Technology in the classroom… start here!

There are a million resources for technology in the classroom.

Many of them are redundant. Many are distractions.

Some of them could be useful, but they are not a priority for a teacher first adopting technology in the classroom.

Here are my top 5 forms of technology for you to begin working with and a few notes about why.

Then, five more I’m sure glad I found.

Can’t Live Without Them

Google Drive / Docs – for students work and for hand outs. Keeps work from being eaten by the dog. Allows you to access student work from school, home, or a flight across the country (if there’s wifi). Allows easy feedback via comments, and can serve as a platform for making worksheets and texts, and a bank for digital media of all kinds.

Google Calendar – for communicating the lesson plan for the day, along with links, announcements, reminders, and homework.

ClassDojo – for recording feedback on students growth, communicating it to other teachers, to students, and to parents.

Exittix or Socrative – for formative assessments: did students actually understand what they say they understood? These “no-stakes” assessment platforms will help you make real-time decisions about what to do, next. And will ensure that the students are learning what you think you’re teaching.

Schedule Once – integrates with Google Calendar, Outlook, and others. Allows students to set up appointments with you in a way that will reduce migraines for everyone.

Optional

Prezi – ditch Power Point and create multi-media, zooming, cloud-based presentations on Prezi.com… and allow students to learn it and use it for presentations. Unlike most projected presentation format, Prezi gets better every year.

Google Voice – If students could only reach me at night to tell me that they will be absent from tomorrow’s big 4 person courtroom simulation. Or that the link to the essay questions is borken! But I don’t check email at night. And I sure as heck am not giving out my cell number. Well, The Wire taught me that a disposable phone is the best way to make contact with someone without fear of the info falling into the wrong hands. Google Voice numbers are disposable. You can even chose some of the digits. And I’d rather shoot a few texts back and forth with a confused study group than walk into the school the next morning to find waiting for me a mob of distressed students.

Today’s Meet – students who have action items for you to deal with could email you, where their “heads up” would be mixed into the thousands of other emails you get, or you can direct it to a “back channel” like Today’s Meet. In class, I use it like a Help Desk, where students ask for help in real time (if I’m busy helping someone, for example, they ask their question there, and knowing their question is posted, they move on in the work. I walk over and answer their questions in the order I receive them). Outside of class, Today’s Meet is where I direct students to nudge me to regrade their test-retake, or give credit for revisions if I don’t have time to open the gradebook on the spot.

Which I don’t.

Poll Everywhere – allows students to vote with cell phones or laptops, for beginning class with a generative question. Questions can be based on homework or can be to introduce new ideas and themes.

Super Grouper – I do a lot of putting students into random groups. And while I love pulling popsicle sticks with their name on it, this simple, Google Doc Script based tool allows you to pre-randomize groups and post the list where they can see it (on your class Google Calendar, for example). You just saved yourself five minutes and a lot of unnecessary groaning / cheering.

 

Teaching Writing Part 2: Offering Students an Outline

This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Read part 1, here

Maybe you’re lucky, and you have a curriculum that includes teaching students how to organize thoughts, how to ensure that you’ve backed up your ideas – most likely, it’s all part of a unit on how to write an outline.

And maybe you also have a golden Lamborghini and a pair of boots that can fly. And a machine that can make any kind of food you want.

Students often do not know how to organize their thoughts or write an outline. And so, I would receive essays from students I had no idea how to grade. Namely, an advanced writer would look at the prompt and say, “I will need to compose a thesis, come up with three good supporting points, find evidence to back up the points, lay it out in an organized way, and end with a conclusion tying the thesis to some further ideas or questions.”

But what I get often reads more like Kafka’s stream-of-consciousness diary entries. Each idea meanders around, maybe offers a thesis, maybe not. Maybe ideas are developed, maybe they leave the reader wondering if life is nothing but absurdity and darkness.

Now, I am not an English Teacher. I teach a series of humanities electives that borrow from psychology, sociology, and literature. They require cross disciplinary thinking, and any essay students will write for me will require some creative thinking, some mastery of content, and some organizational finessing. This is not: “Compare Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy.”

But I have a background in English Lit. And the English Teacher in me says, “Well, if you can’t follow the student’s thinking, and the ideas are not developed, then that should be reflected in the grade.”

But what about the ideas? The thinking? The mastery? The content at the center of the topic which the student never gets around to because he or she is paddling around, lost, stuck, in circles at the edge of the pond? This is an essay, yes. But it’s also a test. And the main goal of this particular unit was not necessarily to teach writing.

One year, a student with some learning differences bombed an essay test she should have thrived on. She touched on zero of the brilliant ideas she’d fronted in class discussion. At a conference, her mother said, well, was there an outline I could give her to make sure she touched on all the main ideas?

Sure.

The next time we had an essay exam, I gave her an outline in advance, and she thrived.

