with colleagues who work like you, think like you and care about students like you, but it is NOT great to become a source of lesson plans and activities for teachers who have no intention of finding or creating engaging resources themselves. After all, teaching is not a team sport anymore. We the teachers are not all together working for the betterment of the students, though we want to be and should be. We the teachers are struggling to keep our jobs in spite of a number of menacing opponents, opponents which sometimes include students, parents, administrators, curriculum publishers and (yes) even other teachers.

So teaching is more like a boxing match, and you're on your own, and you might even be on the ropes depending on where you're boxing and how long you've been training.

What does that mean? That means that there are going to be some times when you need to keep your brilliance to yourself, and that is true for a number of reasons.

First, as education changes, activity types and instructional methods change. Common Core brought with it a plethora of opportunities to redefine what engagement is, to restructure delivery, to redesign assessments. Translation: Common Core brought with it an opportunity to CREATE and/or ADAPT new ways to reach students, ways that may not have been seen before in your district, in your region, in your state, in your country.

You don't want to miss this chance to become a part of positive change in curriculum and instruction. I can guarantee you that academic publishers will not. Publishing companies are all over this change-of-mantra in our field, and materials are going to be hot off the presses every quarter. Million-dollar proposals will come flying in left and right for books that have been created to meet the needs of students in the "middle," the pool of generic learners who perform relatively alike. You know how it goes.

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You, sir or madam, know exactly how students in your immediate sphere of influence perform. You tailor materials to them everyday. Why aren't you creating, compiling and publishing those materials for your students? Your school? Your district?

Second, as education changes, pay changes. The push for pay-for-performance is not going away, and though I shudder at how they might implement performance pay, I can't help but be excited about the opportunity to use my skills to make money other ways. There are going to be instructors that need you to shed some light on alternative ways to do what they've been doing for decades. In other instances, there will be new teachers who need the words of the wise for guidance and encouragement as they embark on the beginning of their careers. You're the author. Create, compile and publish. Sell. Let's be honest here. You're going to need the money since you're already spending a significant amount of your salary being a teacher, and we're going to need each other's tried and true dictums to survive the oncoming upheaval of the work we love so dearly.

Third, as education changes, you're going to get tired... faster. The pace of teaching is not even what it was when I started, and trust me; I'm a spring chicken. It is easy to wear yourself out keeping up with just standards instruction. You're going to be maintaining pace for standards instruction, social instruction, test preparation, civic enlightenment, disciplinary management and technological advancement among the many other conceptual pools that must be distributed to all students somewhat evenly. So, at the end of the day, you will probably find yourself (if you haven't already) feeling a little empty.

If you begin to create, compile and publish, you will provide yourself with a means of self-replenishment through reflection, which is important. You will also have a constant stream of adaptive resources, which will save you research time on the back end and frustration when you're feeling out of ideas. Most importantly, if you feel like you just need a year off, you'll be able to take it if you've built a faithful readership. A year off doesn't mean you wanna throw in the towel after all; a year off might mean you need a sabbatical, a break, a few minutes to breathe. It doesn't mean you'll never teach again. It could mean that if you'll ever teach again, you need a year off!

You would be surprised at the number of things you are already creating and throwing away (or giving away) if you start to keep track of them. Just give it a try. Buy yourself a few humongous three-ring binders. You buy them for the kids, I know, so you might as well buy them for yourself. In those three-ring binders, begin to organize the materials you create for instructional texts (fiction and non-fiction). Keep printouts and electronic copies; burn a CD every ten files or so if you're forgetful. Then, watch what happens to those binders.

As a teacher, you are not resigned to a life of endless curriculum marathons and poverty. You are a treasure trove of humanity; that's why you're doing what you're doing. Without instruction and understanding, a whole nation perishes. Thus, as teachers perish, so goes the nation. It is important that you know your worth, maintain your health, and create an avenue of success apart from your day job that will allow you to step away when burnout is near.

But you know, you don't have to take my word for it. Just get your binders and your blank CDs, and start keeping stuff. Then come back and tell me what you've found out about how prolific you are in your classroom.

Copyrights and Creativity,

-Ms. Moss

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cloze Reading (Reading for Detail Strategy)

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Do you remember how much you used to love word search puzzles? I say that knowing full well that some of us--including me--still get a kick out of word searches. My great-grandmother (who's in her 90s) swears the word search keeps her young.

It's a mundane, rote activity, isn't it? Completing a word search doesn't require the kind of soul searching that crosswords do. After all, the answers are already there. All we have to do is use our own special search method, a method each of us has developed in his own way over the years, and then the words magically appear. It's beautiful. The word search is the "Where's Waldo" of the language world.

