Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Adventures With @5thGradeEnglish

Last year I introduced a class Twitter account to my 5th Graders, and while my students enjoyed the project very much, I had some hesitation about revisiting the project this year. I can't put my finger on what exactly what gave me pause about using Twitter in my classroom again, although I think it had something to do with doubting whether the experience was as 'valuable' as it was fun. I wondered if tweeting with my students was really a legitimate use of my English class time.

Well, I spent the last two weeks on spring vacation, and of course I found myself on Twitter quite a bit during that time. (When it comes to my personal/professional use of the social media platform, I am all-in!). I happened upon a #digcit chat in which several educators were sharing how they use Twitter with their students, and after a few tweets back and forth with them, I was recommitted to launching the project again this year.

Today, @5thGradeEnglish was dusted off, and I'm feeling more confident than ever that Twitter is an indispensable writing tool for students. Before getting down to business, I began by discussing the online safety and the importance of anonymity with my incredibly media savvy 5th Graders. We also reviewed what we knew about the platform itself - its advantages, limitations, and what makes Twitter different from other forms of social media.

Then, it was time to tweet! My students composed tweets sharing what we were learning about in English, as well as other interesting or fun things that had happened during the day. Watching them work collaboratively to compose a thoughtful, interesting tweet in 140 characters was inspiring. One student came up with the idea for a tweet, while another chimed in with a way to put that idea into writing. Still others tweaked the wording, added detail, improved our vocabulary choices. We chatted for a bit about what our goals were - what we hoped to convey to our audience with our tweets - and the students started editing and revising their 140 characters to try and hit just the right tone (in some cases a sense of respect, in others a feeling of good humor or irony).

We reflected on the process and together we shared the epiphany that the 10+ minutes we'd spent sending two tweets included all the characteristics of our longer writing projects. We brainstormed, wrote, edited, revised, looked for ways to add emotion and vivid imagery, and finally, published. After just one day of tweeting with my 5th Graders, I can't remember why I ever doubted the value and importance of using Twitter in the classroom!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Using Google Forms in the English Classroom

It's been a year and a half since I attended the Google Teacher Academy and became a Google Certified Teacher, and in that time I've incorporated lots of what I learned into my English classroom. My students and I use Chrome and Google Docs nearly every day, and have enjoyed exploring Google Hangouts, YouTube, and Chrome apps and extensions as often as we can. Google Forms, however, always felt like a tool meant for someone else. Though we certainly use forms at school (to take polls, register for clubs, provide feedback, etc.) I had trouble thinking of the role forms might play in my English classes, and so left them to the Math and Science teachers of the world.

All that changed when Megan Rose Ellis, a fellow Google Certified Teacher, tweeted about her English students' independent reading achievements.

Inspired by Megan and her awesome idea to have students fill out a form to log their independent reading, I started thinking about how forms might work for me and my 5th Graders. The above Twitter conversation is from December 2013, and roughly three months (and many email/Twitter troubleshooting sessions with Megan!) later, I find myself using forms with my students in ways I had never considered. 

My first experiment was a Reading Recommendation Form. I'm always thinking about how to motivate my more reluctant readers to read independently, and I thought a chance to suggest a title for our classroom library might be a fun way to get everyone bragging about and sharing their favorite books. 

My students loved being able to submit their personal recommendations, and we all loved that they could do so paperlessly. 

Next up I tried a vocabulary assignment using forms. In my English classes we annotate the novels we read, and while the students have become highly skilled at this, they sometimes need an extra reminder to actually go and look up the challenging vocabulary they've highlighted. For my first attempt, I assigned students specific chapters to reread and mine for juicy vocabulary words. They then filled out the below form: 

Their responses were fantastic, and because Google Forms automatically imports all results into a spreadsheet, I was able to sort the data to a) confirm that all my students had completed the assignment and b) to organize the vocabulary words by chapters. 

For our next novel, I plan to try the vocabulary assignment again, but rather than assigning them individual chapters, each student will submit the form once a week. 

