Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In the Name of Rigor

My English department is undergoing quite a bit of change in order to accomodate the reality of state testing in the era of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I was told yesterday our current curriculum overhaul is an attempt to add rigor and help students prepare for the state tests our students will take in their tenth grade year, tests that are now tied to student graduation as well as to my teacher evaluation.  That word rigor has found its way into quite a few of our conversations recently.  And while on its surface, I wholeheartedly agree that our curriculums need to be challenging, need to engage students in higher order thinking skills, and encourage students to think critically about our content areas, I worry at how many are taking up the word "rigor" in light of the CCSS.

Barbara Blackburn knows quite a bit about this.  She's been writing and presenting on ideas of classroom rigor for quite a while.  And in her recent post on the MiddleWeb blog, "Five Myths About Rigor and the Common Core," Blackburn highlights just a few of the ways that idea of rigor has been misused in attempts to prepare students for CCSS realities.

Rigor is not additive.  It is not about adding more books or adding more homework. Instead, Blackburn points out,
"An environment that supports rigor focuses on risk-taking, since working at higher levels requires that students take a risk. How do we do this? By reinforcing progress, effort, and grit, or persistence."
Rigor is not found in State Reading Assessment workbooks.  Rigor lies in creative and critical thinking, in encouraging students to pursue inquiry, in choice and ownership over the learning process.  So why is it that there seems to be such a disconnect between the goals of rigor as presented by CCSS and how it is taken up by districts and departments?

This past Saturday, I helped organize Edcamp Philly, an unconference for teachers that encourages discussions about pedagogy and practice over your typical conference presentations.  It was a whole day filled with collaborations and connections.  I talked with other educators interested in inquiry and passion-based learning.  I learned how a local school has called their inquiry project DaVinci Days.  I met with other teachers interested in flipped learning and teaching for mastery.  All around me were energized teachers talking about the learning happening in their classrooms, talking about that learning in rigorous ways.  And no one was talking about using workbooks to teach students already struggling with reading.  And no one was talking about simply adding more books as a way to add rigor.

It is disheartening to hear rigor being thought of in terms of test preparation. It breaks my heart to hear justification for returning to traditional teaching methods - e.g. workbooks, assigned full class readings, required constructed written responses without audience or purpose - as a way to better prepare students.  But prepare them for what? To take more tests?  Who benefits from this? In the long run, it is not our students.

I am not opposed to the Common Core State Standards. They provide a foundation for teachers to talk about the skills we want to foster in our group of learners. However, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not a pedagogy.  The CCSS are not a theory for teaching reading and writing. And the CCSS certainly were not intended to be an assessment strategy. Yet it seems that so much of what we are hearing is about how schools are moving away from the pedagogies and best practices of teaching reading and writing that research has shown to help develop the skills necessary for students to succeed beyond the classroom.  Choice, autonomy, purpose, creativity, inquiry, and reflection are pushed aside to make room for "rigor."

I have spent the last few months researching and presenting on why such inquiry-based teaching in the English classroom does more to grow writing and analytical reading skills than test preparation. In fact, it's what I'll be presenting in Chicago in a few months and at the PCTELA conference in October. It feels a bit of a backwards move to be talking about adding rigor in terms of simply requiring that our students "read more" instead of inspiring true rigor which comes from the student, not forced upon her. As an English teacher, my content is more than books. My content is certainly more than workbooks. It breaks my heart to see all that we know about growing engaged and empowered readers and writers undone by tests.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Banning Posters and PowerPoints

Image from Toothpaste For Dinner
That's is. I am banning posters and PowerPoints from my classroom. And I am banning them not simply because they are just not used outside the classroom (when was the last time you cut and pasted letters onto posterboard for your job?).  I am banning them because there is no audience for them once students create them.  At least, no authentic audience. When students create posters and PowerPoints, they are typically only viewed by the teacher and the 20-30 students in the same class.  But if we want our students to be collaborative and creative content creators, we need to encourage them to create content that can be widely shared with actual audiences.  Troy Hicks points out in Crafting Digital Writing that encouraging our students to think critically about the design choices they make while creating in digital spaces also translates to the rhetorical choices they make while writing.  "With digital writing," Hicks writes, "we need to think with words, of course; yet we also need to begin thinking like artists, web designers, recording engineers, photographers, and filmmakers.  In other words, intentional choices about craft can lead to creative work in a variety of media" (18-19).  And there's a whole bunch of 2.0 tools that can help our students create dynamic, engaging presentations for audiences outside our classroom.

