#MACUL17: Creativity and Play

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

Photos from the conference. Click the image to enlarge it.

My head is still reeling after attending the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) conference, which took place in mid-March in Detroit. The conference, for those who haven’t attended, is “one of the Midwest’s largest educational technology conferences with 5000+ educators from across Michigan, the region, and Canada,” according to the conference website.

While there, I witnessed two days of inspiring technology ideas, three amazing keynote speeches, and 10 thought-provoking sessions.

Not to mention all of the students and teachers demonstrating some really cool technology. I attended sessions on creating a Makerspace, using technology in a reading workshop, and looking at YouTube videos as a genre of storytelling.

For those who weren’t able to make it, here are some of the major takeaways.

#MACUL17 Keynote Takeaways

#1: Ken Robinson. Sir Ken Robinson, an author and expert on creativity, reminded us that children are inherently creative. Schools should be cultivating creativity through personalization. At the same time, teachers need to connect with and customize learning for each student.

#2: Jane McGonigal. McGonigal, a game designer and the author of Reality is Broken, argued the importance of gaming techniques. Being playful and employing gaming techniques in education, she said, creates super empowered, hopeful individuals.

#3: Jennie Magiera. Magiera is, among other roles, the Chief Technology Officer of Des Plaines School District 62, in Illinois. Taking risks in education, she said, is one of the most important things teachers can do for their students.

The Maker Movement and AARI

I’m new to the maker movement, but after attending my first session, I knew that I wanted to start implementing a maker-mentality in all of my classrooms, and especially with my struggling readers in AARI, the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative.

AARI teachers want our students to:

  • Take risks in reading and thinking
  • Find patterns in text structure
  • Be creative in their representations of text
  • See themselves as readers
  • Feel like they’re a part of a community
  • Approach new texts with a critical stance

In AARI, we also believe that it’s the process that matters–over the end results and even content.

Everything I’ve heard and read about the maker movement, so far, tells me that I’ve got to start including this kind of playful tinkering in my AARI classes. Maker education, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, uses “a wide variety of hands-on activities (such as building, computer programming, and sewing) to support academic learning and the development of a mindset that values playfulness and experimentation, growth and iteration, and collaboration and community,” according to a blog on Education Week.


Materials set up for building a car to race on a track at MACUL.

Maker education benefits students’ creativity, problem-solving abilities, and personal identities. One white paper concluded that “the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world.”

That really resonated with me. It sounded just like that which AARI strives to do for struggling readers, with any informational text that comes across their desk or device.

There’s a lot to consider when starting up a Makerspace. Here are a few of the things I’m thinking about right now:

  • How can I learn more about Makerspaces and how to integrate them into my classroom?
  • How will I fund materials and technology/equipment?
  • How will I organize and set up my materials and classroom to truly embrace the “openness” of a Makerspace?
  • How can I best connect this to my curriculum?
  • How will I protect my Makerspace, once created?

There are those that scoff at the maker movement, calling it just another fad and no better than art classes or drama clubs. And there are those of us that scoff at those people that would dismiss anything so creative and fun and enjoyable.

But if I took away anything from the MACUL keynotes, it was that being playful and creative is super important to children’s ability to learn, adapt, and grow as human beings.

So, in the spirit of taking a risk, let’s start making! If you have any ideas or suggestions for my Makerspace journey, please post on social media or in the comments below.


My first attempt at tinkering with Strawbees building kits.

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.


Edulastic: Authentic M-STEP Prep

Formative Assessment Literacy & Technology Oakland Writing Project

M-Step-Logo_473059_7With test prep season beginning and the M-STEP looming, teachers can become frustrated because there are not many M-STEP released items to use with students, in order to help them practice the item types. The items that are released are likely not related to the content being taught at the time, and, therefore, feel very out of context and inauthentic to students.  

I recently came across a web tool called Edulastic that helps address this problem. Edulastic allows teachers to create assessments that mimic the look and feel of the M-STEP; they include online, technology-enhanced formative, interim, benchmark, and summative assessments. Some of the features of Edulastic include:

  • Instant and real-time data on student performance, in the form of many types of reports
  • The ability for teachers to create their own technology-enhanced items (30+ question types, including embedded multimedia items)
  • Google Classroom syncing
  • An item bank of over 80,000 standards-aligned items, some of which are user created, and some of which are from verified sources, like SBAC and PARCC
  • Free account for teachers; districts can purchase a district account with more features

Linking Test Prep with Coursework

Edulastic’s data reporting seems to be very robust and could benefit teachers and students in the long run. But the web tool’s immediate benefit to teachers is that it allows them to create technology-enhanced questions about the content they are teaching at any given time. Instead of teachers giving a traditional multiple choice test, Edulastic can help teachers mimic M-STEP style in any test at any time, with items like hot text, editing a passage, drag and drop, matching tables, re-sequencing, and more.

