Makerspaces and Opportunities for Learning Literacy

In 2011, a faculty member wanted to bring in a summer school program for some of our gifted and talented students. Called “Camp Invention”, students spent a week taking apart computers and creating new worlds with peers. I had never seen students more engaged in learning than during this experience.

Afterward, something nagged at me: the program was not intentional about incorporating reading and writing into the curriculum. I could understand the rationale. Educators are always trying to stuff literacy into anything students are doing. Yet are these two areas – innovation and literacy – mutually exclusive?

Halverson and Sheridan tease out the complex nature of the maker movement in education (2014). They define it through three lenses: “making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities of participation” (501). In literacy, students are (or at least should be) constantly making. For example, consider the verbs we use to describe writing. We craft an essay, develop a narrative, and build an argument. These actions cross the line between the tinkering, creating and iterating that happens in makerspaces and the drafting, revising and publishing that is synonymous with language arts. Halverson and Sheridan also see the possibilities.

“Learning through making reaches across the divide between formal and informal learning, pushing us to think more expansively about where and how learning happens. In this way we can talk about the who, what, and how of learning without getting hung up on the rules and constraints that govern different settings” (498).

A question that frequently comes up in education circles is, “How do we get started with makerspaces?” Teachers usually follow this up with concerns about time, resources and administrative support. Now in my second district, and having visited several more, I can say that makerspaces are unique from school to school. Some buildings house makerspaces in their libraries, while others have a separate, dedicated space. When it is not a building initiative, makerspaces find space in teacher’s classrooms under the guise of “Genius Hour”.

What they all have in common is they are personalized to the needs of the students. The kids direct the learning. In response, the adults often adjust their roles to that of a coach and guide on the side. The observed result is higher levels of student engagement in school, which tends to spill over into the core academic areas. Gershenfeld has found increased engagement to be true, noting how personalization is “a market of one person”. In makerspaces, students might start creating something of their own interest, but a lack of purpose and audience might propel them to start thinking about how they can make an impact in the broader world.

For instance, 6th grade teacher Chris Craft has led his students in South Carolina to print more than 150 prosthetic human hands for people in need using a 3-D printer (Herold, 2016). This work includes video production and online sharing, all critical literacy skills for the 21st century. This example and others similar show how schools can “decentralize enthusiasm” (Gershenfeld, 57) in the goal of creating engagement in learning through doing real work while applying core competencies. Literacy appears to lend itself way to many of these opportunities.

References

Gershenfeld, N. (2012). How to make almost anything: The digital fabrication revolution. Foreign Aff., 91, 43.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-504.

Herold, B. (2016). What It Takes to Move From ‘Passive’ to ‘Active’ Tech Use in K-12 Schools. Education Week: Technology Counts, 82(2), 33.

Ripe for Change: Digital Media as a Tool for Innovation in Disciplinary Literacy

I was winding down at the end of a school day when I saw my son at the table in my office.

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He found my iPad, opened up Minecraft, and started working on his world. To aid in his creations, he would reference a Minecraft guide book from time to time. I didn’t have to offer any help in setting up his world or in guiding his reading. He was motivated to understand the text because it meant he could be more successful in creating new things in Minecraft.

Seeing these examples of learning in the absence of a teacher, it is both humbling and promising. Educators have responsibilities to ensure students meet expected levels of achievement. Report cards and test scores made public can determine the level of support we receive from our communities. Unfortunately, these assessments do not communicate how well students can teach themselves or how motivated they are to learn. The mindset that we should always be teaching may undermine students’ opportunities for self-directed learning.

Where do we find opportunities for kids to explore their passions and interests? I believe the content areas, especially in science and social studies, offer the best possibilities for rethinking how schools might improve the educational experience for students and teachers. Next are a couple of ideas for how a teacher might explore what’s possible.

Digital media literacy and civic engagement

In the current political races, more and more campaign dollars are being spent toward online advertising and constituent engagement. Right now in the fall of 2016, it is hard to avoid a political message when logged in on Facebook or Twitter. These communications are not limited to the candidates. Political commentators, journalists, and bloggers all weigh in on the current races for political positions.

Teachers can tap into the power of social media and design a series of lessons that help students develop a deeper understanding of the democratic process, recognize bias, and evaluate the validity of online content. For example, students could explore how the use of hashtags can have different levels of meaning depending on who is using them and why. The concept of hashtags for understanding social media moves beyond advertising and into the realms of networking and community-building.

