Archive for March, 2007

Test Prep Questions

Mar 30 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

This week my students and I have been working through practice materials the State provides us for the big tests next week.

I’m thinking about the reasons for jumping through the test prep hoop. Nobody requires it. This is one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations. In doing and reviewing the practice test the kids might sour on taking the actual test and might not learn anything, anyway. But, then again, maybe they could benefit from it. I don’t think there’s any research data on whether it helps.

Speaking of data, Diane Ravitch asked the money questions on the efficacy of the whole high-stakes enterprise:

Will a school get better if the staff is replaced? Maybe, maybe not. Will it get better if it is turned into a charter school? Maybe, maybe not. Will it get better if it is handed over to a private management company? Maybe, maybe not. Will it get better if the state takes it over? Here we can say with certainty that no state has any track record of taking over low-performing schools and turning them into high-performing schools.

So, I question why the federal government has written a law imposing sanctions that have no basis in experience.

The counselor brings us a stack of workbooks with the sample questions and an answer key, and I run the drill because there’s a chance it might make a difference. I call it a dress rehearsal. We simulate the actual test so that – What? – we can (maybe) plug any “gaps” in their content knowledge? Not likely. But it might help them understand the format and language of the test.

The book, A Teacher’s Guide To Standardized Reading Tests (Calkins, Montgomery, Santman) describes the work of a research group from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project that did observational studies of students in simulated testing situations. The authors document test preparation activities using sample test materials from various sources, watching and listening to students’ reactions, “looking closely at the reasoning behind the mistake…examining the intelligence behind the error” in order to make test preparation more effective (p. 108). They asked:

  • Why did/didn’t you chose this answer?
  • What was your thinking as you worked through this question?
  • I noticed you doing….Why?
  • What are you doing/thinking/where are you looking right now?
  • Do you know what that word means?

I’ve observed, and Calkins confirms, that

In the end, reading the questions, a much less familiar task, often proved to be the greatest reading challenge for them (p. 114).

Their findings help me see where to focus with the practice exercises. We look at the questions, and (try to) pay less attention to the answers. I want to help them see the test as a text that needs to be read in a particular way. It’s hard, though, for little kids to understand how devious test item writers can be. Calkins offers some strategies for test taking, based on the research they did.

Recommended strategies for test taking:

  1. Use the text, not your life, to pick your answer: Avoid relying on your opinions, memories, or personal experience;
  2. Sometimes it’s important to refer to your life: When context is thin, as in a vocabulary exercise, sometimes we need to inventory our prior knowledge;
  3. Choose to answer the question: Learn to paraphrase the question, and consider all of the answer choices;
  4. Risk an unfamiliar choice: Use the process of elimination when all of the known choices seem wrong;
  5. Check your answers: Be selective when reviewing your answers, and develop a system for keeping track of the difficult questions. You don’t have to retake the whole test.

One of the questions from the fourth-grade practice test asks, According to the passage, what are two ways Elephant and Giraffe are similar? In what two ways are they different? Use details from the passage to support your response.

I never had to write a compare/constrast essay at any point in elementary school. I told my fourth-graders as much, and one of them responded, “That’s what my dad says.”

We moved on, but I wondered, what if parents didn’t want their kids tested like this? Susan Ohanian published a Test Takers Bill of Rights that people might want to think about. To ask fourth-graders to write such a complicated essay is a stretch, and mine have been responding to journal prompts and organizing their ideas for writing all year.

That question is emblematic of how the whole standards juggernaut is pushing kids faster than many of them need to go. In The New Anti-Intellectualism in America: When Curricular Rigor and ‘Pedagogical Fraud’ Go Hand in Hand, Nel Noddings questions whether increasing rigor translates into intellectual habits of mind, or simply reduces intellectual activity to a form of mental labor. That’s how it feels, more and more.

If my students had a personal need to produce a structured account of the similarities and differences between any two things, I’d be happy to help them. But 9 year-olds don’t typically think in those terms. This question is a phony academic exercise masquerading as higher level thinking.