But what about the other students? Should they learn how to write an outline? Sure. But what about this week, when it’s time for the essay exam for the end of the unit? A third of them don’t know how to organize their thinking.

Should I have them write and submit outlines which I will review and give pointers on? Should they submit a revision of the outline? I will give a third round of revisions, and then they will write the exam!

No! Who has time for this? The essay exam is this week!

 

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*QOL refers to “Quality of Life” – a tool I created for analyzing people’s well being. For more, visit http://bit.ly/magclassqol

Here’s what I started doing.

  • For every essay, I include an outline. The thesis is highlighted in purple. It provides very explicit places to write supporting ideas, textual evidence, a restatement of the thesis, and questions for further thought.
  • If I will include additional requirements (like quoting a support-statement from an in class film or partner work) I build spaces for this into the outline.
  • In their actual exam, their thesis is purple. Their support statements are green. Their textual evidence is orange. Their additional requirements are blue. It’s easy to find these “points of assessment” as I read.
  • And when I grade their essays, I know I am grading not only their fledgling writing skills, but more importantly, their mastery of the material, their creativity, and their critical thinking.

Some day, will I begin to differentiate between students who receive an outline and those who must write their own outline?

Someday.

But the essay exam is this Friday. Onward, we write. With outlines.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Read part 3, here

Teaching Writing Part 3: Best Practices for Encouraging Revisions – and Streamlining the Process

This is part 3 of a 3 part series. Read part 1, here and part 2, here

The most important exercises students can do as they learn to write (a close second to, well, writing lots of stuff) all feature responding to feedback.

That said, here’s what most of my experiences with giving students feedback on writing looks like:

Scenario: A student turns in an essay. Normal for a high school student, it’s full of syntax errors, has stylistic problems, it is hard to follow, and has some specious arguments.

Student: Mr. Wolk, why’d I get a bad grade on this essay?

Me: You didn’t get a “bad grade.” This is a work in progress, and the red marks show you where your paper needs work. The grade is an indication of how close to your goal you are.

Student Response 1: Well, I can’t read your marks.

Student Response 2: So, all I have to do is fix the stuff in red and it’ll be an A?

Student Response 3: But why didn’t you like the paper?

Student Response 1 is a problem because I put 15 minutes into making the corrections, and that time is wasted if the student (and I, probably) can’t read my writing.

Student Response 2 is a problem because it’s not about “fixing” or “making corrections,” it’s about editing and improving. Student papers need retooling, sometimes. Or a student needs to go back to – well, not square one, necesarily, but square 2, and reformulate an argument and the proof for the argument. This will not be a 2 minute “fix,” and I don’t want him to think it is. But it will make him a better writer and a master of the material.

Student Response 3 is a problem because the students have learned that teachers grade work with a desirable grade when they “like” it. And that is a dangerous but understandable conclusion for students to draw. It is counterproductive to the meta-goal of learning how to take criticism for the perfection of a product – and teaches that setback is bad. Unlikable. Yucky.

What students need is a clear workflow for learning the process of editing work.

The Challenge:

If the essay is a major part of the curriculum, including outlines and multiple drafts, then each step is built in. Students learn that preparation for writing, a good first try, feedback, and revision is part of the creative process.

But if this is an in-class essay, or a smaller summative assessment, or a mid-unit check-in, you may not have time (in the calendar) for an initial deadline, and a second deadline. And some students may turn in work that satisfies the requirements of the essay. Will you require rewrites for every student? Do you have time to grade second drafts for every student?

Finally, if time is short for you, like it is for all teachers, you’ll note that chasing after mutliple drafts of an essay in order to check to see if revisions were compled is frustrating – and then flipping back and forth between two documents (or two paper copies) is cumbersome.

How can we streamline the incredibly important process of students receiving, reflecting on, and responding to critique?

The Solutions:

1. Do revisions or edits in a format like Google Docs, using the Insert Comment feature. This ensures that the student can read the comment.

  • Include simple corrections and also links to digital documents containing pre-made primers/reviews on the most common writing errors or anything you’ve been focusing on in class. (Passive vs. active voice, transitions, how to cite, etc).
  • You can play with different platforms that allow you to comment in a Google Doc with words, crayon, voice, or even video!

2. Students write essays in the left side of a two column grid. The left side is for the first draft. The right side is for the second draft.

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  • This allows you to see the second draft right next to the first draft. Much easier to see if revisions are made!