This is important. Engaging students in developing a better understanding of digital media literacy has shown to increase students’ participation in civic activities, including creating original content online, and in developing more diverse perspectives of politics and important societal issues (Kahne, Feezell & Lee, 2010).

Gaming and scientific inquiry

Games such as Minecraft encourage both participation and collaboration. Students such as my son can build worlds virtually from scratch and invite others to join them via an Internet-enabled device. They construct these worlds through collectively agreed upon norms and goals. Chat rooms and in-person dialogue accompany their work.

As students become more fluent in these participatory technologies, teachers can leverage these tools to support content areas such as science. As an example, circuit building is an option for Minecraft participants. They have to mine the proper elements (i.e. Redstone) and place them in strategic locations to create a line (i.e. Redstone Dust) that can transmit energy. Now that students have their Minecraft creations powered up, then can operate doors and turn on lights.

These discoveries can serve as entry points for future explorations into scientific concepts such as electricity and renewable vs. nonrenewable resources. Games such as Mincraft can make abstract concepts more concrete. Just as important, students become active learners instead of passive recipients in school. “We know that people learn best, and enjoy most, when they are working on personally meaningful projects” (Resnick, 2012).

Teaching students through leveraging digital media tools to support their important projects will introduce them to information and concepts in more relevant and usable ways.

References

Kane, J., Feezell, J. T., Lee, N. (2010). Digital Media Literacy Education and Online Civic and Political Participation. Working paper: Youth & Participatory Politics. Available: http://dmlcentral.net/wp-content/uploads/files/LiteracyEducationandOnlineParticipation.WORKINGPAPER.pdf

Resnick, M. (2012). Reviving Papert’s Dream. Educational Technology. 52(5), pgs. 41-46.


This is a sponsored post. Rocket Island is a Kickstarter project. The creator, Timothy Young, is focused on creating an immersive and enjoyable 3D game with an educational purpose.

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Players explore a digital world to collect resources and information in order to launch a rocket into space. Young wants this game available to students from all around the world to learn about environmental science. If you can, please support this project

Three Ways to Increase Student Engagement in Reading

The research is clear: If a student is not motivated to read and is not engaged in the text, all of the strategy instruction a teacher might provide may be for naught (Guthrie and Klauda, 2014; Ivey, 2014; Wanzek et al, 2014). That is why it is critical that we make reading meaningful so that students make meaning out of what they are reading and become lifelong readers.

The following three activities are excellent beginnings for increasing reading engagement.

1. Reading Aloud

This is quite possibly the most underutilized practice K-12 that also has the greatest potential for developing engaged readers. It’s how I got engaged in reading – my 3rd grade teacher read aloud Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. I was hooked. I don’t know how many times I reread that book after hearing it read aloud (my parents could verify).

When I was a 5th and 6th grade teacher, one of my go-to resources was The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. The treasury of recommended read alouds in the back of the book was indensible to me as a busy classroom teacher. Whatever he recommended, I know I could count on as a quality text that would create an excellent shared reading experience with my students.

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As a school principal, I continue to utilize reading aloud. For example, I read favorite poems, jokes and quotes during morning announcements. Also, teachers invite me to read a favorite picture book in their classroom. It’s a great way to share an excellent story while also getting to know the students better. In addition, I model for everyone – students and teachers – the importance of creating shared experiences around the written word.

2. Speedbooking

The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to new titles they might want to read and add them to their to-read list. The power in this practice is that the students are the ones recommending the books, not the teacher. This idea comes from an article out of the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal. It is an activity designed for English language learners, but as with most better practices, it is excellent for all students.

To start, I explain the purpose for the activity (to discover new books to read; to build a stronger community of readers; to learn how to write and share a short book review). Then I model for the students how to prepare their reviews. Recently, I used a favorite chapter book/read aloud of mine, The Smartest Man in Ireland by Mollie Hunter. Here are my notes I wrote under the document camera for 5th graders.

The students write their own short summary notes as I write mine in front of them. I make the point that the focus is on being able to verbally share a book review. The notes are there as talking points. Also stressed is the importance of stating the author’s name and considering why the audience might want to read the book. Students are apt to describe why they like something without thinking about their listeners in their review.

With notes and book in hand, students get into two circles facing each other. For some humor, I share with the students that adults used to participate in speeddating to meet someone they might want to date (“Ewww!” is the common response). To draw the analogy, I explain that they should be particular about which book(s) they might want to read and to be a critical consumer if they don’t find a title appealing.

