The Three Rs for 21st Century Learning: Relevance, Relationships, and Reflection

Image from Paul Tomizawa‏ @mrtomizawa
Image from Paul Tomizawa‏ @mrtomizawa

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I had an opportunity to collaborate and learn with about 130 other teachers, librarians, and higher ed faculty at the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. Given that this was my second go-round, I had some idea of what would happen day-to-day, and over the arc of the entire week, and again the institute met and exceeded my expectations.

First, I appreciate having had the chance to collaborate with Jill Castek on our Thursday keynote, “Deepening Assessment, Digitally.” Here are the slides, as well as many additional links.

Resources from the Session

Further Your Learning

The other key takeaway for me — which is really just a reiteration of what I have learned from my colleagues in the National Writing Project — is that relevance, relationships, and reflection are at the heart of learning, for both kids and adults. No secret here; just a gentle reminder that great learning takes all three of these elements, and those elements are fostered through sustained immersion in an intensive, sometimes disruptive, yet ultimately supportive and growth-oriented environment.

Both summers at URI have provided this for me, and in a slightly different manner than what I experience in NWP work. One protocol that we use at the end of the day, both with participants and faculty, is a group discussion of “highlights and lowlights.” Not meant to be a space for problem-solving, it is a structure that allows us all to share the best and worst part of each day in a setting where our colleagues listen empathically. While I was quite tired at the end of each day, those conversations were rich, and I am still thinking through what everyone brought to them.

So, the reminder that these elements all matter is a good one, and knowing that there are multiple paths to pursue as we lead our colleagues in professional growth is a good reminder, too. I’m heading back to Michigan with a renewed appreciation for what it takes to immerse one’s self in a digitally-rich learning experience, and that we need to take time to build those three R’s of a true twenty-first century education: relevance, relationships, and reflection.


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Deepening Assessment, Digitally

Summer Institute in Digital Literacy LogoThis week, I head to Rhode Island for my second year as a faculty member in the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy in Providence. I’ve been fortunate to be part of the leadership team again, and I look forward to working with educators from a variety of contexts: K-12 teachers, librarians, higher education instructors, and more. One key portion of my work this week is to collaborate with Jill Castek (University of Arizona) to prepare a keynote session for Thursday morning, “Deepening Assessment, Digitally.”

My interests in deepening assessment have been, well, deep, for a number of years. In 2015, I published Assessing Students’ Digital Writing, a collection in which I had worked with seven National Writing Project colleagues to examine their students’ work through the use of protocols. Our discussions about their students’ work led to their individual chapters, and the collection as a whole reminds me that we can, with diligence and discernment, broaden the kinds of digital writing we ask students to do and, more importantly, the ways that we respond to their digital writing.

Since that time, I have become even more interested in how we can use various media (text, audio, and video) to respond to students’ work. Through many courses that I’ve taught, as well as presentations and workshops I’ve delivered, I’ve been meeting more and more teachers who are interested in providing, with technology, even more timely, specific, and goal-oriented feedback to their students. For instance, I am curious to know more about how we might carry on asynchronous conferences with our students using tools like Voxer or Kaizena, or how we might have students reflect on their own learning by creating screencasts in which they describe the decisions that they have made when crafting digital writing.

Thus, as I head into planning for my keynote this week, there are a few key questions driving the presentation that Jill and I will deliver.

  • How do you define “formative assessment?”
  • In what ways do we typically think about using technology for formative assessment?
  • How might we use technology to help students deepen meta-cognition and reflection?

We plan to have participants engage with these questions through some brief pre-writing, pair-share conversations, and by analyzing some examples of student work/reflection. For my part, I am returning to a video that my daughter and I recorded a few years ago, In it, Lexi reflects on a number of the choices that she made to craft a piece of digital writing. As I reconsider the video for this week, a few of the questions I want people to consider include:

  • In what ways could we prompt and encourage students to create screencasts like this in order to describe their decision-making process as digital writers? What, specifically, are the questions that we should ask of students so they can substantively engage in reflection?
  • If we are asking students to assess their own work in this way, how might we move beyond using rubrics as a way to provide feedback? What, specifically, would we as educators want to discuss/reply to in a student’s work at this level?
  • Ultimately, if we shift to deeper, more substantive assessment practices that utilize technology in new ways, what implications will this have for our curriculum and instruction as well?

