Consistency Counts with Student Blogging

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

The end of the year has come and with it the chaos that teachers know all too well. This blog that I have been intending to write for three weeks is just now coming to fruition…at the end of a 15 hour day. This is teaching in June. Actually, this is just teaching.


When I last wrote it was the end of April, and I was reflecting on the power of audience, when my students had been blogging daily at school for the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life challenge. Then came spring break. THEN came M-STEP. I’m imagining readers emitting a groan of understanding at hearing that acronym. M-STEP became the bane of my existence, not because my students had to take it but because it completely dominated all of the technology in my building, totally disrupting our blogging routine. Students had grown accustomed to blogging at school; they were no longer satisfied with blogging homework. Some had no means to blog at home and so were completely left out. Chromebooks had to re-charge at lunch, so we couldn’t use them even then. We were cut off – our rhythm disrupted – and blogging enthusiasm waned.

We were finally able to recommence blogging last week, but I noticed a change in my students. They hadn’t heard from their blogging buddies from Maine (I’m guessing similar end of year woes were happening there), and end of year activities were throwing off our routine. We went ahead with the assignment I had planned, but I knew that it would not be their best effort and I was right. However, all is not lost. Two things came from this experience:

1. I learned that I must find a way for us to blog throughout online testing next year.

2. I learned the value of keeping blogging homework, even throughout March.

shutterstock_152490218Prior to the March challenge, I had assigned blogging homework every week. Those students without technology were able to stay in at lunch and use the single student computer in my classroom. The students were excited to do this online writing and I gave them feedback every week. I loved it because students were creating a digital portfolio of their writing that would show their growth over the course of the school year. I gave them weekly assignments reflecting the work we were doing in the classroom, which gave me one more look at how they were applying the mini-lessons. Parents liked the technology use and the fact that they could also see their child’s writing – something not easily accessed with often well-guarded writer’s notebooks.

Once March arrived, I made sure we had technology every day to ensure that students were blogging (daily is a much bigger order than weekly) and also to ensure time to respond to other classes who were participating in the challenge. The kids loved it and so did I. It required a sacrifice of some of my instructional time, but was well worth it. Blogging homework disappeared. My mistake.

Now I know the importance of keeping the weekly blogging homework. Had I not let it go, my students would have kept blogging consistently right up to the end of the year. As I think now about the potential writing that was lost, I could kick myself. All of our reading and thinking and discussing of the American Revolution could have been captured on our blogs! Instead, most of it went home today in writer’s notebooks that I can no longer access. Oh but if it had been in the blog…

post it

But that is the beauty of our profession. Like our students, we learn. Then we do better. So into my folder for the 2015-16 school year will go this note: blogging homework every week. Tomorrow I am going to e-mail parents to remind them that their students can blog all summer and to assure them that I will respond. This same message will be in report cards as well. Most students won’t – I know this from previous years. Perhaps next year will be different though. Blogging homework will happen all the way through June. Perhaps next summer I will have lots of posts to respond to each week. Time will tell…

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Workshop: To Go Digital…or Not?

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_211771828At the end of the year, teachers must officially reflect on their teaching and the impact that it had on kids. Now, this is not to say that teachers don’t reflect throughout the year and observe the impact they have on their students, but it is hard to avoid this question at the end of the year. So, I took out my neatly labeled evaluation folder and looked at my goals. My district requires that I write 3 goals that align with curriculum standards, but also with our district goals. We write these in the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goal format. While, I’m a methodical and organized person, I realized quickly that my projected outcomes turned out very differently than I expected. Additionally, my actual student outcomes produced additional questions I need to consider.

Knowing the importance of our district’s technology goal and my own desire to incorporate technology into my teaching practice, I set a goal to create digital Reading/Writing notebooks. In an earlier post, I wrote about my school introducing 1:1 iPads as part of the 1:world project . My plan, subsidized by a small district grant, was to offer students the same notebook experience we used in a workshop classroom, but in a digital format. I researched and realized that Evernote had a sister app that uses styluses for writing rather than a keyboard. With the purchase of Evernote Premium, I could also share out whole notebooks with users, like my students. I thought that this would be a good option for kids.

shutterstock_196017134Still, this brings up an issue I’m still pondering: I believe that in order to consider work truly digital it must be transformed technology–not able to be created without technology. Clearly, we were already doing this notebook work before technology, so how did this digital version help to accomplish my goal? My students and I quickly realized that styluses leave many things to be desired, and we knew that simply putting this work in an online notebook versus a regular notebook wasn’t enhancing the writing process so much. So, I was on my way to creating a digital reading/writing notebook as my goal stated, but at this point, I had to alter the the attainable part of this goal.