To encourage more digital content creation in my classes next fall, I'm going to use one of my bulletin boards to a share a variety of digital presentation tools using QR Codes. I don't plan on teaching each of these tools, but instead direct students to find the presentation tool that will be most effective for the task and tone they are trying to accomplish.  Because each of these tools is created and shared online, many with the ability to embed and export into other locations, real audiences outside of our classroom will also have the ability to connect and view my students' work. Below you'll find not only the list of tools and their basic descriptions, but also a document you can print so that you can post and share these tools with your students as well (scroll to the bottom of the list). I selected these apps in part because they are available to use on multiple platforms, including use on Chromebooks which is what my school is moving toward. If you know of any that I should add, please let me know!
  • PowToons 4Edu is a simple-to-use, animated presentation tool that incorporates comic book style illustration and sound to create engaging videos.  PowToons is also releasing #Slides in beta form which is a version of dynamic slides that pull in thousands of royalty-free images for you and your students to use as you create engaging presentations to share online. 
  • Haiku Deck also pulls in thousands of royalty-free images from Flickr Creative Commons image search and automatically cites the selected images. The slide designs in Haiku Deck limit the amount of text students can include, making for more visually engaging presentations. Haiku Decks can be shared with a link, embedded, downloaded as a PDF, or even exported.
  • TouchCast is all sorts of interactive.  Create short videos and then overlay the video with interactive widgest called vApps which are allow viewers of your video to interact with live web pages and social media sites.  You can include a live poll in your video which viewers can click on or your can pull up a live Twitter feed.  
  • Smore Flyers are versatile.  Once you pick a theme, you can use Smore to create infographics, newsletters, simple websites, and online posters. Embed videos or pictures, maps or apps to further engage your audience.  They share your Smore through social media or embed it on your own site.  Smore is an incredibly easy-to-use, easy-to-share tool.   
  • Snapguide is a new tool for me, but one that I can already tell will become a staple in my teaching toolbox.  Why?  Not only is it easy to use, but its clean layout and simple design make Snapguide a great curation tool for both teachers and students. Have students use this app to create "guidebooks" for their unit materials, a studyguide for a unit, or track the historical influences on a character found in a Dickens' novel.   
  • Canva gives users a bit more design control to its users over other infographic apps like easel.ly or infgr.am.  And Canva's library of royalty free images helps students create beautiful images, posters, website banners, infographics and more. But beware, you could easily get sucked into all the cool desgin templates and possibilitites that Canva has to offer.   
  • Piktochart is another great tools for creating infographics. The pre-loaded themes available through Piktochart make it easy for students to share their research and writing in clean, easy-to-follow digital spaces. This is a great tool for helping visual learners think through how organization of ideas impacts their audience/reader.
  • Prezi for Education is used a great deal by students and teachers already, but I would be remiss if I didn't include it on this list. Students can collaboratively edit and share their Prezis making this a great tool for students working both inside and outside of class to craft group presentations. It may take a bit of time for students to become familiar with how to use the design wheel, but once they do, the options for creating dynamic presentations are nearly limitless.
  • VoiceThread another already widely used tool by teachers.  The ability to upload lesson materials and then have students login to respond using text, their voice, or their webcam makes VoiceThread a fantasitic tools for the flipped or blended classroom. But it can also be an engaging tool for students to use in the creation of their own presentations.  If we want students to create presentations that connect with actual audiences, VoiceThread is a great tools for doing just that.  And because you can embed VoiceThread into other sites, students could easily share their creations through multiple venues.
  • RawShorts is another video creation tool.  Rather than using a comic book style of drawing, RawShorts relies on photography.  Images and pictures are moved on and off screen by hands, making the final video similar to that of a Common Craft video. But a word of warning, make sure you let your tech department know what the site is. RawShorts was inadvertently blocked by our school's filter for having "Adult Content."  Apparently our filter didn't think too highly of the name "Raw Shorts." 
  • VideoScribe is also a tool for video creation and is a lot like PowToons in that students can use this app to create dynamic, animated videos.  However, it is visually quite different.  Rather than animated drawings, VideoScribe animates the actual drawing.  So if you were looking to have you students create a Common Craft or RSA Animate type of whiteboard video, this would be the app to use.
CLICK HERE for an explanation and QR Code for each of the apps mentioned above. Print it out and share with your students or post to a classroom bulletin board.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

EdCamp Awesomeness

I'm excited to be one of the organizers of this weekend's Edcamp Philly, happening on Saturday, May 17th between 8am-4pm at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy.  This year we are celebrating our fifth anniversary.  Celebrating with us will be a record number of educators from the Philadelphia region.  In 2010 a group of Philadelphia teachers organized the first unconference for educators, and over the last five years, hundreds of EdCamps have been organized by and for educators all over the globe. 