There are, of course, quite a few days (very full, active days) that will assuredly cause me to think more about these questions and how to frame the talk for Thursday morning. Also, I will have time to talk with Jill, which I very much look forward to, and we will have new ideas to consider together.

Still, the core of the presentation will remain the same. Jill and I want to push participants’ thinking about both why and how they assess student work. In turn, we hope that the process will open up more opportunities for them to think about their own teaching, in their own context, and to take these types of questions and conversations back to their colleagues once the institute ends.


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Review of Stover and Yearta’s “From Pencils to Podcasts”

New books about ed tech hit the market everyday, and it is sometimes difficult to find ones that truly meet the needs of teachers while being approachable and accessible. So, a few weeks ago, when I was tagged in a Twitter post about a new book, it definitely caught my attention:

Cover Image from Solution Tree Press
Cover Image from Solution Tree Press

Flattery aside, as an author and educator, I always appreciate shoutouts like these, and I was a bit dismayed that I had not yet heard about the book.

And, after a quick hop to the Amazon website where I previewed the book and read a review, I could tell that my own ideas about teaching reading and writing were, indeed, in line with those of Katie Stover and Lindsay Yearta.

With that knowledge in mind, I asked Stover if I could take a look at the book and, thanks to Solution Tree Press, my own copy arrived just a few days ago.

And, in much the way that Stover described the teacher’s endorsement in her tweet, I would certainly agree: From Pencils to Podcasts is a book that adopts the same stance toward reading, writing, and digital literacy that I, too, hope to imbue in my own work.

From the opening pages, the authors articulate their belief that “[t]echnology, when used intentionally, enhances teaching and learning as students have more opportunities to create, collaborate, communicate, and share” (6). I couldn’t agree more. Throughout the early pages of the introduction and into the fourteen chapters that follow, Stover and Yearta offer a variety of digital reading and writing tools that will be useful to elementary-level educators.

Cover Image from Solution Tree Press
Cover Image from Solution Tree Press

The book is segmented into four major parts. In part one, Stover and Yearta focus on tools to facilitate comprehension and analysis. Here, the authors provide many examples of teachers and students at work, as well as descriptions of the technologies that they employed. I was most intrigued by an example where a fifth grader and a college student discuss the shared reading using Edmodo. At one point in the dialogue, the college student records herself on video providing an additional response and clarification for her fifth-grade reading buddy (25). These types of small, yet powerful, examples are sprinkled throughout the book and demonstrate how readers and writers can flourish when supported through effective teaching and creative applications of technology. Also, Stover and Yearta provide links and QR codes throughout their book that lead directly to the apps/websites being mentioned, and they also have created a companion webpage with those links conveniently listed along with reproducible handouts.

In the second part, Stover and Yearta move on to discuss tools that can facilitate evaluation and revision. Again, the authors provide a number of different lesson ideas and technologies as examples, and one of the most unique twists is the application of digital video to the classic strategy of “reader’s theater.” They describe the ways in which students develop fluency as they engage in multiple readings of their selected book and, ultimately, produce and publish their own interpretation of the book using digital video (70).

The third section of the book offers even more opportunities for teachers to think about performance and publication as Stover and Yearta explore infographics, digital story retelling, publishing with a digital book creator, and incorporating speech-to-text dictation. Similarly, the fourth section pushes teachers to think creatively about new applications of existing technologies such as using timeline tools to create reading histories, conducting digital conferences using tools like VoiceThread, and composing digital portfolios with Seesaw or Weebly.