As an open-minded and reflective educator, I realized we needed to shift our use of this wonderful tool. As we did this work, I had paper/pencil versions of assignments, notebook tape-ins, examples, etc. available for students to use if they chose to, but I also had opportunities for digital versions, such as an electronic peer review or generating maps. I have to admit that this dual opportunity was more for my benefit in case the digital version didn’t work (if students were unable to load a file or to work collaboratively).

Along with this shift and my first questions, I set a second goal to use a digital notebook to enhance collaborative feedback between students and between teacher and students. By setting this additional goal, there was now a purpose for the online work that could professionally enhance my practice and the reading and writing of my kids. My students and I quickly transferred to all digital reading and writing work. It was user-friendly, and I thought it was important for students to learn how to use technology in a positive way and in a way that could grow their reading and writing skills.

shutterstock_186259448Then, I found myself with a day of digital mishaps that opened the opportunity for students to choose how they organized and crafted their work. I punted quickly with paper copies of the work or the choice for students to create their own page of notes and examples rather than using my digital versions. Students made their choices, and we moved forward with learning for the day. The next day, with all technology working, a student inquired if I had any paper copies like yesterday. This simple question gave me pause. I was embarrassed. I used to be so proud of the choices I provided the students in my classroom, and even more proud when they found their niche and created something that was special to them. I also used to cherish the beauty and variety that students brought to their notebooks – they had my lesson labels and tape-in notes, but they had doodles that added beauty to their pages and colors that shone through the typed notes, as well as messy, but purposeful writing. Now, the beautiful handwriting scripts are gone as are the doodles in the page margins. Their work is still unique in their content and their work is still special to who they are as writers, but it looks very uniform. When I paused, I realized that I also missed my colorful handwritten pages and the little anecdotes from kids that I would add. I got so caught up in using the technology because it was my goal that I forgot about being the teacher that I was.

Admittedly, I couldn’t say that the shift was all bad. I also had to stop and consider if any of the digital work was good for kids, and I realized some significant outcomes.

  • Students received more direct, consistent feedback from me than they had in the past.
  • Students had a record of the feedback notes rather than just verbal notes they had to remember.
  • I also realized that they now had opportunities to read the work of students who weren’t in their class. With shared folders on Google Drive, students could see, read, and comment across class sections.
  • I was also able to offer more short, consistent feedback pieces between students, which students even began requesting.
  • Also, students were able to easily research online.
  • And they increased their audience beyond our school classroom due to online publishing opportunities.

shutterstock_31745713As I reflect at the end of the year, I recall what a mentor said to me–that with older students like mine, I could let them choose. She suggested a short research project where kids choose a way to do their writing work as I offer them options and teach about how writing in different genres requires different tools. I know now that my projected outcomes differed from my goal statements because we had to find the right tools for our needs. While I did accomplish my goal – incorporating a digital reading/writing notebook into students’ practice, I am left with my second question: what is a workshop teacher to do without paper notebooks? And I am still thinking about how digital work can enhance the reading/writing workshop in my classroom.

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.

A ‘Stachetastic Idea: Raising Money in a Teacher’s Honor

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_274462241It all started with a ‘stache.

Sure, I had participated in Movember every November since 2011 to raise money for Men’s cancer and mental health. But I had always shaved off the mustache on December 1, much to the delight of my patient and accommodating wife, Mary Beth, who enjoys facial hair about as much as washing her face with heavy grit sandpaper.

This year, however, was different.

My team teacher at Covington School, Karen Smallwood Fitzgerald, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2013. Karen left the classroom and quickly underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation throughout the course of that school year. After enduring a painful and challenging recovery, Karen was back on the first day of school, 2014, ready to serve her students. A week later, a visit to her doctor revealed that the cancer was back and that it had metastasized to her lymph nodes. Karen hurriedly left the classroom again, and started a new round of chemotherapy. Despite a passionate will to fight, Karen lost her battle with breast cancer in January of 2015.

Our school community felt the need to help any way we could. A team of teachers and parents created Team Fitz in the summer of 2014 and raised thousands of dollars for Race for the Cure, walking in Karen’s honor. While Karen was fighting against cancer in the fall of 2014, our school community held the Fitz Walk at the end of October, which raised nearly 40,000 dollars for Karen’s care. Through t-shirt sales and pink-out Fridays, an idea was hatched by some 7th and 8th grade students who were former students of Mrs. Fitzgerald. A knock on my classroom door, revealed these eager girls who were members of the BCS Spirit Team, dedicated to performing works of service for our community. They were accompanied by a dynamic parent volunteer named Alicia Acey, who helped the girls formulate the next steps.