Unlike traditional professional development conferences which have schedules set months in advance by the people running the conference, Edcamp has an agenda that’s created by the participants at the start of the event. Instead of one person standing in front of the room talking for an hour, people are encouraged to have discussions and hands-on sessions. And one of the best parts - it free!  This year, over 500 teachers from our area have signed up for free tickets.

Built on principles of connected and participatory learning, Edcamp strives to bring teachers together to talk about the things that matter most to them: their interests, passions, and questions. Teachers who attend Edcamp can choose to lead sessions on those things that matter, with an expectation that the people in the room will work together to build understanding by sharing their own knowledge and questions.

There is still space available and we would love for you to join us for this event. Find more information and sign up for free tickets at www.edcampphilly.org.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Confessions of a Failed Flipper

As I shared in my earlier post, I learned most of what I know today about the flipped learning approach from the disaster that was my first year flipping my tenth grade English classes.  I'm over-selling it, but not by much.  Here, take a peek:

Introduction to The Kite Runner

What student is going to spend 40 minutes watching a Prezi on the introduction to Afghani history?  I created it, and I don't want to watch it all the way through!  It took my failed first year of flipping to learn what works and what doesn't when flipping my high school English classes.  Over the course the last year, I have both failed and found success with the flipped learning approach, and I have learned a great deal from both.  But today, learn from my mistakes.  So here it is - my confessions of failed flipping:

1) It's Not About the Videos

I thought it was about the videos. It is not about the videos. In fact, it's really, really, really not about the videos. I have been live streaming my English classes since 2009, opening up access to absent students and parents so that they might join us virtually for class.  So when I started to hear more about "flipping your class," it made sense to me.  I am a firm believer in the power of transparency, in the power of opening up opportunities for students to engage in learning when and wherever they can. And, since I was already recording my classes, this flip wouldn't be so hard, right? Wrong.

My first semester of more intentionally using the flipped/blended approach had me sitting in front of my computer screen creating more and more presentations to screencast.  And this is not ordinarily how I teach.  I don't usually use a lot of PowerPoints or Prezis.  Yet, I created presentation after presentation, sitting hour after hour, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning recording videos on assignment instructions, grammar mistakes, and historical connections to our class novels.  And I thought I was being smart about it, asking students to use the videos to complete questions on worksheets.  Occassionally, I would sneak an extra credit opportunity into the video. I would be surprised the next day when only two or three students would come in with the extra credit.  But the videos were 15, 20, sometimes 30 minutes long. And they were bad.  Really, really bad.  I was asking students essentially to watch PowerPoints, videos without movement, without activitiy, without my personality.  When I recorded many of my first videos, I did not use my webcam. My weird stories and quirkiness were absent. I was asking my students to watch the least interesting content of our class while I presented it in the least interesting way. Of course they didn't watch the videos!

It was when I attended EdCamp Philly last May that the absurdity of what I was doing hit me. In a session titled "Classroom Gymnastics: Flipping, BYOD, Paperless, 20% Time, and More," teachers Liz Calderwood, Kate Baker, Marc Seigel, and Christina Roy began a conversation with participating educators about the differences between the flipped and blended approaches to teaching as well as about how they planned and prepared the flipped elements of their courses.  It wasn't about the videos.  It was about the inquiry.