They mostly get the job done once they’re oriented to what the question is really asking them to do. (See recommendation #3, above.) There’s a hidden snag buried in this compare/contrast exercise. The story is a fable, and the question asks them to compare the animal characters based on the passage, not on their physical attributes. Ears and trunks and long necks are not relevant. We’ve worked on referring back to the text for evidence a lot, but they fall for this hard unless I warn them. Test item writers are devious. Kids are naive.

It’s a test of reading, for sure. And I’m teaching them to read – the test.

5 responses so far

Raven on the Wing

Mar 25 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

The totem pole in our schoolyard has a story about the panther telling the raven about love, kindness, and respect. According to the story, the raven flies in ever-widening circles from the school, to the town, and beyond, eventually out to the universe. The raven goes around spreading the message about love, kindness, and respect…until it comes full circle.

Our Tell the Raven project was featured in a story in the local paper, which I’ve copied to the site because it wasn’t published online, and I want the kids to see it. The raven has flown.

The story was mostly accurate. I don’t think I’ve taught the kids web page design or programming (but they have learned to use a couple of HTML tags). The question about what they’ve learned is important, though, and we’re going to explore that. I’m curious what they’ll report.

I’m also curious to see what the local response to this attention will be, if anything. So far, no comments have been left on the site.

The kids were really pumped. They worked like pros during the reporter’s visit. They even interviewed him about being a professional writer, asking where he gets his ideas and how he knows what his audience is interested in. Perceptive, I thought. I’m proud of what they’ve done this year.

4 responses so far

The Might-Work Clearinghouse

Mar 21 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics,reading wars

Knowing what works in education doesn’t interest me as much as knowing how something works, or what purpose something has. In my experience, the right tool for the job is what matters most, and I’ve noticed that in the last several years we’ve been sold a lot of do-everything programs. They call them comprehensive, which to me means bloated and complicated. I end up using bits and pieces, always thinking about how to adapt program materials to the needs of the kids in the room.

Richard Allington in Ideology Is Still Trumping Evidence said that effective teachers aren’t:

…focused on doing things "œright" but were dedicated to doing the right things….They didn"™t necessarily reject commercial instructional packages or the directions that invariably accompany them, but they were rarely observed actually following such advice with any fidelity. Instead, they took their cues from the children they were teaching.

One of the reasons that I’m generally skeptical of educational research is that it invariably doesn’t work “as advertised,” which I assume is because either the kids haven’t read the teacher’s manual, or the publisher hasn’t met the kids. Allington explains this is because education research focuses on what works “generally,” but “no study has ever identified an educational treatment that has worked effectively for all participants.”

The other reason I’m skeptical of educational research is that I’ve participated in several studies, and (I confess) I don’t always follow the plan. I try, but things come up, or the “treatment” doesn’t fly, and we have to improvise. Of course I report those things. Mostly.

What Doesn’t Work
Dick Allington’s comment on the previous post sent me on a little journey into What Works land. He mentioned a report on Reading Recovery which found positive effects for the program, differing from what Louisa Moats and other whole language critics charge.

When I first saw the What Works (WWC) site, I wasn’t sure what level of bullshit filter I should read the reports with since it’s run by the US DOE Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The US government’s advocacy for NCLB, and Reading First, which has been having political problems lately, had me wondering about the objectivity of any recommendations on the What Works site.

Education Week reported the Reading Recovery story yesterday. The WWC found that Reading Recovery had “postitive effects.” Education Week commented, “That"™s high praise from the clearinghouse, which critics have dubbed the "œnothing works" clearinghouse because so few education studies have met its strict standards of evidence.” And they included a quote from the WWC:

"œOur job is not to weigh in on whether Reading First had the right curricula or not in the programs that districts have chosen,"…."œWe"™re simply giving people research facts so they can decide on their own how much weight they want to put on the findings and make their own judgments."