This leads into each student getting 1-2 minutes to verbally share a book revew of their favorite title with their partner and then switch. One side of the circle moves either to the left or to the right, and the process starts over again. When a book strikes their fancy, they should write it down to consider for later. They may not hear every book and that is okay. A final product is a to-read list on an index card they can use as a book mark.

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3. Book Raffle

In 2013 I wrote about hosting a book raffle in a 5th grade classroom (click here for that post). The idea comes from Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller and Susan Kelley. Here is how it works:

  1. Select books from the school library and bring them into the classroom.
  2. Provide a list of the titles for each student + sticky notes for the raffle.
  3. Recommend each book to the students while they note which ones they want.
  4. Students put raffle tickets in for the texts they want to read.
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I have read all of these books. I could not recommend them without having read them.
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Students note which books they want on the list and prepare raffle tickets.
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The cups in front of each book will hold their raffle tickets.
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Students put in their raffle tickets for the books they want to read

All of the titles are from our school library. With the lists the students now have, they can check out any book they want but couldn’t get right away at a later date. I encourage students to “bug” their classmates to finish a book they want to read next.

All three of these activities are only the beginning for building reading engagement in a classroom. Teachers have to keep the momentum going, by reading aloud daily in the classroom, by frequently checking in and conferring with students during independent reading time, and by celebrating their literary accomplishments, such as number of books read and how widely they are reading. Donalyn Miller’s two resources (The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild) are filled with excellent ideas for any teacher looking to build reading engagement in their classrooms.

References

School Principal: Lead Learner? Lead Reader?

In a blog post for Nerdy Book Club, I quietly posed this question. I hear and see the title “Lead Learner” thrown out as a better way to describe the principalship. I appreciate the idea, as it seems to have good intentions, that we should all be about learning. A nice article in one of last year’s ASCD Education Update describes how two principals live out this title in their current roles.

Of course, there is critique in any level of change that has become an institution. For example, in that same article, Pernille Ripp questions why there needs to be a revision.

As adults, we get so caught up in titles, [but] kids are much more focused on what you’re doing rather than what they call you.

Baruti Kafele offers a similar sentiment regarding principals adopting this idea.

Why the title? I just want us to be a community of learners, but I don’t necessarily have to be the lead learner.

Like Pernille, Baruti emphasizes the importance of modeling what we want to see in our school. He offers examples in this video interview for ASCD.

For me, my title will remain “principal”. It is true that our position is defined in our actions rather than merely our words. I think about all the efforts made to promote authentic literacy in our school, from the morning announcements in which I share a book recommendation or a quote, to my staff newsletters in which I share my reading life, to the read alouds I do in classrooms. Yet despite all of these actions, I would not qualify myself as a “lead reader” anymore than a “lead learner”.

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Reading aloud Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco to 5th graders this year. 

What I will say about reading and the principalship is that there are few habits more important than being a wide and avid reader. I read newspapers, magazines, fiction, nonfiction, educational resources, blogs, tweets and posts, research articles, children’s literature…the list is almost endless. Having a diverse and deep knowledge base has been essential in my success as a school leader. The level of respect I might have as an instructional leader is dependent on this quality. It’s so important that I now schedule time to read professionally during the school day.

Any title we give ourselves is only as credible as how live out these words in our actions.

Recent Books I’ve Read and Recommend

Being in between positions, I am finding more time to read books and write about them. I usually post my ratings and reviews on Goodreads. This social media tool provides an HTML code of your post to publish on your blog. So…here you go! Look for more reviews over the summer. If you have titles you have read recently and would recommend, please post in the comments.

The Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School TeamsThe Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School Teams by Richard D. Sagor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A comprehensive guide for educators to conduct action research in schools. The author provides lots of templates as well as examples from both the teacher and principal perspective. I used this text to conduct my own action research. The four stage process was explained well. It might be too much information for educators just getting familiar with the action research process.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby, #2)Beastly Bones by William Ritter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining follow up to the first Jackaby book. The author provides enough red herrings to keep you guessing about the perpetrator and its origins. A nice blend of mystery, paranormal, and humor.

Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? (ASCD Arias)Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? by Jay McTighe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice companion to the other UbD resources by the authors. I could see teams of teachers using it when doing a curriculum audit.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceBetter: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few books I elect to own in multiple formats. Better is one of them. I listened to it as an audiobook, and plan to purchase a physical copy soon. There are so many ideas in Better that I want to come back to: Innovation, systems thinking, improving performance, and doing the right thing that any person can relate to. It’s a book about medicine, yes, but so much more.

