Monday, February 28, 2011

Emma Needs Access to Her Accountant

The title of this post is an actual email I sent to Kim Johnson asking her to fix a student's inability to access her account, not her accountant.  Mistakes like this filled my entire Monday, the last day of February, the only Feb. 28, 2011 I will ever experience, and I lived it as a fumble-bumbling error machine.

In my head my lesson plans were perfect, which as usual, is the first hint that the day will go wildly askew.  So as Mrs. Morgan and I pushed mobile lab #5 to my room and we laughed at her funny statement about tight squeezes and mobile carts, I had in the back of my mind the agenda for the day.  I pictured my students working hard on their papers showing their scholarly poise and earnest desire to accomplish their tasks.

In Composition I, 37% of the class was missing.  Oh yes, I had forgotten to account for the DECA students and Dance Squad teams who were gone to their respective performances.  I still gave my spiel about, Diigo, Webspiration, Evernote and Google docs.  The students patiently put up with my unprofessional acting debut as tech teacher, and we made it through.

Intro. to Lit was a disaster.  I was reminded instantly of what I tweeted last week:  that teachers need to integrate technology naturally.  My attempt here was as artificial as the list of ingredients on low-carb. low-fat ice cream. was the convertible I intended to drive my students around in while they spouted off brilliant observations and connections from the novels they read on the post I'd created yesterday at that site; perhaps the wind of their peers' breeze would even muss their hair a little on this journey.  Instead we stalled.  Some of us were hung up on logging onto the computers; others were waiting to log onto their gmail account; others made it to and were so bored they had time to claim our group was from Watertown, SD.  The biggest snag was my assumption that I could quickly enter the user names of the students I had to invite into my group.  Of course, I set up two groups with the exact same name:  Intro. to Literature Spring 2011.  I couldn't figure out how to delete one of the groups, but I figured I'd remember to just pick one when I added names.  Nope.  I selected from both groups.  So after one student volunteered to clean up the mess I made and came up with the idea to rename the group to help me remember which one to invite members to, I was feeling a little anxious and wanted to give up.  Eventually the students posted a mini summary of their novels.  Not exactly a  deep and scholarly way to use my students' time.

My prep time was glorious.  I had a chance to fix the errors of my planning.  I created a step-by-step word document to help students log onto their Google accounts.  I must admit I was proud of the way I solved my problem (note that this is another hint that life will not cooperate).

Fourth hour rolled around, and my confidence in what I'd prepared for Composition II  faded when Kim made a surprise appearance to my classroom to break the news that I was teaching students the wrong information--that they had to launch from a particular domain, not the one I so carefully put on that word document.  Egads. 

Aside from squirting ketchup on my sweater during lunch, taking three sips of my milk to absolutely, positively make sure it was not fresh (ironically, I turned away a March 2nd expiration due date thinking the milk would be spoiled, and didn't bother to look at the expiration date of my newest milk:  Feb. 26 eww--left a bad taste in my mouth--plus the moisture from the outside of my milk sogged up my cookie) and finding out I sent Kim the message that "Emma needs to access her accountant," the day was not all lost.  A student in 7th hour said we should use Google docs when we do our paper critiques, so I hopped on the server and reserved the mobile lab for that and saved a tree or two in the process.   Another student, who shall remain nameless except in the title of this blog, said we should still give librarything. com another try--that I need to be patient. I was also happy to hear that another student said she tried using the Diigo account and liked it.  So the lessons were not all for naught.  But I'm still glad this is the only February 28, 2011 I will ever experience.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Teachers Show Students They Matter

1.  Expect quality work that consistently moves students to a higher level.

2.  Offer feedback to what students say, write, request.  This human interaction reminds students they are worthy of a quality education because they are worthy of your time.

3. Know exactly why each assignment is given, each unit is taught.  Be able to explain it to every student, including the skeptic who assumes all your assignments are busywork, all of school is pointless.

4.  Welcome questions that encourage independent students; discourage questions that encourage needy students.

5.  Know when to nurture; know when to kick students out of the nest.

6.  Encourage students to think about their future--using both practical and fanciful methods to remind students to set goals that they envision themselves accomplishing in their wildest dreams as well as in their most practical moments of realism.

7.  Avoid imposing judgments because therein creates the expectations of success and failure that students feel subconsciously.  These judgments are the most insidiously harmful judgments because the negative ones taint the core of our students who internalize the message that they are not worthy or are not smart enough to "get it."  If they feel this way, they will not move forward in the classroom.

8.  Create boundaries of respect.  Feeling safe enough to experiment and share thoughts means students will feel safe enough to do the same outside the classroom and make our world a better place.

9.  Have faith that the next generation will find its way, as the generations behind us found their way.

10.  Constantly reflect on successes and failures we, as teachers, make in the classroom.  Ask before designing lessons, "What can my lesson do that will help students succeed?"  After a lesson has been completed, ask, "Did this assignment really get to the heart of what the students need or do I need to try something new?''  "Why did some students succeed?"  "Why did other students not understand?"  "What is the problem?"

