Stealing Time for Workshop

Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163387808In May, as the school year was winding down, I was met with an all-too-common challenge: running out of time. There were about four weeks left, and the calendar was quickly filling with standardized tests, field trips, and sports competitions. I needed two solid weeks of writing workshops with my tenth graders to complete their final writing piece–an op-ed–but it looked like ten kids would be gone each day for the next four weeks.

I addressed my problem by adding some flipped mini lessons to my writing workshop. Instead of starting class every day with a mini lesson in class, I did a screencast of the same lesson and assigned it for homework. One night the students watched a ten-minute video about improving their diction in their op-eds. Their assignment was to show me where they’d made an intentional choice with their diction. In class, I could quickly check in with each writer, give some feedback about their diction, and assess their understanding of the skill. And my absent students didn’t miss any key instruction!

I was really happy with how the unit worked out for two main reasons. First, I felt like I was stealing back time for writing workshops to do the thing that is key to improving student writing: face-to-face conferences. Second, I was assigning purposeful homework that was giving my students a chance to practice, without their being overwhelmed or confused.

That’s how I ended the year. As I get ready for this new year, I’m wondering how I can expand on this success from the spring. Most kids will tell you that one-on-one time with a teacher has the most impact on their learning. Most teachers will tell you that one-on-one time with their students is the most effective way to move the needle with their learning. So this fall I’m committing to stealing as much of that time back as I can, in the following ways. 

Day One Overview

Course procedures and the course overview are brutal. On one hand, you want to go over some key information with the kids. On the other hand, it’s the first day!

I want to start building my classroom community. I want them writing. This year, I’m going to steal time by flipping my procedures and course overview. The students’ first night homework will be to log into our Google Classroom page, watch a (short!) screencast of the course overview, and answer a question or two in a Google Form for me. 

I’ll be able to gather some information about the students, and ensure that they all know how to log into Classroom. And I’ll free up a whole class period for some opening writing, reading, and community building.

Differentiated Reading Instruction

Last year I flipped my writing workshop mini lessons, but why not use technology with reading instruction as well? My students are all at very different places with their ability to read and annotate complicated texts. Typically, we practice reading strategies as a whole class. We often need a whole class period to work through a text together. We will still do that sometimes, but what about assigning different texts (based on student ability and interest) and using different online tools to help students practice on their own?

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A screenshot of Newsela. Click the image to expand it.

Last year, Amy Gurney wrote about Newsela and its potential for differentiating reading instruction. That’s a great tool to add to my blended workshop toolbox. While students practice, I can do one-on-one reading conferences.

Examining Mentor Texts

At various points in reading and writing workshops, I like to examine mentor texts with the students. Sometimes we’ll look at a professional piece of writing to consider how the author develops an argument. Other times, we’ll look at a student essay and discuss what is going well and what the student may want to revise.

This is a great whole-class activity and a valuable use of time. But, sometimes that whole-class examination could be replaced with a video of my reading and annotating the text. Apps like ExplainEverything make it very easy for me to create a quick video. Students can see and hear my thinking as I read and process a text. The time saved could be used talking one on one about the students’ writing.

I am certainly not advocating that you replace your teaching with a series of online lessons. I will always believe that the best teaching occurs when you are working one on one with student writers and readers.

Still, the reality of modern schedules and schools means that we won’t always have as much time for the deep discussions that we need. Blending technology into my reading and writing workshops means taking various tools and using them to refine and enhance my teaching. As I start the 2016 school year, I want to be purposeful about how I use technology tools to free up time, in order to go back to the basics: face-to-face discussions between readers and writers.

Hattie Maguire (@TeacherHattie) is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her sixteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar and doing Tier 2 writing intervention. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from 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. 

Power = Powerful Writing

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hWhen I began blogging with my 5th graders a few years ago, it was only to participate in the Two Writing Teachers “slice of life” challenge, which encourages writers to describe real experiences. My goal was for my students to put their best writing forward and to make some connections
with an outside audience.

I began at the beginning, so to speak. We started blogging on the first day of school last year and continued all year long. I used the blog as a portfolio of writing progress, and I was able to give blogging homework, which enabled me to teach more responsively and to easily create strategy groups as needed.

Through this experience (and the experience of trying to edit 50 blogs each night), I shifted my mindset and my understanding of blogging’s purpose. The one thing I hadn’t done, I realized, was really turn my students loose with their blogs.

Until this year.

A Revelation

I gave my students this freedom on the first full day of school. For that first day, I booked the technology (ipad carts) and we dug in. Of course, one session is never enough to get a post completed in the beginning of the year, so I booked the carts for a second day.

There were several students who were finished on day one, so I paused the class and went out on a limb. I told them, “This is your blog space. You may do whatever kind of writing you wish in it, within school guidelines.”

There was a quiet pause while this sank in.

“Can we write fiction stories?” someone asked. “What about fantasy?”

“Poetry?” another student asked.

shutterstock_275856317When I said “yes” to all, a new excitement filled the room. Soon students were busily typing stories that were mostly fiction, a genre our writing curriculum doesn’t touch in 5th grade. As they wrote, I was struck by something: They had passion and excitement for writing. The length of the writing alone was impressive, but there were paragraphs and dialogue! Students wanted to know if they could end with an ellipsis and “to be continued.” They were excited to write in this way and to read the writing of their classmates. I’d found gold.

Maintaining Momentum

Right now we are riding the wave of this new freedom; having the power to write anything, at will, has unleashed some powerful writing from my students. Sometimes the quietest voice in the room resonates loudly in a blog. Students are literally looking at each other and saying,”Wow, you wrote that?”

So now my challenge is to maintain this level of enthusiasm while weaving in the “must do’s” of curriculum. I’m not quite sure how to do this yet. I do know that having an authentic audience is critical to the process, so I’ll be reaching out to make connections with another classroom soon.

In the meantime, I think that I’ll go back to the source: my students. If I can continue to tap their interests and give them freedom, who knows what power will be unleashed?

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.