Below you will see a few comparisons of what M-STEP released items look like compared with what teachers can create with Edulastic. M-STEP is on the left, and Edulastic is on the right. You can click the paired images to enlarge them in a new window.

Sentence Response: students select a sentence(s) from a passage to answer a question

Sentence Response Item

Passage Based: students read a passage and answer questions about it

Passage Based Item

Multiple Select: students must select more than one answer option

Multiple Select Item

Multimedia Embedded: video or audio is included

Multimedia Embedded Item

Matching Tables: students select features in a table

Matching Tables Item

Essay/Constructed Response: students must type a response to the question

Essay/Constructed Response Item

Being able to create these types of questions for any content means that test preparation doesn’t have to be decontextualized and something “extra” we have to fit in. Instead, this practice can happen at anytime throughout the year on any given assessment. Rather than kids’ having to learn to navigate new types of questions shortly before taking a high-stakes assessment, they can practice all year. Not to mention that these question types often require a higher level of thinking, so they are more than just test prep–they are good assessment practices.

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PM Jianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is the ELA Curriculum Coordinator for the West Bloomfield School District. Prior to this role, she was a middle school ELA and Title 1 teacher. She is a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and is an Oakland Writing Project Teacher Leader. Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.

Sing (err…Speak) Their Praises!

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_352223126A funny thing happened as my students were wrapping up their narrative journalism papers a couple weeks ago on the shiny new Chromebooks I’d reserved for the assignment. As I was reviewing a few formatting details with them, it suddenly dawned on me that my deadline for a hard copy of the paper–the end of the hour–was physically impossible. There is no printer attached to our Chromebook carts.

After panicking momentarily and shrugging off the realization in front of the kids, I remembered a lovely feature of Turnitin.com. I told my students to submit their papers to Turnitin as usual, and that no hard copy would be necessary. In place of the normal written feedback on their papers and on an attached district rubric, my juniors would be getting three minutes of my silky-smooth voice walking them through their writing, using Turnitin’s audio feedback feature.

“Pass me the mic”

You should know that there are lots of educational tools out there for providing audio feedback to students. If all else fails, the phone app Voxer will let you share voice memos with anyone who “friends” you in the application (which can be done without revealing your actual cell number).

If getting ahold of a recording method isn’t a problem but the huge shift in how you provide feedback is, then I’d ask you to consider why conferencing remains the most impactful method of improving student writing. Kids listen when you talk to them one-on-one. Even the reluctant writers.

In fact, The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that the best feedback for student writing “mirrors conversation with student-writers.” Though speaking your thoughts aloud falls one voice short of a “dialogue,” it certainly allows you to imitate the key elements of a good writing conference: your supportive tone of voice, the context for your criticisms, and clear guidance for how to move forward.

Talk Them Up

shutterstock_406788406Let’s consider briefly what written feedback tends to look like when you have 100 essays to grade.

You can use a coded system that reduces full ideas to symbols (that your lowest readers will ignore), you can write slightly longer phrases in the tiny margins (which your kids may not be able to read), or you can attempt to provide a full-bodied paragraph of feedback at the end of each essay (which will eventually give you carpal-tunnel syndrome and break your spirit completely…oh, and many of your lowest writers won’t bother to read it.).

I want to suggest to you that audio feedback solves ALL of these problems. In place of countless marks and comments about a student’s grammar, for example, you can now make one supportive, constructive observation. Here’s one hypothetical piece of feedback about possessives:

“One area you should be focused on in future essays is knowing when to use the possessive versus when something is plural. You confuse the two twice in your first paragraph. You use some really interesting syntax throughout the piece, so this small punctuation issue is holding back the power of how great the rest of your writing is.”

See how I softened the blow of the feedback by connecting it to a reminder of something done well? That’s a lot harder to do in the one-inch margins of the essay itself.