3. Unless you are doing a full-scale essay with built in deadlines for outlines and revisions, consider making revisions optional. Here’s how:

  • On the final comment of the essay, include an interim score. Summarize and explain the interim score.
  • Students can recover 50% of any lost credit by perfecting the second draft. (For example, a student who earns a 70% on the first draft can earn an 85 on the second. This encourages students to submit quality work up front, rather than procrastinate until the the rewrite for their best effort.
  • Any error constituting a party foul (a silly misspelling, confusing too/to/two) earns a “strike.” 3 strikes loses 10%, unrecoverable. Students are thus encouraged to proofread before turning in work, rather than relying on you to be their personal editor. Any student who wants or needs your proofreading assistance in advance can meet with you (this meeting should be required – again, you’re not their personal editor) and you will proofread the work together. This reduces “learned helplessness.”
  • Clarify when the deadline is for the second draft. I advise ONE WEEK from the receipt of the revisions.
  • If there is anything about the essay that the student is unlikely to be able to fix on his/her own (whether it’s technical, grammatical, nuanced, or value-based), require a face-to-face meeting before the student begins working on it. If you’re using a program like Schedule Once to make appointments with students, include the link to your scheduling page right in the comment!
  • Students have 1 week from the moment the paper is graded write a revision and tell you in an email (this must be required) that the paper is revised. As these papers come in, flag them and grade them in batches.
  • If you’re using a Learning Management System or Electronic Grade Book, copy and paste your final inserted comment into the gradebook. At the end of the semester, you have a great start to a content-filled narrative for the students.

Additional Notes:

  • For high achieving students who are aiming for an A in the class, a B+ interim grade is often sufficient to entice them to do a second draft.
  • Students who bomb their first draft should earn a much lower grade than you would otherwise have given them, since you will want them to do a second draft. In other words, don’t reward a mediocre paper with a mediocre grade. Give a grade low enough to send the message that the paper is not acceptable – and that the benefit of a second draft is, indeed, required.
  • Give an A- to a highly achieving student who performs just under his/her capacity, who you would like to focus on other class goals (say, in the weeks before a major project). These students may opt not to do a second draft, and the A- sends the message: “Feel free to raise your grade, but it won’t hurt you if you need to start studying for the AP test.”
  • Use ClassDojo to record information about students who bomb their first drafts but do not bother to submit a second draft – or students who are required to meet with you who simply turn in a second draft, (thereby making the same mistakes they made the first time). These students (and their parents) will benefit from this type of very thoughtful “student-ethic” feedback.

Music in the classroom? Yes. When? Now.

What’s the first thing you do when you come home at the end of the day?

Turn on the TV? Take a shower? Pet the cat? Untangle your children from a roll of duct tape?

Many people put music on. It sets the tone, creates a certain kind of space: relaxing or energized, comforting or upbeat.

Each class period is a “space.” One class is fun, one is silly, one is energized, one is noisy. Sometimes this is due to the lesson plan, sometimes it’s related to what the students bring into the room. Students can bring an exhausted mood into a room or a chattery, distracted mood. They can bring frustration from whatever happened the block before, or anxiety. The mood students bring into the room can support student learning, or it can undermine it.

I use music to set the tone in the room. I use upbeat but not frenetic music, music that many students might not know but which they may enjoy.

Students know that when the music is playing, it’s not a good time to come ask me questions or distract me with questions about my weekend. All this must wait until “housekeeping.” While the music is playing, it’s time for students to find their seats, to look at the lesson plan (posted online or on the board), to see who their work partner will be, and to begin working on First Thing Work.

While the music plays, I take attendance, prepare my notes, check in with students with emergencies, and so on.

When it’s time for quiet, I begin counting down from ten and drop the music. When I hit zero, the music is silent…and so are the students. No shushing, no noise.

The mood is positive, and if I choose good music, the classroom feels like a great place to be.

Additional ideas:

  • Have a playlist ready on your iPod or laptop so if a song ends, another, appropriate song will begin, and so you don’t have to think about what to play.
  • Avoid ultrapopular (or worse, waning-in-popularity) music that might provoke a reaction.
  • Consider playing quiet music during quiet work or partner-work time. I find that some classrooms enjoy mellow jazz or classical music in the background. It’s not necessarily distracting, as long as it’s quiet, and in some cases, it actually helps maintain focus, especially if, for example, two students are working together out loud while others work silently; the music will help the quiet workers not to be distracted by the students working aloud.
  • When you finish class, consider playing music as the students leave! Why not send them on their way with something upbeat?
  • Invest in a 25 dollar micro-speaker which lives in your briefcase, backpack, etc. When you walk into class, turn it on, plug it into your iPod, hit play, and the beat is on! (I suggest a “Curve” by Cambridge Sound Works, an X Mini ii, or an iHome mini speaker. (The former is a little pricier and sounds better, but is a bit bigger. The latter two are cheaper and smaller and, for me, plenty for their purpose). Once in a while, I like to slip a song onto the mix that I know a certain student likes (look at what T-shirts the students wear or concerts they talk about). Sometimes, the student will make a positive comment about your choice of song. After class, ask the student for more suggestions, ask about the concert, or, if you are already a fan, yourself, start a conversation on music. Many of these informal chats have built rapport with a student who I previously had trouble connecting with.