From Pearson
Flipped learning isn't about the videos. Instead, it is a model of teaching that is based on inquiry and exploration.  Rather than the teacher establishing what, when, how, and why students learn the content, the flipped approach encourages teachers to rethink how and when learning happens for our students.  How might we better engage our learners in their learning? In what ways can we encourage student ownership and mastery over our content areas.  And so flipped learning begins with a problem.  What is the driving problem or question that will lead my students to explore a particular element of my content area?  How can I encourage my students to explore, to be self-directed learners? As their teacher, I am the facilitator of exploration (oh, I like that title.  I might just need to start referring to myself as a Facilitator of Writing Exploration). And so now what I flip are those materials that will encourage my students to explore on their own. Sometimes my flip comes in the form of a shared Google Doc that I ask my students to collaboratively annotate.  Sometimes flipping in my classroom looks like a traditional English classroom with my students reading at home.  Sometimes flipping does involve videos.  However, my more recent videos focus on skills, with me screencasting an example essay to briefly show students about a particular element of the craft of writing.  I am working to build a library of these writing craft videos, short five minute videos that I can share on an as-needed basis to help differentiate my writing instruction. I ask students to come to class the next day with questions based on whatever it is that I have asked them to complete outside of class.  My class is based on questions.  And it is the questions that we use to explore, to discuss, to debate, to learn.  Not the videos.

2) If You Build It, They Might Come...But They Might Not

Just because you've posted your assignments online does not mean that students will access them online.  By now, most teachers realize this.  If there is not a clear purpose for students to access all those assignments and videos you've spent hours uploading, they won't.  A teacher's online space should not just be the equivalent of a classroom bulletin board. It should not be passive. Our online spaces must be dynamic, engaging, changing as the learning happening in our physical classrooms changes. Students need to contribute to the learning that happens in our online spaces.

My class Ning site at MsWard.org
My first classroom website back in 2002 was a very large collection of hyperlinks that very few students accessed with any regularity. In 2008, I played around with wikis and eventually moved my class site over to a Ning, which at the time was free for educators.  This is the space that I use today with my students. Students contribute to our online classroom through blogs and discussion forums. Students can form online groups with their own discussion threads. Students post pictures and videos and comment on one another's work.  It is a space where I not only post our weekly assignments but where students also add to our learning.  Our online space has purpose.  It also has audience.  And because students know that they writing that they post in our online space will be read by more than just the teacher, students have a purpose for their contribution and revision of their written work.
But what I have also learned from our online space is that you need to keep your content as few clicks away as possible.  Asking students to "go here, click on this, find the menu at the left and click on the second option" is a recipe for disaster.  You will lost a majority of your students by the second click. Your online materials need to be well-curated and as few clicks away as possible.  I caught a presentation by Philip Vinogradov recently where he talked about his use of gamification concepts in teaching.  His model of first curating all of his lesson and enrichment materials into one online space before ever sharing units with students makes sense.  Curating lesson materials allows for students to move at their own pace and encourages mastery in that students can return to a library of online learning resources as they need.  What this also calls for is planning.  Success with the flipped learning model begins with excellent planning.  You need to anticipate what remedial and enrichment materials you will need in addition to your planned lesson materials, you need to create a purposeful online space that students can connect and contribute to, and you need to have the end in mind.  How will you know students have mastered the objectives of your lesson? When they have viewed all your materials?  Or instead, will students demonstrate their mastery through their contributions?

3) Prepare for Chaos

One of the many reasons I initially wanted to move to a flipped approach was to open up more time in class for my students to practice their reading and writing skills with the support of both the teacher and their peers.  It didn't make sense that for me to assign reading homework when students were struggling with comprehension.  It didn't make sense to have students draft essays outside of class when they struggled to formulate ideas into a thesis.  The activities that my students struggled with needed to be the ones we practiced together in the physical clasroom.  Moving more of the reading and writing into our classroom time together using a writing workshop model made it easier for me to differentiate how and where I provided support. What it also made for was a lot of chaos.

One of my greatest successes with the flipped approach came this past fall as my students completed our first 20% time research projects. But if you walked into my classroom on any Friday, it would look more than just a little chaotic. I would have a student or two crouched under the counters lining my room reading a book.  Another two or three students could be found in the hallway video taping interviews.  Three of four students would be hovering over the computer using my webcam. Desks would be rearranged into small pods for students to watch YouTube tutorials on cake decorating and computer hardware assembly.  But learning was happening in every corner of our room.  On our research days, I circulated around the class conducting conferences, speaking with students about their learning process, intervening when students needed support.  However, what was not successful was how I kept track of our writing and research conferences...or rather, how I did not keep track of them.

