Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Evernote is Ever So Wonderful.

How I stumbled upon this handy dandy tool, I cannot recall---probably through Twitter--but I am completely in enamored. Evernote is my new favorite or at least until something new comes along--I'm so fickle! :)

Once you install the "web page clipper" (which takes about five seconds) you can "clip" any pictures, websites, articles that you want to save and organize off of the Internet. (Yes, even from Facebook and Twitter for those of you who believe these are not part of the Internet.)  But wait, it gets better.  I was also able to install the application on my smart phone, my Kindle Fire, and on all of my laptops, so no matter what device I am using, I can clip to my account--even a photo from my smart phone. Then I have the option of organizing my clips into "Notebooks" that I create.  For example, I am currently teaching argumentative writing and as I find pieces I can use as mentor texts in class, I clip them and save them to my "Argumentative" folder.  I also have notebooks for lesson plans by date and I can move my articles of choice into that folder for the day to show on my SmartBoard.

Wait, it still gets even better.   Using my classroom document camera (because honestly, it is kind of crappy), I can take pictures of student work, text from books, or articles I have saved and clip them to Evernote account too. I like doing this as I can make these documents larger for the students who sit in the back of my classroom to view through because (just a reminder)--my document camera is crap. At any time, I can create a "new note" in which I keep detailed lesson notes to myself.  It is also a  place for me to store writings I have done in class with the students. Please don't tell our district technology peeps, but I find it much less tedious, more user friendly, and easier to organize than using the SmartBoard Notebook software.

Another advantage--I can share any of these items with colleagues or students through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, etc. and ever link to my contacts from my Google account. However, I am not going to lie, this particular task hasn't worked too smoothly for me yet.

Evernote offers a "Noteworthy Blog" with updates about new features as well as "Tips and Tricks" on how to use the program.  The Evernote Trunk includes lists of other useful applications, hardware and notebooks that you can combine "to enhance your Evernote experience." (Personally, I am enjoying my Evernote experience at the moment and feel no need to enhance it at this particular time.) Although I am still a novice, I will continue to investigate and evaluate the use of these additional options in the very near future.

I have started using Evernote as an online lesson planner. It's free, but I am seriously considering paying the $45 a year upgrade fee as I have found myself using it on a daily basis.  I can also use it for personal organizing, not just for education. (I'm thinking home improvement/decorating ideas, grocery lists, wine lists, wine lists...)

My district should be thankful as this gem has saved it quite a bit of money on copy paper in recent months. (Merit pay?)  I don't have to print a copy of every article I find and put it in a safe place (blue binder or my "to be dealt with later" pile), forget which safe place (pile or binder?) I originally placed it, and then print it out again because I don't have the time to search for it.  (As it turns out, I have 7 blue binders.) All in all, it's a great organizational tool for me and that I LOVE!

I am anxious to hear from you if you decide to try it!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (aka: Collaboration)

There is nothing I love more than collaborating with my English/Language Arts colleagues. We have time built into our daily schedule to do this, but that time is often robbed from us without our consent or input.  So, when we do get that time--either as a grade level department or as a school department, we often struggle with what to collaborate about because we aren't usually provided with time to prepare in advance.  I cannot express how much I value my time in general, but collaboration for educators is an absolute necessity.  But there is also something to be said for doing it correctly.   Over the years, I have been able to develop and implement several new ideas from these interludes, but not nearly as much as I would like because time for conversations was limited, separated by months in between and therefore forgotten, or simply cut short by a bell.

I have several colleagues whom I often collaborate with informally. We drop by each others classrooms to share ideas, ask questions, or to vent about something (others would probably deem) trivial.  This often takes place in the three minutes we have between classes or the five minutes left over from collaboration-turned-staff-meeting-time.  I know that not all schools have collaboration time and we are fortunate that we do, but mixed messages are often presented as to how that time should be used and who gets to control it.

