Sunday, November 22, 2015

Google Classroom in the English Classroom

In a recent post I wrote about my school's launch of Google Classroom. Two months in I am loving the way it's changed my teaching, and have found that our school-wide adoption of Classroom has overlapped nicely with some of our English Department's new goals for teaching grammar and usage. Whereas in the past students turned in hard copies of assignments for teachers to mark up with a grading pen, this year we, as a department, decided to go for a different approach. Inspired by Constance Weaver's The Grammar Plan Book, we've been working on teaching concepts an "inch wide and a mile deep." Instead of marking every single mistake in a student's writing, we're looking for general themes and providing feedback about those themes. For example, I might let a student know they need to spend more time proofreading for comma usage or capitalization errors, as opposed to automatically correcting every single mistake they've made.

Google Classroom's feedback and assessment features have turned out to be a perfect way to implement our new approach to teaching grammar. In most cases, my students are not even turning in hard copies, but rather submit their work digitally through Classroom. Once they've "turned in" an assignment, I have the opportunity to provide comments directly on the document, as has always been the case with Google Drive. However, in Classroom I can also provide a general comment or grade, and this is where I've started to give my "inch wide, mile deep" feedback. Instead of line by line edits, I share with students my advice for general areas of their writing they can improve. Instead of fixing mistakes for them, I draw their attention to a few specific examples, then leave the task of making the majority of edits to them to complete independently.

I'm also finding that having student work organized in Classroom has made it easier for me to notice specific grade-wide trends. For example, as I looked through 50 short reading responses, I realized I was seeing a lot of run-on sentences. I was then able to devote some class time to a mini-lesson on run-on and incomplete sentences, and used Classroom to quickly assess my students' on their learning post-lesson. It's true that one might just as easily notice a trend like this with hard copies, but there's something about the way Classroom visually organizes student writing, and the ease with which I can toggle between different students and class sections, that's made it much easier for me to pick out writing challenges are address them immediately.

Like all GAFE products, my students took to Classroom right away. They're already familiar with Drive, and it was just a few short steps to acquaint themselves with Classroom.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Learning to be a White Anti-Racist Educator

I've already blogged about my experience at the CARLE Institute, which had a tremendous impact on the way I think about race and issues of racism, equity, and justice. Two months into the new school year, I wanted to record some of the ways in which CARLE has directly impacted my teaching and, by extension, my students.

One of my biggest takeaways from the program was the power of a white teacher naming her own race. It's been easy enough to incorporate this into my classroom. This year, as we read Esperanza Rising and discussed the racism Esperanza and her fellow Mexican farmers endure, I was careful to say, "As a white woman, I've never been made to feel like I'm less than simply because of the color of my skin." As CARLE promised, this simple sentence was powerful. While white students snapped to attention, listening more closely, my students of color gave me knowing nods or eagerly volunteered to share stories of when they themselves were victims of prejudice and stereotyping. This simple declaration, this small acknowledgement that I, as a white woman, have a race, opened up a conversation that I'd never had with my students in quite the same way.

More recently, as we learned about the Mexican Repatriation act, one white student asked me how government officials could just force people who looked or were suspected of being Mexican to leave their homes in the U.S. Rightfully so, she did not understand why people would behave so hatefully towards Mexican immigrants who were working hard and abiding by the law. I took this as opportunity to do a mini-version of an exercise we participated in at CARLE. I drew a line on the board and labeled it "Power Line." With my students leading the conversation, we spent a few minutes brainstorming what characteristics or traits would put someone above or below the power line.

They quickly picked up on the fact that white, educated, wealthy, Christian males have historically been dominant in most countries, but then something really amazing happened. I asked them to think about how different situations and circumstances might affect our place on the power line. Since we'd already established the power most white men are afforded, I asked, "Can a black woman rise above the power line?" In unison the class started shouting about Michelle Obama. It was such an amazing moment, and one that wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago.

I feel I've only just scratched the surface of these conversations with my students, but it's been incredibly striking, and rewarding, to see how eager they are for this opportunity. My 5th Graders seem hungry for frank discussions about race, gender, and sexual orientation, and I feel fortunate to have found my voice in leading this conversation with them.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Why I'm Loving Google Classroom

It took only a few days of fooling around with Google Classroom to convince me that it would be a valuable tool for my teaching. Once I started thinking about shifting my curriculum to Classroom, I quickly found a great excuse to review my existing assignments with fresh eyes, and I've happily found many ways to tweak assignments to make them stronger, more interesting, and most importantly, more student centered.