My plan is to assign the form every Monday, and ask the students to collect five juicy or interesting vocabulary words from that week's reading to define and submit for homework. I'm not sure if this weekly form will be superior to the individual chapter assignments, but I'm hopeful it will. 

In general, I'm finding forms to be a great tool for my classes. They're easy for students to use and low-impact for teachers, as submissions are automatically organized and stored in my Drive. I can make a form using any combination of multiple choice, short answer, long answer, check box, or list questions. 

The main challenge I've come across so far is that the form spreadsheet (which is automatically generated when I create a form) grabs hold of every question I put on the form, even those I think better of and edit and/or remove. This means that the response spreadsheet includes columns for questions I've deleted from the form itself, questions which students who fill out the form will never see. An annoying flaw for sure, but not one that's insurmountable. More than anything, this little glitch has quickly forced me to be much more thoughtful and careful in planning out my forms, which overall is not a bad outcome. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Stock Market Game - Interdisciplinary Project Based Learning

For the last several weeks, our 5th Graders have been successfully researching, buying, and selling stocks as they participate in The Stock Market Game. Under the guidance of their math teacher, our students have shown themselves to be savvy investors, and our teams have regularly placed in the top ten for our region.  This week, The Stock Market Game comes to 5th Grade English! The Game includes an essay contest component, and 5th Graders will use their developing writing skills to begin drafting their submissions. After deciding which of their stocks would make for a good long term investment, students will write persuasive essays, using concrete evidence from their research and trading experience to support their opinions. While they conduct research and gather evidence in Math class, the girls will work on planning out their essays, complete with strong topic sentences, supporting details and conclusions, in English. This collaboration between the two disciplines came about quite organically, and we're looking forward to seeing the results of this interdisciplinary unit of study. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Value of a Visiting Speaker

As part of their ongoing study of Afghanistan, the 5th Grade was fortunate to welcome Dr. Howard Zucker to our school last week. Dr. Zucker's visit was a real treat for us, as it was the first time the students were able to speak directly with someone who has spent time in the country they've been so busy learning about. While Dr. Zucker is quite accomplished in many regards - he is currently the First Deputy Commisioner of Health for New York State - the topic of his conversation with 5th Grade was his work with women in Afghanistan. Dr. Zucker shared the story of developing The Afghan Family Health Book, a interactive "talking" book designed to help educate illiterate Afghan women on issues of health and nutrition.  Our students, already quite aware of the challenges women in Afghanistan face, were completely taken with Dr. Zucker's stories of his visits to the Asian country and the people he met there, and enjoyed learning firsthand about daily life in Kabul. They spent nearly 40 minutes asking questions of Dr. Zucker, making it clear that their thirst for knowledge about this subject is unquenchable, and reminding me how important it is to give students these sorts of personalized experience whenever possible. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Skyping with the Founders of Kodable

During the #HourofCode, our 5th Graders started using Kodable, a fantastic iPad app that introduces children to the fundamentals of Computer Programming. The game was a huge hit with our students, with many choosing to play it during free time and some even downloading the app at home. This week, we were very lucky to have a Skype chat with the two founders of Kodable, Grechen Huebner and Jon Mattingly. After sharing a bit about how they became interested in Computer Science and coding, Grechen and Jon fielded questions from the 5th Graders on topics ranging from the challenges of developing an app and getting it into the App Store (Grechen offered some very interesting insight into the complex process) to the fun and creativity involved in designing and naming Kodable’s legendary Fuzz balls. All of the teachers present were impressed with the way Grechen and Jon spoke to the kids, sharing developmentally appropriate information about Computer Science yet still challenging our students to think hard about complex concepts. For example, when one student asked, "Why don't computers just talk to each other in English like we do?" Jon was able to offer a brief and tangible explanation of  binary protocols to explain how computers communicate. Since the #HourofCode, quite a few of our students have developed a budding curiosity in Computer Science, and I'm sure Grechen and Jon have inspired even more of our 5th Graders to pursue this interest in the future! For any elementary educators looking to introduce CS into their curriculum, Kodable is the way to go! 