After some of that informal collaboration mentioned above, and in an attempt to be part of the solution rather than the problem. We, as a small grade level department team, implemented an idea that we felt was a valuable use of our time.  It meant taking chapters from our favorite professional literature, making copies of those chapters, and then setting a time to read together silently (in our case--about 15 minutes). During that time we annotate what we read and we are left with about 20 minutes for discussion.  In our first attempt, we chose chapter 4 from Cris Tovani's So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning.  The results were inspiring.  We discovered we were having  REAL CONVERSATIONS about teaching and learning!  Best of all, we were collaborating.  (Insert the angels singing here.)

The following are questions, statements and "a-ha!s" that resulted from our discussion:
  • Ms. Tovani has a ninety-six minute block for her English class.  What do we do if we only have 48 minutes?
  • It's okay to have the same learning target for a week.
  • What is the best method for organizing and keeping track of conferencing notes with students?
  • We found a reference to Rick Stiggin's book which was the title used for a district Assessment Literacy course several of us took a few years back. (Ta-da---CONNECTION!)
  • The Reading/Writing workshop structure easily lends itself to many opportunities to differentiate.
  • Differentiation is not about an elaborate individualized project. 
  • Model. Model. Model. And then model again.
  • Background knowledge is imperative to better understanding. Many of our students do not possess this and we need to create it for them. 
  • Should we or shouldn't we teach a whole classroom novel? (Much debate on this one.)
  • What are some strategies we currently use for assessment that guide our instruction for the very next day?
  • Choice is huge--but it is okay to control or limit the choices.
  • Text complexity is in the Common Core State Standards and must be addressed in our teaching.
Okay, so this all came from TWO 20 minute discussions, and I didn't mention everything.   We finally felt like our time was being used wisely and that we were all getting something valuable from it.

Although we learned that professional book examples don't always address the realities of our classrooms (right, Deb?), and that we don't always come up with the answers, we were able to share some of our own strategies--what worked well, what did not, and how we modified.  We also learned that keeping our discussion group small lends itself to being more productive than in our larger grade level teams where (unfortunately) very little gets accomplished.

I believe my friend and colleague, Melissa, said it best. This time gives us the opportunity to address "the good, the bad, and the ugly."  We've proven this to be true in more ways than one.

I am eager for our next meeting when we can finish reading and discussing the chapter we have started.  The plan was to do this tomorrow, but guess what?  We cannot as that collaboration time has been robbed from us again.  (Groan.) Maybe next week? :)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

40 is Just a Number...

A year and a half ago, I read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer.  I loved it.  It was a great reminder that it is my responsibility, as a teacher of literacy, to encourage students to read; but most importantly, to model myself as a reader.   I was also encouraged to force myself to read books from genres that I have never been comfortable with or a fan of.  As a result, I can have a lot more conversations about books with my students which also allows me to guide my students to more appropriate reading choices.  (By appropriate, I mean books that will hook them or keep them interested.) I've even read sports fiction!  I hate sports, but I found Tim Green's Football Hero very enjoyable and since reading and doing a book talk on it--Carl Deuker's Gym Candy never gets a rest on my classroom bookshelf! 

The point of this entry is not to review Donalyn's book--although I highly encourage all teachers of literacy to read it.  The point is to inform readers that I decided to try Donalyn's "40 book requirement" approach as an experiement.  Now that the end of the first year of the experiment is approaching, kids are asking me if they are going to get a "bad grade" (we don't use grades, we use standards based grading)  if they didn't reach the 40 book requirement. So far, almost every conversation has gone something like this:

Student:  Um.  Mrs. R.,  I don't think I am going to be able read 40 books this year.  Does that mean I'm going to fail?

Me: (smile on the inside/serious look on the outside) How many books have you read this year? 

Student: (hesitation or sigh) I've only read 22.

Me: How many books did you read LAST year?

Student:  I don't know.  Like, 5?

Me:  You read 5 books last year and you've read 22 THIS year?

Student: (confusion)  Um.  Yeah?

Me:  Let me get this straight. You've already quadrupled the amount of books you read last year?

Student: (still confused) I guess so.

(Awkward silence)

Student: Wait a minute!  Are you telling me that I didn't HAVE to read 40 books?

Me: I'm not telling you that.

