Writing and the Gift of Time

I made a goal for myself in February: to write a book proposal for submission to a publisher to-be-determined (topic: building a culture of literacy). Knowing what was expected of a proposal – an outline, a description of the work, and at least one chapter written – I could generally project out how much writing I would have to do between the 1st and the 28th.

Part of the plan was to write every day, around 350 words. That didn’t happen. A few days I had lots of time and motivation, and I wrote well over 1000 words. Other days, I didn’t feel like writing. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood or I had other priorities to take care of. Most days I persevered and put something down on paper. And there were a few days where I didn’t write at all.

My experience reminded me of what Patricia Polacco shared in her interview with three of our 5th graders during a recent author visit at our school. They asked her about her writing process.

I’d love to tell you I am a dedicated writer, but I’m not. I’ll do anything not to work.

She laughed and then expanded on this answer, explaining why she needs to motivated to be an effective writer.

I don’t believe in sitting down and forcing yourself to write when the words aren’t here.” (refers to herself) “If the fire isn’t in your belly, the words are going to show it. The words are going to be lifeless. The motivation has got to be there.

Patricia goes on to share the story of Jerome, a student at another school she visited. Jerome stared at his pencil for the majority of a writing period. Patricia later found out that Jerome wrote an eight-page essay on all the wonderful uses of a pencil.

As I think about my February project, I reflect on Patricia’s words. If I wasn’t feeling it, I didn’t force it. Instead, I would read excellent literature, hang with family, or simply give my mind a break. I did eventually get there because I gave myself the time, I did not rush myself, and I found joy in the process.

As we think about our own learning environments, how have we (or might we) shift toward a culture that is conducive for authentic literacy experiences, within the constraints of public education? How might these two worlds be compatible? Please share in the comments.

Book Review: No More Summer-Reading Loss by Carrie Cahill, Kathy Horvath, Anne McGill-Franzen, and Richard Allington (Heinemann, 2013)

imgresAt only 65 pages, I was surprised at how rich this book was in research and strategies for stemming summer reading loss. Cahill and Horvath start this text by asserting that “the lack of summer reading is actually a reflection of how well we have taught them to be independent readers during the school year” (4). They follow up this provocative statement with why it is just not conducive to try requiring dormant readers to engage in literature without considering their interests. Motivation is the key.

McGill-Franzen and Allington share the research on motivation and engagement in the next chapter. They frequently highlight the power of having choice and access to high-interest books, both during the school year and over the summer. Maybe the most surprising fact to me was, when schools just give kids free books of their choice over summer, the effect is just as powerful as most summer school programs (and at a fraction of the cost).

Cahill and Horvath round out the text with some practical and economic ideas for facilitating summer reading projects. The use of online tools, such as blogs and literacy-focused websites, were especially intriguing to me. While it is only January as I write this, I thought it is well worth my time to have read this text now and prepare for the reading possibilities in the future.

What Technology Have You Found To Really Boost Sight Word Recognition and Motivation?

This question was posted on the home page of my blog recently. I finally found time to answer it:

The only technology that I believe boosts both sight word recognition and motivation are narrated eBooks – Nook books, Kindle books, Oceanhouse Media apps, iBooks. Narrated eBooks allow a nonreader to bypass the decoding, for now, and just focus on comprehension and engagement. The examples I mentioned have minimal/no animation and professional narration. In addition, the words are often highlighted as they are read. There are other apps that consider themselves eBooks. However, the amount of animation and options that come with them can distract the reader from the purpose of reading in the first place (for learning and for enjoyment). My thinking is not based on any evidence or research that I am aware of, just observation and common sense.

When reading aloud eBooks to older students without narration, consider using mirroring technology. A teacher can project the Kindle or Nook book onto the whiteboard from their tablet. Kids can see the words, as well as watch you annotate and highlight important text. These interactions with digital text can then be shared out on social media, such as a classroom Twitter account. It’s a great way to model summarization, teach conventions, and encourage digital citizenship.

Of course, technology doesn’t beat a teacher or parent reading aloud to a child every day!

I am interested in others’ thoughts on this topic. Can technology help with reading achievement and engagement? What have you found to be effective?