Music/Musician Suggestions:

  • Anything by Dave Brubeck (Jazz)
  • Pandora stations: rocksteady, salsa, Frank Sinatra
  • Graceland by Paul Simon
  • Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  • Andrew Bird
  • Sufjan Stevens
  • Thomas Mapfumo

ClassDojo – Training Character Building at the High School Level – and Training Yourself To Teach It

  • A student sees a classmate who is lost or confused. Without being asked, he offers assistance.
  • A student runs into a problem in a lab, and instead of immediately putting up her hand, she attempts to solve the problem on her own.
  • A student has a setback on a quiz, but rather than give up, concluding that the class is dumb and the quizzes are impossible, she comes in for extra coaching.

Much has been written about traits like “Grit,” “Resilience,” and the ability to delay gratification – and the linking of these traits to long term success.

Imagine being able to communicate and give feedback on character traits like these, traits that we may wish students would learn – but because students are not tested on them, we often intend to build these traits in students but we are not consistent or explicit on how, when, and where these skills are addressed. We may hit our goals in this regard, but intending to teach something is a little like how I write my signature: I scribble something while I think about my name.

This works for signing checks. This is not, however, good pedagogy.

One Small But Very Big Step

While ClassDojo cannot teach these skills, it can train you to constantly be aware of them – a kind of pedagogical string around your finger. You see the badges when you open ClassDojo, and you get in the “habit of mind” to write opportunities for character development into your Class Norms, your assessments, and even your lesson plans.

For example:

Class Norm: On the first day of class, instead of only talking about your bathroom policy and your late work policy, talk about the power of independence in problem solving. Show students ClassDojo, and talk about times when a student might earn the badge: “Attempt to solve problem before asking for help.”

Lesson Planning: When you write up a lesson and prepare the worksheet, handout, or document, add a section about ways students can earn ClassDojo badges. For example, be explicit, in a lesson on reducing fractions, that some students will have trouble with the exercises. Students who are stuck can put a small flag – a checker, for example – on their desk. If you see a student with a checker, you may leave your desk to assist him or her, and earn the badge: “Assists others who need help.”

Assessment: In a complex, multi-stage project, you may write into the guidelines for the project that set-back may happen: the research may prove inconclusive. The interviewee might flake. Explicitly include a section on what proactivity means: seeing the problem before it escalates. Students who stumble but address the problem before it becomes a bigger problem can earn the badge: “Proactive in handling crises.”

ClassDojo will help you give feedback on these traits, but just as importantly, it’s a step in committing to teach them.

Please share below some of the character traits you would like to see students develop – and a situation where you might anticipate awarding a badge for that trait!

ClassDojo High School: Getting Started

When I was in kindergarten, my parents went to meet with Ms. Shanebourn and brought home what I would later call a report-card. In reality, it was like the check-list you fill in at a sushi-bar: plays well with others, cleans up after snack, spicy-tuna rising sun firecracker roll.

In middle school, the list was shorter, and letter grades appeared, but there were also areas for additional remarks. That’s where I learned that I am “funny” and “a pleasure in class.”

In high school, my grade was a letter with a few electronic tics next to pre-fabbed comments. There, no news was good news.

In college, just letters. Most were good. A few bummed me out. (Darn you, Stats!)

In short, from this trend, we learn that the older you get, the less “the system” cares about helping you to learn through providing thoughtful mentoring on your growth areas, and the more you are required to guess, assess, or maybe ask why you got a B and what you can do next semester to raise it.

ClassDojo, at the High School Level, can help you provide thoughtful, meaningful assessment on both “academic” and “character skills” which can lead to meaningful conversation, feedback, and growth. (I put those words in quote because while it’s useful to employ those terms to describe the range, it may be counterproductive to think of those categories as discrete or mutually exclusive).

Below, I’ve compiled four areas for using ClassDojo to provide meaningful feedback and a few strategies for using the data in meaningful ways. Mix and match, experiment, and let us know how it works for you!

ClassDojo Category 1: Student Ethic Modifier

How do you give a grade – or reward – or penalize a student for:

1. Contributing to discussion or disrupting discussion?

2. Showing up late vs. showing up on time?

3. Surrepticiously checking facebook during group work time?

4. Showing up for an appointment on time vs. not showing up?

5. Responding to emails promptly vs. ignoring them?

6. Coming to see you for problem-solving after a D- on a test vs. allowing problems to go unaddressed.

7. Helping students struggling with their work – or their technology – or not?

8. Talking out of turn, falling out of chairs, throwing things, leaving messes… cheering up a sad classmate, asking permission to assist a sick student, cleaning up after others…

It goes on and on.

Do you give a “Class Participation Grade?” If so, do you punish negative behaviors but “neutral” behaviors get nothing? Are they rewarded? Is a 100% class participation grade exemplary or normal? How do you weigh the relative merit of a student who raises his hand before speaking when also, he is late for class. Does he earn a B+? A-? C?