11. Deal with issues that need correcting--from discipline to errors on work.  Students respect those who right wrongs.

12.  Learn to appreciate each and every personality, soul, child, learner in the classroom.  Modeling this sincerely will teach students to do the same to others.  All students want to find a place where they feel at home. Make your classroom that place.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Dana Schroeder and I spent our lunch today discussing the many questions that run through our minds, including the idea that metacognition, thinking about thinking, is an important practice that helps students move forward.  If students know that learning is messy and jumbled, they are not as hard on themselves. In other words, if students think they are stupid, their academic success suffers, even to the point where they will not ask the questions that are on their mind, but if students think they will eventually figure out what needs to be learned, they are more patient with the learning process and more gentle with themselves.

Student:  I don't get this.
Teacher:  What?
Student:  This.
Teacher:  You know you have to give me more than that.  What about this do you not understand?
Student:  I don't understand what you are asking us to do.
Teacher: Which part?
Student:  I don't really get what you mean by your question.
Teacher:  Which part of the question trips you up?
Student:  The part about gender roles.
Teacher: Now I can help you.

Teachers can help students find the right questions to ask, find the right vocabulary to express what is not understood, and to pinpoint exactly where confusion is hindering understanding.  Students who do not analyze their own thinking tend to perceive academic success as luck(good or bad), whereas students who see learning as a process full of hurdles usually persist through the difficult times knowing hard work pays off.

So how do teachers help students explore metacognition?  Asking questions like "At what point did you know you understood this topic?  Or perhaps, "At what point did you get lost and confused?"  Even, "Can you see connections between how you answered this portion correctly and this portion incorrectly?  What is the difference?  How can you use what you did correctly to solve your incorrect problem?"  These questions create the foundation for independence and self-discovery, which is what metacognition is all about.

As a writing teacher, asking questions like "Is the idea finished?" when students ask, "Is this paragraph long enough?" helps students learn to trust themselves and not go to me for the thoughts that should be coming from their own minds--mostly this is a confidence issue, and as students gain confidence, they take more academic risks.  

Directly telling students that the goal is for them to become independent thinkers who can troubleshoot errors also fosters the persistence to keep working when they feel like giving up.

Thinking and writing are two sides of the same coin; when students gain confidence in their thoughts, they gain confidence in their writing. Frequently writing about their thinking process allows students to essentially record their progress over the course of a semester and ideally a lifetime.

Teachers cannot underestimate the far-reaching effects they have on students.  If teachers notice that students are not using metacognition, the solution is as easy as working it into the lesson plans that in a perfect world are created after teachers practice metacognition about their own classroom successes and failures.

Friday, February 11, 2011


The most important educating tool teachers use are questions.

Peruse the following about "Questions for a literature class." 
1.  Which questions encourage the students to think in ways they hadn't before?
2.  Which questions help students think about their own experiences?
3.  Which questions deal with general facts from the novel?
4.  Which questions encourage students to build a context beyond the world they already live in?
5.  Which questions encourage a deeper understanding of humanity? 

Questions for a literature class
Who are the characters in the novel?
What motivates each character to act as he or she does?
Which character do you empathize with most?
 Who has the harshest burden in the novel?
What about life do readers learn in this novel?
What role does the setting play in the outcome of the conflicts between the major characters? 
What historical era is represented in this novel?
What do the characters in the novel have in common with people in the news today?
Are the characters static or dynamic, round or flat?
What characterization techniques are found in the story?

 The questions asked shape what students think about a piece of literature.  The goal, then, is for students to start asking their own questions about the literature--to be confident enough to trust that their questions are valid and worthy.

Look what happens when students ask questions they want answers to
One of my favorite assignments in Composition I is the profile paper wherein students choose a relative as the subject of a 3000 word paper on that person's life.  The goal is to create an heirloom, a tribute to someone's life.  So the basic question, who is the subject of the paper is dwarfed by what does the student want to know about this significant figure in his or her life.  The answers the author seeks shapes the rest of the paper.  Students get a chance to ask the questions they want answers to, and voila, within a month, the final product is produced based entirely on questions the students have asked.  It is an amazing process.  The task is also satisfying for most students because they created the entire paper based on their own interests.

Questions lead to corrections
Questions also create the foundation of correction in a writing class.  When students polish a paper, they are to answer questions like those listed below about their peers' papers during large group critiques.  Without these questions, students see the papers as being fine. But eventually, they begin to see what needs correcting and offer good advice, taking the writing to the next level. 

 Questions for large group critiques in a writing course:
1.  How well does the introduction flow with the body and conclusion of the paper?
2.  Where does the author give the best examples to support main points?
3.  Where is the writing vague and general?
4.  How can the author appeal to the audience better?
5.  Is the organization smooth and constantly moving forward or does it stop and start jerkily?
6.  Has the author tied up all of the loose ends in the paper?

Final thoughts
Questions are meant to be answered.  If they are not asked, there is no answer.  If educators teach students how to use these priceless tools, students will build for a lifetime.