What’s more, you can tell them a sort of “story” about their writing. In place of fragmented ideas like “weak intro” or “explain this better” you can walk them through a coherent examination of their paper’s successes and struggles:

“Notice how your thesis is ambiguous about character X? Now look at how much your second body paragraph struggles to make a clear point about how X behaves in the final scene. Your vagueness in the introduction is keeping you from maintaining a clear focus in your body paragraphs.”

And really, that’s the big advantage to audio feedback: isolated, pragmatic written comments peppering the margins are transformed into a comprehensive walkthrough of their writing. If your department uses a standardized rubric, the structure of your feedback is even provided for you.

Students Want to Listen

I’ve found that even my reluctant writers and apathetic learners are intrigued by the idea of a few minutes of audio just for them. If you keep the tone friendly, they’re especially interested. It feels personal–like you’ve set aside time to speak just to them.

If you aren’t so sure your kids will be as eager about it, save the score of their paper for somewhere at the end of the audio file–make them listen to what you have to say in order to arrive at their score. I promise you won’t have to provide such enticement the second time around if your audio is done right–they’ll be happy to listen.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Newsela: A Nonfiction Resource

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

newselaAs a workshop-model Language Arts teacher, I am always searching for excellent mentor texts to guide students’ writing and reading. The hardest mentor texts to find are informational texts that are grade-level appropriate, as well as high interest in content.  

But there is a great new resource for Language Arts teachers at all grade levels: newsela.com, an online resource that can be upgraded through subscription. I want to share some information on the resource as well as some ways I used it during an informational reading unit to meet the needs of all my learners.

How the Program Works

Within Newsela, you can search topics, and you can refine that search to include grade levels or a particular Common Core State Standard in reading.

From this search, you’ll get a list of articles that have been redeveloped for kids at an appropriate age level. Each article has five levels. You’ll notice, for example, that 3rd grade and 4th grade titles have a statement of the main idea of the article and a lower word count. Eighth grade texts of the same article, on the other hand, have a more complex arrangement of text, as well as an increase of almost 200 words.

At the max level, which is the text as published in a newspaper, you’ll see more complex arrangements of text, as well as the use of advanced punctuation that is not part of the lower-leveled texts. Texts at the “max” level no longer include section headings, and while the word count remains similar to the 8th grade texts, the language is more abstract.   

When citations are necessary, the author of the revised texts is always listed as “Newsela Staff,” and the article titles are not capitalized, which forces explanations for kids. 

Within each grade-level text, you’ll also get four standardized-test-like questions: two for the CCSS standard you searched for, and two for another standard. All of the questions are labeled for the standards, so there is no guessing on the teacher’s part. These questions also vary slightly by grade level.  

If you have the pro subscription, you can send the quizzes to kids’ devices, and you can gain their answers. Additionally, the pro subscription allows the teacher to assign articles, see who reads the article, and allows the students to annotate texts digitally.

Using Newsela in the Classroom

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 4.10.35 PMFor the informational reading unit in my classroom, I chose 8th-grade-level texts from Newsela. The students enjoyed the texts, which looked at: the use of fit furniture for increased movement; schools that use gardening programs to improve health awareness; and school elections and democracy. The texts from Newsela allowed me to create a text pack to use with kids. Since we review these texts together, all students used these 8th-grade-level texts.

Newsela next helped me align texts with informational reading standards, by suggesting a complementary standard for each of the texts I chose around our critical issue. The site also offered me multiple-choice reading questions for each article and standard.

As a class, we read the texts, while modeling reading strategies associated with the standard we were working on that day. Later, students practiced these same skills independently, using texts at their independent reading level with a critical issue of their choice. Newsela offered many resources for student reading materials.

As we read and practiced strategies with partners, I also formatively assessed students using the Newsela questions. Following this practice, we reviewed the features of the questions and the answers. We discussed why particular answers were correct, and how a question’s wording informed the type of answer that was desired. This practice was to give students more experience with test question language, not to get right answers.  

In my classroom, this practice became a small competition with little stress for students. I also used these materials to assess my students in a summative way on the reading skills they learned during this unit. I provided personal texts for a student’s reading level, along with 8th grade assessment questions; throughout the course of this unit, I realized that students could be assessed at grade level even if they couldn’t read the 8th-grade-level text. At the same time, providing students with an appropriate reading level text allowed them to be more successful on grade level experiences.