Cloze Reading works like a word search designed to support reading comprehension. The what and why of Cloze Reading is simple:

A Cloze Reading Activity is a paragraph or list of statements left with empty blanks where key words must go. Students are given a reading task (fiction or nonfiction) and its matching cloze reading activity to review PRIOR to reading the assigned excerpt. Then, as students read, they discover the key words that must be placed on each blank to "cloze" (lol) the open spaces (complete the cloze activity sensibly).

This method has been used a number of ways. You can find cloze passages that focus on conjugation for grammar, major events and dates for history, characterization for literature... the list goes on and on. The only limit imposed by cloze reading is that you must often create the passage you need.

Don't be intimidated; you're already a word search star. ;)

Here's how cloze reading could lighten the load in your classroom: 

First, reading is immediately rewarded with a developing product. Students often rebel against reading in class because it produces no immediate fruits; they can be left feeling uncertain about whether or not they are "getting" what they are supposed to be "getting." With cloze reading, students can tell whether or not they are on the right track because the key word blanks are specific to obvious concepts in the reading material. This is also why you must often create your own cloze reading activities according to what your students are reading; the key words MUST SYNC in logical ways that the students can comprehend. When the activity is well written and aligned with reading material, your students will feel a sense of accomplishment as they "discover" each key word, the same sense you feel when you find word search clues.

Second, cloze reading is easy to grade. After a student completes a cloze passage, the marking is as simple as reading through to be sure the appropriate key words were chosen. Some cloze reading activities even provide a word bank so that students know whether or not a word is an option for filling in a blank; that narrows the scope of answers even more which leads to MUCH EASIER GRADING.

Fotolia ImagesThird, cloze reading activities are great study tools. Once the passage is all filled in, the student has a summary of the reading assignment in his hand. You could grade it and assign a numerical value, or you could check it off as an in-class activity and send it home with the child for study. Either way, after it's completed and recorded, the cloze passage becomes a great way to quickly review lengthy texts; it can be used as a reference for class discussion; it can be used as a cheat sheet for essay writing. In every way that a child could use a summary, he could use his cloze reading work.

You don't have to take my word for it. Try cloze reading just once.

I won't ask you for the investment required in creating an original activity just yet. Find one online, make some copies and distribute the passage and cloze reading activity together. Watch your students turn reading into the fun-and-games word search process we know so well and love. Then come back and tell me about it.

I love forward to hearing about the attitudes of the students and how you felt when the process was over.

Here's one of my originals, just in case you don't feel like trolling through search engine results:
Cloze Reading on the Rise of Humanism
(The reading assignment is in a textbook, so I can't post that. Sorry!)

Puzzles and Pencil Toppers,

-Ms. Moss

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Collaborative Pairs

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"Collaborative Pairs" is fancy terminology for a classroom where turn-and-talk is encouraged. If you're a teacher who is already nervous about classroom management, collaborative anything makes you cringe and feel sickly. I understand your concerns, but I hope to suggest to you some ideas that might help you yield more of your class time to pair work.

The what and why of Collaborative Pairing is simple enough, but it may not be as simple as it sounds. 

When teachers establish collaborative pairs, these are often permanent pairings where students are partnered according to their strengths and social inclinations. For example, a very shy student might be paired with a very outspoken student to allow that pair an opportunity to balance each other socially in classroom discussion. Or, a strong reader might be paired with a weaker reader who is a stronger writer. These selected pairings are changed according to the teachers' discretion (once a quarter, once every two weeks, etc).

In a more flexible collaborative pairs application, the teacher may switch pairings as often as he or she switches activities. This can be done using the count off method (1-2-1-2) or random name selection, etc.

The MOST IMPORTANT THING is to plan lessons that complement and require collaborative pairing.

What does it mean to plan a lesson that complements and requires collaborative pairing?

In short, your lesson must be structured for two students to engage themselves in challenging, thought-provoking conversation as you teach. In addition, that conversation should result in a print or non-print product that demonstrates students' understanding of and participation in the taught concepts.

You must be comfortable with timing interactions ("Turn and talk for 60 seconds..."), student independence and yielding the power of the classroom to the children. You must also be comfortable with arranging your classroom in such a way that you can walk around the room and monitor conversations and notes for focus and appropriateness.

You must be willing to change. ;)

It sounds daunting, but this can make you and your students' classroom lives better!