Additionally, throughout the book, Stover and Yearta share many case studies of teachers using tech in critical and creative ways. For instance, in the final chapter on formative assessment, they invite us into the classroom of Katharine Hale, exploring the ways in which she uses Lino and Padlet as spaces for students to capture their reading ideas, questions, and connections in-process.

On the whole, Stover and Yearta have designed and delivered a very useful book. My only concern is this: while the authors do present many examples from students and teachers, especially text-based examples such as digital discussion boards, as well as screenshots of the interfaces for various websites and apps, my one hope would have been to see more examples of student work, both in the book as well as through hyperlinks on the companion website.

For instance, Stiver and Yearta share overviews of many tools including infographics, digital movies, and a book creator app, yet the reader is left to her own imagination in order to visualize what these final products, created by students themselves, would actually look like. In other words, it would be helpful – especially for teachers new to digital reading and writing – to see even more examples of how students were able to utilize these tools in different ways, and to have them available online as mentor texts that teachers could click on and share in their own classrooms.

If a teacher is new to using 1:1 technology, the book offers numerous ideas that will be adaptable across grade levels. And, even if a teacher is familiar with many of the apps and websites, Stover and Yearta provide new insights into the ways in which these tools can be used. For any book that is written for teachers, it is a challenge to create a resource that is overflowing without being overwhelming, and with From Pencils to Podcasts, the authors have certainly accomplished their goal.

I am, indeed, flattered that a teacher has compared my work to theirs, and I appreciate their insights into the connection between emergent/early literacies and technology. For any K-6 educator who is new to using technology in her classroom – or wants to look at integrating technology with a fresh set of eyes –From Pencils to Podcasts should be on your summer reading list.

Disclaimer: At my request, I was provided with a free copy of the book by Solution Tree Press.


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Announcing “From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age”

9781138949287Today marks the release of my second book with my colleague and friend, Jeremy Hyler: From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age. Also, we are extremely grateful to Liz Kolb, who offered her endorsement of the book by writing the foreword.

From the book’s description on the Routledge page:


Don’t blame technology for poor student grammar; instead, use technology intentionally to reach students and actually improve their writing! In this practical book, bestselling authors Jeremy Hyler and Troy Hicks reveal how digital tools and social media – a natural part of students’ lives – can make grammar instruction more authentic, relevant, and effective in today’s world.

Topics Covered:

  • Teaching students to code switch and differentiate between formal and informal sentence styles
  • Using flipped lessons to teach the parts of speech and help students build their own grammar guides
  • Enlivening vocabulary instruction with student-produced video
  • Helping students master capitalization and punctuation in different digital contexts

Each chapter contains examples, screenshots, and instructions to help you implement the ideas. With the strategies in this book, you can empower students to become better writers with the tools they already love and use daily. Additional resources and links are available on the book’s companion wiki site: textingtoteaching.wikispaces.com


Additional resources related to the book can be found in the presentation that Jeremy and I have offered at a number of conferences as well as through the Oakland Schools webinar series.

My continued thanks to all the teachers who read and support my work, as well as to Jeremy for his passion, patience, and willingness to entertain countless hours of writing and revision!

4C’s Collaborative Comprehension Activity

Image by Anna Demianenko from UnsplashThe past week has found me presenting to both pre-service teachers (three times!) and to fellow faculty (just once), and with each audience I shared the same activity: the 4Cs for Collaborative Comprehension.

Adapted from Ritchhart, Church,, and Morrison’s Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, my spin on this particular lesson invites students to collaborate using a Google doc as a space to engage in shared reading of a particular text. As they note in their book, “[T]he 4C’s routine allows for a rich and fairly complete discussion of a text nonetheless, each step can be used as a standalone discussion,” and “[a]s students become familiar with the routine and expectations, it can act as a protocol to structure student-directed discussions of the text” (144). 