In the past, I’ve struggled to find informational texts that are reading-level appropriate and high interest. Newsela offered me these. I recommend the use of this resource for all ELA teachers.

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.

Building Digital Portfolios

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_170012141For the past several years I have been having conversations with different people in my district about having our students create digital portfolios. This effort is finally gaining some ground, though the way has been painfully slow from my perspective.

As a classroom teacher, I have been talking with my students about this, and having them create pieces of digital writing in different formats that they can retrieve in future years.

Why Digital Portfolios?

Ever since earning my Master’s in Educational Technology, in 2009, I have had a passion for the power of technology and its ability to transform teaching and learning. I have also recognized the untapped potential for our students in having digital archives of their learning journey. My vision is that our graduating seniors would have a website that they could use for job and college applications, one that would contain documents, videos, recordings, and other artifacts from their K-12 years.

While this vision is far from being realized, we are making some gains. The Media Specialist in my building has been working with our Music teacher to store voice recordings of our students from each year in elementary. She has also begun to have students store Google Docs in a folder that could someday be tapped for a full portfolio.

What Can I Do Today?

Here in my world of 5th grade, it might seem frivolous to have students thinking about digital portfolios. Not so, I say. There is such power in students’ revisiting their work from the beginning of the year and seeing growth, or revising a favorite piece to make it even better.

Every year I tell my students that when they go to middle school, they can show their teachers their websites that they created for informational writing. (I’ve had teachers e-mail me, so I know they do this.) Often, these students will be a bit embarrassed by the lack of content or the mistakes they’ve made, but this is evidence of growth!

shutterstock_118599142This project has also inspired students to create other sites about personal interests. Seeing the application of this skill in their personal life is exactly the kind of transfer we hope for, and the kind of artifact that students can highlight down the road.

Because I have my students blog on a platform that I provide, I have to archive the class blog each year. Before I do, I tell them to copy and paste their favorite pieces into Google Docs, so they can access them later. This causes them to really evaluate what writing is their best and what is worth saving.

An Eye to the Future

These are small steps toward a full portfolio—a vision I’m not sure will ever be realized. However, I can plant the seed of the idea and have my students begin collecting and archiving their best work. The more that technology integrates into our students’ lives, the more inclined I think they will be to continue creating their portfolios. At least I hope so.

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. 

Online Writing: Beauty and the Beast

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_348905468Each year I have my students engage in a variety of online writing experiences: blogging, Google documents, websites, and presentations. At this point in the year, I find that there are two sides to online writing, and finding a way to balance them is my greatest challenge.

The Beauty

I love having my students write online. Online writing is easier to edit, I can leave comments, and I don’t have to lug tons of notebooks back and forth. I can sit with my computer in my lap at night and toggle through a wealth of student writing. It is by no means faster (sometimes I feel like it takes a bit longer digging through my links) but I do love not having to worry about whether assignments were turned in, or if I left papers at school, or somehow something got lost.

Digital archive

Online writing allows me to have a digital archive of my students’ writing, which is invaluable at parent-teacher conferences in the spring. It is amazing to see the growth—or sadly sometimes the lack thereof—in student pieces. Because I give lots of craft assignments early on, I can easily show parents my assignment posts and their student’s writing in response. This allows for easier conversations about why a child is beginning, developing, or secure in his or her writing skills.

This encourages revision. With this kind of online portfolio, some students have asked to go back and revise and edit—a teacher’s dream! They actually want to do this? Sometimes I take screenshots of the “before” piece, so that I can have them to compare to the revised and edited work. This helps me when I confer with both student and parent.

Authentic audience

Establishing partnerships has been a beautiful thing as well. This year we are blogging partners with two 11454297503_e27946e4ff_h5th grade classes in Maine and we are participating in the Two Writing Teachers Classroom Slice of Life Challenge. My students are excited to log on each week to see what their long-distance partners have written, and to leave and receive feedback. In the classroom challenge, they are looking at writing from classrooms around the globe, which makes their own writing more purposeful. They grapple with their subject matter because now that they have an audience, they want it to be interesting.

Without fail, I have at least two or three students from each class who ask me what to write about. Convincing some of my students that they have moments that are writing-worthy is a constant challenge, but in spite of all this, I am finding every student engaged to a greater degree than they would be if they were only writing in their notebooks. That is beautiful.