Six Ways to Use Class Dojo for Meaningful Learning

If you haven’t already seen it, check out the video below by RSA Animate. It summarizes the excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink.

In summary, rewards work for low cognitive level work, while autonomy, purpose, and mastery work better for complex tasks. Why do I bring this up? For whatever reason, there has been a lot of chatter lately on Twitter about student motivation and engagement. Some of it has revolved around the app Classroom Dojo. It is a student management tool that allows a teacher to track student behaviors, both positive and negative. There has been a spectrum of opinions expressed, from “This is a great tool to help kids learn!” to “Make it work within your classroom” to “I wouldn’t use it on my pets”.

I am somewhere in the middle on this debate. I don’t like how the developers have set it up to be a) rewards-driven, b) based on a deficit-model, and c) visible to all learners. I can understand people’s problem with it when you consider these reasons. At the same time, lots of teachers seem to use it. There must be some redeeming value to Classroom Dojo. It is a tool for assessment. When used appropriately, formative assessment is an essential practice in any learning environment.

Here are six ways I think teachers could use Classroom Dojo in meaningful ways that can positively impact student learning. I have orgazined them in pairs under three different levels of classroom environments we might see in schools: compliance, awareness, and engagement.

Compliance (Teacher Assessing Students’ Behaviors)

  • Teaching School Routines

Sometimes we need compliance in schools. These are our nonnegotiables. One area is teaching students how to conduct themselves in school. This includes walking quietly in the hallways, not interrupting others, and eating politely. Classroom Dojo can be used in the beginning of the school year to reinforce the behaviors we teach students. These behaviors require low levels of cognition, but are vital to sustaining a quality learning environment.

  • Individual Behavior Charts

While I don’t believe students’ ups and downs should be displayed for all to see, certain students require more specfic and frequent feedback than the rest of the school population. Classroom Dojo allows the user to edit the look fors and modify them for specific users. Once student and teacher agree on the ground rules for improving specific behaviors, they can work together to monitor these by assigning points for what is done well and areas of improvement. A goal of so many points is set to achieve each day. Feedback and goal setting are highly motivating.

Awareness (Teacher and Students Assessing Content)

  • Student Response System

I am sure there are other tools out there for this purpose, but Classroom Dojo is free and super easy to use. If the class assigned descriptors for the positives and negatives based on an activity, a teacher could use Classroom Dojo as a formative assessment tool. For example, the class is studying different forms of life. The teacher could post an image of a living thing, say a butterfly, and state, “True or False: This is a mammal.” Students respond with a positive (True) or negative (False) point. The teacher can quickly scan the desktop, assess who doesn’t understand, and direct students to turn and talk with their neighbor to explain their thinking and clear up confusion.

  • Assessing Student Writing

Teachers often have student papers saved from previous years. A great activity for teaching writing is to assess these papers based on a rubric. First, enter both positive and negative criteria for writing into Classroom Dojo. Next, pass around or display a piece of writing. Then, have students assess it based on the criteria discussed. The final score could serve as the overall assessment for that piece. This can lead to powerful conversations about the writing’s quality both among students and as a whole class.

Engagement (Students Assessing Themselves, With Teacher’s Guidance)

  • Reflecting on One’s Own Work

Take that same criteria described previously, and have students apply it to their own piece of writing. This could work nicely in the workshop model. The teacher can rove around the room while students work on their writing independently with a device on hand. The teacher can look at his/her desktop and quickly help students whose scores reflect frustration. @carrion_creates on Twitter suggested using Classroom ID numbers to keep this feedback confidential.

  • Self-Assessing Group Work

Collaborative learning is highly motivating and has a strong impact on student learning. If a classroom uses collaborative learning, such as literature circles or project-based learning, one avatar can be assigned to each group. Criteria for quality group work is established beforehand. Students are then directed to assess their actions while they work. One student can be the “moderator”, with the task of reminding the group every so often to stop and assess how they are doing toward their learning target. Again, the teacher can use this data to formatively assess a group’s progress and make instructional changes while the learning is occuring, instead of afterward.

What pluses and minuses do you see with Classroom Dojo? Please share in the comments.