Digital Reading: What's Essential in Grades 3-8Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by William L. Bass II, Franki Sibberson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the rare #edtech books that prioritizes pedagogy over technology. The authors take a deep dive into the benefits and costs of reading on a screen. I especially enjoyed the chapters on connectedness and home-school communication.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure, #1)Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice departure from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy may be the worst detective in history, mostly because he doesn’t listen to others or make basic observations. His ignorance leads him into a lot of trouble that is more funny than serious. The author keeps things grounded when he touches on Timmy’s home life, a realistic portrait of a single parent situation (minus the polar bear).

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get DiscoveredShow Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief text filled with many ideas for sharing your work and process with others. Felt it was too short. The author could have expanded on some of the topics a bit more. Still, well worth my time reading it.

View all my reviews

Initial Findings After Implementing Digital Student Portfolios in Elementary Classrooms

On Saturday, I shared why I was not at ISTE 2016. That post included our school’s limited progress in embedding technology into instruction that made an impact on student learning. In this post, I share how digital student portfolios did make a possible difference.

I attempted a schoolwide action research project this past year around literacy and engagement. We used three strategies to assess growth from fall to spring: Instructional walk trends, student engagement surveys, and digital student portfolios. Each data point related to one major componenent of literacy:

  • Instructional walks: Speaking and listening within daily instruction, including questioning and student discussion
  • Engagement surveys: Reading, specifically self-concept as a reader, the importance of reading, and sharing our reading lives
  • Digital portfolios: Writing, with a focus on guiding students to reflect on their work, offer feedback, and set goals for the future

The instructional walks, brief classroom visits in which I would write my observations down and share them as feedback with the teacher, did show an increase in the frequency of student discussion during instruction but not in higher level questioning. My conclusion was there needs to be specific and sustained professional development around questioning in the classroom in order to see positive growth.

The reading engagement survey results were messy. While primary students showed significant growth from fall to spring about how they feel about reading. intermediate student results were stagnant. Some older students regressed. It is worth noting that at the younger ages, there was also significant growth in their reading achievement as measured by interim assessments (running records). I didn’t have really any conclusions. The survey itself might not have been intermediate student-friendly. At the younger ages, our assessment system is built so that students are seeing steady progress with benchmark books.

Okay, now for the reason for this post. Before I share any data about student writing and digital portfolios, I want to be clear about a few things:

  • A few teachers forgot to record their spring writing data. I did not include their students in the data set.
  • The results from my first year at the school (2011-2012) used a rubric based on the 6 traits of writing. Last year we used a more condensed rubric, although both rubrics for assessing student writing were a) used by all staff to help ensure interrater reliability and b) highly correlated with the 6 traits of writing.
  • The results from my first year at the school, in which no portfolio process was used beyond a spring showcase, came from a district-initiatied assessment team that score every paper in teams of two. This year’s data was scored by the teachers within our own school exclusively.

With all of this in mind, here are the results of student growth in writing over time from my first year as a principal (no portfolio process in place) and last year (a comprehensive portfolio process in place):

2011-2012: 10% growth from fall to spring

2015-2016: 19% growth from fall to spring

I have the documentation to verify these results. The previously shared points are some of the reasons why I hold these results a bit in question. At the same time, here are some interesting details about this year’s process.

  • All teachers were expected to document student writing at least six times a year in a digital portfolio tool. In addition, each student was expected to reflect on their work by highlighting what they did well, identifying areas of growth, and making goals for the next time they were asked to upload a piece of writing into their digital portfolio.
  • The digital portfolio tool we used, FreshGrade, was well received by families. Survey results with these families revealed an overwhelmingly positive response to the use of this tool for sharing student learning regularly over the course of the school year. In fact, we didn’t share enough, as multiple parents asked for more postings.
  • The comments left by family members on the students’ work via digital portfolios seemed to motivate the teachers to share more of the students’ work. Staff requested additional trainings for conducting portfolio assessment. They could select the dates to meet and offer the agenda items that we would focus on.

If you have read any of the research on feedback and formative assessment, you will know that many studies have shown that educators will double their effectiveness as teachers when they focus on formative assessment and providing feedback for students as they learn. It should be noted that our 19% growth is almost double what we achieved in 2011-2012.

One might say, “Your teachers are better writing instructors now than five years ago.” Maybe, in fact probably. But what we measured was growth from fall to spring and compared the results, not longitudinal growth over many years. The teachers can own the impact that their instruction made on our students this school year.