The Student Ethic Modifier is, on the one hand, the place in your gradebook where you assess everything that isn’t a quiz, test, or project. Some teachers call this a “class participation grade,” but for me, it’s at once more broad (covering not only how the student contributes to discussion or labs, but also things like correct computer use) and also more specific, covering things like whether a student deals with crises as they arise or lets them slide by until you chase him down in the hallway: aka the Cafeteria Intervention.

The Student Ethic Modifier covers some of the most important learning and growth goals; unfortunately, without gathering actual data, we rely on spotty recollection and anecdotal evidence.

How do you record this data and share this data?

ClassDojo

Step 1: At the beginning of the year, spend a class period talking about the Student Ethic Modifier. Cover how it:

1. Fosters a serious, constructive learning environment

2. Brings students’ attention to behavior patterns that can make them more or less effective in other classes, in jobs, and even in relationships.

3. Can ensure that the learning done in class sticks – and makes class worth their while.

Step 2: Present ClassDojo and the particular badges you will be assessing. In discussion or as homework, as students to review the list. What do they have questions or concerns about? What should be added?

Step 3: Present your ClassDojo Workflow.

  • Will you have the screen projected on the board for all to see?

My suggestion: at the high school level, and certainly in your first year, don’t project it. But offer that any student who wants to know what you’ve been recording about him/her can approach you after class or at your desk.

  • Will your tablet/smartphone ding or buzz when a student earns a badge, providing in-the-moment feedback?

My suggestion: for the first year, set all sounds to “off” while you get the hang of it. Then, experiment with it.

  • Will you hand out green chips for students in-the-moment which they bring to you after class to earn their badges, or will you commit to keeping on top of the badges on the spot?

My suggestion: keep ClassDojo on a smartphone for peripatetic feedback, and a tablet near your workstation for feedback during quiet worktime. If you can manage this, you may not need to hand out chips, especially at the high school level. That said, the extra visual, tactile feedback of a green chip may reinforce the behavior more effectively than a sound, and this technique might work well for certain students.

  • Will you provide them with the access code – and their families with the access code?

My suggestion: communicate with parents about the tool and your goals, field questions and concerns, but do not provide access in the first year, until you get the hang of it.

  • Will each red badge lower their grade and each green badge raise it?

My suggestion: reassure students that in almost every case, small mistakes that don’t reappear will have no effect on the Student Ethic Modifier. Trends (I usually call that three or more) will have an effect. Talk with students about what you expect of them if you inform them that they have been trending in a problematic way. For example, after 3 missed homeworks (yes, I count homework under Student Ethic), they are required to send an email to their advisor, apprising them of the situation. You and the advisor can then decide what the next course of action should be.

All this said, there is no “correct” or “incorrect” way to use ClassDojo. Make a decision you can live with and stick to it for a semester. Then reevaluate. This, by the way, is a great topic to discuss with your Mentor.

Step 4: At the end of the quarter and semester, when you sit down to grade and write progress reports or narratives, review the ClassDojo Student Ethic data, especially focusing on trends, shifts, and anecdotes noteworthy enough that, well, you took a note.

By the way, if you’re curious to learn more about the Student Ethic Modifier and would like to read more in depth about what adopting a Student Ethic Modifier can do for your class, check out the blog, here.

Teaching Writing Part 1: Best Practices for Giving Feedback on Students’ (awful) Writing

“Garbage.”

“Disaster.”

“Stinkolicious.”

“BRILLIANT!”

Teaching grading papers often seem to forget everything they know about teaching: students who (in class) engender sympathy, patience, and compassion earn nasty epithets – behind closed doors, of course.

Why is it so frustrating to grade students’ writing?

One reason is that, unlike classtime when you and the students are face-to-face, your encounter with the student is moderated by his or her work. The students’ work appears out of the context of the student him or herself.

A second reason is that it takes longer to grade a paper than many tests, and the more problems the paper has, the more time it takes. And one thing teachers never have enough is time.

Another reason has to do with the apparent lack of progress many students make in their writing over the course of a year. When a student struggles with a unit, after the test, the effects of the struggle may not be apparent once there is new material (though math, science, and language studies may differ in this).

With writing, however, you take the time to boldly circle every split infinitive in the essay (see what I did there?) and write “split inf.” He or she may do a second draft. And the next paper? The student returns to annoyingly include (see what I did, again?) more split infinitives.

Does he not care? Does she not want to improve?

Hooligans!

Well, it’s not a defect in character that makes the student make the same mistake, and it’s not a defect in your character that causes you to be frustrated. It’s that you haven’t found a salient way to help the student see, understand, and catch the problem. While the student is not interested in learning to not split infinitives (see what I did, again?) The average student is not inherently interested in any of the feedback you give. So with no accountability, s/he is free to make the same mistakes.