Looking back, I should have more carefully read the advice of Nancie Atwell and Carl Anderson, both of whom advocate for students and teacher to keep process notes of their writing conferences together.  Although my students blogged weekly and I kept an unmanagably large spreadsheet of all our varied projects, I didn't track the conversations and strategies I shared with students during our conference times. This was a lost opportunity.  Looking back, I could have intervened more strategically had I been taking notes on our conferences.  This would also have helped me be more strategic in how and when I provided feedback.

4) Ask Questions...Lots of Questions

Not only does the model of flipped learning hinge on the questions that we use to frame the lessons we prepare for our students, but we also need to be asking our own questions. Is this the best way to support the learners in my courses? Are my students getter the feedback they need to progress? How the heck do I do this when no one else in my department is?

The flipped learning movement took root in the work of Aaron Sams and Jon Bergmann who began flipping their Colorado science classes in order to reach those students missing class.  Five years later, you can't attend an educational conference without there being at least one session on flipped learning.  As of today, there are 19,632 members of the Flipped Learning Network.  What does this mean? There are a lot of mentors and models out there to ask for help. Something that I have started to do a bit better this year is turn to my Twitter PLN with questions about flipping.  English teachers like Cheryl Morris and Andrew ThomassonKate Baker, and Troy Cockrum have been invaluable inspirations for my own learning. Had I reached out earlier in my flipping adventures, perhaps I would not have made the mistakes that I did.  So in addition to curating materials for your students, curate your own learning spaces and mentors.  Reach out and ask questions.  Ask a lot of questions.  After all, isn't that what we're trying to encourage our students to do? We need to be models for the type of learning we hope to support.

Here are a few of the online spaces where I have found models to inspire my flipped learning approach for my English courses.  Let me know if you find any that I can add!

Follow Jennifer's board Flipped Learning Tools for the High School English Classroom on Pinterest.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Resources for Flipping the English Class

On Friday afternoon, I had the opportunity to join both lower and upper school teachers from Penn Charter School in Philadelphia to discuss the flipped learning model. Many of the teachers were familiar with the term flipped learning, but had questions about what the approach looked like in a humanities classroom. Isn't the flipped model something that English and history teachers already do?  And the answer is...sort of.

Image from WGBY Education
Flipped learning is not just about students watching videos as homework. Instead, the flipped approach is very similar to inquiry-based and problem-based learning pedagogies in that at the heart of the flipped approach are students. This students-centered learning approach allows for student exploration of concepts with opportunities to practice and master skills using teacher created and curated materials that students have access to both inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers act as facilitators, mentors, and coaches, helping guide students through these learning opportunities.  What this means for me as a high school English teacher is that I use a great deal of formative assessment in order to determine what skills and higher order learning activities my students are struggling to learn.  These are the learning opportunities that should happen with my support inside the classroom. As an English teacher, I had previously assigned my students chapter-by-chapter reading homework.  However, if my students are struggling with reading comprehension, this "homework" is doing more to hinder their learning than to support it.  The same is true of teaching writing.  Previously, I expected my high school students to draft their essays outside of class.  But this didn't make sense when my students were struggling to compose their thesis statements. The skills that students struggle with need to be flipped into the classroom.  Now, we begin all of our writing activities in the classroom where students have support from both their teacher as well as from their peers.

For those new to the idea of flipping the English classroom, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the resources that I have found helpful in my flipping adventures. I am by no means an expert, and as I shared with the teachers at Penn Charter on Friday, most of my learning about this approach happened as I did everything exactly wrong.  Imagine students sitting at home watching 25 minute long videos on sentence fragments. Yikes! So to help other teachers avoid my mistakes (and wasted time creating truly awful videos), I've compiled some of my favorite tools.

Getting started:

