Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Summer, by the numbers

What does summertime really look like for teachers? In my world, there's a lot of learning going on, not necessarily all academic or book-based, but enough to know there's so much more!

Here's what has happened so far, by the numbers:
5 books read
4--my son's All-Star team finished in the top 4 at the State Tournament! (all you baseball parents know how much time led into that run)
3 workshops--slavery and sketching
2 more to go--teacher leadership and ESL
1 final book draft--COMPLETE!!

As I take some time today to start planning for the new school year, I also want to plan for the next 3 weeks of summer.

But you know how it is. There's. So. Much. To. Do. So many books to read, so many sketches to create, so many water balloon fights and evenings playing catch....baseball weekends, friends to catch up with, parents to visit, first semester planning...So, I'm going with the belief that thoughts become things, and making a new numbered list of "must-dos" to include in my days:

5 more books read (including 2 cultural/ historical, 2 academic, and 1 fiction)
4 trips, including a kickoff meeting in D.C., and an ESL conference in Greensboro; plus a visit home to my parents, and one TBD (thinking coastal here)
3 sketches a week
2 letters a week--yep, the handwritten kind
1 new activity that both my son and I can do together...thinking parasailing!

I've always learned that to keep your goals, write them down. I do, but never publicly--this is a first. In doing this, you can see that I have more non-school related activities than not, and the two workshops I'm attending will be inspiring, so I look forward to them. I've emphasized getting back to my creative side,  and although these activities may not seem like much, the work with my hands will help my swirling brain slow down. Script lettering, sketching, and reading are all things I can do, but haven't made enough time for them. So, thoughts become things, and putting it out there publicly helps me stay accountable.

Thanks, readers, for coming along on the ride. Stay tuned for updates. And please, if you have ideas on how to relax your mind before school starts, I'd love to know your thoughts!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some creativity ready to burst forth.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Visual Note-taking in my summertime classes

Some of you already know that my first book, entitled Visual Notetaking for Educators: A Teacher's Guide to Student Creativity is nearly ready to be published. (!!)  That doesn't mean I've stopped learning, though, and this past week, I created two sketches from my own learning at two very different workshops. As I synthesized my learning and takeaways from each workshop, I also noticed a distinct difference in how I approached them.

The first workshop, "Crafting Freedom", focused on the African American experience during the era of slavery. Not your typical history classroom teaching, this 5-day workshop distinguished enslaved blacks from free blacks, and highlighted their incredibly important roles. Many were "freedom crafters", craftsmen and women who used their entrepreneurship, creativity, and business acumen to subvert what is considered the more typical black history that we are wont to teach.
The Crafting Freedom website has a treasure trove of in-depth information, lesson plans for different age groups, multimedia resources, and a vetted bibliography. These are fascinating pieces of American (and World!) history, and we are doing a great disservice to the efforts of these historical figures, as well as to our students if we neglect to share these other perspectives.

The second workshop was a one-day exercise in sketchnoting, led by author Mike Rohde. This was the first time I had ever worked with a professional sketchnoter, since I am self-taught. Thanks to grants from my school PTA and NEA, I was able to attend this workshop in Chicago. It was an intimate setting, with only 8 participants, so we sketched, shared, and sketched some more. We reflected on our own and each others' styles, layouts, typography, and representations. We also sketched during a live Q&A with Basecamp founder Jason Fried, so we sketched an array of different inputs--from podcasts, to prompts, to live interviews. It was lighthearted and easygoing, but sketching all day can be mentally exhausting!

So, here's what happened. These two workshops were virtually back-to-back, and as I was synthesizing my notes and experiences, 3 things really hit home with me:

1. Visual notes have tone. I really wanted to honor my experiences at Crafting Freedom, and as I sketched, I realized that I wanted subdued colors--bright or primary colors didn't "feel" appropriate for such a serious subject. Nor did whimsical typography or flourishes. Definitely no stick figures, even though they're my standby.
2. Color matters. I mentioned the subdued colors and how they "felt" appropriate or not according to the subject. I also tried my second sketch without color, then added a single color to parts of the sketch. Just playing. I like the "clean" look of black and white, but adding a single color can add some pizzazz without overdoing it.
3. It's more fun to share. I feel like it's even more important to share our work as visual notetakers, particularly from a mutual experience. Others comment how helpful it is to rehash the week, or even the day, and when I know others will be looking at them, I tend to pull in other information that I noticed resonated with larger groups of participants--i.e., shared humor, quotes from speakers, etc.--rather than just myself.