There are a number of reasons for why this particular reading, writing, and thinking strategy is well-suited for an adaptation using Google Docs:

  • We know that reading is a social experience and, unfortunately, we also know that students are not likely to read – at least with a deep level of comprehension – their homework. While this activity does not solve all the reading problems that students may have – and they most certainly should still be reading outside of class – this does emulate the types of thinking that good readers will use while engaged with the text.
  • We know that writing, too, is also a social experience and can have many purposes. With this activity, writing is a tool for thinking, and asking students to write both individually and collaboratively allows them to see one another’s thinking unfold, in real time, and in a low-stakes environment.
  • We know that thinking – and, in this sense, I mean thinking like a disciplinary expert – is a skill that must be modeled, rehearsed, and assessed. In order to help students understand the ways in which we might approach the text, we need to make the actions that we undertake explicit and clear.
  • Finally, as a way to incorporate technology in a purposeful manner, I taught this as a lesson that was designed for a collaborative group work session that students would engage in during class time. That said, once students become familiar with the routine, they could likely engage in some aspect of this protocol outside of class time and come prepared with their writing done in the Google Doc.

Thus, the idea behind the activity is to have students engage in a shared reading, document their initial thinking – in this case, by connecting to the text, challenging the text, identifying key concepts from the text, and recognizing how the text is asking you, as a reader, to change – and develop a consensus about the most important takeaways from their shared reading. And, they do so using the collaborative technology of Google Docs.

As you’ll see in the instructions embedded in the document, each group will make a copy of this initial template. What’s important to note is that you – as the instructor – could make any modifications to the thinking that you want students to do. Though I like “the 4Cs” as a nice, alliterative phrase to describe what students are doing, you could certainly invite them to do any number of other learning tasks such as interpret, examine, or evaluate.

I begin the activity by ensuring that each student in the group, typically groups of four, has a role. I talk through the different tasks with them, give them a moment as a group to decide who wants to do what during the reading, and then I ask, “Who’s my connector in each group? Who’s the challenger?” Who’s identifying key concepts?” and, finally, “Who’s thinking about changes?” Depending on the particular class, as well as the reading that I am asking them to do, I may do a little bit more of a discussion about the text in order to prime the pump. However, the main goal here is that students jump in to the reading activity with their particular lens (connect, challenge, key concept, change) in mind.

Additionally, before sending them into the reading task, I ensure that at least one person in the group is comfortable making a new version of the Google Doc template and then sharing that new version with their group mates. Thus, each group has their own copy of the 4Cs activity and are then able to write ideas in their squares while they are reading. If it is a group that I feel would benefit from the task, I may also suggest to them that they find relevant sentences or phrases from the article and copy/paste them in to the Google Doc, with appropriate quotation marks. They can then use these segments of the text to make further connections, invite other challenges, identify key concepts, or indicate where the author is encouraging the reader to change.

Then, it is time to have everyone begin reading. As they read, I set a timer for a modest amount of time (usually about 5 to 7 minutes with an article such as the one linked here: “A Month Without Sugar“).  As they read, I encourage them individually to take notes in their group’s Google Doc. Then, after they have had sufficient time to read, I invite them to continue the “silent” conversation in the Google Doc. Once it appears that most students are done with the reading as well as with their writing in Google Docs, I invite them to engage in a face-to-face conversation with one another around the table.

Depending on my goals for the particular reading and how this activity fits into the scope of our overall course of study, I may have students offer comments upon one another’s documents, I may have the groups write a summary, or I may have individuals summarize the main ideas from both their reading and the small group discussion. There are many possibilities for formative assessment, depending on whether the article is being used mainly for getting their thinking started, or inviting them to delve much deeper into a topic we have been studying for a long time.

In talking with the pre-service teachers as well as with my fellow faculty members, a number of interesting extensions and adaptations came to light:

  • The activity could be redesigned with different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy or cognitive tasks in mind for the 4Cs, it could be used for different genres of reading material, or it could be reconfigured around entirely different articles for each group that they could then bring to a larger, whole class discussion.
  • The activity could also be done out of class, inviting students to thoughtfully read and annotate the article as well as to write their brief response, then coming prepared to class and ready for discussion.
  • The activity could also be done with entirely different kinds of texts including images, paintings, charts, videos, or other forms of media as the basis for response.