Image from Tutor2U
  • If you are new to flipped learning, start with the pillars of Flipped Learning shared by the educators at the Flipped Learning Network, an online forum for teachers to share their resources and questions about flipped learning. This document is a great introduction to the basics of the flipped approach, emphasizing the how the approach encourages a student-centered approach to learning.
  • Aaron Sams and Jon Bergmann’s book Flip Your Classroom was a valuable resource in helping me think through why and how to flip. This fast read also discusses how the flipped approach can be used to encourage mastery learning goals.   
  • Troy Cockrum’s book Flipping Your English Class includes not only chapters to help teachers think through the theory underlying the flipped approach, but also includes specific lessons for English teachers interested in trying the approach.  Each lesson is presented twice, first using a traditional flipped model for those teacher first implementing this approached and then as a second iteration flipped lesson with ideas for encouraging differentiation and mastery.  If you are interesting in understanding the difference between these two approaches, check out this excerpt from the book with two example lessons.
  • Jason Bretzmann’s Flipping 2.0 includes chapters by English teachers Kate Baker, Cheryl Morris and Andrew Thomasson, and by Troy Cockrum. Teachers discuss how they got started, the missteps they made along the way, as well as what they found most helpful to consider when getting started.
  • Twitter is an invaluable resource for teachers of all disciplines, but in particular, you will find a lot of flipping teachers use Twitter to share their resources and collaborate.  So, what flipping English teachers are on Twitter? Here's my list of flipping English teachers.
  • Dan Spencer's shared Google Doc on Flipped Learning is a must-read. This resource, filled with examples and resources, is my go-to resource for flipping lessons
  • Cybrary Man’s collection of flipped learning resources is another go-to resource for finding examples, and Jerry Blumengarten is always updating it with more resources
  • As I was getting started, I also wanted to see models of the materials other English teachers were creating and using.  Below are the websites and blogs for some fantastic flipping English teachers:

Considerations before you begin:

  • Host your videos and materials in a space that makes it easy for students to find and navigate. Curate an online space that does not have too many distractions or asks students to make a number of clicks in order to get to your materials. More clicks = more options to click away from your materials. If you are not going to host videos/materials on your own website, try one of these curation sites:
  • When creating videos...
    • Keep videos under 15 minutes; most effective videos are under 10 minutes
    • Make sure your materials and videos display your personality. Students want to see and hear you in the presentation.
    • The less clicks the better; embed the video.
    • Students must do something as they watch in order to help them practice the skill featured in your video. Consider having them take notes, craft questions, or respond to a class blog or discussion website.
    • Tools for video editing:
      • Camtasia - very robust, but costly. You can sign up for free 30-day trial
      • Screencast-o-matic - free and easy to use, online, no download
      • VoiceThread - interactive and embeddable
      • Haiku Deck - interactive and embeddable
      • Screenr - free and easy to use, online, no download necessary
      • PowToons - create your own short animated videos, limited text
      • Jing - free screencast and screen capture download
  • Use materials created by others
    • TedxEd is fantastic!  Pull in any YouTube video, create multiple choice or open ended questions to go along with the video, and use teacher-created student accounts to have students respond. There are a wealth of lessons already created and shared, or you can create your own.
    • Khan Academy has a great deal for science and math teachers, but more and more humanities lessons are being added.
    • Find example lessons shared at the Flipped Learning Network and on the Flipped Classroom Ning.  And while you are there, join the Ning network of flipping teachers!
  • And ask questions! 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Researching Research

Image from GEPlan
I am researching research.  I know, it all sounds very meta.  But following my tenth grade English students' completion of our 20% time research projects, I wondered just how much of a difference, if any, this type of inquiry-based research writing assignment made for my practicing writers. And so I ended up undertaking a type of research that was quite similar to the research writing that I was studying from my students.  I completed a 20% research project on my students’ 20% research project!  Recently when I was interviewing my former students about their work, this is how we both discussed my own research.  And so I have had an opportunity to learn not only from my students as I interviewed and surveyed them, but also as I engaged in the very assignment I had asked them to complete. In recognizing this connection to my students’ work, I strived to replicate for myself many of the same activities that I asked my students to engage in as way of better understanding how I had asked my students to engage in their research process.  I needed to get inside both their research and mine.  To do that, I have been using this blog to share my reflections on what I have learned along with the resources I have gathered along the way in much the same way that I asked my students to blog about their research.  And because I asked my students to share their research and reflections as a presentation at the close of their work, I, too, wanted to share my research in this way. I was fortunate to be able to present recently at the Philadelphia School of the Future’s Educator Forum on May 3rd. And by the close of my presentation, I realized that my research is not yet complete.  Not only do I still have more to learn from my students, but I also learned that I need to revise my presentation to make sure that my students’ voices speak more about their process than I do.  So before I present this research again at the end of July in Chicago at the EdTech Teacher Summit, I plan to interview more of my students. I am interested in hearing more from my students about their writing experiences.