If you haven't done so yet, I encourage you to try visual notetaking (I call it edu-sketching!) for yourself, for your students, or with your students, and see how new learning unfolds.

Below are the sketchnotes mentioned above. What differences make the sketches stand out? Which elements of style do you think work better for various content areas/ topics? Have you ever tried asking your students to synthesize their learning experiences with visuals? Can you imagine the collaborative efforts as your students create something like these?

Notes from Crafting Freedom Workshop in June 2015. Created by Wendi Pillars. Note the different typographies
between this sketch and the next, the cleaner lines, the set-up for possible student notes...What other differences
do you notice?

This was my recapture for an approximate 48 hour whirlwind adventure. As simple as they appear, there was a lot of
sifting through my thoughts as I determined the highlights to include. As you can see, I included not only elements of
our learning, but also some notes from my lightning round of tourism the night before the workshop. 

Here you can see how just a touch of color can wake up black and white sketches. I frequently stick to a 3-4 color scheme
(including black), but am working on how much negative space (white space) remains at the completion of my sketches.
Thanks for stopping by! Please share YOUR experiences with visual notes in your classroom or for your own personal use!

(available for pre-order now on Amazon and through W.W. Norton)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Reflections from my first year at a 1-to-1 school

This was my first full year teaching in a 1-to-1 school and one of my goals has been to figure out ways to use the computers effectively. That means from both a student's perspective and a teacher's.

Sure, we've had our ups and downs, but through it all there have been lessons learned and programs favorited or discarded. I do use technology for several things, like songs, video clips, pulling up imagery, and of course, for diving down the lesson planning rabbit hole! But this year was different, as I tried to navigate creating 3 new courses, adjusting to a new school, AND trying to optimize these computers.

So, here are the top tools that worked for us on a consistent basis throughout the year (in no particular order):

Google surveys: an absolute must. I had done them before with my elementary students, but, ooooh!  it was nerve-racking at first since I was putting myself out there with older students and their level of honesty. It's worth it, though. If you want to improve your craft, you simply must ask the kids. Expect the first one or two to have some silliness in the responses. (Although feel free to ask some lighthearted questions, too!)

Some silliness that is, until kids actually see you working intentionally to correct or improve something YOU do based on what THEY suggested. Talk about creating community. They see that you care beyond words alone, they see you are learning, too, and they see how you deal with criticism/ praise.  (I generally just use Google Surveys.)

Email: with highschoolers? Still trying to figure this out. It's convenient for me, since they all have a school account, and I can send out individual/ group reminders, links to articles/ lesson pieces, etc. But it's not their go-to tool, for sure. I have to tell them to check their email whenever I use it. It's simply not an intuitive place for them to check.

Google Docs/ Slides: Loved--REALLY loved--this set of tools for student writing and presentations this year. I loved seeing students learn to collaborate, and guiding them through basic teamwork activities. I particularly loved being able to provide what I felt was better feedback. Kids actually responded to my feedback in the comments--that's never happened before when I've provided feedback on paper! Yes, they used rubrics, too, and part of their revision process was based on their own self-assessment, but google docs can save the progress. I hope to use the collaborative process next year to help create rubrics together, too.

Penpalschools.com: I tried this during the first semester, and it was tough to fit in. The goal of penpalschools is to link your students with others

Blogging: Neither good nor bad, but I definitely plan to use it more. I had some students set up their own blogs, via kidblogs, but it took more planning on my part than I'd allotted and I let it drift away. Some of the kids seemed to enjoy it, but this one's on me--I stopped it because I felt it was taking away from their actual writing and learning time...I need to find better student blogging spaces for next year because I think it serves a great double duty as writing for authentic audiences and serving as their own online portfolio of sorts.

I also tried using our class blog and some Edmodo for responses and quick writing/ responding practice, and I'm on the fence about that, too. The kids enjoyed it because there were different types of responses for them--padlets, videos to watch and respond to, questions based on linked articles, and the act of replying to someone else's response...But my feedback for them was generic, and I struggled with my expectations for them, grammatically and content-wise, in their responses. Granted, their writing/ comprehension levels were perfect formative assessments, and the replies demonstrated that
a) their writing was understood by others and
b) they comprehended someone else's response sufficiently well.

Authentic writing vs perfection? As learners which is more valuable? Gaining confidence through more and more practice? Or being corrected each step of the way? As teachers, which do we value more for our students? I think blogging allows for each of these, and it's important enough for me to pursue it next year on a more consistent scale.
(See? It's not a cop-out when I say the responses to each of those last few questions is: It depends on the learner!)

