Reflections on CMU’s High Impact Teaching Academy

Last fall, I joined CMU’s High Impact Teaching Academy with the specific goal of rethinking the approach to teaching my methods course, ENG 315: “Writing in the Elementary and Middle Schools.” While I am unable to present my final project in person this week, I did want to share three components of my refined approach: a course concept map created in Prezi, a “visual syllabus” to replace my old, standard design, and a few of the activities that I used in class to get students more engaged in conversation about our subject matter.

Course Concept Map

As a tool to help frame my own thinking as well as to visually represent our goals and the path for our semester in ENG 315, I created this Prezi. During the first class session, I used this to complement our talk about the syllabus and the schedule of assignments. Then, during the next three weeks of class I returned to the Prezi, briefly, to reorient students to where we were at and what we were heading toward. After that, I only took class time to look at the Prezi intentionally twice more: once immediately after spring break and again with two weeks left in the course. With each tour of the Prezi, I also tried to connect to the big ideas that we were discussing in class at the time.

Survey Results - Prezi
Survey Results – Prezi

While I need to wait until the end of the semester to read their written comments from SOS forms, the results from an anonymous survey that I gave last week show that my students’ reactions to having and using the Prezi were quite mixed. I am not entirely sure what this means for me as I continue to think about creating course concept maps in the future, but the fact that nearly 3/4 of them appreciated having the Prezi is a positive sign.

Visual Syllabus

Both because my old syllabus had become weighted and bulky with tons of text, and because I was really trying to really rethink some major elements of the course, I opted to create a visual syllabus over the holiday break and after meeting with Eron. As I streamlined assignments, readings, and procedures — including a new “collaborative unit plan” assignment — I shaped the visual syllabus to reflect the organization of the course and the ways in which the assignments related to one another.

ENG 315 Syllabus First Page - Fall 2012 ENG 315 Syllabus First Page - Spring 2013
Previous version of ENG 315 Syllabus (PDF) Spring 2013 version of ENG 315 Syllabus (PDF)
Survey Results - Syllabus
Survey Results – Syllabus

Again, like the Prezi, results were mixed, but not nearly as much. Possibly because a syllabus is the defining document for a course, or perhaps because they really did appreciate the design, students all rated the syllabus as favorable. There are some minor tweaks that I would go back to fix, and again I will need to see their written SOS responses to get a better idea of what they really liked and what didn’t work so well.

Creating Engaging Discussions in Class

ENG 315 Group Work
ENG 315 students work to create a visual representation of a major idea from the course.

Over the past few years, I have worked to create interactive, inclusive discussions. For a few semesters, I worked with a colleague to create what we called the “read/share” project where students would read a professional book, then lead a lesson from that book. This didn’t seem to elicit the types of interactions I had hoped for, so I shifted focus last year and asked a different group of students to prepare a discussion activity each week based on a particular article or chapter. Again, this didn’t seem to elicit the types of active reading and engagement I was hoping for. I knew that continuing with the traditional “call and response” format would only show me that a few students had read and were prepared to discuss course ideas in a substantive manner.

ENG 315 Concept Map
ENG 315 Concept Map

Thus, this semester I took a number of the ideas from the HITA workshops and tried them out — using playing cards to randomize groups, bringing chart paper and markers for brainstorming, allowing for adequate wait time, back channeling, and having students complete reading guides or discussion questions on Blackboard. I would also take these comments that were produced before class online and bring them directly into our class activities. For instance, I had students agree or disagree with a statement from another student’s online post. Also, in private, I asked some students who had posted something unique to please speak up in class, and most were willing to do so.

Survey Results - Discussion
Survey Results – Discussion

While I am not sure that I mastered all of the techniques, and I recognize that I “lost” some time with lengthier discussions, I am sure that the positive responses to the survey are telling me that I am moving in the right direction. Classroom discussions, even for college seniors preparing to enter their student teaching, can still feel stifled. Yet, I think that I helped encourage a variety of voices to contribute to our dialogue throughout the semester.

Conclusions

These three main changes in my approach to teaching ENG 315 were relatively easy to incorporate and have led to equal, if not better results than what I have experienced in previous semesters. Participating in HITA has reminded me of effective and engaging practices that I knew but seemed to have forgotten, as well as providing me opportunity to learn a few new strategies as well.

As a teacher educator, I am constantly thinking about how best to engage pre-service teachers in meaningful activities that will actually help them better understand both content knowledge and the practice of teaching. In the coming year, as we expand the audience for ENG 315 to include all elementary education majors, I know that the work I have done this semester will contribute to my continued growth as a teacher educator and, more importantly, to my students’ growth as new teachers.

My thanks to Eron and the entire FaCIT staff for a wonderful professional development experience, as well as my students in the Spring 2013 section of ENG 315.