To me, this quote is more interesting than the finding about Reading Recovery. I’ve still got my crap filter set to high. In looking around for information about the WWC itself, I found an article written by Alan Schoenfeld, a mathematics education researcher who has had some things to say about the Math Wars, which I wrote about a few months ago.

Schoenfeld wrote an article called What Doesn’t Work, about the WWC. And they responded. He described problems he recognized using meta-analytical methodologies to evaluate curricula with dissimilar student performance objectives (as in, skills vs. problem-solving approaches). “Tests that focus on only a subset of the desired range of performance can give misleading results,” he said. He observed anomalous results in some cases, indicating that tests may not be equally sensitive to the full range of purposes built into various programs, possibly producing either “false positives” or “false negatives” in research findings.

He wanted to publish his views on these limitations of the research in a WWC publication, and was opposed by the IES, which ultimately lead him to resign from his “senior content advisor” position, claiming “WWC is at minimum complicit in an act of censorship, having acceded from the beginning to IES requests to remove important material from its reports.”

I’m not pointing to this as any kind of scandal. But it does sound like the government is defending it’s evidence-based turf, not wanting to admit that there may be gray areas in their research methodology. Shoenfeld tells a good story.

Nobody in their right mind would conduct real science experiments on kids without also planning on going to prison. The government calls the studies they’re doing scientific, but they’re really just statistical analyses. Education research isn’t science. It’s social science. But, of course, social science doesn’t have quite enough of an authoritative ring to justify massively disruptive policy decisions. As a sales pitch, calling these government reports scientifically-based research does seem to be working. As a means of improving educational outcomes, though, it’s all snake oil.

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Scientifically Based Reading Research Wars

Mar 18 2007 Published by under borderland,education,reading wars

A NYT article, In War Over Teaching Reading, a U.S.-Local Clash inspired dozens of blog posts. Many of them challenge the article’s bias and the author’s uncritical acceptance of the school administration’s claims of efficacy for their program.

Richard Allington, past president of the International Reading Association, defended the Madison schools, saying that the National Reading Panel report shows only minor benefits from phonics for K-1, that it lends no strong support for one style of instruction, and that an early phonics instructional emphasis has not been shown to improve comprehension for older students.

"œThis revisionist history of what the research says is wildly popular," Dr. Allington said. "œBut it"™s the main reason why so much of the reading community has largely rejected the National Reading Panel report and this large-scale vision of what an effective reading program looks like."

The article also spawned a series of responses in from Reid Lyon, Bob Sweet, Linnea Ehri, Timothy Shanahan, Mark Seidenberg, and Louisa Moats, who all try to “set the record straight.”

Lyon and Sweet make it clear that by law, eligible programs must include “explicit, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, fluency, and comprehension strategies.”

The comment by Louisa Moats took aim directly at Allington, insisting that,

Like the issue of global warming, there is no scientific debate about whether children benefit from direct instruction in how the alphabetic code of English represents speech. There is, in contrast, plenty of evidence that teaching children to guess at words through context and pictures is, indeed, malpractice, and that most poor readers fall by the wayside early because no one is teaching them how to read. Richard Allington, who was quoted in opposition to Reading First, has no credentials as a researcher or scientist. He and the “reading community” to which he refers have perpetuated myths and ineffective practices associated with Whole Language for decades.

No scientific debate? No credentials as a researcher? Malpractice?

Why does Moats so casually dismiss Richard Allington’s qualifications to offer criticism? Could it be that he published a critical rebuttal to her recent Whole Language High Jinks attack on “non-scientifically” based research programs? (The use of scare quotes around these phrases seems impossible to avoid in this discussion.)

Allington accused Moats of exaggerating the link between systematic phonics instruction and reading achievement reported by the National Reading Panel, ignoring research that contradicts her point of view, and recommending commercial reading packages developed by her employer. Schools Matter also took a jab at her report.

The NYT article and ensuing discussions serve as an example of the rhetoric around the reading wars, which has escalated now with the development of an allegedly scientific, and subsequently legal, standard for reading programs. Though it originated as a device for reviewing grant applications, this standard appears tempting for school critics to use as a litmus test for teacher professionalism.