Grechen and Jon chatting with 5th Graders via Skype

Grechen debuting her handmade Blue Fuzz! 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

#HourofCode #KidsCanCode

During the week of December 9-15, students across the U.S. participated in Computer Science Education week, and my school celebrated by participating in code.org's #HourofCode. I'm an English teacher at an all-girl's school, which at first glance might make me seem like an unlikely candidate for this activity. But, I'm very interested in technology integration in schools, I'm married to a computer programmer who bemoans the lack of female engineers in his industry, and I'm active on Twitter, so all signs (and hashtags) pointed to coding.

With the help of Erik Nauman and Shelley Bookstein, two of our Technology instructors, we introduced students to a variety of coding opportunities. Some used visual programming tools such as Kodable and Scratch while others explored Arduino or Daniel Schiffman's Hello Processing. As a 5th Grade teacher, my students spent much of their time using Kodable, an iPad app that looks and feels so much like a game that our girls were begging for extra time to play and reach higher levels. Even as the tasks became so challenging that I often found myself stumped, the students pushed on, using trial and error and experimenting with patterns of repetition in order to complete mazes and unlock new characters and levels. Indeed, our students were so enamored that by the end of CSE Week, Erik had to upgrade our free app to Kodable Pro, and I had students arrive at school excited about how many levels they'd completed at home over the weekend on their personal devices.

Most wonderful about the #HourofCode was the genuine interest and motivation our students showed just moments after being introduced to the various programming tools. While most folks have been very excited about the #HourofCode, some of the discussion on Twitter regarding the Code.org initiative has revolved around whether this was simply a gimmick. I saw young students discover an interest and aptitude in a field they might not have known existed prior to CSE Week, and so in my eyes the "gimmick" was incredibly successful. As Jeff Wise points out in his recent New York Magazine article, Coding Kids, the number of students who graduate with CS degrees is far fewer than the number of jobs in the field that need filling. Last week kids all over the country discovered a new passion, which seems like the right first step in closing that gap.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The NYSAIS Assistant Heads/Division Heads Conference

This past week I had the privilege of participating in some truly special professional development as I attended the NYSAIS Assistant Head and Division Head conference. I joined the conference as a member of the NYSAIS Emerging Leaders Institute, a two year program for educators who are interested in pursuing leadership opportunities in their school communities. This year's Assistant Head and Division Head conference was focused on issues of time, space and curriculum; themes of great interest to my school as we continue the thoughtful implementation of our new Strategic Plan. As I joined Assistant Heads and Division Heads from independent schools in New York City and beyond, I felt incredibly proud to represent my school and  share the impressive work we are engaging in everyday. The opportunity to reflect on our students, faculty and administration reminded me of what a pleasure my job is, and what excitement our future holds! 

Highlights from my time at the conference included:
  • Hearing from a panel of school leaders who have designed non-traditional schedules. Through the implementation of banded blocks with time built in for teacher PD as well as student-led activities, schools are exploring new ways to learn. I was especially intrigued by the idea of a 90 minute English period, and the notion that these longer blocks don't just mean having more minutes to teach the same curriculum, but rather require faculty to learn new ways of teaching their subject. I think this sort of change to the norm is probably good for both teachers and students!
  • Under the tutelage of Bo Adams and Grant Lichtman, I participated in a break out session on Problem Solving. We followed High Tech High's Dilemma Consultancy Protocol (adapted from National School Reform Faculty's Consultancy Protocol), starting first by brainstorming some real-life problems we faced in our individual schools. We then chose one dilemma to work through the protocol, and I found the process of facilitated question-asking and brainstorming solutions both practical and impactful. The protocol is something I hope to bring back to my school for use with students (peer mediation) and faculty  (generating ideas for changes to curriculum and school infrastructure).
  • From another small breakout group facilitated by Bo and Grant, I learned of Brooklyn Friends' "People We Love" project. Much like LREI's "Visibility" project,  the initiative invites every member of the school community to share a photo of a person in their life who is LGBTQ. The photos are accompanied by short paragraphs about the relationship, and are displayed in a prominent place on the school campus for everyone to see. I love everything about this project.