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Q/A from “Technology and Education” Session

Movement, Mobility, and Migration Conference Logo
Movement, Mobility, and Migration Conference

A number of undergraduate students presented today at Central Michigan University’s first annual conference on English studies, “Movement, Mobility, and Migration.”

One particular session at the end of the day had a great Q/A, and I tried to capture some notes here from the “Technology and Education” forum. A few of the ideas that we discussed included:

  • What constitutes a “text” in relation to multimodal hybrid texts (especially graphic novels), and especially when considering texts for middle and high school students?
  • How do we help students of this generation better understand the ways that language — and exploring language — can be a wonderful, validating experience? How can we use language as an opportunity for play? This led to a broader discussion about dialect, code-switching, and social power.
  • Finally, I asked them to answer by describing one loss and one opportunity with the shift to technology.
    • A shift to e-books, because I don’t like them. There is value in having an actual physical copy of the text for you to annotate.
    • We are using the written word to promote more more literacies, but text messaging can be impersonal and emotionless.
    • Thinking about the ways that literature is evolving, and to see these ideas incorporated is exciting. At the same time, we don’t want to lose focus on the classics in literature to enjoy the word usage and beautiful language.
    • Along with countless hours lost to fiddling with things that won’t work, we are also at risk of a reduced attention span. There is a great deal of overstimulation in all of this, and what is it doing to our brains.
    • There are many new ways to be creative, and it makes more critical and creative modes of expression possible.

It is interesting to hear that these undergrads, members of the “digital generation,” are still expressing many of the same ideas related to the possibilities and pitfalls of digital writing as their elder counterparts are. The best part of all is that we continue to keep asking good questions.

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Crafting Digital Writing

Crafting Digital Writing
Crafting Digital Writing

So pleased to announce that Crafting Digital Writing: Composing Texts Across Media and Genres was officially released today by Heinemann. Here is the text from the back cover:

“We have an opportunity to help this generation define itself on its own terms. The question is no longer whether or not we should use technology to teach writing; instead we must focus on the many ways that we can use technology to teach writing.”
—Troy Hicks

Written for teachers of writing by a teacher of writing, Crafting Digital Writing is both an introduction for teachers new to digital writing and a menu of ideas for those who are tech-savvy. Troy Hicks explores the questions of how to teach digital writing by examining author’s craft, demonstrating how intentional thinking about author’s craft in digital texts engages students in writing that is grounded in their digital lives.

Troy draws on his experience as a teacher, professor, and National Writing Project site director to show how the heart of digital composition is strong writing, whether it results in a presentation, a paper, or a video. Throughout the book, Troy offers:

  • in-depth guidance for helping students to compose web texts (such as blogs and wikis), presentations, audio, video, and social media
  • mentor texts that give you a snapshot into what professionals and students are doing right now to craft digital writing
  • suggestions for using each type of digital text to address the narrative, informational, and argument text types identified in the Common Core State Standards
  • a wealth of student-composed web texts for each digital media covered, along with links to them on the web
  • technology tips and connections, as well as numerous tools for creating a digital writing assignment.

Pick up (or download) your copy of Crafting Digital Writing and begin preparing your students for the real-world writing expectations that await them in the 21st century.

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Preparing for IRA 2013

IRA Convention Logo
The IRA Convention begins this Friday

This week, I travel to San Antonio for the International Reading Association’s Annual Convention. This is my first trip to IRA, and I was fortunate enough to be invited by Julie Coiro to help facilitate the pre-conference institute entitled, “Using New Technologies to Engage Readers and Encourage Student Voices.” My portion of the institute will be to lead the opening keynote “Raising Digital Writers” and then to talk about using a wiki as an online space for hosting a digital writing workshop.

Of course, this institute is about literacy in the broadest sense, but since it is specifically focused on reading and new technologies, I want to target my session to meet those needs. In that sense, what does it mean to “read like a writer and write for a reader,” especially in a digital context? How do we help students become more engaged in the process of creating digital texts that are meant to be read, heard, viewed, and experienced through computers, smart phones, and tablets? What is it that we want our students to know and be able to do in order to show depth of understanding and strive for meaning when creating digital writing?

These are questions I continue to ponder with colleagues, as well as with my own children. So, as I think through the possibilities for how to frame my keynote, here are a few “lessons learned” over the past couple of weeks:

First, I have been a part of the NCTE task force that has charged with the task of creating a summary document about the effects of computerized scoring and writing assessment. As we have been compiling our ideas, I have been sharply reminded of the fact that the “next generation assessments” promised by PARCC and SBAC could still be evaluating students on very traditional measures of writing such as sentence length, spelling, and grammar. Don’t be fooled. Even though the tests will be administered on a computer, students will not be creating robust pieces of digital writing — with links, images, or other media — meant for other human readers. Sadly, I think that this is a case of formulaic writing moving from pencil and paper onto a computer screen.