This is not a matter of shouting loud enough, or scrawling in large enough red pen. Even if you threaten to boldly beat them with a Star Trek DVD box set, (again!), they will still not remember or notice when they make the mistake. All you will do is make them anxious and ineffective.

And you will be irritated.

The Solution:

Ok, so it’s simple, but requires discipline.

If you’re new to teaching this grade or level, hand out a list of writing part fouls: these are things which every high school student should know:

For example:

  • too vs. to vs. two
  • it’s vs. its
  • Capitalizing names
  • spelling errors which even the spellchecker catches

If a student misses three “party fouls,” I note on ClassDojo with a badge, “More careful proofreading.”

Beyond this, I suggest coming up with 3-6 main writing growth areas common for students at the level(s) you teach at.

For example:

  • Run ons and sentence fragments (9th grade)
  • Passive voice (10th Grade)
  • Completes arguments effectively (11th / 12th grade)
  • Sentence structure variety (12th grade)

Whatever your subject may be, formulating your ClassDojo writing badges brings an opportunity for meaningful collaboration with other departments, establishing a consensus of the main areas where students are already expected to have achieved mastery and/or may require reinforcement.

Next Steps:

On a simple level, as you record feedback on students’ writing, you create a cache of data you can incorporate into your summative narratives and reports:

“Madison needs to work on improving her use of active voice and using correct citation.”

“Maximiliian needs to work on completing his arguments and avoiding sentence fragments.”

Further Steps:

The “grand slam” of using feedback to help students progress in their skills is to help them reflect on their own, personal writing goals before they sit down to write. For example, with access to ClassDojo’s records, Madison can review the feedback from the previous term and, in a required pre-writing statement, articulate her goals:

“I will focus on avoiding passive voice and will proofread my work for spelling errors.”

With that step in place, your feedback to the student, besides the actual edits, can touch on whether the student hit their personal writing goal. You may consider offering up to 3% extra credit for any student who successfully addresses their goal – or, alternatively, include this as part of a student’s Student Ethic Modifier.

With effective strategies for holding students accountable to clear, constructive learning goals comes a reduction in frustration and “proofreader’s animosity!”

Less: “This is a travesty of the English Language! See me!”

More: “You met some goals! Here’s what to continue working on!”

This is part 1 of a 3 part series. Read part 2, here

Using ClassDojo to Teach Active Listening in Partner Work

Student A: “Ok, on to number 4.”

Student B: “I think the evidence shows that Hamlet is a hedgehog.”

Student A: “The evidence shows… that Hamlet is a … how do you spell hedgehog?”

You’ve heard partner-work sessions like this. No matter how many times you may remind students that they are not going into partner work in order to dodge half the work (or, heaven forbid, simply to copy each other’s answers), teenagers are programmed to save their energy for important things with real-life value. Like scoring invitations to parties. They are not automatically invested in hearing, understanding, assessing, and responding to their assigned partner’s ideas.

Rather, students must learn, month by month, and year by year, to listen like a therapist, assess like a scientist, and respond like a friend.

It’s a slow process. But the reward can be dynamic, thoughtful discussion. And students will thank you for teaching them skills that they use in their real-life relationships.

The first step to get there is to teach Compassionate Listening.

Compassionate Listening is not one student parroting the words of the other student, though, when done improperly, it sounds like that.

Compassionate listening is where the Listener

  • asks follow-up questions to “unpack” the speaker’s statement
  • “track the deeper meaning” of the speaker’s statement
  • carefully attending to the main kernal
  • and finally, expressing it in the listener’s own words.
  • When possible, the listener my employ a metaphor or image to encapsulate the meaning.
  • Then, critically, the Listener waits for acknowledgement that s/he has seen, heard, and understood the main idea. If s/he missed the point, or there is another level of meaning the Speaker wants to share, then the cycle goes around.

I call this process “Reflect Re-reflect” and you can read more about it here. And boiled down, it looks like this:

  • Listening / Unpacking
  • Reflecting.
  • Waiting for acknowledgement.

For example:

Listening / Unpacking

Student A: I think that Hamlet is a coward.

Student B: Why do you think that?

Student A: Because he won’t do what he is supposed to do.

Student B: Why do you think he won’t do what he is supposed to do?

Student A: Because he tosses and turns over it, and no matter the decision, he feels torn about whether it’s the right thing to do, or whether it will work, and whether it will actually accomplish anything.“

Reflecting (with metaphor):

Student B: So Hamlet is sort of in a maze…and whichever direction he tries to go, he finds himself at a dead end.

Waiting for acknowledgement:

Student A: Yeah.

Student B: So, it’s less that he’s a coward, and more like he’s paralyzed.

Student A: Hm. Yeah.

Notice the difference between Compassionate Listening and “parroting?” Parroting would have ended with:

“So, you think Hamlet is a coward.”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Question 5.”