Again, the main purpose of this activity is to invite all students to read actively – with a particular perspective in mind – and to bring that perspective to their shared conversation about the text.

Yes, this is an activity that could work perfectly fine with pencil and paper. Still, as many of the pre-service teachers and faculty with whom I worked this week have noted, engaging in this activity with the use of Google Docs allows them to see one another’s thinking unfold in process.

It is a very visual reminder of the fact that we all come to a text with a slightly different perspective and yet can still glean meaning from the text when engaged in substantive conversation.

Update, 4/15/17: Minor editing for a typo


Image by Anna Demianenko from Unsplash

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Can We Make Online (Graduate School) Discussions Suck Less?

Unsplash Image from Juliette Leufke
Unsplash Image from Juliette Leufke

As many of you know, and have probably experienced, discussions in online classes can be notoriously bad.

At best, many online courses feign discussion as a pseudo-cooperative (and not a collaborative, generative) task, and students engage because they are required to connect with the content and with one another.

At worst, the tasks are perfunctory and just for points.

This student summed it up quite well:

7. Responding to Fellow Students

Hi, I don’t know you, but I’m required to respond to your post so we can all act like we give a shit about what each other has to say. Great, good one sided talk, keep up the good work.

NOBODY CARES. This is not real participation. It doesn’t even make sense, if you want students to actively have a discussion about something, then do it. But to just say respond to two other students, it’s like talking to a wall. Most students won’t read their responses, and if they do they won’t care enough to do anything about it.

So, yes, we would hope that students would see online discussion in a different light, no doubt.

Yet, we can’t be angry at the student, since it is we, as the instructors, who create the tasks. But, our discussion design is, usually, a variation on the notorious Initiate-Respond-Evaluate (IRE) pattern, only we substitute the students’ peer responses for our own.

This is a teaching problem.

Why does it happen? Alex Halavais, blogger and professor at Arizona State University describes the problem of learning how to teach online this way:

Few schools require “traditional” faculty to teach online, though they may allow or even encourage it. As a result the best teachers are not necessarily trying to figure out how to make online learning great. We are left with the poor substitute of models coming from industry (modules teaching employees why they should wear a hair net) and the cult of the instructional designer.

So, as online instructors — especially those of us who are tenured faculty — we need to do better.

Good online discussions can happen, if we plan them intentionally. And, there are ways to do it.

As Darabi et al summarized in this meta-analysis:

In summary, based on these findings one can conclude that for online discussion to be an effective instructional tool, it needs to have structure, elements of interaction, a certain level of complexity, task orientation, clear expectations, and personal involvement of the instructor in the course and her/his personal interaction with students.

I appreciate these categories as a way to think about online discussion, and I would add one more element: we need to focus on texts (literally, on text as words, but also on texts in the form of image and video). Students need to talk about something, in context, not just try to randomly transfer their ideas into an online forum with no reference to the text under discussion.

To that end, I am using NowComment as a tool for discussion because I believe that it allows me the opportunity, as the instructor, to set the task and expectations, and it allows students all to engage in conversation with one another around the text itself, at a deeper level of complexity.

And, this is especially important at the masters and doctoral level. The heart of graduate study is to engage, deeply, with these complex issues.

This requires us to rethink our teaching, as noted in this Chronicle essay by Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University. He argues that the main point for graduate seminar discussions is to support two learning goals: transfer and retention. He makes the point this way (emphasis mine):

How might graduate professors teach in order to promote the sensible goals of knowledge transfer and retention?