“Mr Joe? We were wondering if we could use your Movember mustache to raise more money for Mrs. Fitz?”

In the spring of 2012, I was one of five teachers who had shaved their head for hunger relief, so these students knew that I was no stranger to “hair-brained” schemes to raise awareness and funds for a cause.

“Sure, girls,” came my instant reply. “I’ll do anything to help Mrs. Fitz.”

The idea was hatched. The BCS Spirit Committee designed a logo of our school mascot, the Covington Cobra, with a handlebar mustache on its face. Mrs. Acey had t-shirts printed up that featured this image with the slogan “Students Against Mustaches”. When I was presented with my shirt, I hung it proudly in my classroom, right next to the door, for all to see. The idea was that my mustache would be a hook to raise money for Race for the Cure, as Team Fitz was gearing up again to walk again in 2015, this time, in memory of Karen and her valiant effort against the disease. When families donated money to Team Fitz, their name would be entered into a drawing. Two lucky students’ would be selected to use my electric clippers and shave off a half of the ‘stache onstage in front of the kids during lunch.

shutterstock_224233276Much to Mary Beth’s dismay and the delight of my students and kids at home, my mustache was turning into an iconic cookie duster of the handlebar variety, a style which was selected by a popular vote of the students on my team, and required several youtube tutorials and the purchase of Firehouse mustache wax to perfect. Not to mention, an extended growing season.

“So, when are you going to shave it off?” Mary Beth would ask, as the fall became winter and then spring.

“Soon,” was all I could muster, with inserted hope in my voice.

The truth is, I had received a significant number of compliments on my mustache from a random assortment of admirers, usually men and children. Everyone from a passing pedestrian on the Las Vegas strip to a server at our local diner to the bagger at the grocery store would remark, “Nice mustache!” Part of me wanted to keep it.

While my nose neighbor took on a life of its own, it always served as a reminder of the endurance and strength that embodied Karen’s fight for her life. She continued to dedicate herself to her daughters, Mackenzie and Erin, and her fiancée, Malcolm, whom she was actually able to marry, exactly one week before she died. Karen went forward in peace and love.

I felt like every time someone made a positive comment, it was Karen herself who was reminding me that I was doing this for something larger than myself. This was part of the grieving process, and I was healing. I told everyone who asked the story behind the ‘stache, and how I was growing it, to raise money for Race for the Cure, in Karen’s memory.

Rick Joseph with students about to shave his mustache.

As we dedicated the “Fitz-Hive” reading corner in our school media center in honor of Mrs. Fitz, the day neared for the big “shave-off.” Finally, on June 5, after seven months of growth, the mustache was finally finished. I prepared my students by showing them “How to Kill a Mustache” a hilarious video by Youtubers, Rhett and Link. Two grade 3/4 students were chosen, and I brought my clippers to school for the event, to be held on the stage in our cafeteria in front of 200 3rd and 4th graders.

As I faced the kids, I felt compelled to address everyone and articulate the reason behind the mustache. “You might be wondering why I have this handlebar mustache,” I began. “Well, it’s not because it looks cool, or because I like it all that much. Actually, my wife can’t wait to see me without it.” I smiled.

“The reason I grew this was to honor someone who is no longer with us, but who supports us in spirit every day.”

The murmurs of “Mrs. Fitz” rippled from table to table through the cafeteria.

“Yes, Mrs. Fitz. Mrs. Fitz was the type of person who loved people. She loved being a teacher and working with children just like each one of you. She enjoyed reading aloud and would get excited when she could bring a character to life and make you feel like you had entered the world of the story. One of her favorite things to do was to teach kids how to write exciting stories and prove their ideas with good reasons. She believed that kids mattered and that their voices should be heard, not just by other kids but by adults as well. She knew that kids’ hearts are pure, and that we should listen when they speak.”

“You don’t have to grow a mustache to celebrate Mrs. Fitz and her life. You can do something that Mrs. Fitz used to do every day. Just smile. Smile at the people around you. Smile at someone you pass in the hallway, even if you don’t know them. Maybe even say “hello.” You never know, your kindness just might make someone’s day.

“This is what Mrs. Fitz would want. This is the message that she leaves for us today. Remember to smile.”

It all started with a ‘stache.