Compassionate listening is helping the partner to articulate his/her own ideas in a deeper, more accurate, and more nuanced way than s/he could by him/herself.

How does one teach this?

At the beginning of the year, you must spend some time unpacking what Compassionate Listening is. You might want to share some articles or video clips on the power of this sort of conversation, reflect on how it’s different from simple cooperation or from normal conversation.

Then, begin to focus on Reflection.

As complex as analysis, critique, and synthesizing new ideas may be, none of it happens without the first step of careful listening and reflecting.

On ClassDojo, create two badges: “Reflects without prompting” and “Reflects only after prompting.”

Show your students what ClassDojo looks like on your tablet / smartphone (so they know what you’re doing).

And when you send students into partner work, use the randomizer to send you to a pair of partners. Quietly sit down near them – do not speak to them or let them break conversation to talk to you – and listen.

  • After one student speaks, does the second student reflect? If not, gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
  • Does the initial speaker go on and on, not allowing the listener the chance to reflect and check for understanding?  If not, gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.
  • If the initial speaker says something that requires “unpacking” – does the listener ask questions to unpack it? Or reflect at a superficial level? Again, you can gently remind him or her, and mark it on ClassDojo.

At the end of the quarter, scan the students badges, and share your observations with your students (in whatever form you usually do so – written, in reports, or in mini-meetings).

“My name is Evan and I’m addicted to Koosh Balls.”: Using Speaker’s Lists and Koosh Balls for Discussion Facilitation.

It all started with a peanut.

The teacher was offering salty, shelled peanuts to students who answered questions correctly. It was my turn and she asked me the question, something about verbs. Or adverbs. I blurted out the answer, and hands shot up; I watched in horror as the teacher called on another student to answer and give him the peanut. My peanut.

The worst part was that the second I said the wrong answer, I realized my error… but I could do nothing about it. My peanut was gone.

Solution 1: The Speaker’s List

Years later, as an adult, I joined a housing cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin. The co-op system had meetings to decide everything: whether to invite an applicant to live in the house, how to invest our $10,000 budget windfall, whether to stop buying cheese.

Those meetings might have been nightmares (and indeed, sometimes they were), but one thing kept meetings orderly: when it was your turn to speak, one thing made sure your peanut was not given to someone else.

The speaker’s list.

If you wanted to speak, your name went on a list. When it was your turn, it was your turn. And you were not done speaking when someone else said you were done, you were done when you said, “pass.”

Was this abused? Sometimes. Rarely.

Mostly, it made people feel heard and seen and in control of their own words.

As a teacher, I quickly adopted this technique. I would ask a question, and instead of hands popping up and competing for my attention, I would simply assign numbers. No more than 7. And the next student didn’t get to speak until the previous student said “pass.”

This was not a good method for debate, but very good for exploring ideas, which is most of what my class is about.

Solution 2: The Koosh Ball

Still, something was not complete. I was still serving as the speaker’s list keeper and calling on the next speaker, and sometimes, the list felt a little heavy handed. Furthermore, sometimes, I would ask a question and find that getting even one or two speakers was a challenge.

In a groovy book on leading “Rap Sessions,” written by somebody in the 70s with incredible, spherical hair, I encountered the idea of a talking stick. The person with the stick speaks. Everyone else listens.

But what if the next person to speak is 15 feet away? Could a talking stick be easy to catch, easy to throw, and soft, in case someone got hit in the eye? The answer is yes. If the stick is a Koosh Ball.

A tennis ball will bounce and roll, creating havok. A hackysack is easy to throw but hard to catch. A bowling ball is too heavy. The perfect catchable, tossable, safe talking stick is a Koosh Ball.

They are no longer in production, but you can buy them here for a few dollars each. I have one in my backpack at all times. And I only go through one or two a year.

Here are some additional benefits to using speakers’ lists and Koosh Balls:

1. The koosh serves as a visual reminder of who is speaking. This is one piece in the classroom-management-without-raising-your-voice puzzle.

2. The Koosh gives you a way of correcting out of turn speakers in a concrete, non-judgmental way: “Make sure you’re only speaking when you have the Koosh” is much more clear than, “Stop talking out of turn.”

3. Some students like to fidget with the Koosh while they speak, and while I also teach articulate speaking in appropriate contexts, the kind of dreamy rhapsodizing that comes with having something to fiddle with while speaking can actually allow for freer, more creative expression.

4. While you can create a hybrid speaker’s list / koosh conversation, where the next person on the list gets the koosh, the koosh can also allow the currect speaker to choose who speaks next.

5. Facilitation through speakers’ list and/or Koosh Balls allows you to step out of actively facilitating the discussion, allowing you to listen more deeply to the individual students and the class “gestaldt” – after six or seven students speak, then, offer your observations and conclusions. I call this “curation,” you can read more about “Curation As Discussion” here.