The Beast

Of course, this all sounds great. What could possibly be a problem? Well…

Greater responsibilities for feedback

If I had the time each and every night to read and leave private comments on students’ blogs, life would be grand. But I don’t. So, I let the posts pile up, and pretty soon I am harassed by my students enough that I sit and power through countless blogs in one night.

I’m still not able to allow my students to comment freely on one another’s blogs, which means that I have comments to approve as well. All of this can become a monster to manage, and I confess that this year I have not done as well as I would like. Now that we have blogging partners, the SOLSC, and the interface on our blog has changed … it is very time consuming and at times, downright annoying.

Problems with technology

Every year, I have my students create individual Google Sites for our informational reading and writing units. For the units, we take notes, do our writing in packets, and then transfer our writing to the pages of our sites—my attempt to help them avoid plagiarism. Again, this allows for easy conferring on my part. It also unleashes a whole new animal.

Ten-year-olds often believe that they know more about technology than the adults around them. While this is frequently true, their tech confidence becomes a nightmare when working with certain programs. No matter how many directions I give, there is always that group of students that thinks they know better. (Or the group that totally misses the directions.) This leads to a lot of time spent undoing, re-doing, and re-teaching. Grr. My students discovered the hard way last year that copy-paste doesn’t work all of the time in Google Sites, even though someone had told them that. This resulted in many hours spent finding, downloading, saving and uploading pictures, not to mention having to create the citations all over again.

Happily Ever After?

At the end of each project, I find that I’ve learned something new that will help me (and my students) in the future. I also find new challenges with technology and the individuals who are in my classes. This is truly a never-ending journey, but one that I am still happy to be on.

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. 

Good Teacher, Bad Data

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Professional Learning

shutterstock_268996268I think it’s safe to say that there’s a bit more mathematical calculation in your normal English classroom pedagogy than there was, say, five years ago.

And you know what? That’s a good thing—a great thing if you’ve found meaningful ways to use the data gathered from formative and summative assessments.  

But data can also be pretty misleading.

The idea of using data to improve instruction has always been presented as a simplistic and elegant solution: gather data that shows which students miss which questions and, voila!, you know  where to direct differentiated instruction, to help every student reach mastery of the learning goals. 

To wit: An easy question about the tone of an author yields 90% of your students who correctly identify and explain the tone, but the second tone question on the same assessment—testing the same learning goal but providing a much more challenging passage—reveals that only 50% of your class can really decipher tone when the going gets tough (or the tone gets subtle).  

This is really fantastic information to have! Ten percent of your kids need to go back and review their notes and probably do some formative practice. But there’s another 40% who need to work on applying their newfound skill. They clearly know what tone is, but at some point when the tone isn’t smacking them in the face, they actually aren’t that great at recognizing the trait in writing. The needs of these two groups are different, but now you know whom to direct to which formative task!

The Signal, The Noise, The Headache

51Ui-zv3m7L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_The funny thing about data, though, is that numbers aren’t as clear and objective as all those charts and bar graphs would have us believe. If you don’t want to take an English teacher’s word for that, get ahold of Nate Silver’s excellent book The Signal and the Noisewhich reveals just how difficult it can be to get data to tell you the truth.  

Or, for that matter, believe your own experience, since I’m fairly certain you’ve also experienced the sort of data debacle I’m about to describe.  

A few years ago, my professional learning community rewrote all of our assessment questions so that they were clearly labeled by learning goal. When we tested a student’s ability to support an argument using textual evidence, the question might look like this:

Using Evidence: Using at least one quote, explain how Jon Krakauer establishes Chris McCandless’s desire to live a more primitive lifestyle in Into the Wild.

Now everything should be clean and easy to parse—if kids get the question right, they have mastered the use of textual evidence. If they get it wrong, they have not. And if they can explain Krakauer’s methods but fail to use a quote, we can presume they’re halfway there.