Second, I just finished up some consulting work with the Columbus Area Writing Project, and I was reminded of the power of intention in all kinds of writing, including digital writing. Just because a student is producing something with a computer or smart phone — whether it be a word processed document, a text message, or a video clip — doesn’t necessarily mean that they are using creative ideas in an intentional manner. They could just be filling in the blanks on an assignment or, worse yet, composing a message and sending it out to the network without thinking much about it at all, especially in regard to who will read the message and how it will be read.

Third, I was a guest teacher in two sections of my CMU colleague’s creative writing classes. During the first class, as I presented some ideas about and examples of creative digital writing, I inadvertently set up creative/digital as a dichotomy to overcome, not a duality to embrace. In the 15 minute break, I was able to rethink the way that I introduced my presentation for the second class, and this read to a much more robust conversation that was focused on possibilities, not limitations. Given recent attention in the news to such trends as state legislatures requiring cursive writing and explicit grammar instruction, I need to be careful to make sure that I am not setting up digital writing as a dichotomy.

Finally, my own ENG 315 students have been finishing up their multigenre research projects. More than ever before, I find that they are producing their products on websites rather than turning in binders (specifically, Weebly was the clear winner with this semester’s students). As we think about the options that students have available to them for producing digital writing, as well as how we will consume those texts as readers, I am becoming more optimistic that the new generation of teachers will be comfortable in a print and digital world; with thoughtful coaching and practice, they will understand how digital texts are composed and, therefore, better able to discuss text features and comprehension strategies with their own students. Because teachers are seeing themselves, more and more, as digital writers, I hope that they are becoming more comfortable with the process of digital reading as well.

All this said, I still need to get my slides in order for this week, so I welcome any comments or questions on these ideas as I think about how to condense them into a coherent 45 minute presentation that will begin a day of exploring reading and technology. What else is going on in the world of digital reading? How are your ideas changing as more and more students bring devices to school or have access to them in their own lives? What would a group of teachers who are attending this session need to know about raising digital writers (and readers)?

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Is There (Finally) a New Paradigm for “Teacher Accountability?”

Two compelling events happened yesterday, each raising the possibility of a new paradigm for teacher accountability and each important in its own way.

First, Bill Gates published an op-ed in the Washington Post, “A fairer way to evaluate teachers.” Here is the heart of the piece:

This is one reason there is a backlash against standardized tests — in particular, using student test scores as the primary basis for making decisions about firing, promoting and compensating teachers. I’m all for accountability, but I understand teachers’ concerns and frustrations.

Even in subjects where the assessments have been validated, such as literacy and math, test scores don’t show a teacher areas in which they need to improve.

If we aren’t careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust, this opportunity to dramatically improve the U.S. education system will be wasted.

This comes from the man, through his foundation and reputation, who has been one of the most influential educational “reformers” in the past decade. And even he is cautioning us about the ways in which the current push to tie test scores to teacher accountability is wrong-headed. Finally.

NCLE Report: Remodeling Literacy Learning
NCLE Report: Remodeling Literacy Learning

On another front, the National Center for Literacy Education shared a new report, “Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works” on Capitol Hill. The main findings include:

  1. Literacy is not just the English teacher’s job anymore.
  2. Working together is working smarter.
  3. But schools aren’t structured to facilitate educators working together.
  4. Many of the building blocks for remodeling literacy learning are in place.
  5. Effective collaboration needs systemic support.

This morning, I participated with colleagues on the NCTE Task Force about computerized scoring and the PARC and SBAC assessments. We have a plan for a white paper, and hope to have it done next week.

So, is there maybe, just maybe, a bit of hope for a new paradigm in teacher accountability dawning on this fine spring day? With the complete lunacy of our current accountability system now exposed for the racket that it is, my hope is that we are turning a new page for students, parents, teachers, and our nation.

Update: April 5, 2013

In addition to correcting a grammar error, a colleague has also suggested that I add a link to Peter Smagorinsky’s op-ed from April 3rd, “Seeing teachers as technicians ignores what else they give students: confidence, moral support and inspiration.” Here is a brief segment from his post that highlights his main ideas for rethinking teacher evaluation:

In order for a teacher evaluation system to be legitimate, it should have a related set of qualities that go well beyond the simplistic approach imposed by the U.S. Department of Education. A credible evaluation system is valid (it has buy-in from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives, including the teachers for whom it is developed); it is reliable (similar results would be available from different assessors); it has utility for all participants regardless of the outcome of the evaluation (including those who are found deficient); it fosters the development of better teachers; it provides data that contribute to this development by attending to multiple facets of faculty performance; and it is conducted respectfully in terms of the magnitude of the job and the resources provided to undertake it.

I look forward to hearing more about his proposal at the CEE conference later this summer and when it is published in English Education later this year.

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