In designing both my survey questions and my interview questions, I was initially interested in learning more about what writing skills my students endorsed as those we developed through our more traditional research writing project versus those we developed through our more inquiry-based 20% research writing project. However, what I discovered from the student responses to both the survey and interview questions is that my students wanted to talk more about the structure of the assignment and what that did to encourage (and sometimes discourage) their engagement with writing and reflection. In the survey portion of my research, I asked students to review specific writing skills that our Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards outline as assessment anchors for expository writing and reflect on whether our traditional research essay writing assignment or our 20% research assignment better helped students practice these particular skills. In reviewing survey responses, I could see that there was quite a bit of diversity in their perceptions of what writing skills we were working to develop.  The only assessment anchors that were endorsed similarly by all students were the first criteria, “Analyze the interrelationships of ideas and events in a text to determine how one idea or event may interact and influence another”, which all those responding students indicated that our more traditional research addressed, and the last two anchors.  The last two criteria, both focused on the conventions and grammar of writing, pulled unanimous responses from the students who took the survey.  All students indicated that “Both types of writing assignments equally helped me learn this skill” to the last two criteria. So if both the traditional and more inquiry-based ways of structuring research writing assignments equally helped students develop skills with grammar and convention, what differentiated the assignments?

In reviewing the open-ended survey responses to the questions of “What did you learn about writing from your completion of the 20% time research project?” and the related question about our more traditional SSR research writing assignment, I noticed a striking difference.  Students nearly universally responded that what they learned from the traditional writing assignment was what we typically identify as writing conventions.  One student responded, “I’m horrible at doing works cited, so this project cleared up a lot of questions I had in regards to citing my work.” Another responded: “I was able to incorporate facts and other information to make an overall essay that was still interesting to the reader.” These typified the strengths students identified in the traditional research writing assignment, one in which their writing steps were prescribed and students were given an outline for how to organize their writing.  Students identified that they learned how to incorporate facts, fix sentence errors, and cite information. However, no student mentioned learning anything about the writing process or about the craft of writing in connection with completing the traditional research writing assignment.  However, students responded quite differently to questions about the strengths of the 20% project.

When asked about the strengths of completing our 20% research project, not only did students give more specific and detailed responses, but they also spent more time talking about their writing process, the decisions they made as to what to research, how to go about their research, as well as how to share their research.  Student responses were more focused on the process of their writing.  One student responded in the survey by stating that the 20% research project helped her understand that “Writing is so much more than just an essay.  This project gave me the opportunity to write (and post) blog-style pieces which turned out to be really fun.  Also, by creating a project proposal video, I was given the opportunity to make a presentation with more than just words and pictures (but actual creative animations) and to my surprise, I actually enjoyed making it.” In reviewing my students’ survey, interview responses, and reflective blog posts that they composed during their research process, students repeatedly referenced the importance of choice, purpose, and audience on their decision-making and composing processes.  Students wrote more about the choices they made both in the research process and rhetorically in the composing process based on sharing their work with a real audience.  During interviews, multiple students cited choice, mentors, audience, and reflection as significant motivating factors for how they wrote and shared their work.

In pulling together their survey and interview responses and reviewing the blog posts and digital compositions that students crafted during the completion of their 20% time research, seven themes emerged.  As I thought through how I wanted to share this research with others, I sought to find a way to distill those themes into an easily understood framework.  So after listing out my themes and thinking through the words that students used most often to describe their writing, I stumbled upon the idea of empowerment.  Students were not simply engaged in writing, they described feeling empowered by the process of research and inquiry when they had choice and ownership over it.  Using the word “empower” helped me frame my findings.  EMPOWER is an acronym for the seven elements of our research writing that students identified as being crucial elements in their success:
  • E - empowering choice
  • M - mentors as models for learning
  • P - process over product
  • O - ownership
  • W - wonder
  • E - enabling connections
  • R - reflection
Many of the elements that my students cited as being critical to their research process have also been cited by others.  Daniel Pink’s popular book Drive, focusing on what drives our motivation, also speaks to the power of choice, ownership, and the role that connecting with other learners plays in our motivation.  Additionally, writing teachers like Peter Elbow, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle have been publishing about the influence of purpose, audience, and reflection on the composing process for student writers.  So my research bears out some of what others have already published about how teachers can empower their students writers.  However, what I have found most interesting and what is leading me to do further research is why then isn't more inquiry and process-based research writing done in the English classroom, especially at the high school level?