We were already a GAFE school, and I had moved all student writing from Word to Drive years ago, so I wasn't sure I needed Google Classroom. What I discovered, of course, was that this new tool streamlined my workflow and made it easier to do more. 
Image Courtesy of
Below, a quick list of reasons I'm loving Google Classroom:
  • As mentioned above, it streamlines my workflow. Rather than searching through hundreds of shared documents in Drive, Classroom is organized by class section. When I need to look at a student's work, I know exactly where to go and can navigate to her assignment in a matter of seconds. 
  • In the past, it was a struggle to get a classroom full of 5th Graders to title their documents in a uniform, organized way, and to remember to share them with me as soon as they were created. With Classroom, the title field is automatically populated with the name of the assignment and the name of the student. Of course, it's also automatically shared with me through the student's class section. 
  • Because Google Classroom is a paperless classroom, I've been forced to rethink the ways in which I provide feedback on student writing. Instead of using a pen for line by line edits, I can use in-document commenting for specific feedback, and then use the overall comment feature to assess the assignment as a whole.  
  • Classroom is not just for Google Docs. Sure, I can use it to assign a long-form writing assignment that is best suited to a document, but I've also found the Ask a Question feature to be incredibly useful. I regularly use this feature to check-in with students about the novel we're reading. I can ask a quick reading comprehension question in the middle of a class, have students respond to a quote, or even use the function to do a free write. This feature is, to me, the height of efficiency
  • It's easy to plan ahead with Classroom, as I can create assignments and save them as drafts until I'm ready to assign them. It's also just a few clicks to push a single assignment out to several sections. My hope is that the next iteration of Classroom includes a feature for pushing out drafts on a specific future date. 
Assignment options in Classroom
A sample question from my 5th Grade English class. I used this to assess students after a mini grammar lesson 

A sample question from my 5th Grade English class. This was one of several "check-ins" students responded to as we read Esperanza Rising. Their responses helped me assess their level of comprehension as well as their writing skills. 

If you're starting to explore Google Classroom for your school, I'd highly recommend visiting Alice Keeler's site, which has an entire section dedicated to her informative posts on how to best integrate Classroom into your classroom. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mindfulness Meditation in Middle School

This past June faculty at my school were treated to a presentation on mindfulness, and much of what we learned in that hour really resonated with me. I made it one of my summer projects to learn more about mindfulness and mindfulness meditations, and discovered quite a few apps and articles that inspired me to pursue the idea further. Throughout my summer vacation I found myself using these guided meditations to clear my mind or relax before bed, and it was immediately clear that there might be a way to incorporate them into my classroom. 

Last week I told my 5th Graders we would occasionally do a mindfulness practice, and many were already familiar with what this meant, eager to share their own examples from home. For our first meditation I used my favorite mindfulness app, Stop, Breathe & Think by Tools for Peace. I told my students they could sit at their desks or lay down somewhere else in the room, and while some stayed seated many chose to lean against a bookcase or stretch out on their desks or on the floor. I was impressed with how quickly these nine and ten year olds engaged with the quiet, introspective work of mindfulness. There were a few giggles to begin with, but a gentle reminder that they were disrupting the calm was all it took, and a minute in the room was silent and peaceful. 

At the end of that first, short meditation, many of my students said their bodies felt relaxed or their minds calm, and I was delighted today when a few of them asked to do another meditation and the rest chimed in with enthusiastic agreement. One of my favorite things about doing these practices with my class is that I, like them, get the chance to breathe deeply and refocus my mind in the middle of a busy day. It really feels like a critical part of our day - a chance to incorporate some wellness and self-care into our school experience. 

In addition to continuing this practice with my homeroom, I'd also like to explore using Stop, Breathe & Think's "Mindful Breathing" meditation (which comes in 3, 5, 10 or 20 minute versions) as a pre-writing exercise in my English classes. More on that once I've had a chance to try it out, though this article from the Atlantic leaves me feeling confident it will be valuable for my students! 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Yarn Podcast - A Must-Listen for Educators, Readers, and Fans of Graphic Novels

Those of you who already follow #kidlit Twitter stars like Colby Sharp, Travis Jonker, or Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller have probably already binged on The Yarn, a new podcast from Sharp and Jonker which made its debut this August. The Yarn followed the genesis of Sunny Side Up, the newest graphic novel from brother/sister team Jenni Holm and Matt Holm, of Baby Mouse fame. I don't know that I've ever written a first paragraph so full of links, but it is fitting that a brief write-up of The Yarn would be jam-packed with them, given that the podcast itself was incredibly rich and managed to fill each of its seven episodes with big names and delightful details of YA literature. 

