Old Tech v. New Tech

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I was writing on my chalkboard the other day and another teacher walked into my room and asked why I was writing on the board when I have a Smartboard, iPads and AppleTV.  I stopped for a minute and thought about it and realized I had no real answer to this question besides the fact that I love to write on a chalkboard.  It is part of my daily routine when I come into the classroom in the morning; I hang my coat, turn on my computer, make a cup of tea, then always write the day’s activities on the chalkboard.  Old habits I suppose.  I also think I’m a bit nostalgic-when people think of schools and teachers, they think of chalkboards.  And pencils.  I stopped writing lesson plans to write this post and I was using a pencil to write them.  Yes, I have my iPad with my Google Drive app.  Yes, I have my laptop with Microsoft Word on it.  But nothing beats putting pencil to paper; I love the feel of the lead gliding across the paper.  Just as I still love reading books with paper pages on which I can scribble, annotate and underline great words and phrases. Weird, I know.  But it is what it is.

In today’s age of new technology and gadgets galore (all of which I use in class and appreciate), I think it important to never forget the “old technology” that is the chalkboard, the pencil, the paper book.  They are what led us to where we are today.

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OTES

This week, I completed training for the new Ohio Teacher Evaluation System. Why? If this is how I am to be evaluated in the near future, I feel I need to know exactly how it works. Truthfully, I was not happy about giving up three precious days in my summer to learn about this-even my husband called me a crab the morning of the first day. If it were a workshop on curriculum or writing strategies or how to incorporate tech in my classroom, I know my attitude would have been very different and I would have been excited to go. No, this did not excite me in the very least; heading out the door that first day, a root canal would have been more enticing. But, I went, knowing it was one of those experiences in life in which I would dread going, but would appreciate that I did it once it was over.

Well, I survived the three days of training and am glad it is over, but also thankful I went. Overall, there are aspects of OTES which I like and those with which I do not agree. But because I want to stay positive, I will focus on what I feel are the two most important benefits to the system:

*It encourages much conversation between teacher and admin. Anyone who is in education knows how crazy a school day can be, so taking the time to sit down and having a discussion about what you are doing in your classroom can definitely be moved to the back burner on most days. This system requires that the communication is happening on a consistent basis. This is so important to keeping lines of communication open between teachers and admin; it fosters positive and professional working relationships, which only benefits the students (and is the true reason we are in education, a sentiment that sometimes gets forgotten with the politics and firestorms constantly surrounding the field of education these days).

*OTES allows teachers to get true and authentic feedback. I’ve been teaching in some capacity for over fifteen years and would never begin to call myself an expert; I am always changing and trying to improve as a teacher. I personally feel like I constantly need someone to observe my practice and give me suggestions and feedback so I can become a better educator. OTES requires that this happens with two 30-minute formal evals and walk-throughs throughout the school year. I really appreciate this! Because of time constraints, admin usually have to focus much of their time and energy with teachers who need more help, many times not worrying about the effective teachers because they are doing a ‘good’ job without any help. I get it, because that is something I see happening in classrooms as well; teachers spend the majority of their time with the kids who are struggling, assuming the other students are doing well on their own. It’s a matter of a lack of time in the school day and trying to prioritize what is most important to tackle first. But OTES fosters this feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism for all teachers, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. That is truly a positive.

Again, there are portions of the evaluation system I do not like, nor with which I agree. But, overall, I’m glad that I completed the training and would encourage other educators to do the same if able. I feel more informed and ready for OTES once it comes into play and will not have to rely on others’ interpretation of it to understand all of its elements.

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The Struggles of Teaching Writing in High School

I am taking a graduate class this summer which is about teaching writing.  The class got into a heated discussion last night about the differences between what we, as middle and high school teachers, need to teach versus what is expected to be taught at the college-level.  The idea of structured writing which focuses on formulaic structure with emphasis on correct grammar and spelling conventions was a hot topic, especially when Common Core Standards and standardized testing rest upon the shoulders of public school teachers around the country.  Should we focus on strictly content, or should we emphasize the correct writing conventions?  Should we allow spelling and grammatical errors to cloud the quality of the writing and lower the grade if the content is excellent?  It was an interesting discussion and here is my response to the issue:
The teaching of writing is such a subjective concept.  While one teacher or professor may love one style of writing, another could possibly hate it and criticize it, all the while cutting down the student’s confidence and killing their love of writing.  Therein lies the constant struggle as an English teacher.  When and how to grade for grammatical and structural issues within a writing piece and when to focus strictly on the content in order to give students a broad scope of the writing process so they will be prepared for most anything.  I’m not sure there is a correct answer for this problem nor will there ever be.