Timothy Shanahan understood this in 1999, when the National Reading Panel was formed:

The fundamental idea behind the federal government’s establishment of a review panel is something along these lines: A major controversy is compromising the commonweal (in this case, children are not being taught to read as well as they should be) and undermining public confidence (i.e., trust in schools is declining). To ensure a reasonable standard of quality and to protect respect for public institutions and professions, an authoritative group is appointed to carry out an objective review of the research and to decide upon a standard of practice. The federal government then endorses this standard and benefits are provided to those whose professional practice is consonant with it.

Shanahan went on to make a comparison with Medicare, which will only pay for standard treatments, pointing out that review panels such as this are unprecedented in education. He also said that he didn’t know, at the time, how the NRP findings would be used, or even what those findings would be. As it turns out, though, we are hearing the adjectives evidence-based and scientifically-based, being linked to curricula, and educational decision-making, and when they are coupled with medical metaphors and accusations of malpractice, I feel a bit queasy because it sounds like a prescription for an end to inquiry, as Moats would apparently have it. The medical metaphor is a dangerous one to apply to education, I believe.

In 1998, Ken Goodman rhetorically asked, Why Reading?

Why is so much effort, heat, anger, and venom poured into arcane issues of how kids learn to read?…
1. Reading has always been a hot-button issue. It has a proven track record of scaring parents into electing board members who support back-to-basics campaigns….
2. Political campaigns need to paint everything in black and white as good versus bad….
3. A successful reading campaign could be a vehicle for developing a blueprint for a campaign to control education at all levels through national law, an objective heretofore seemingly impossible under the constitution.

He goes on to say that “reforming” won’t stop at reading, and that math would be next. He was right. See the National Mathematics Advisory Panel site.

This blog post could be so much longer. Over the past week I’ve dug back into the NRP findings and dozens of journal articles to learn what the report did and did not say. It’s important, I think, because public schools not only serve a public but they also create a public. The politics of education seems distant, though it speaks to us and though us constantly.

Just what did the National Reading Panel say? What is evidence-based reading research? What effect do metaphors have on teaching? I’ll try to deal with those questions each in turn in my next few entries. But, right now, report cards demand my attention.

12 responses so far

Empty Talk

Mar 14 2007 Published by under borderland,politics

Bush on immigration reform:

Look, amnesty’s not going to fly. There’s not going to be automatic citizenship. It just won’t work. People in the United States don’t support that, and neither do I.

Nor will kicking people out of the United States work. It’s not practical; it’s not a realistic solution. Some may articulate that, but it’s empty talk. And so, therefore, there’s got to be a middle ground.

It’s not hard to imagine the havoc that deporting 12 million illegal immigrants would cause. Nor is it hard to see the impracticability of building a 700 mile long fence to keep people from walking across the southern border. So the president is looking for common ground.

U.S. Deputy Education Secretary, Raymond Simon on NCLB:

The mission is doable, and we don’t need to back off that right now.

Even though Senator Kennedy acknowledged

The idea of 100 percent is, in any legislation, not achievable … There isn’t a member of Congress or a parent or a student that doesn’t understand that.

Kennedy added that the law’s universal proficiency standard served to inspire students and teachers. But “it’s too early in the process to predict whether we’ll consider changes” to the 2014 deadline, he said.

So, if it’s too early in the process, we are left to wonder when it will be time. When will the political will to act on the truth materialize? Many of the people I work with think that it will be when middle class schools fail to meet AYP.

McCain justifies his position on immigration reform by citing the negative effects that failed immigration policy have had on communities, public services, and on immigrants themselves.

Look for a similar speech about federal education policy from congressional leadership in a few more years. In the meantime…listen for more empty talk.

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About those laptops…

Mar 13 2007 Published by under borderland,education,technology

Tom and Miguel have been hashing out some of the problems with putting laptops in school.