So would it surprise you to learn that my PLC ended up getting incredibly muddled data from this question? And that we eventually had to rethink how we were interpreting much of the data? Here are some of the issues that we encountered:

  • How can you tell when a student lacks a skill versus when they lack vocabulary? Three of my stronger students asked me what primitive meant—in my first period alone!
  • Did all the students recognize the implicit meaning of the verb explain? Have you been clear about what various verbs (contrast, analyze, challenge) demand of them in an assessment?
  • How do you decide whether a student just hasn’t written enough? And what should the takeaway be when students can vocalize an answer that is thorough and accurate?
  • How much should you be concerned when a student’s example is the one you’ve already used in a class discussion? What if that brand of example shows up on every single assessment a student takes?
  • If you give the students one passage to focus on, is a correct answer an indication of mastery of this skill or only partial mastery (since on their own they might not have been able to select the relevant part of the text from, say, an entire chapter)?

Any of these are good reasons to have a careful data discussion in your PLC. But let’s just take that first one—lacking a skill versus lacking vocabulary—as an example. 

I couldn’t write off as a trivial minority the students who asked the question (what primitive meant)—these were the grade-concerned kids who were good about asking questions. If they didn’t know the term and said so, then there was a good chance that A LOT of the other kids also didn’t know the meaning of primitive. They just didn’t bother to ask.  

Is Data Doomed?

All of a sudden, our data about this fundamental writing skill seemed really murky. And this was a learning goal we thought was pretty transparent and objective!  There was a sudden temptation to go back to the more instinctive, less numbers-driven approach to gathering feedback about students.

Even though gathering good data in English is tougher than it seems, it is both possible and essential for effective instruction. I’ll revisit my own case study in my next blog post, in order to elucidate a few of the counter-measures my PLC took to help avoid “fuzzy” data points.

In the meantime, think about the next assessment you give to students. Whatever data you take from it, ask yourself whether more than one “theory” about the kids’ performances on it would fit the data you’re staring at.

Michael Ziegler

Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Kindergarten Research Project

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

061Yes, we have to do a research project in kindergarten!

Like it or not, the Common Core State Standards clearly require this work. For one standard, students must “participate in shared research and writing projects.” Another states: students must “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.” And a third requires that, with guidance, students “gather information from provided sources to answer a question.”

Talk about stress—students who are just learning to read and write, who have to do research and write a report. It’s a challenge for everyone involved.

So last year we approached this differently than in the past, and ended up loving it.

Finding Animals

We began by choosing a handful of animals living at the Detroit Zoo. We pulled books from the library and magazines like Ranger Rick, and created easy-reader nonfiction books about these animals. We had these available in the classroom.

leopard_amur_01We also looked for kid-appropriate videos and zoos that had viewing cameras on the animals. The San Diego Zoo, for example, has a lot of great animal cams.

We started off the unit talking about the three things animals need to survive: food, water, and shelter. We had a deck of cards, with each card listing one of the needs to survive. Students took turns pulling three cards. If they didn’t have one of each need, they sat down. If they received one of each, they were able to get back in line for another turn.

When more than half the class was sitting down, we started discussing what they noticed. We then led the conversation toward the students’ understanding that animals need food, water, and shelter to survive. This segued into a discussion about endangered animals as compared to extinct ones.

Thinking Like Scientists

The next lesson focused on scientists. We talked about how scientists would do research and what they might need or want to know. The class came up with these questions and then it was game on!

  • What does the animal look like?
  • Where does the animal live (habitat)?
  • What does the animal eat?
  • What are some interesting facts?

As a class, we were researching an animal to practice how to find the information. The students also split into small groups and chose an animal.

Before we started our research, we wrote on a chart page what we already knew, or thought we knew, about our chosen animal. Then each day we chose one of the driving questions to focus on. As a class, we found the answer for our class animal, and then the groups split off and went to work.

Some groups wanted to watch the videos, while others hunted through the books. They had a packet to complete together with the information they found.

The culmination of this research project was my favorite part. The students had to create a model of the animal, its habitat, and food source. We encouraged them to incorporate the interesting facts they learned, too, and instructed them to label items. When they were completed, we recorded a video of each group showing us what they created and answering our driving questions. Students were so excited to share what they had completed, and they were so proud of themselves.

We celebrated a wonderful learning unit by going to the Detroit Zoo and teaching our chaperones about the animals we studied. Needless to say, the parents were impressed!

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: http://kindergartentreasures.blogspot.com/) is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She recently became part of the Walled Lake Teacher Leader Fellowship. She is in her tenth year of teaching, with eight in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Making Reading Interventions Relevant

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163383446As a teacher who works with struggling readers, my favorite time of year is the end of the semester. It’s then that I assess students’ progress. When I give them their results, some can’t believe it. Some want to call their parents to share the good news. And some even cry. They all beam with pride.