In initially starting our 20% time research project this past fall, I sought the permission of my principal. This seems to highlight just how unusual this inquiry-based writing assignment is for the high school English classroom.  But clearly, it shouldn't be.  Inquiry-based or problem-based learning is not just for the hard sciences.  Humanities classrooms clearly can benefit from this approach as well.  Engaging in my own research on the research writing that I ask my students to do has encouraged me to reflect and re-envision how I structure and facilitate the writing opportunities in my high school English classroom.  Teaching writers is not about teaching the writing.  As Lucy Calkins' suggests in her book The Art of Teaching Writing, “[We] are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by ‘what might help this writer’ rather than ‘what might help this writing’” (228). Both by researching my students’ responses to this particular assignment as well as engaging in it myself has me gain a greater appreciation for the context in which writing happens in the classroom.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


When I started my graduate level Composition and Rhetoric course a few months back, our professor began class by asking us, many of us practicing teachers, what the importance of theory was to teaching young writers.  Again today, as I reflect on our final exam, I am called back to this question.  What is so important about theory? I must confess that as that first class began, I wasn't convinced. I know theory.  I had theory classes in undergrad. And I'm taking yet another class on literary theory at the moment. But what does theory matter when you are standing in front of a class of 28 students?

Turns out, a lot.

Theory grounds our work with emerging writers. It forms our foundational understanding about what it means to be a writer, what it means to write. Theory informs our practice, and not the other way around. Theory is the framework which helps practictioners understand the bias, perspective, and underpinnings of why we do what we do.  Theory informs our practice because when we begin to recognize the set of principles and systems that connect what we see happening in our writing, as teachers we are then able to use these theories to explain and predict what is happening.  In terms of best practices, understanding historical theories of rhetoric and composition then also help teachers theorize themselves.  By taking into account our perspectives, that is to say our philosophical and pedagogical views that guide our approaches to teaching rhetoric and composition, we are better able to engage with emerging writers when and how they need support.  Theory informs our approach, our classroom writing activities, and the action happening every day in our writing classrooms.

But when I first walked into the classroom over ten years ago, I did not have solid grasp on theories of rhetoric and composition.  Over time, through the National Writing Project, I was introduced to the works of Donald Graves and Thomas Newkirk, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins.  These teachers and writers have identified theories of teaching composition in the secondary school setting, which for them has been informed by the larger tradition of composition and rhetorical studies.  Their work helped me reflect and redefine what and how I was teaching young writers.

However, having read the work of these teachers and composition theorists, I realize now that I still did not have a full grasp of their theoretical underpinnings.  Now, after an intense semster studying process and post-process theories of composition, I more clearly see the implications of my lack of understanding of the significant role theory plays in the teaching of writing.  This was highlighted for me in a simple activity we completed in class not all that long ago.

Having completed a series of readings on assessment and grammar, our professor asked us to first theorize about what we believed and valued to be true about writing. Easy enough. I jotted down, "Writing is rewriting. Writers are constantly reshaping, reimagining, and reflecting on their work. And as such, we are always revising." Our next step, given our reading that week, was to apply our theory.  What was my strategy for responding to students' work in-progress? This was easy to answer, I though. "Using questins to help move the student writer forward in his/her thinking about the impact of the writing on a particular reader." So far, this activity was nothing too difficult.  Then our professor asked us to begin connecting our feedback strategies and approaches back to our initial theorizing.  How is my evaluation of students' finalized texts based on my initial criteria? Uh oh.  Based on my theorizing and beliefs about the writing process, my evaluation of student writing should be focused on how well the students' writing affects a particular audience.  How well did the writer adapt the tone, style, and content to reflect the rhetorical needs of a specific reader?  But, wait.  That's not what my rubrics evaluate.  My rubrics, based on the state CCSS assessments for expositional writing, focus on organizational and convention goals and largely ignore audience, purpose, and rhetorial style.  I began to understand how great the rift was between my espousal of of a process-based approach and the style in which I was actually proving feedback and assessing my student writers.  In providing more feedback on their finalized papers, especially feedback that was focused on organizational strategies and conventions, I wasn't preparing my students to engage in the sorts of critical revision and reflection strategies that I thought I was.  I wasn't asking my students to reflect on their rhetorical styles.  Instead, my practice was actually undermining my theories of writing.

So what is the importance of theory to a writing teacher?  Everything!

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