9.21 face shot JoeRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher of 5th and 6th grade students at Birmingham Covington School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was named the 2015-16 Michigan Teacher of the year. He believes in the power of multi-age education to break down barriers in traditional school settings. Rick advocates for the meaningful use of digital tools on a daily basis to help create meaning and relevance for all learners.  He is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.


Reading in the Sunshine

Notes from the Classroom

So…this happened the other day at my house.  My kindergartner couldn’t put his book down long enough to go get the mail:charlie reading

Oh, be still my English-teacher-Mama heart.

He had a phenomenal first year of school this year, and I’ll never be able to thank his teacher, Irene Settle from Salem Elementary in South Lyon, enough. He’ll read all summer; I’m sure of it.

The next day, this happened in my own classroom:


This young man has been actively fake-reading all year long. He expends more energy figuring out ways to trick me into thinking he is reading than it would take to Just.Read.A.Book. He will not read at all this summer; I’m sure of it.

How do I change that? How do I capture some of my son’s new reader wonder and share it with my teenage students who still view reading as something to be avoided?

This year has been a journey in independent reading for me. I started the year ready to train up an Army of Book Nerds. By November, we were a little battle-worn and I reflected on some of the challenges I was facing.  Then the year got really hairy (doesn’t it always), and I stopped blogging about my journey.  Had I continued, I would have shared this:  It stayed messy. It stayed imperfect.

I asked my students for year-end thoughts about independent reading and they said things like this:

“This class has definitely reignited my passion for reading; before this year, I had only read books that were assigned in school. This year I read countless other books like The Kite Runner and Inferno.”

“I look forward to silent reading. My schedule is pretty busy so knowing that I get at least a few minutes to read everyday makes me happy and relieved.”

“It cheers me up and helps clear my brain.”

I wish I could just swoon a little, pat myself on the back and be done with it.

But my fake reader is still there with his phone in his book. And some of his classmates tell me things like this:

“Reading is still a struggle. I can’t find books I like. If I do, I just can’t drag myself into it.”

“Reading every day is just too much.”


Can I make a  last ditch effort to encourage summer reading with students who feel like this?

There is a long established tradition in high schools of assigning summer reading.  Some schools require it every year. Some have extensive lists. I, myself, assign it in my AP Language class. And it is so, so important that kids read over the summer. Here’s what the research says:

  • All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004).
  • The achievement gap in reading scores between higher and lower income students increases over summer vacation. The research shows that achievement for both middle-and lower-income students improves at a similar rate during the school year. (Alexander & Entwisle, 1996).
  • Reading just 4-5 books during the summer can prevent a decline in a child’s fall reading scores. (Kim, Summer Reading and the Ethnic Achievement Gap, 2004)

But I’m not sure assigning summer reading works. *small, timid, true voice* I know it doesn’t work for some.

So what’s a girl to do?

  1. Don’t give up–not on any of them. That kid who fake read all year? He’s getting a special list from me. And I emailed it to his mom. He might not read, but no one is going to accuse me of not trying.
  2. Take them outside to read in the sunshine. All they want to do is GET OUT OF SCHOOL. So scrap your lesson one day this week, take ‘em outside and let them read. Most of my kids have independent novels they’re reading, but for those that don’t, I’m going to copy the first 5-10 pages of some different, high interest books and have them read those. Maybe someone will get hooked.shutterstock_13180411
  3. Enlist the parents.  Having a kindergartner has been eye-opening for me. I’ve always thought I’m pretty good with communication, but I never really thought about how rarely I ask my parents for help.  I drafted a letter home offering suggestions for summer reading and offering my suggestions for books that might hook their students.
  4. Give students lots of suggestions. I’m planning an end of the year reading party in the last week of school. Teachers from other departments are coming in to give a quick “You have to read this” book talk for the kids, our librarian is doing the same, and I’ve got a few students in each class ready to make their pitches. All the kids will leave with a bookmark of the titles and authors discussed so they can look them up over the summer.
  5. Connect with the local library. I’ve been pushing Novi Public Library’s summer reading program  for a few weeks now and we’ve invited them to stop by our reading celebration.
  6. Share what YOU are reading this summer. I have a list a mile long and I want them to see it. I want them to see that I’m deliberate about my reading. I’m busy just like they are so I plan out what I’m going to read over the summer. I picked my top ten books that I’m planning to read and I’ll be sharing that list with them over the coming days.

I have 9 days left with these kids. Well, seven full days and two exam half days, but who’s counting?  I haven’t reached them all and this last ditch effort probably won’t pick up all my stragglers. But I might get a few more, and at the very least I’ll get an afternoon of reading in the sunshine.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fourteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, English 10, Debate, and Practical Public Speaking.  She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.