What’s not to love?

The time of year that is a close second, though, is the just-past-halfway-point. Yes, I know that this is when students and teachers tend to count down toward the next break, with nothing but survival on their minds. But in the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, things are starting to get exciting.

AARI is a program that quickly brings struggling students up to grade level, using a variety of research-supported techniques. During the first few weeks of AARI, we learn a lot about an author’s purpose. We also learn how authors achieve their purposes through the organization of their texts. We focus heavily on text structures and “mapping” a text’s organization, which shows the relationships between facts and information.

It’s at this point in the year, this just-past-halfway-point, when my students start to recognize text structures in their books—on their own. I love this because it shows me that they’re ready for more. They’re ready to start transitioning to grade-level texts.

The Real-World Connection

There are other signs that they’re ready. Sometimes a student will burst into the room at the beginning of the period and exclaim, “You’ll never believe what we’re doing in Chemistry! The teacher gave us a chart, and he didn’t even realize it was a matrix!”

Seeing kids make these connections to their learning is what makes my work so vital. It’s why even as I’m launching the first weeks of the class, my focus is always on my endpoint: helping students use their intervention in relevant, real-world applications.Sequence Word Bank

This real-world focus starts early. Toward the beginning of the semester, we start talking about our text structures in the “real world.” I start this discussion by asking students what clues readers have in other, more difficult texts.

Together, we make anchor charts of “clue” words and phrases that writers use to signal that they are using a particular text structure to organize their thoughts. We post these in the room and add to them as we encounter more. Having these word banks arms students with tools to start recognizing text structures when the texts aren’t so easy.

Starting Small

Once students have these tools in their tool belt, I start introducing higher-level texts. They’re gaining proficiency, but they are still struggling readers, and they’re not ready for the full independence of working with long texts on their own.

So I start to give them a little taste: an appetizer, if you will. To do this and to make the reading relevant to them, I get my texts snippets from their content area textbooks.

I bring these “appetizers” in to class and “serve” them at the beginning of class as our warm-up. To scaffold their reading, I give them a focused purpose. They may have to answer a question about the author’s purpose, or they may have to identify a text structure. It helps them to see that their practice work with the easier texts is helping them to approach the more daunting texts they see in their classes all the time.

Lessons for ELA Classrooms

Finding this balance is crucial not only in intervention classes like AARI, but in all reading. We know our students have some pretty high expectations set by the Common Core State Standards and assessments like the redesigned SAT. Teachers want students to be able to access their texts, but they also know the value of exposing them to more challenging options. To help achieve this balance, I’ve found that these steps are key:

  • Arm students with tools to help them bridge the gap between accessible and challenging texts. Word banks are a great start.
  • Introduce more difficult texts slowly and in small chunks.
  • Gradually build to a combination of high-level, high-skill texts that require more stamina.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

A Window into Students’ Thinking

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_133106732If you are an educator, you know how quickly things can pile up around conference time and holiday breaks. Add in a few major life crises, and you can get way behind.

So when I finally got back to my students’ blogs (I am not even through half of them!), I had some pleasant surprises waiting for me. As I read through my students’ posts, I found myself gaining new insights into who they are as people, even though their spelling and grammar still jumped out at me.

Our last assignment was based on an article about participation trophies, from a reading in Scholastic News, a regular source of readings for my students. The responses of the students were heartfelt and gave me something to think about.

One student wrote, “I remember when my brother went to his Boy Scout wood car race and he lost and he cried because all he wanted was to win.”

Another student wrote, “I had a special needs kid on my baseball team and he was happy and proud that he got a medal in the end.”

Only in Blogs

As I think about this topic, I realize that we could use it in multiple ways: to write persuasive essays (complete with the counterargument paragraph); to have a dialogue and step inside the shoes of someone with a differing opinion; or to brainstorm new ways of doing things that would be win-win.

Yet had we read this article in class and had a discussion, I don’t believe the outcome would have been the same, compared to what came from the blogs. The reason why?

My students tend to publish their posts before reading others’. This means their thinking isn’t influenced by their peers. (Parents probably have an influence, but not for all students.)

This gives me a more authentic look into students’ thinking and sets us up for more powerful conversation and learning. It’s another benefit of blogging that I hadn’t anticipated but am thrilled to discover.

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.