Having taught high school for many years, I feel I have a pretty decent grasp of how most high school students write (I would never categorize all students under one sweeping adjective since every student is different and should be recognized as such).  Many struggle with sentence structure and organization; sometimes reading a high school paper is comparable to a wild treasure hunt – trying desperately to find the purpose, the theme, the true “meat” of the paper in a sea of unorganized and random thoughts.  Most high school students need help with basic organization, so I always make sure we get the traditional essay down first, especially the thesis statement.  It may sound old-fashioned or stuffy, but I have found this essay becomes essentially “training wheels” for the students; it forces them to write in a more rigid fashion, but in doing so, teaches them the basic outline or skeleton of a writing piece and they can eventually veer from this format once they are more confident with their writing.  And, yes, on first drafts I do check for spelling and grammar issues, however, I always make sure I give positive feedback as well.  I do take points off for these issues, but I do so to ensure students are aware of them and the issues don’t undermine the quality of the writing.  Here is my take on this:  I want to be completely honest and let the kids know what it is they need to work on within their own writing because many times they are not sure or they are simply unaware of certain writing rules and conventions.  It’s the equivalent to having a big chunk of spinach protruding from your front teeth and walking around all day and having not one single person inform you of the offensive green leaf shoved unceremoniously in your mouth.  I would want to know when there is spinach in my teeth just as students should know what it is that is ails their papers.  By not telling, we are not helping to save someone the embarrassment of green teeth nor are we being honest with our students about their writing.

On the other hand, I agree that students should experience writing many different types of papers.  Simply writing the same tired and dreary five-paragraph essay over and over does not a good writer make.  We write novels during November’s National Writing Month, we write narrative pieces, we do many free-writes to start class; I really do try to mix up the types of assignments.  This is important to do so in order to play to the strengths of different learners in the classroom since I always have my left-brain students who love research and the structure of a thesis paper and my right-brainers who thrive with the creative assignments.  Balance.  If I were to describe what epitomizes an effective classroom in one word, it would be “balance”.  Kids have to work hard, learn the conventions, get upset when I give some constructive feedback, call me bad names in their heads, rewrite, edit, revise, be proud of the final draft, like me again as a teacher, gain confidence as a writer, then go out, have some fun with the writing and break the rules!  They need to be able to party with the proverbial lampshade on their heads with their writing, only after they’ve completed all the grunt work beforehand.  Then, I can send them off to college knowing that they have the confidence to write in many different ways with the freedom that they will be given outside the walls of a high school.  Image

Frustration Acceleration…Moving Past the Learning Curve

Well, the iPad cart finally arrived in my room two weeks ago. Truth be told, the sight of it produced a mixed bag of emotions ranging from happiness to trepidation. I can only liken it to anticipating Christmas day; wanting it to arrive so badly, yet being afraid it will not live up to expectations. Yet, there it was, being rolled into my classroom and the moment finally arrived when all the planning, talking and thinking about these iPads had to be put into action!

Assigning and organizing was first and foremost for me. As I’ve written before, I wanted to name each iPad after a famous author in addition to numbering them in order to assign each to a student. A colleague gave me a chart which had a space for numbers, names and serial numbers, so I had one class fill out the serial numbers on the chart since that would have taken a million years to do on my own! Then I typed the authors’ names and the corresponding numbers on paper, printed and laminated them and taped them on the tables; each iPad then had a ‘resting place’ on the tables. This allows me to do a quick visual to make sure all iPads are there before dismissing the students each period. This has worked really well, but has since been replaced by pictures of iPads with the author’s book cover within the frame of the iPad. Hard to explain, so see picture below.

(Love this! Thanks V and B, my former students who did this for me as well as the matching bulletin board. I’ve included that picture as well.)

Since the organizing is now done, we’ve (my classes and I) been stumbling through the first few weeks with many challenges and frustrations. For example, the iPads would kick the wireless off, the cookies needed turned on, Google was fussy and not cooperating, kids forgot passwords and a myriad of other roadblocks have gotten in our way. But today-today everything went without a hitch! We looked up articles on Ebsco and cited them in Noodletools. We explored an online study guide about ‘The Great Gatsby’ and discussed the symbolism within the first two chapters. We took a quiz using a Google form. And everything worked! I can honestly say it was one of those days I’d like to run through the copy machine. Now I realize this will probably not be the norm, but today gave me hope that getting involved in this iPad pilot program is worth all the blood, sweat and tears which have gone into it!