Socrative.com and Kahoot: Both of these sites seemed to motivate the students for review and practicing online formative assessments, but they do take set-up time if you want to create your own set of questions. Kahoot doesn't provide individual feedback (that I'm aware of), but it does provide a "leader board". Other kids can just click on whichever responses they want, and no one is the wiser. Socrative has different types of assessments, from multiple choice, to short answer responses, and you can download results in a pdf file or email. Nice for co-teaching scenarios, to quickly share data. Always plan for the spinning wheel (or PC equivalent), though. We ran into that a few times with each of these, and it tends to destroy momentum.

Rosetta Stone: a district purchase intended for our newest English Language Learners. Silver Bullet? Not so much. I'm not disparaging the program, but students do need to have independent learning abilities and a fair bit of stamina to get through a handful of lessons. Perhaps in an ideal world, it would be wonderful for differentiation, but it's not a baby-sitter, and nothing can replace real communication and interaction.

The green screen: We test-drove this only once, and with a smaller group of students, but I felt that the learning wasn't focused on the content as much as trying to get the perfect image for the green screen. Sigh. Once is only once, and I do like the idea of it. I need more time, though.

Remind: I thought we could use this since most kids have their own phones. Or so I thought. Turns out, many of my students still do not have their own phones, and with Remind, I only reached a handful of kids. Sure, you can also link it to email. But then I need to remind them to check email, and not everyone has access at home. It's a vicious cycle, and not one that maximized my time/ efforts very well. Still keeping it on the books, though. Seems like it will be useful at some point.

I would love to hear from you, readers. Tell me about your student bloggers, how you encourage tech collaboration, and your favorite tech tools for language learners!!

Skyping with a classroom in Argentina. 
Our last-but-certainly-not-least classroom visitor this year.
Thank you, Officer Alston!
Bottom line? 
I still prefer a lovely balance of the low-tech with the high-tech.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

An Authentic and Memorable Final Exam

This semester, my intermediate ELLs took their skills to another level with their final exam. I rely heavily on formative assessments throughout the semester, but this group's major summative assessments were all essays. The final essay was a personal narrative, complete with sections for autobiographical info, comparison/ contrast (home culture/ country and the USA), cause and effect (challenges faced and solutions), self-assessment (goals set and steps taken toward achievement), and quoting evidence and information gathered from personal interviews with family members.

Each step of their essay was formatively assessed, through conferences, self-assessment with their rubrics, and subsequent changes made according to the rubric and feedback, so by the time final exam time rolled around, I wanted it to reflect what they had learned in an authentic way.

So, they wrote stories. From the essays they had written, I asked them to pull one challenge out and expand upon it, ending with a lesson they had learned. I told them they were going to create short picture books with their writing, and boy were they reluctant.

Then they learned they would be reading their stories to 1st graders. Once they realized that reading to 1st graders would be "no joke", they got busy. Normally, this crew comes into 1st block class all hyped up from playing soccer before school, and I have to rein them in.

Not anymore. They worked hard writing, revising (!), reading to each other to make sure it made sense, and drawing pictures they thought the kids would like. No other final exam could have told me more about what they'd learned.

But then I saw them in action--witnessing them reading, stopping to ask clarifying questions, and interacting with the younger students showed me yet another side to this group of students who has taught me so much this year.

I plan on scaling it up next year with my next group of language learners, earlier in the semester. My expectations are deliciously high.  (I want to thank Heidi Hayes for her willingness to collaborate!)

Authentic audiences prove to be a powerful motivator--even for my most reluctant learners. The readers learned much about themselves this day! Best final exam ever.

Some were even asked to share their stories with the fifth grade classes--what a thrill that was for them!

So, to all my students, thank you for the many, many things YOU taught me this year, too. Can't wait until August to try it again!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What are your top concerns for English Language Learners?

I've gotta say, that my ESL Colleagues in Chatham County are pretty passionate about our work and our students. I crowdsourced them for their top concerns and ideas they believe are keys to student success.

The compilation is below, and out of all the responses, our top 3 areas of focus for solutions are:

  1. teacher training (pre-service), and ongoing meaningful professional development
  2. appropriate, timely, and credible assessments
  3. recognizance that ELLs are intelligent, despite language gaps

What can you add? How can I make this graphic a better representation? What would your top three ideas and areas of focus for solutions be?