Since we’ve been getting a supply of laptops together in the building where I work, I’d say that between the sharing between classrooms, and the charging up, and the DON’T DROP THOSE THINGS problems, which is related to the cost of a single unit, not to mention figuring out how to find age-appropriate, curriculum-relevant things to do with them…I can’t think of a single example of educational technology that has had less of an impact on teaching than computers in the classroom.

I’ve been teaching since before the internet, since before the era of the green screen, even. Remember the AppleII’s? The biggest problem for teachers through all this tortured history has been that it’s hard to introduce a classroom full of kids to new ideas when they can’t all try things at the same time. Another problem is that frequent operating system upgrades and different software versions have made it next to impossible to develop lessons that stand the test of time, or that even work with the hodgepodge of equipment we have on hand at any given time. We don’t even need to think about networking problems.

To help Miguel think about what an effective 1:1 laptop initiative might look like, maybe we should think about technology that has had a notable impact on school life. Here’s my list:

  • The photocopier;
  • The videocassete player;
  • The overhead projector.

Each of those things has been easy to understand, simple to operate, and provides for mass dispersal of information instantly.

The 35mm projector, the ditto machine, and the film strip projector are all gone. They were too clunky.

Before laptops will make a difference in schools,

  • they need to be bomb proof. It shouldn’t matter if they are dropped. Think Fisher Price.
  • They have to be easy to understand, with a relatively stable feature set that doesn’t require constant retraining.
  • They need to be networked and easily recharged.
  • They have to be cheap enough for everyone to have one.
  • We need a curriculum that recognizes their place in the classroom.

What have I overlooked?

15 responses so far

Works in Progress

Mar 10 2007 Published by under borderland,education

I’ve noticed that many of my students ignore my considered advice to study and apply themselves to their lessons. What?! This is news?

Why would they do such a foolish thing? After all, I’ve taught hundreds of kids and I’ve lived many years. I know things that they don’t. Maybe they don’t believe me. Or maybe they don’t believe there’s any payoff for their effort.

Stephen Downes and Christian Long recently wrote about the value of teaching kids about their own brains, referencing an article by Milton Chen, who explored the educational implications of helping students develop a “growth model” of intelligence, as opposed to a “fixed mindset” in which they view intelligence as a static quality.

This topic linked back to an NPR story about research psychologist Carol Dweck, who recognized that some students have a mindset about intelligence as a fixed commodity, whereas other children believe that intelligence is something that they can develop. She noted that the “growth mindset” students had steadily increasing math grades, whereas the “fixed mindset” kids did progressively worse.

Dweck wondered if teaching students about their own brains would prompt them to develop a growth mindset that would help them improve their grades. Very simply, she chose 100 students who were doing poorly in math and assigned them to one of two workshops. Students in one workshop learned study skills, whereas students in the other group were given a “mini-neuroscience course on how the brain works.” The students who learned that the brain can grow smarter had better math grades at the end of the semester. Dweck thinks that these students were more motivated to work harder on challenging tasks.

More information about Dweck’s research, and an upcoming book can be found at Stanford News, with a link to a video in which she discusses the influences that our self-theories have on motivation.

My interest in this subject came out of comments from Michaele and Sarah on my previous post, musing about unique the challenges and opportunities there are in teaching sixth graders. I remembered reading some research about adolescent brain development the last time I taught sixth grade. People like to say that in adolescence, “the hormones kick in,” but new research suggests that it is more likely rapid brain development that accounts for some of what we commonly view as adolescent attitude.

Jay Geidd, the neuroscientist who conducted this research, notes that

In the frontal part of the brain, the part of the brain involved in judgment, organization, planning, strategizing — those very skills that teens get better and better at — this process of thickening of the gray matter peaks at about age 11 in girls and age 12 in boys, roughly about the same time as puberty.

I do think that metacognition is a powerful habit of mind that can make a difference in how we learn. We know that older students are more capable of thinking about thinking, and the brain research details how that might profit them, not only cognitively, but motivationally.