Student:  But I don't HAVE to read 40.  I could read another 10 books and I'd still be good.

Me:  (smiles) What do you think?

Student: Yes?

Me:  Some kids already read 20-30 books a year.  It's about getting you to read more than you ever have before. Does the number really matter if you have increased the amount of reading you've done in a year?

Student:  (Jaw drops.)

Me: Have you improved? Have you grown as a reader?

Student:  (Jaw still open but gives me a small nod.)

Me:  You certainly have. Now, if I had told you that at the beginning of the year. Would you have tried to read more than you ever had before? Be honest.

Student: Probably not. No.

Me:  Right.  So, let's keep this our little secret for now. You learned something really fantastic about yourself today.

Same Student: (pause) I'm glad you didn't tell us. That's actually pretty smart of you to do that.

(Yes, a student actually said these words to me.)

Me:  Yes, (Student's Name), that is why they pay me the big bucks! (Smile and wink.)

Overall, I'd say this experiment was a success.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Another Learning Experience

So, I decided to try something new today. I am was am on my blog, in my classroom, modeling how I write my writing in front of my students.  The experts say this is one way in which good student writing evolves.  However, I am quickly learning that this is not necessarily true at this moment. Maybe it's because it is Friday, or maybe because there is a strange shift in the energy equilibrium---I can tell you, by looking at them and listening to them my boisterous bunch that they are completely uninterested.  I have heard "I hate blogs" muttered at least four times in the past few minutes, but I also hear chuckling as I type this, so someone is paying attention.

Luckily, in one of my later classes, a one of my students stated states that "Blogging can be interesting if you have a great topic." And as the day went on progresses, more of my students were seem appear interested in starting their own blogs. (Yes, you can start a sentence with the word "and" as long as you do it correctly and sparingly!)

I am modeling my thinking (and remind them who my audience is), my writing, my random thoughts and some of my revisions.  Even as I create several drafts, this entry is definitely not an example of my best work.  (Did I mention I'm in the middle of reading Kelly Gallagher's new book Write Like This?) In the very first chapter he makes it clear that that is the point.  "We want our students to understand that writing well does not happen by osmosis..."(p. 16).

As I continue, I am also demonstrating how to use Blogger features.  I change the font, the font size (I make it huge so the students I the back can see it as I type), insert a link and insert a picture. (Mrs. R, who is THAT guy? So now I just provided a little background knowledge, even though most of them probably won't remember who Ray Bradbury is.) I also showed the students some samples of blogs they are definitely more interested in than my own.

Problem #1:  Blogger is very overwhelming to middle school students.  One of the students suggest  After checking it out and playing around with it in class, this seems to be an easier blog site for the students to use. Many of them are familiar with it due to use in another class from another using it in other class and I watch in pleasant surprise as familiarized students guide their peers.

Problem #2:  Pay attention to computer/classroom arrangement.  I have a SMARTboard and it is connected to my classroom desktop computer. As I was typeing in my first period class, my back ends up being is to the students.  Once I turn my back, the students see this as permission to no longer pay attention to me and begin their what-are-you-doing-this-weekend conversations.  Before my next class, I move the desktop (luckily it is on a table with wheels) so it is was turned the opposite way and when I sit down at the computer the students never lose site of my face and vice versa. Lesson learned. Complete chaos averted in following class periods. (Though, Still some chaos still present though.)

Problem #3:  I should model some type of drafting of ideas first.  I am going cold turkey--which I believe is good to model too but I had difficult time which took too long.  In the age of technology, some of us can draft as we type, but some of us need more guidance.  It hits me that a graphic organizer or brainstorming strategy should be provided for some of my students. 

Problem #4:  I didn't emphasize the notion that "all first drafts are lousy" in all of my classes.  I've stated it in past writing lessons taught in the beginning of the year over the course of the year, but I know I haven't hammered it hard come back to that enough.  I am confident that if I make this my classroom mantra, it will produce better results and students really will see that a first draft should never be the last.

Insert loud sigh here. 

All in all, this was quite the learning experience and I vow I will try it again--but not on a Friday.