There was not formalized training for improve teachers’ abilities to increase speaking and listening in the classroom. Reading engagement strategies were measured but not addressed during professional development. Only the writing portfolio process along with the incorporation of digital portfolios to document and share this process was a focus in our faculty trainings.

Although these results are promising, I am not going to make any big conclusions at this time. First, only I did the data crunching of these results. Also, we didn’t follow a more formal research process to ensure validity of our findings. However, I am interested in pursuing partnerships with higher education to ensure that any results and conclusions found in the future meet specific thresholds for reliability.

One final thing to note before I close: Technology was important in this process, but my hypothesis is the digital piece was secondary to the portfolio process itself. Asking the students to become more self-aware of their own learning and more involved in goal-setting through teacher questioning and feedback most likely made the difference. The technology brought in an essential audience, yes, but the work had to be worth sharing.

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For more on this topic, explore my digital book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment. It is available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. You can join our Google+ Community to discuss the topic of digital portfolios for students with other educators.

If you liked my first book, check out my newest book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD Arias). 

 

Action Research: Professional Learning from Within

By becoming question-askers and problem-solvers, students and teachers work together to construct curriculum from their context and lived experiences.

– Nancy Fitchman Dana

13266113_10209362500521785_3561560696307026816_nOver 20 teachers recently celebrated their learning as part of their work with an action research course. They presented their findings to over 50 colleagues, friends, and family members at a local convention center. I was really impressed with how teachers saw data as a critical part of their research. Organizing and analyzing student assessment results was viewed as a necessary part of their practice, instead of simply a district expectation.

Equally impressive was how some of the teachers shared data that suggested their interventions did not have an impact on student learning. One teacher, who explored student-driven learning in her middle school, shared survey results that revealed little growth in her students’ dispositions toward school. What the teacher found out was she had not provided her students the necessary amount of ownership during class.

Another teacher did find some positive results from her research on the benefits of reflection during readers workshop. Students wrote in response journals and engaged in authentic literature circles to unpack their thinking about their books they were reading. At the end of the school year, the teacher was starting to observe her students leading their own literature conversations with enthusiasm. This teacher is excited about having some of these same students in 2016-2017, as she is looping up. “I am really looking forward to seeing how these kids grow within the next year.”

A third teacher shared her findings regarding how teaching students how to speak and listen will increase their comprehension of reading and their love for literacy. One of her data points – student surveys – was not favorable toward this intervention. Yet her other two pieces of data (anecdotal evidence, volume of reading) showed positive gains. Therefore, she made a professional judgment that her students did grow as readers and thinkers. This teacher is also reflecting on the usefulness of this survey for next year.


In these three examples, I couldn’t help but notice some unique outcomes of this action research course:

  • Teachers were proudly sharing their failures.

With the first teacher who focused on student-driven learning, she developed a greater understanding about her practice than probably possible in a more traditional professional learning experience. She learned what not to do. This teacher is stripping away less effective methods in favor of something better. And the reason she is able to do this is because she had a true professional learning community that allowed her to take risks and celebrate her discoveries.

  • Teachers didn’t want the learning to end.

This goes beyond the teacher who expressed her excitement in looping with her current students next year. Several participants in this action research course have asked if they could take it again. The main reason: They felt like they just found the question they really wanted to explore. It took them most of the school year to find it.

  • Teachers became more assessment literate.

The term “triangulation” was never referenced with the teacher who focused on conversations to building reading comprehension and engagement. Yet that is what she did, when she felt one set of data was not corroborating with the other results and her own professional judgment. Almost all of the staff who participated in action research had 3-5 data points to help make an informed conclusion about the impact of their instruction.

I also learned a few things about myself as an administrator:

  • It is not the professional development I offer for staff that makes the biggest difference – it is the conditions I create that allow teachers to explore their interests and take risks as innovative practitioners.
  • My role often is to the side of the professionals instead of in front of them, even learning with them when possible. For example, we brought in two professors from UW-Madison to lead this course. The best decision I made was recognizing that I was not the expert, and I needed to seek out those who were.
  • Principals have to be so careful about providing feedback, as we often haven’t built up enough trust, we can make false assumptions about what we are observing, and/or we do not allow teachers to discover better practices on their own terms.

In a world of standards and SMART goals, it is frowned upon when teachers don’t meet the mark regarding student outcomes. The assumption in these situations is that the teacher failed to provide effective instruction. However, the fault in this logic is that learning is not always a linear process. We work with people, dynamic and unpredictable beings who need a more personalized approach for real learning. Facilitating and engaging in action research has helped me realize this.