After an introductory episode explaining the premise of their podcast, Sharp and Jonker jumped right into their interviews, starting with graphic novel celebrity Raina Telgemeier. Telgemeier's books are perennial favorites in my 5th Grade classroom library, and to date they are the only books which prompted students to create a rogue checkout system in order to minimize the wait time for Smile, Drama and Sisters. Much like her books, Telgemeier's interview was captivating and immediately had me (and many others, judging by my Twitter feed) hooked on The Yarn. Subsequent episodes were equally enchanting. From interviews with Sunny Side Up's publishing team, cover artists, and colorists, to the final episodes in which we heard from the author and illustrator themselves, every episode of this podcast was a must-listen. I found myself thinking about the genesis of some of my favorite YA lit in a brand new way, and as someone who loves knowing "how things work," I was fascinated to hear the process of publishing Sunny Side Up dissected and approached from every angle. 

Upon the release of the final episode, Sharp and Jonker tweeted out a link to their Kickstarter, which they hoped would fund a second season of The Yarn. It came as no surprise to any of us on Twitter who were eagerly tweeting about this podcast that the Kickstarter campaign reached its goal within 24 hours. With 22 days left, the campaign has nearly doubled that goal, which leaves fans like me hoping that Sharp and Jonker will be making Seasons 2 and 3 of The Yarn. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

The CARLE Institute: Critical Analysis of Race and Learning in Education

In early July I had the good fortune to attend the week long CARLE Institute, a program designed for white educators in the independent school system. In the words of the program's founders "The CARLE Institute for White Educators in Independent Schools is structured to give white faculty members the necessary historical framework, interpersonal skills, and curriculum development strategies they need to teach a diverse student body."

I was not exactly sure what to expect from CARLE, although I was struggling with what my role as a white woman ought to be in my school's diversity/inclusivity work, and CARLE seemed like a good place to explore this. On the first day we heard from many attendees who said they came to CARLE because of colleagues who had deemed the previous summer's workshop, "life changing." High praise indeed, but, as I came to learn over the course of four intense days of work, "life changing" was indeed an accurate descriptor for the institute.

I am still working through all that I learned at CARLE, so rather than blog a complete account of the program, I'm instead putting down a few of the important concepts I have been ruminating on for the last few weeks:

  • White Privilege: I have begun to notice that I've started to see the world through the lens of the white privilege I have always been afforded, and have always been able to ignore. This is perhaps one of the fundamental lesson of CARLE: As white educators, we have the luxury of ignoring our race, but also the responsibility to recognize our privilege, understand our history, and do the work of forwarding anti-racism*.
  • Race as a Social Construct: Margery Freeman of The People’s Institute spoke about how race is not based in science or DNA, but rather is a specious construct, a classification system designed to put white people at the top of the pyramid under the guise of “scientific” evidence. This history was new to me, and something I feel eager to make others aware of. It’s a hole in so many of our educational experiences and one that is important for us and our students to be aware of. For those who want to know more about the history of race as a social construct, "Race: The Power of an Illusion" by California Newsreel is a good resource.
  • Intent vs Impact:  A great emphasis was placed on understanding that good intentions do not negate the impact of our words and actions. A well-developed sense of identity as a white person, along with a strong understanding of the power and privilege that comes along with that identity, is necessary for us to teach our students about what it means for them to grow up in this country. Good intentions are not enough - we must act purposefully and consider the impact of our intentions.
  • Organizing: In a powerful session on white racial identity development, Elizabeth Denevi said, “You have to be rooted in your own identity in order to understand the identity of others.” Schools cannot rely on the people of color in their community to do this work alone, and so it’s critical that we engage as many of our white faculty members as we can in the process of developing an understanding of white racial identity and privilege among our students and faculty. Seeing race is not racism, nor is racial colorblindness a solution to the problem of racism.

I cannot overemphasize the value of the CARLE Institute. I highly encourage white independent school educators to seek out the organizers of this program. 

*Anti-racism was a new term for me. I had never come across it before my work with CARLE. While I am hesitant to link to the wikipedia definition, I found the site to be preferable to many others on the internet. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Animating Poetry Using Scratch

I knew I wanted to end the year with a digital storytelling project, and had a vision in my mind of students making short animations to accompany their poetry. I struggled to find the right tool for this idea, but Erik Nauman, my truly amazing colleague in our EdTech department, realized that Scratch would be ideal for what I had in mind. He quickly created a model animation to show my students, and after a few short conversations about lesson planning, we were ready to begin!

Erik led the students through a short tutorial on using Scratch, focused mainly on adding backdrops, sprites, and simple animation. While Scratch has been a challenge for me to wrap my mind around (I'm getting better, but s l o w l y), my 5th Graders were fearless as they explored, experimented, and problem solved using the programming language.

They came up with endlessly clever ways to visually represent their poetry, and used what Erik had taught them to build more complex blocks of code. We spent about 2.5 class periods on this project, and in that short time they discovered how to draw their own sprites, import images from the web, and not only make their sprites appear and hide, but glide as well.

The final results are incredibly sweet and simple short animations (between 10-15 seconds long) of original student poetry.