First, research has proven that students listen to each other much more readily and intensely than they listen to us. It's a fact of life. As a result, when you're up teaching physical change and you ask pairs to discuss and note (in 60 seconds) the various ways that physical change can be seen in nature, there's a greater probability that those two students' discussion of physical change will be retained. Then, when you have pairs share their answers with other pairs and note those, that's a second level of discussion and notation which (through repetition and socialization) will lead to even greater retention. You're really making bacon when you turn the paired discussion into whole group discussion and emphasize the strongest examples on the board for whole group consideration.

Second, having a partner can make detailed reading tasks (no matter their length) much less intimidating to all students. Though some strong readers prefer to read alone, those are often the students who also like to discuss what they have read--and how they understood it--with others. Weaker readers will have peer support as you circle the room and provide tertiary support. Thus, with the use of guiding questions and the right pairings, students become each other's best resources and you become the consultant, the last person to be called when neither child can find the resolution. You will get much more contact time with each child than you would if you were standing at the front of the room answering questions by the raising of hands.

Some kids don't even raise their hands when they have questions. A moving teacher is more accessible via "Excuse me..."

Third, class notes and written reflections will be more thorough because students will have had the opportunity to dialogue about their thoughts and consider alternative viewpoints. Even as adults, we achieve growth by talking to other professionals about what we think, what we choose, and how those thoughts and choices might affect our immediate or future selves. You're reading this blog because you're thinking about whether or not you should try this collaborative pairs thing, and I'm providing for you some insight on why you might consider it. Though students are not core subject instructors, they can be independent thinkers, and they can provide for each other insights that otherwise might never be revealed. Not even we, the teachers, can inspire some of those Aha! moments. Only another child can spur on certain revelations for certain children.

You don't have to believe me. Just try this for yourself! I don't recommend a cold turkey implementation. There's a lot of information on planning for collaborative pairs classes, activities you can use and assessments you can assign in the paired format. Read up on the process first, choose the activities you like, and then give it a shot.

I promise you'll appreciate the experience if nothing else, and your students will be engaged in the day's concepts in a way that only pairing can provide.

Teacher Circles and Citations,

-Ms. Moss

Monday, October 22, 2012

Formula Writing (of the ELA variety)

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Before you start yelling at me (in all caps, of course) just hear me out. We've all experienced the following scenario.

You assign a writing pre-assessment for your course, or a major writing assignment for summative assessment, and you get the blank stares and raised hands.

The most frightened kids say, "I don't even know where to start!"

The perfectionists say, "Oh my God! It's not enough time!"

The procrastinators say, "Piece of cake." Then they doodle for the first fifteen minutes.

The one or two competent writers in the class start planning. They are the self-starters because they have so much experience with reading and writing outside of class. They are comfortable with universal formats. In their bustling little brains, they have already determined the exact starting point. They know the tone they want to exert. They know the way they are going to hook you--the reader--and keep your attention.

These students, whether we are willing to admit it or not, have internalized writing formats.

The what and why of formula writing is (honestly) more simply said than taught:

Formula writing instruction is the process of teaching students generic steps for developing varying types of paragraphs. You might teach five introductory formats (actual steps with flexible opening phrases) for four different types of writing: narrative, argumentative, informative, expository. In addition, you would teach some basic body paragraph development steps with flexible phrasing. Then, you would teach a number of conclusory formats.

Why teach formulas? Because no matter how much we wish they would, some students--no matter how much you teach writing--will never feel comfortable creating original writing without a framework from which to begin.

Formula writing is actually quite natural.

The reason you and I don't need formula writing instruction is clear. Our most frequently used formulas were embedded in us early enough to mature and evolve into what looks like free-flowing structure. We are teachers because we have both natural and nurtured inclinations for adopting and adapting frameworks.

This could have happened in a number of ways. Maybe your parents read to you as a child, and so you learned beginnings, middles and ends years before your students might have learned how to read. Perhaps you learned to love non-fiction in middle school, so you began to read newspapers, magazines and articles, exposing yourself to commonly used non-fiction structures. Like a computer would, you downloaded the software, the bones of the process, and you began to mimic the flow, fleshing out your ideas on the bones of a carcass (so to speak).

Here's how formula writing could make you and your students very happy.

First, formula writing makes writing a functional structure that just needs tweaking. Many students hate writing and the very idea of having to write because they believe they are starting with nothing. In truth, all writers start with something. They have favorite ways of introducing concepts, favorite transitions and favorite closing statements. When you reveal to your students that we all work with structures that we tweak, they see a starting point. They see a wire frame upon which to "clay" their ideas. This relieves anxiety for students who consider themselves poor writers.