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The Last Week of Summer (a.k.a. ‘The Calm Before the Storm’)

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We educators love summer…it’s the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. This is not to imply that I dislike my job; on the contrary, I love my job and have no idea what I would do if someone told me I was no longer able to teach. But I need time to refresh and recharge to be at my best. This applies not only to teaching, but to my personal life as well. This is why I get up early every morning to exercise before anyone else is awake in my house. This is why I love my plan period at school and I get 42 minutes to myself (some days, but not many). This is why I still need to take a quick nap before going out after a long day (my affinity for nap-taking is a running joke among my friends). It’s just part of my make-up and who I am. So, summer is a welcomed break from the craziness and chaos that can be a part of the teaching profession.

Admittedly, however, August inevitably is the time when I begin to crave being back in my classroom and the security that a structured schedule allows. I want that both for myself and for my two girls (their days of sleeping until 10:00 are now numbered, much to their dismay). Now it is August 21 and I start school in two days. Two days. The mere thought makes me so very nervous and excited at the same time. But this is a different kind of nervous than the typical first-day jitters; this is due in part to the implementation of the iPads in my classroom this year. I want it to go well, but realize this is going to be a learning curve for me, the students, the other teachers involved in the program, the administrators and the tech department. There will be hiccups along the way. But I think I’m ready…

In the meantime, I am going to enjoy my last 48 hours of summer. I am now returning from a fun weekend camping trip at the beach, I’m going to finish the first ‘Harry Potter’ book which I finally started ten years too late (my daughter is reading the second one in the pictures) and I’m going to enjoy spending time with my kids. I will relax and be as calm as I can as I get ready for the storm.

And I will fret as I think about everything I still need to do as I finish preparing for this new school year…

Singing the Praises of Twitter as a Professional Development Tool

Twitter. The word itself invoked my eyeballs to roll involuntarily. Twitter? Tweeting? Really? Who thought of this? Telling the world your thoughts in 140 characters or less? It seemed silly and frivolous to me. So, I never investigated it and pushed it into the “Will Not Use” section of my mind. Did that make me a “Twitter Snob”? Perhaps. Am I proud of that? No, of course not. Even last summer when my good friend and fellow teacher tried to sell me on the advantages of using Twitter as an educator, I balked and could not bring myself to open that door and walk through it.

However, something piqued my interest in Twitter this summer. Honestly, I can’t remember if it was a television program about it or an article I may have read online. Whatever it was, one day last month I was sitting on my back porch with my iPad and decided to take a look at it. Before I knew it, I was creating a profile (just in case, but I would never need it) and reading what others had written. Slowly but surely it dawned on me that this might actually be something worth looking into. Suddenly, I found myself looking online to see the best way to use Twitter (hashtags can be confusing at first), then I began looking for people to “follow” (it does feel a bit stalker-ish) who were involved in education and technology. Surprisingly, I began to get requests for others to follow me as well. That was an experience at first since I neglected to set my settings as private…I read some very interesting tweets as a result! Note: Set your profile as private or you will be in for a real education! Have not had a problem since doing so…

Anyway, in the past month I have been on Twitter, I have learned more about my profession and have gained more ideas than in all the conferences and workshops I’ve attended in the past few years combined. I cannot believe this whole community of educators have been online all this time and I’ve been missing out…I feel a bit like the only girl in her 3rd grade class who didn’t get the invitation to the popular girl’s party. I have gained access to blogs and websites pertaining to iPads in the classroom which contain a plethora of information, I have been inspired to do a complete makeover of my syllabus after reading a tweet about just that, I have been given ideas about how to use Twitter in my classroom with my students. In short, I have learned so much and I cannot wait everyday to see what else I can discover. It’s a bit like going to a garage sale – I can skim over the “junk” that doesn’t interest me as much and zero in on the good stuff, the treasure, the jackpot! I love the idea of searching through to pick out what is best suited to me, my students and my classroom. As a result, I, the former Twitter snob, have been singing the praises of Twitter and will continue to do so. Especially with using the iPads this year since I feel it will be a fantastic resource and will probably now be my first line of defense if I have a problem or a question about them.