We have the kindergarten buddies all lined up for next year. And that age kids, in my experience, are indeed very loyal. Like german shepherds.

Bonus links:
The Whole Brain Atlas;

How Stuff Works: How Your Brain Works (with an annoying animated gif);

Anatomy of a Teen Brain.

7 responses so far

Made It This Far

Mar 09 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

It’s been a push to get through the last couple of weeks with my wits intact. I walked into the school this morning after dropping my 8th grader off at before-school volleyball practice…by the time I arrived there was a crowd of little kids in the hallway waiting for breakfast. Some of them laying down across the hall in a pile of snow gear. Others playing tag, or something that looked like what tag would look like if you didn’t let go when you do the tagging. I dodge and weave. They’re little. I try not to bulldoze anyone.

It’s warm and bright in the building. Nice colors. Beautiful artwork hanging from the high ceiling. A contrast from the bleak minus 20 degree weather that won’t let up. And I think, Be happy. As I enter the office I say, It’s great to have a job! Huh? One of the secretaries says, Where did that come from? It’s just the little pep talk I give myself in the morning before I attempt the impossible, I say. Smiles around the room. I’m grim way too often, I think.

I suppose that anyone, no matter what they do, gets tired after 24 years. I don’t know. The principal asked me a couple of weeks ago if I was interested in a grade level change for next year. I told him that sixth would be good. There’s an opening there, and I’ve done it a few times. My wife said that anything that helps me keep my head in the game at this point is worth doing. Her advice, Go for it.

People say, So…you’re going to sixth. It’s not exactly a question. I know what they mean, though. Sixth grade, like kindergarten and first grade, is what I call a “specialty grade.” It has it’s own set of conditions that don’t apply to the other grades, and it may only appeal to a small subset of the teaching workforce. But, it has it’s good and bad points, like most other things.

Good things about sixth graders:

  • They rarely cry;
  • They can find page 243 in their textbooks right away;
  • There aren’t so many crumbs on the floor after they eat;
  • Their mommies don’t walk them into the building;
  • They’re subversive and don’t tell you about every damn thing that happens all day long;
  • They understand most of my sarcastic humor.

Bad things about sixth graders:

  • They are completely full of themselves, and do not appear to care about anything you say unless it’s about them;
  • They are loud at lunch time;
  • They forget everything they’ve ever learned;
  • They’re subversive, and sometimes you have to investigate to find out what the hell happened that nobody wanted you to know about.

The best part of this grade level move is that I’ll be able to work with many of the kids I had in my fourth grade class last year. Those kids will get to pick up where we left off with the classroom website. It may be interesting to see how a year’s growth will translate in their writing. Maybe we can do more work with multimedia than I’ve been able to do with this year’s group.

Other things I’m thinking about: We can read young adult literature, and do more group work. The other sixth grade teacher is interested in getting her class going on the website, too. In Helen Barrett’s paper about portfolios and learner engagement, she found that, in school sites that had 2 or more teachers implementing them, a small community of practice developed which supported portfolio uses that were conducive to formative assessment and student reflection.

I’m curious to see what might happen if I am able to work closely with another teacher on the student blogging project. My sixth grade counterpart went through the Alaska State Reading Endorsement program at the same time I did, so we share a common theoretical reference point. May be good chemistry for some changes.

This afternoon was the beginning of Spring Break. It was also the end of the 3rd Quarter. It’s all downhill from here. If only it would warm up a little.

6 responses so far

Kid Logic

Mar 05 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

This American Life broadcast a piece last evening called Kid Logic about when kids make careful observations, but come to erroneous conclusions. It reminded me of a couple of moments working with kids in which I’ve caught a little glimpse of this wonderful phenomenon.

Deep water
I worked as a lifeguard at our local pool for several years, and sat in a lifeguard chair near the deep end above a sign that said, Deep Water, with an arrow pointing toward the diving boards. A little girl swam up under the chair and said, Excuse me, sir, how do you keep the deep water at that end of the pool?