6. Using a speakers’ list and Koosh Ball helps you focus on the quality of your questions. Fewer, clearer, open-ended questions are far more effective than many, guided, leading questions. When you get accustomed to asking questions that seven students can answer seven different ways, you’re developing your skills as a master teacher.

Conclusion: These two techniques are part of creating a class atmosphere that is lively without being frenetic, and where students feel seen and heard. Please share your tips and ideas for discussion facilitation below.

You know what I’d pay you for a good idea?

Peanuts.

FTW is your BFF

“All beginnings are difficult.”

I remember the horrendous, red track-suit I wore on the the first day of sixth grade – and discovering that it did very little for my social cache.

I remember the anxiety of the first day of fifth grade; I was terrified I’d be assigned to the homeroom of the witchy-looking lady I’d seen in the hallways and I prayed I’d get the the tall, gangly guy. I got my wish, but it turned out that the tall, gangly guy was sort of mean. The witchy-looking lady, I later learned, only looked witchy.

I remember the first day of fourth grade, where our teacher introduced us to an octopus, pickled in a jar of formaldehyde. It lived in his supply closet. If he caught anyone messing with his supplies, he said, he’d lock us in there with “Octy.”

All beginnings are difficult.

This sentence, written in the Talmud, and which I learned on the first day of my Educator’s Program, helps us to anticipate difficulty – and to feel that the emotional challenges that accompany new chapters are normative.

And every class, four years of study, and 12 years of teaching later, features difficulty – I am both nervous and excited. I am prepared but I never feel utterly prepared from my head to my toes: there is unknown in every class.

The first 10 minutes of class is the time when students are most unruly, you are most vulnerable, and where getting down to business is most challenging.

The solution is First Thing Work. It is posted in the class agenda, it’s ready the moment students walk in, and their job is to do it first. My job is to avoid distraction, set up my computer, take attendance, and check in quietly with students who have emergencies.

Here are a few models for FTW:

Model One: Looking Forward

Offer one or two prompts on a theme related to class. For example, in a class on Hamlet, the prompt may be: “Tell a story about a time when you wrestled with a difficult choice, where the stakes were high?”

Carefully compose prompts that the vast majority of students could answer.

Offer a second, more general prompt: “How do you deal with making a difficult choice?”

A third, more general prompt, might be, “What advice do you have for people facing a difficult choice?”

After writing on their choice of prompts, students then work on “Anchorwork.” Anchorwork is, as it sounds, work designed to keep students focused – and not to drift away from the environment for learning you and they have created for the last five minutes.

Anchorwork can be a drill, a fascinating article, a creative project they have been working on for a few weeks, or even a headstart on the homework.

After five to seven minutes of quiet writing, ask students to share their stories, ideas, and conclusions. Offer a few summary remarks, and move on to your lesson plan.

Additional benefits: many students have reported in my classes that these sharing sessions help them learn about their classmates’ lives – people they see and interact with every day but don’t always really know. This bonding contributes to a warm class atmosphere and to better learning.

Alternate model: use an online service like Polleverywhere.com (or jerry-rig a low-tech silent poll with dry-erase markers) to poll students about something in their lives. Offer a second prompt where they assess or speculate about the results of the poll. For example: why did 75% of the class feel that Kale is the new broccoli? What factors might have contributed to this? What might lead to a shift in these results?

Model Two: Looking Back

Use bellwork as a time for summative assessment. (For those watching at home, “summative assessment” refers to mini-quizzes you do during a unit to see how students are coming along, evaluate your strategy, plan interventions, etc.)

For example, use an online service like exittix.com or socrative.com to have students answer some simple questions about the homework and, through the miracle of the internet, see their scores immediately. Students who struggle meet in a seminar with you for clarification. Students who “pass” move on to the next step.

(If you need a low tech version, prepare answer keys students can grab when they are ready – or have them grade each others’ work).

Summary

No matter what you do with your FTW, the following principles apply:

1. Students must be able to access it immediately upon entering the room, whether it’s online, in a binder on your desk, or rested in stacks in the students’ work area.

2. It should be work students can do with minimal questions or clarification, since you’ll need that time to check attendance, set up your computer, launch ClassDojo, etc.

3. It should not be work that needs grading. You have enough to grade as it is. That said, I do have colleagues who collect and grade them and, well, I trust their rationale.

4. Teach students, at the beginning of the year, that FTW factors into their Student Ethic Modifier. If a student is slow on the draw one day – misses a class – or misses FTW due to tardiness, s/he doesn’t need to make it up, necessarily – as long as it is not a pattern. For more on Class Ethic Modifier, I invite you to my blog, “The Most Helpful 3% In the Class.”

5. While bell work can, without much planning, make beginnings of class “less difficult,” with practice and effort, it can become an effective way to introduce ideas and materials for a powerful class experience.