Second, formula writing teaches students how to organize their thoughts. Many of our children are afraid to put pen to paper because their thoughts are circling in their heads in a monsoon-like limbo. When you provide them with a framework of organization, suddenly those thoughts have pegs upon which they can be hung. A student who previously wrote a paper totally off-topic and out of focus can suddenly become coherent because you've helped him organize his thinking into digestible bites.

Third, formula writing ALWAYS gets to the point. Your confident but verbose writers will be restrained by writing methodologies that have always favored logic, brevity and support. Your new writers will learn the importance of supporting ideas with reasons and source information. You won't have to worry about reading a paper on milk that focuses entirely on the making of yogurt.

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The complicated part is finding the formulas you support. 

Look around online for writing formats that include three or four steps to complete an introduction, three or four steps to complete a body paragraph, three or four steps to complete a conclusion, and choose THREE OR FOUR EXAMPLES OF EACH that you think students could use interchangeably to be more brilliant on paper. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, here are some of mine as examples:

Building a Successful Intro
Incorporating Research into Body Paragraphs 
Call to Action Conclusion

I have some other formula steps for paragraph types if you would like to view them, but there are hundreds online. Choose and adapt what you find is appropriate. Also, you should feel free to read some of the authors you believe are chiefest among all authors and extract their structures. You will see that many of them use the same bones already: similar lead-in styles, similar development styles, similar transitions.

You don't have to believe me. Just try formula writing instruction ONCE, even if you only use it in tutoring. I promise you will see immediate improvement and you will save yourself some headache.

Mousepads and Magic Markers,

-Ms. Moss

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Triangulated Texts

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K-12 teachers, let's be honest with each other. Teaching kids can be terribly boring. This is especially true when you find yourself teaching and re-teaching the same topics, the same way, for many years because of circumstances beyond your control.

I'll go a step further to say something a bit controversial. Teaching K-12 can make you stupid.

Before you started teaching, you were a living encyclopedia of all sorts of scholarly and social topics. You were younger, sprier, wittier, more entertaining. You felt almost invincible in your personal brilliance. You oozed confidence. You, my dear, were a star.

This is not me suggesting that you are any less of a star today. I am merely saying that teaching rote knowledge repetitively--especially in a teach-to-the-test environment--can make you horribly dimwitted.

You start to forget things you could recite in your sleep when you began. You get out of touch with modern criticisms of classic texts because you're too busy grading rewrites. You lose your favorite teaching resources. You become tired.

Here's where an old teaching strategy that was recently given a fancy name can help you and your students be happier campers.

The what and why of triangulated text use is simple:

Instead of lecturing, you become a pre-researcher for your students. You select a number of print and non-print sources that you will submit to students (either student groups or individuals), and then THEY become secondary researchers, using the sources you provided to gather new knowledge.

Teachers often provide guiding questions with each piece of text to make sure that students are gathering the right materials for concept discussion.

Here's why text triangulation is good for you and your students: 

First, you get to be the researcher and reader that you so love to be. Lesson planning needn't become something you dread doing. Rather, it can be an opportunity for you to refresh and even rethink concepts you're teaching from the students' perspective. As you gather the texts you will submit to your students and plan guiding questions, you will reconnect to the student in you, which is good for career longevity.

Second, your students become researchers who are not bound by the availability (or lack thereof) of technology. As much as we love computers that operate at warp speed, some schools only have two slow computers in each classroom. Some schools only allot one computer per teacher. Some schools barely have a copier. When you provide your students with printed sources and research questions, you can teach the same skills of citing sources and searching the text without worrying about whether or not the Net will be down today.

Third, learning becomes an independent investment. Suddenly you are the facilitator and not the preacher to a captive audience. Instead of exerting so much teaching energy, you can walk the room and become an assistant to your children as they weave themselves through the concept. You can spend time meeting students' needs according to their reading abilities also because you are not the center of attention.

In short, you can teach one text in twenty minutes, or your kids can search five texts in twenty-five minutes with the right pre-research and planning. You come away looking like the genius you are and the students are one step closer to being more like you. Also, you will have provided the children with a number of schema related to the concept, which leads to more retention.

You don't have to believe me. Just try it ONCE. Instead of lecturing for thirty minutes on the Civil War, give your students one Civil War letter, one Civil War poem, one Civil War news article, one excerpt of a Civil War short story and a 10-minute Civil War Youtube video. Pre-plan the guiding questions for each text (print and non-print) and establish your grouping preferences (individual, pairs, etc). Then, turn them loose and walk the room.

Listen to the conversations, engage yourself in their thinking processes, and I promise you that you will fall in love with teaching again in a way you never thought you would. Try, just ONCE.

Primary Sources and Promethean Boards,

-Ms. Moss