In one of my previous fourth grade classes there was a student who had a shoelace that he couldn’t tie because one end of it was too short. I loosened it for him and helped him pull the short end out a little bit further to make it easier for him to tie. In the middle of the operation he said, You mean it’s only one string?

The world is a mysterious place with many things to learn. We forget sometimes.

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e-authoring our eduselves

I’m thinking about how the edublog genre might be like listening to a hatchling through the eggshell, if embryos could talk. It’s a public narration of the emergent self. The current Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (March, 2007), a themed issue about e-portfolios, got me going on this.

Troy Hicks and a cadre of teachers wrote in Rethinking the Purposes and Processes for Designing Digital Portfolios that an online portfolio puts us in a rhetorical situation in which we “narrate our own learning” as well as create professional and personal identities.

I’ve not had much exposure to the literature on e-portfolios. I’ve done a little bit of online research, but this is the first time I’ve seen such an in-depth treatment of the subject in a peer-reviewed journal. There is a tension, I see from this reading, between portfolios as showcases for mastery, and as tools for inquiry.

One of the first things that hit me is that I’ve never thought of including my students’ site as part of my “digital portfolio.” It never crossed my mind that their work might be used to evaluate my effectiveness as a teacher. Not that I’d mind, but here I am just making it up as I go! There’s no standards for e-portfolios yet, are there? Maybe I haven’t given this much thought because I’m fully “mature” as a teacher, and not looking to use any of this material in a job search.

I’ve been treating my students’ blogs as largely informal writing spaces, giving students about 30 minutes a day to work in them. Practically speaking, though, they don’t have a lot of time to read each others’ writing on the website, which limits its impact for them.

Motivation is an issue I’ve been thinking about for the students’ writing. That is, what motivates them to make their work more interesting and readable? How do they see themselves getting better at it? Last year I tried to get them to choose some of what they considered their best work, but they really didn’t have a good set of criteria for deciding. This seems like an obvious shortcoming in my writing program, and gives me some ideas about how we should be talking about what we do as writers, “narrating our learning.”

It seems to me that if publishing to a community site is going to prompt students to be more engaged and engaging, then the impetus to grow should come from some intrinsic motivation, and not simply from the urging of the teacher. What I see is that some students are, indeed, making efforts to improve their work. With several others, though, the effort is not so obvious. I wonder if maybe these students are protecting their privacy by “playing it safe” and not contributing much.

Our normal process involves morning mini-lessons with the LCD projector. Occasionally I give them a topic, show them how to write a report, or how to cite their sources. When they do find information on a topic of interest to them, they tend to simply copy it without generalizing or contextualizing it for the audience. I explain that they need to make their thinking explicit; they don’t do it on their own, and they don’t seem to demand it of one another.

One thing for sure, maintaining a site for student work is a time consuming job. There’s a lot of fixing-up and conferencing that happens in the background. I have to read and proofread all the material that is published. I’ve taught them to type, and they can crank out a huge volume of material. I don’t require them to edit everything that needs changing. But I do frequently ask them to make revisions that I know they are capable of. Sometimes I literally can’t figure out what somebody was trying to say, and we need to chat.

Upholding community norms was addressed by Tara Autrey in her piece about transforming her practice:

…I have never been a fan of censorship. Yet, I make these tough choices because I want to represent my students and myself in a way that is in accordance with the curriculum mandated by my school district and the state of Michigan, as well as the moral and ethical norms of our community.

I think my biggest struggle, aside from the time spent, is deciding where to draw the line between my authority and the students’ autonomy. They all like having a space to write about whatever is on their minds – even when they don’t have anything to say.

Come to think of it, that isn’t much different than this blog. We all have our days, I suppose.

Hicks, T., Russo, A., Autrey, T., Gardner, R., Kabodian, A., & Edington, C. (2007, March). Rethinking the Purposes and Processes for Designing Digital Portfolios. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(6), 450"“458.

9 responses so far

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