We have to start by reverse-engineering from those concepts. But there’s the rub: Most graduate teachers don’t want to do that. As self-styled defenders of the last bastion of teacher-centered curriculum, many professors in graduate school want to cover “content” and consider anything else to be a distraction.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the work of the discipline, of course. Graduate students have to read a lot to learn their fields, and nothing is going to change that. But they also have to be able to work with what they’ve read. Seminar leaders therefore need to leave enough time not just to “cover” material but also for students to practice doing things with it. As Robert Frost once said, “It’s knowing what to do with things that counts.

Thus, over the years — both in classrooms and online, but especially online — I have continued to work to make sure that we are not just learning the things, but learning what to do with the things.

To the extent that I am able, I structure discussions have a clear purpose, expectations for turn-taking, and a timeline. With the past few online courses I have taught, I am learning to do this with even more intent. I take time to set up the documents in NowComment, to frame the task, and to set (minimal) expectations for participation. For masters and doctoral students in online courses, I think that these are reasonable ways to initiate a decent discussion and to get students intellectually engaged.

One of my master’s students from last semester described our process in this way:

The most beneficial learning activity for me was using NowComment each week. I prefer to use this format over the Blackboard discussion board because I can find very specific areas of discussion and don’t have to continually click back to a source to discuss it.

So, that was encouraging.

But, right now, I’m struggling.

I am teaching an online doctoral seminar this semester, and I have been trying to scaffold thoughtful discussions around one text and one video each week. I set up the conversations in a protocol-like manner, and  I have been sharing resources like the 50 Questions and Critical Thinking Cheatsheet to help them ask critical (but, kind) questions of one another.

The goal is twofold: they should be talking about the content, yes, but they should also be talking with each other. This is what academics do, and I am trying to intentionally scaffold the process for them as graduate students. NowComment is the best tool that I have found in order to meet these purposes.

And, moreover, for any of them who will be teaching online, I want them to use these types of thoughtful, engaging discussion techniques with your students, too. Part of the purpose of our program is to help them become researchers, yes, and to help them become practitioners of educational technology, too.

Yet, I’m still struggling.

A few are participating regularly, and with purpose. Some are participating. Many are not participating at all.

Earlier this week, I tried to call them out, while I also acknowledged the complexity of their lives:

So I know that we are all busy, all the time.

On the go, on the move, on the run.

Pick your euphamism: our lives are *&%#@! busy. 

And, I can understand that we are all going to have “off” weeks.

You’ve got family in town. You’ve got exams to grade. You got sick. I totally understand. 

As I tried to make clear in my announcement earlier this week, your active, critical, and thoughtful participation in discussion is a key component of your doctoral education. It’s how you retain and transfer information. It’s how you build relationships. It’s how you stake a claim and establish your stance as a researcher. 

NowComment is our place to do those things.

In short, I’m trying to be clear about my rationale for having them participate.

Still, participation is stagnant.

I need some help.

So, I ask… any ideas (both technological and pedagogical) for making online (grad school) discussions suck less?


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Updates from Our Book: Argument in the Real World

Image courtesy of Heinemann
Image courtesy of Heinemann

As a writer — both in the sense that I am a blogger and the author of texts for teachers — I am well aware of the fact that writing is never really “done,” it is just “due.” I am thankful that I have the opportunity to keep writing, keep sharing, keep updating. It is as important now as it has ever been.

When my colleague and co-author, Kristen Turner, and I were putting the finishing touches on our book, Argument in the Real World, last summer, we knew that the world would be experiencing digital arguments in many ways across the closing months of the US 2016 election cycle. However, we had no idea that “fake news” or “alternative facts” would become part of the Orwellian discourse. Over the past few months, the incredible team at Heinemann has been sharing a number of posts and videos related to the book:

They also helped us refine the MINDFUL poster:

How to teach students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media.
How to teach students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media.

Finally, here is a video in which I demonstrate how students can remix existing news content to analyze the implicit arguments presented in the news.

As teachers continue to work with their students to overcome the many challenges we continue to face with media literacy, we will continue to update the book’s wiki page and share more ideas. My hope is that this collection of resources is a good place to begin those difficult lessons and conversations.


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