Twitter. I still hate the name and I don’t think I can ever say the word “tweet” with a straight face. But as a teacher, I now understand the positive impact Twitter has and will continue to have on education. Here’s hoping that others will put aside their prejudices as I have and discover the advantages of using Twitter as a professional development tool. Yes, Twitter. As a professional development tool. Miracles never cease.

Note: For those new to Twitter, check out this link on how to use it effectively:

http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/infographic-twitter-effectively/

Starting Out…Which Apps to Use in My English Classroom?

After a summer of researching and digging deeper into this world of the iPad and the gazillion apps that are available for education (overwhelming to say the least), I had to narrow down what I would use in my English classroom. This was an extremely difficult task to say the least. Fortunately, part of the iPad Pilot Program involves five other fantastic teachers and a great media specialist who are all willing to share their ideas with the rest of us. If I have learned anything in my over ten years of teaching, it’s that without collaboration and sharing with colleagues, no one is at their best in the classroom. An open line of communication is necessary in order to learn, vent and challenge ourselves to grow professionally. So, with the help of these other teachers, I was able to make some decisions about the apps I felt would work best with my class and my teaching style. I’ve listed most of them below:

*Noterize – To use for notetaking. Honestly, I liked Evernote better since it’s more aesthetically pleasing because of its ability to clip images and websites directly to the app. However, it does not upload to Google Docs, which is what I’ll have the kids using for file storage. So I’ll start out with Noterize with high hopes that Evernote will jump on the Google Docs bandwagon (maybe an email from me is in order?).

*NPR – To use for current events and class discussions. Love, love this app! So many author interviews, podcasts, etc. and bonus – it’s free! What’s not to love?

*Flipboard – To use for current events and class discussions. It’s a news magazine but the pictures and types of articles will easily keep students’ attention.

*HitPad – Again, to use for current events and class discussions. But the really cool aspect of this app is that it researches a topic for you. For example, it lists a topic and shows all the websites, videos and Twitter posts related to that topic and all on one app. Great to help cure “information overload” when students are browsing the web for information about a topic. One-stop internet shopping! It’s like the Wal-Mart of the internet – a shopper can buy waffles, shampoo, tires and guns all at the same store…one-stop shopping!

*Literary Analysis – This really is a useful app which gives definitions of literary analysis terms and examples of their uses in text. One goal I have is to have the students add these literary terms into their lexicon and I think this app will help in this.

*iMovie – I’m still pretty new to iMovie and how it works, but from what I’ve learned so far – wow! My idea with iMovie is to separate the students into groups and have each group create one news segment which will be shown on the large-screen TV’s in our school. This will make it so easy for them to complete and I’m looking forward to learning more about what it can do. Interested? Check out this great website which teachers can use to get the students started using iMovie: www.speedofcreativity.org

*iTalk – To help prepare students for oral presentations. What better way to self-assess their public speaking skills than to have them actually listen to themselves?

*iBooks – I’ve tried the Nook app on my iPad, but wasn’t crazy about the way it looked on the screen. I also figured using iBooks for my online books would make more sense since it’s on an iPad and would be most compatible. Also, students can open many documents in iBooks and save them on their shelves, which I thought was a neat option.

*Prezi Viewer – I didn’t realize the iPad requires this app to watch Prezis made on the Prezi website. Now I know and got the app!

*Dictionary Word Book – How nice to be able to say to students, “Look it up on your iPad”, when they ask me what a word means. I think this will invoke much less groaning and eyeball rolling than when they have to use an actual dictionary.

I’m sure there are a couple that I’m leaving out, but this is the vast majority. Like I mentioned before, we will be using Google Docs for writing, sharing and saving. My hope is that this will eliminate the myriad of excuses that always accompany the writing and completion of papers in the computer lab when using flashdrives or saving on the network server (“I lost my flashdrive”, “I couldn’t finish my paper at home because it was saved on the server at school”, etc.). As long as students have access to the internet, they will have access to their work. I think this will make my life and their lives so much easier.

We’ll see how these initial apps go! I’m sure there will be some that will not work out and others that I need to have on the iPads. I’m open to any suggestions of apps that others have used and have really liked, so please feel free to comment if you have any opinions on this. One thing I need to remember is to take it slowly and I will try not to use all these apps at once; the kids need to learn how to use them one at a time…